The Holy Catholic Church Or A Holy Catholic Church?

sanctam catholicam ecclesiamRecently I received a query about which English translation of the 9th article of the Apostles’ Creed is correct: “a holy catholic church” or the holy catholic church”? As far as I can tell the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of translating the received Latin text of the Creed as “the holy catholic church.” The 8th and 9th articles are usually translated, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church….” Most English translations use the definite article but there are three influential English translations that use the indefinite article. The 1912 Psalter uses the indefinite article (an) as does the 1959 Psalter Hymnal, which uses “a.” The 1959 Psalter Hymnal is widely used in conservative Dutch Reformed Churches. The Canadian Reformed Book of Praise (1984) also uses the indefinite article. The Latin text says:

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum; sanctam ecclesiam catholicam….1

There is, of course, in the Latin text, a definite article before neither “Holy Spirit” nor “holy catholic church” but grammatically and theologically, if we believe “the” Holy Spirit (and we do) then on what ground would one proceed to say “a holy catholic church” but then proceed to confess “the communion of the saints, the remission of sins…”? It seems arbitrary to move between the definite and indefinite that way. One counter argument would be say that, if the way we speak of the Spirit should control the way we speak of the church, then we should say we believe “in” the church as we believe “in” the Holy Spirit. The response is theological. Both Perkins and Witsius argued against this on the grounds of the distinction between the Creator and the creature. We do not believe “in” the church in the same way we believe “in” the Holy Spirit. We confess “the holy catholic church” but the Holy Spirit is an object of faith. The church is not an object of faith.

Other translations give us some help. The Greek text signals the definite explicitly (τὸ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΤΟ ἍΓΙΟΝ, ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν) and that article controls the subsequent phrases. The German text of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is ambiguous. It begins with the definite article (den heiligen Geist) but then uses “eine” before heilige, allgemeine Christliche kirche which could be translated either “a” or “one.” The German text of the catechism, however, is typically translated into English with “the holy catholic church” in recognition of the influence of the definite article before Heiligen Geist. The Dutch (een heilige, algemene, christelijke kerk) might be ambiguous but it does not seem to demand an indefinite article any more than the German does. In other words, the choice of an indefinite article by a few English translators seems theological more than grammatical. It is puzzling

Traditionally Reformed writers typically use, when writing in English the definite article, or are translated into English with the definite article. E.g., Heinrich Bullinger,2 Caspar Olevianus,3 Thomas Cartwright,4, Petrus DeWitte.5 In addition, the Allen, Beveridge, and Battles translations of Calvin’s Institutes 4.2.1 all use the definite article. Ursinus and Witsius are both translated with the definite article.6 Archibald Alexander Hodge, used the definite article.7 Cartwright used the indefinite in his explanation but not in his quotation of the Creed. It is not easy to find Reformed writers using the indefinite article for the church in their rendering of the Creed.8

It seems as if the best English translation of the Creed should be, “the holy catholic church….” The argument for the indefinite would appear to rest almost entirely upon a possible ambiguity in the German text (and possibly in the Dutch translation) of the Heidelberg Catechism but that is outweighed by the relative clarity of the earlier Latin and Greek texts.

Theologically it seems sounder to say that we believe the holy catholic church. The church is not a potential. It is a reality that is manifested in the world. This is what we say in Belgic Confession art. 27. “We believe and confess one only catholic or universal church (une seule Église catholique ou universelle)The confession twice thereafter says “cette Église ” (this church) in art. 27 and “cette sainte assemblée” (this holy assembly) in art. 28. We believe that there is a true church (art. 29) and that the true church is manifested visibly and has marks that are empirically verifiable. Yes, we believe that there is a body of believers in all times and places but it is always manifested as and in the church, if even in small, scattered, persecuted congregations at times.

What difference does it make? We should be cautious about revising the received translation and understanding of a catholic, ecumenical creed for reasons that are not clearly understood, expressed, and received widely in the visible church. The use of the indefinite article in the 9th article, in English translations, does not seem to have a very good pedigree nor is it well-attested among ecclesiastical documents and Reformed writers.


1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 45.
2. Decades 6,1.
3. Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed.
4. A Confutation Of The Rhemists Translation, Glosses And Annotations On The New Testament (Leiden, 1618).
5. Catechizing upon the Heidelbergh Catechisme (Amsterdam, 1664), 151.
6. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 117; Sacred Dissertation…Apostles’ Creed, trans. Donald Fraser (London: Khull, Blackie & Co., 1823), 361.
7. A Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 22–23.
8. Cartwright, ibid., 24.

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  1. I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but it definitely seems the same in its direction: The whole New World Translation’s (the Jehovah’s Witness “translation’) rendering of the text ” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” I only could imagine grammatically, as well as the ideas coming from that, would make most Christians choke as if they just tried to swallow an un-chewed tortilla chip.

    • I think Dr Clark might say that this was a rabbit trail relative to the post (the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed being in Latin, which has no articles, definite or indefinite, and only in poetry is word order of any significance whatever). However, on John 1:1 he might present a similar argument to that applied above to the Greek translation, i.e. that the definite article preceding “God” in “the Word was with God” controls the subsequent phrase – This is an argument I have never come across before. The basis of the argument I have normally seen is that theos in the last clause of John 1:1 is at the beginning of that clause, and, therefore, the indefinite article is not to be applied. Colwell’s Rule goes so far as to say that the definite article must be applied. This may be an oversimplification, as there is a difference between exclusive and inclusive identification. The definite article in a clause-final predicate indicates exclusive identification, whereas a non-articled clause-initial predicate could indicate inclusive identification, e.g., the Word is God, but so also is the Father, or the Holy Spirit, or any combination of members of the Trinity.
      Actually the whole original question is a bit academic, because whether you have “the holy catholic church” or “a holy catholic church”, there can only be one church that is both holy and catholic. If there are two holy churches with non-identical memberships, then by the very meaning of the word “catholic”, they cannot both be catholic, and the one that is catholic must include the entire membership of the one that isn’t.

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