The one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

Christians have a remarkable ability to skew what the Bible’s teaches about the church. As with so many things in life, we tend to perceive and define it with ourselves as the key reference point. But when this happens it distorts both our understanding and our enjoyment of whatever is in view.

The most obvious way we do this is to see either our own church/denomination, or else the church we most admire as the benchmark for what we think it should be. Whether in terms of belief or practice, we find ourselves drawn to it because it matches what we are looking for. The flaw in this ought to be self-apparent, yet we stumble into it repeatedly. Our subjective judgement can never be the final arbiter of what is true and good.

It is not without significance that God’s people through the ages have seen the need to objectify the truths taught in God’s word in such a way that they never cease to challenge us. Regardless of how well we might think we know them, the core teachings of Scripture are so immense that we are constantly challenged to adjust our thinking in light of them. This comes out in a surprising way in the great Catholic creeds of the church. Far from being minimalist summaries of Christian doctrine, they were designed to be maximalist expressions of truth in short compass. Brief and simple enough to be memorised, even by children, but sufficiently dense to consistently stretch even the most erudite theologian.

So it is with the creedal statements about the church. The Apostles’ Creed captures it tersely in the statement: ‘I believe in the church, the communion of saints’. The Nicene Creed, however, says a lot more using the same number of words: ‘I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church’.

Whereas the statement enshrined in the earlier creed most certainly has the church universal within its purview, it is expressed in a way that inclines its confessors to focus on its expression in denominations or local congregations. The issue, then, is whether the church is to be understood ‘from the bottom up’, or ‘from the top down’. The Nicene Fathers leave no doubt as to which is prior.

Why does this matter? For a multitude of reasons that are more relevant than ever to a post-Enlightenment generation that thinks instinctively ‘from the bottom up’. Ours is the age that denies the very notion of ‘metanarrative’ or ‘big picture’. ‘Me and my world’ loom so large in our thinking that we lose sight of the bigger factors that provide the larger context for our understanding. One does not have to look far to see how this impacts our generation’s view of the church.

Grasping the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the church will, in the first place, enable to appreciate the church in light of what it is in its essence. St Paul points to this in relation to Christ’s purpose in redemption being ‘…to purify a people for himself that are his very own’ (Tit 2.14). In doing so he simply echoes what Jesus declared to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’ (Mt 16.18). This is Jesus’ first recorded use of the word ecclesia in his earthly ministry and it is striking that his focus is on the church universal and not on its local and regional expressions.

As Dr Robert Letham helpfully argues, there must always be a logical as well as theological priority to the church universal’s having precedence to its other manifestations, organisationally as well as geographically. In terms of its very essence, its smaller and more localised expressions can only be understood in light of what it is in its totality.

In the second place, the Nicene formulation gives us a more meaningful appreciation of the church’s unity and diversity. Despite its many facets, flavours and dimensions, the church is ultimately ‘one’ and its oneness is defined by its being ‘holy’ (set apart for and wholly devoted to God). It is also ‘catholic’ (comprised of a rich diversity of churches/congregations throughout history and throughout the world). And, for it to be the true church, it must be ‘apostolic’ (defined and governed by apostolic truth – which, by definition, rests upon its Old Testament foundation).

This has enormous pastoral relevance for churches in their self-understanding and well as for their members in terms of how they regard ‘other churches’. It delivers us from a parochial outlook on the body of Christ: struggling to see beyond the hedges and walls of our own particular expression of church. More than this, it fosters a genuine sense of joyful koinonia when God blesses another part of the body along with corresponding sympathy and support when suffering is their lot. The church really is bigger than we imagine and oftentimes God shocks us in the way he uses churches that may not align with our own particular grouping to advance the cause of Christ.

Lastly, this great creedal truth should be given a more functional role in the life of every church that dares to confess it. There is no place for congregations to recite these words with fingers crossed behind our backs or mental caveats being inserted to restrict what we mean when we say them. These words bind us to the same ‘devoted-to-God-passion-for-truth-with-large-hearted-catholicity’ that has defined the very best and most orthodox expressions of the church throughout its history.

When churches recover this ancient vision for the church in all its fullness and glory, they will not only discover more of the beauty and joy of being part of the body of Christ, we will become more effective in our efforts to reach the world with the gospel entrusted to us.

Mark Johnston


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