In Heidelberg Catechism 54 we say:
54. What do you believe concerning the “Holy Catholic Church”?
That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.
I recently addressed part of this question in response to a question from an HB reader. When we say, in the Apostles’ Creed, with the church in all times and all places, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy catholic church….” (Credo in Spiritum sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam) we are not confessing that Rome is the Catholic Church. Indeed, one finds no reference to Rome whatsoever in the earliest Christian uses of the adjective “catholic” (καθολικός). It does not occur in the New Testament. It’s association with the NT comes by the application of the adjective to the “Catholic Epistles,” i.e., those NT epistles directed to a wider audience (e.g., the churches of Aisa Minor) rather than to a particular congregation (e.g., Corinth). The term “catholic epistles” was first used by Origen in the 3rd century.1 The adjective “catholic” is derived from the adjective for “whole” or “entire” (καθόλου).2 In secular use, the adjective “catholic”(καθολικός) means “general,” “generic,” or “universal.”3
It occurs a few times in the Apostolic Fathers, a somewhat arbitrary, late collection of second century texts. E.g., Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35–c.107), who used it in some of his epistles to those congregations who sent representatives to greet him on his way to martyrdom in Rome.
Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the overseer, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the overseer appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.4
According to Ignatius, the defining characteristic of catholicity, i.e., of truly universal Christianity is the presence of Christ. There’s little evidence that he conceived the office of overseer (επισκοπος) in monarchical or hierarchical terms. There’s no evidence of the supremacy of the pastor of the Roman congregation. There was no papacy in the 1st or 2nd centuries. Though he was headed to Rome for martyrdom, it is Christ and not the pastor of the church whom he regarded as the head of the church.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the date of which is uncertain—though Polycarp himself was martyred in the 2nd half of the 2nd century—uses the adjective “catholic” three times. In the salutation, in 8.1, when the text notes that he prayed a long prayer “remembering all who had ever even come his way, both small and great, high and low, and the whole catholic church throughout the world….” It also occurs in 16.2 where he is described as “overseer” (επισκοπος) of the “catholic church” in Smyrna. The use in 19.2 is instructive:
By his endurance he overcame the unrighteous ruler, and thus gained the crown of immortality, and he is glorifying God and the Almighty Father, rejoicing with the Apostles and all the righteous, and he is blessing our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, and Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the catholic church throughout the world.5
Again, it is Jesus who is the Savior and the “governor” (κυβερνήτης) and “shepherd” (ποιμήν) of the visible church.
In short, the early Christian conception of catholicity has no more to do with the Roman congregation than it has with any other congregation and there is no evidence that, when these 2nd century authors spoke of catholicity, these authors were thinking of the pastor of the Roman congregation and certainly not of any episcopal supremacy of the Roman pastor.
During the Reformation, however, the Romanists accused the Protestants of being “sectarian,” i.e., of dividing the church and of falling away from the “Catholic” church. That accusation was exactly backward, however. The Protestants charged Rome with taking Christ’s church into a sort of Babylonian Captivity (the title of one of Luther’s more famous treatises) and of corrupting the very notion of catholicity. According to Rome, catholicity means submission to the Roman see. That’s a perverse definition. No, by definition, catholicity is recognition of Christ as the head of the church and confession of God’s Word as unique, principal authority for the Christian faith and life. Rome has attempted to supplant God’s Word by attempting to confuse an alleged unwritten tradition with the public, apostolic Word of God and by making that tradition effectively superior to God’s holy Word. That is nothing if not sectarian.
In contrast to Rome and all other sects, the Reformed churches confess that God has always had a people, a Christ-confessing covenant community. In the typological periods of redemptive history before Moses (the old covenant), and under Moses (the old covenant), under David, under the prophets, and in the exile, the church looked forward to the fulfillment of the promise of a Redeemer.
We say that God the Son has always been the Redeemer. It was he who came to us in the garden to promise a Redeemer (Gen 3:14–16) He led us out of Egypt. The Apostle Paul says explicitly that he was with us in the desert. That rock was Christ (1 Cor 10). Today as always he “gathers, defends, and preserves” for himself a chosen communion. There have been times in the canonical history of redemption and since when that might not have seemed so. There have been times when it seemed as if the elect were all but wiped out but it has never been so. At times we have flourished but Christ shall always have his people, in all times, and in all places.
It’s important to know and remember that believers are not merely members of this congregation or that but that as members of true churches (Belgic Confession art. 28 and 29) we are part of an assembly the number of which only God knows and that we can probably not fathom. We are not all same in every respect. We do not all speak the same language. We do not all share the same customs but we believers in the finished work of Christ, confessors of the faith catholic confessed by all believers and summarized by the catholic creeds, all have the same Savior and we are members of the same church universal. Revelation 5:9 testifies “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation….” That is true catholicity in which we participate now by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Next time: catholicity and your congregation.
1. S.v., “Catholic Letters,” in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
2. S.v. “καθόλου” in Liddell and Scott.
3. S.v., “καθολικός” in Liddell and Scott.
4. Ignatius of Antioch Ad Smyr. 8.1–2.
5. Modified from the Kirsopp Lake translation.