Yesterday, while on break during my fortnightly 24-hour R. R. Donnelley weekend, I started ruminating on the so-called "Apostles' Creed." This creed, for me, has served as a handy summary of the Christian faith ever since my childhood, when reciting it was a regular part of our weekly worship at Grace Chapel in Havertown, Pennsylvania. When I got to the third article, I stopped at the confession, "I believe ... in the holy catholic church."
This is the received English translation of the Latin “Credo … sanctam ecclesiam catholicam” and the Greek Pisteύw ... ἁgίan kaqolikὴn ἐkklhsίan. The passage of time has softened somewhat the initial shock and discomfort I experienced when I first realized this back in the 1970s when reciting the creed at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. You see, the form of the creed I had been taught had substituted the word “Christian” for the term “catholic.” The reason for this, of course, was that Grace Chapel was a card-carrying member of the IFCA, a loosely-structured organization whose initials stand for “Independent Fundamental Churches of America” (not, as I have been known sarcastically to say, only partly in jest, “I fight Christians anywhere”). If you know one thing about the IFCA, it is this: to them, the only church more suspect than the non-fundamentalist Protestant bodies is the Roman Catholic Church—which, to them, didn’t even qualify to be a church at all. Even my learned and more moderate father, whose understanding of “true churches” extended beyond the typical independent and Baptist assemblies to include conservative Presbyterians, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and the odd Anglican (always British, certainly not the American Episcopalian) churches, drew the line at the Catholic Church.
With this background, one can understand my confusion with the apparently novel form of the creed recited at Tenth Church. Years later, when I taught theology at an independent, conservative evangelical Bible College, I got the feeling of déjà vu when a student asked me about the local PCA church, where the creed likewise is used: “Is this a Catholic church?”
First, a little history. The “Apostles’ Creed” is not so-called because its form is the workmanship of the apostles (though, until the 17th century, such was commonly believed to be the case, the erudite Erasmus and Calvin being lonely dissenters in the 16th century). The received Greek and Latin forms derive from about the sixth century, though they are the culmination of organic development from primitive baptismal confessions to the later “Rule of Faith” as formulated especially in Rome. The first, apparently, to refer to the symbol as the “Apostles’ Creed” was Rufinus of Aquileia (ca. 404 CE) who, in his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, noted several differences between the forms used by his church and those in Rome.
The earliest instance of the adjective catholicam being used to modify sanctam ecclesiam in the creed is found in the form used by St. Nicetas in 450 CE. This, however, is probably due to the influence of the Nicene Creed which, in 381 CE, spoke of the “unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” (“one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”). But the origin of the notion goes back to the earliest of post-apostolic days, to Ignatius, who in 108 CE wrote to the church at Smyrna on the way to his martyrdom, “… [W]herever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church” (ὃpou ἄn ᾖ Ἰhsoῦς Cristός, ἐkeῖ ἡ kaqolikὴ ἐkklhsίa) (Ep.Smyrn. 8:2).
This earliest usage helps us understand what the creed is meant to affirm. The Greek adjective kaqolikός simply means “universal” or “general” (BDAG, 493; hence the New Testament’s so-called “catholic epistles” are those written without a specific indication of the location of the addressees). Belief in the holy “catholic” church is thus confession of the reality of what others, drawing from the ideas of the Apostle Paul, have termed “the church universal.”
Alister McGrath (p. 155) helpfully quotes Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 348 CE) to explain the catholicity of the church:
The church is thus called “catholic because it is spread throughout the entire inhabited world, from one end to the other; and because it teaches in its totality [katholikos] and without leaving anything out every doctrine which people need to know relating to things both visible and invisible, whether in heaven or on earth. It is also called “catholic” because it brings to obedience every sort of person—whether rulers or their subjects, the educated and the unlearned. It also makes available a universal [katholikos] remedy and cure for every kind of sin (Catecheses18:23).
Ignatius, despite writing to ensure his readers’ submission to the cities’ bishops and the churches’ presbyters (elders), certainly did not write at a time when there was a unified, universal ecclesiastical structure, let alone one where the Bishop of Rome was primus inter pares. “Catholicity,” in other words, was (and is) emphatically not institutional. It is rather a quality intrinsic to the very identity of the universal church as the people of God. As St. Paul writes, likely quoting a traditional confession, “There is one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6).
There is one gospel, directed universally to Jews and Gentiles alike, that proclaims the Lordship of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. The one “body” of this Jesus (cf. Col 1:17) thus consists of all who believe this gospel and stake their identity on it, as Paul says in Romans 10:9-10: “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Herein lies one problem with the fundamentalism in which I was raised. It in effect defined the church as the community of people who “have their theology right.” Because the Roman Catholics, for instance, were wrong (and possibly idolatrous) in their beliefs about the Eucharist, misunderstood the doctrine of justification, and held to unbiblical notions about Mary, purgatory, and the bishop of Rome, they were (for the most part) “out.”
Indeed, I agree that the Roman Catholic Church is gravely mistaken in many areas of theology. For this reason I myself could never submit to the authority of the bishop of Rome or accept the teachings of the Roman magisterium. But who, I might ask, is without the log in their eye in this regard? The older I get, the more I realize that the certainties of old-fashioned American fundamentalism are based less on the exegesis of Scripture and sophisticated theological reflection than they are on unexamined readings of the text which they, in their cultural naiveté, consider “normal” and, hence, normative. They are nothing of the sort, however. Indeed, as I have increasingly come to believe, fundamentalism is every bit the manifestation of cultural “modernism” as the liberal theology they so despise.
The fact of the matter, as N. T. (Tom) Wright has repeatedly emphasized, is that people are not “justified”—declared to be righteous, and hence acquitted members of God’s covenant people—by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith. They are justified, as the Apostle Paul says, by faith (an aside: I have heard many people feign shock, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, when they hear Wright say this, defensively accusing him of creating a straw man. But their objection is, from my own experience, quite hollow indeed, as empty as the cranial cavities of any number of pop culture celebrities). What this means is that all who exercise such faith, confessing the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord, are members of the people of God, and thus are member of the “holy, catholic church,” no matter how inchoate, deficient, or errant their theological belief system is. And that, I might add, is a very good thing. The question we who claim the name of Christ must ask ourselves is this: What are we going to do to acknowledge this catholicity, and start to act upon it? The future of Christian mission, at least in the Western world, may well depend on it.