Catholicity, Confusion, And A Correction

In the mid-1970s, the original cast of Saturday Night Live featured a regular character as part of the Update sketch. The character’s name was Emily Litella. She was played by the late Gilda Radner. It used to be that local newscasts would occasionally host a local citizen, who would appear on the broadcast to represent the public and to make a comment. It was the local TV news version of letters to the editor, which was how people used to comment on the news before Twitter and comment boxes. This sketch was a parody of that.

Emily would inevitably get the basic facts wrong and then go on a rant only to be corrected and to discover that her point was entirely false. To which she would reply, “Nevermind.”

Emily did not write a recent essay railing against “Reformed Catholicism” but she could have and the essay has as much value to the public as anything Emily ever said, except that it is neither as charming nor as entertaining as Emily.

No D’Esperville

The first thing that caught this critic’s eye was that the essay is pseudonymous. That is probably a good thing for the author’s sake since the essay is worthy of considerable embarrassment. It takes a good deal of chutzpah to publish an article under that pseudonym since it was Calvin’s principal pseudonym. You see, writing and sending a letter in the sixteenth-century was a complex affair, especially when it was written by a leading humanist and Reformation figure. First, there was no postal service as we know it so the writer had to find and trust a courier. Sometimes these couriers were trustworthy, sometimes they were feckless. Second, the Romanist authorities worked to intercept the carriers of such letters so that not only did the letters not reach their destination but intercepted letters could jeopardize the writer, the recipient, and the courier. So, Calvin used a pseudonym. If one is going to take on Calvin’s pseudonym, one ought to have the chops to do so. The author of our piece is no Charles D’Esperville.

Why? He rails against the very notion of Reformed Catholicity without understanding two basic facts: 1) What Catholicity is and 2) What the Reformed meant by it. Let me begin with the latter.

What Catholicity Means

The adjective catholic means “universal,” as in, “the universal church.” It refers to the church in all times and places. It is a Greek word, Katholikos, which means universal. It is synonymous with the Greek adjective Oikoumenikos, i.e., ecumenical (E.g, Martyrdom of Polycarp, 8.1). The early church used these adjectives and “catholic” (e.g. Fragments of Papias, ch. 5; Martyrdom of Polycarp, 19.2; Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 8.1) in particular without any reference to Roman Catholicism, which, by definition, is oxymoronic. Roman Catholicism did not exist in the first century AD. There was no pope and certainly no Vatican.

Why should we care about catholicity? For one thing, in the ninth article of the Apostles’ Creed we confess “a holy catholic church.” In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325/381) we confess “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (μίαν, ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν). The Reformed churches confess both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds. Thus, we are bound to the idea of catholicity.

Second, we confess “a holy catholic church” in Heidelberg 22, 23, 54:

What then is necessary for a Christian to believe?

All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum.

In Heidelberg 23 we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the 9th article.

In 54 we confess:

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.

We are not sectarians. We understand that we did not invent Christ’s church. We are heirs of the great Christian tradition.

Third, we should care about the correct definition of catholicity because it contains a valuable truth: Christ has always had his people. Under the types and shadows, there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (Rom. 11:45; 1 Kings 19:18). Under the New Testament, our Lord Jesus promised: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; ESV). The ancient, universal Christian doctrine of the ecumenical or catholic church affirms that God’s Word is true and that he is fulfilling his promise before our eyes. As I write this I am standing at desk in Escondido, California, which, relative to Jerusalem in the early part of the 1st century AD, is the uttermost parts of the earth. The gospel made it here and Christ, through the due use of ordinary means, is building his church.

Fourth, we confess the holy catholic church in article 27 in the Belgic Confession:

We believe and confess One single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is the eternal King who cannot be without subjects. And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men—as though it were snuffed out.

For example, during the very dangerous time of Ahab the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand men who did not bend their knees to Baal. And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.

Fifth, it means that the Reformed churches are not sects. To deny the catholicity of the church is a mark of the sects and the cults. They say that they alone have the truth or that the apostles had the truth but it was lost or hidden somewhere until it was rediscovered in (pick a year). This way of telling the history of the church is as attractive as it is false. The truth is that Christ has always had his people and his truth in the midst of the visible church in the East and the West, even though it was corrupted and dimmed at different points. After all, we had a Reformation for good reasons but we never claimed that the truth had been utterly hidden (e.g., among the Waldensians) or extinguished until it was rediscovered by (fill in the blank).

Luther, Calvin, et al. were not ignorant of the Fathers and the medieval theologians before them. As a humanist—shall we next have an article warning about “Reformed humanism”? If so, Calvin, Bucer, and Olevianus are in trouble—Calvin was well read in the Fathers and he and Luther both appreciated some of the medieval writers, chiefly Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). Recently I wrote an essay for Credo magazine in which I highlighted the classic Reformed appreciation for Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74). Vermigli, Zanchi, Turretin et al. had the highest regard for Thomas. They were not cultists or sectarians in that sense. They knew that Christ has always had a people and that the truth had been preserved in the midst of the corruption of the medieval church. They were not prepared to cede the entire Christian tradition prior to the Reformation—as I hear and read so many evangelicals doing—to the Roman Communion.

Perkins Defended Catholicity

Perhaps the greatest defense of Reformed Catholicity ever written was that by William Perkins (1558–1602), who wrote, in 1597, an entire treatise in defense of catholicity: A Reformed Catholic. It is contained in volume 7 of Perkins’ Works, now in print for the first time in centuries from Reformation Heritage Books.

In it, he defined what he meant by catholic:

By a Reformed Catholic, I understand anyone that holds the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church; yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine whereby the said religion is corrupted (Works, 7.5).

Perkins, like the rest of the Reformed, thought that we have much in common with “the Roman Church,” yet he recognized the gross errors committed and taught by Rome and he combatted them in this work and in all his others. He did not imagine that the Reformed church dropped out of the sky de novo and yet he did not concede the adjective catholic to Rome. Note that he did not write “Roman Catholic.” He knew that such a phrase makes no sense since Rome has not only corrupted the gospel (she condemned it at Trent) but she has corrupted the holy sacraments. She arrogates, as we say in Belgic Confession art. 29, authority to herself that she does not have.

As I bring this essay to a close, I am wondering whether the essay to which I am responding was a parody, a joke, a way of poking fun at the very same errors to which I am responding here. Perhaps it is so. In recent years it has sometimes become more difficult to tell the difference between parody and news. Nevertheless, because the essay seems genuine and because I guess that some may well be confused by, it seems better to publish this than to assume it is a parody.

Emily Litella was a parody but she was a character with some grace and humility. She was not incorrigible. When she was corrected she admitted her mistake and did the right thing: she urged the viewers to ignore her rant. Perhaps our ostensible D’Esperville will follow her example.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I had considered responding myself, but I doubt it will now. This is far better.

  2. I noticed the article is also riddled with other historical errors, too. He seems to think all medieval Christians paid taxes to the Holy Roman Empire: “It can’t be the thousand years of darkness Romanism held Western Europe under, so that most people lived hand to mouth under its heavy taxes to support its Holy Roman Empire. Henry VIII complained that the Vatican received four out of every five dollars in taxes from England.” It sounds like he is assuming the Pope was the head of the HRE just because it’s called holy and roman.

    Obviously your article is focused on getting at the heart of the issue, which is right and proper, but these smaller things on top of that make it all the more disappointing, in my view, that the Aquila Report would publish this article at all.

  3. True, Cheryl.
    And they posted both of our articles the same day, back to back. So they probably just wanted to give two differing views.

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