Are we catholic or Catholic?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church
In the last few weeks, a number of people have asked me about a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, the statement of faith that we repeat in Sunday worship: “I believe… in the holy catholic church”. In many people’s minds, the word “catholic” sounds odd because they associate it with the Roman Catholic Church, of which Christ Church Düsseldorf is not part. So why do we say it, and what does it mean? This post will try to explain what “catholic” means, and why it is a very good thing that we say it. To put it simply, we are catholic but not Catholic.
As we begin, I have to admit to a mistake, which will be corrected. In some of our service sheets, and on some of the slides we project on to the wall, “Catholic” is spelt with a big “C”. This is an error; it should be spelt “catholic” with a small “c”. We can conveniently blame computers: whilst I have been writing this, the spell checker has kept trying to change “catholic church” to “Catholic Church”! Once we understand the difference between catholic and Catholic, a lot of the confusion will disappear.
What is the Apostles’ Creed?
From the earliest days of the Christian Church, Christians began to write short summaries of what they believed. In the days before printing, when the Bible was a whole shelf of scrolls, these were an essential tool for teaching the faith, and for distinguishing between truth and error. Such summaries were at first known as the regula fidei– the “rule of faith”, and later as “creeds” from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe”, with which many of them began. Before someone was baptized, they would be taught the creed. At their baptism, they would be asked to profess their faith, and they would answer in the words of the creed. The exact words would vary from place to place; each church would have their own versions
Around the year 200 AD, a man called Hippolytus of Rome wrote a book called The Apostolic Tradition. In it, he describes a baptism in a church at Rome and the creed that was used there. It is recognizable as the ancestor of what we now call “The Apostles’ Creed”. The use of this Roman Creed gradually spread to other churches in the Western, Latin-speaking Roman Empire, and was then taken by missionaries to the barbarian tribes that conquered Rome. As it spread, it was modified, more lines were added, until it reached its final form around the year 800 AD, during the reign of Charlemagne. It was called “The Apostles’ Creed” as early as 389 AD, by Bishop Ambrose of Milan. The Creed has twelve lines, and the legend grew up that it has been written by the twelve Apostles, each of the contributing one line. This is not true, but it is still a very good summary of what the Apostles taught and wrote down in the New Testament.
We say the Apostles’ Creed in church because it is a statement of faith that comes from the earliest days of the Christian church, before the divisions first between West and East, and the between Protestants and Roman Catholics. When we do so, we are saying that these are the essential truths that we would die for, as many Christians have over the ages. We are reminding ourselves of, and declaring to the world, the beliefs that we have in common with all Christians across space and time. We are also drawing a line in the sand: if someone does not believe these things, we cannot see them as a Christian. So we cannot see Unitarians, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses as Christians because they do not accept the truths of the Creed. On the other hand, whilst we would disagree very strongly with Roman Catholics about many things, we do recognize that they have a right to the name “Christian” because they confess the Apostles’ Creed, (and the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds- there is no space to talk about these here).
Because the Apostles’ Creed is something held in common with all Christians, we at Christ Church do not have the right to change it; we simply do not have the authority. For instance, we could not substitute the word “Christian” for “catholic”, (as I have heard suggested), as this would change the meaning. You will find slightly different versions in different prayer books, but this is simply an effect of different translations out of the original Latin; there is no difference of substance.
Martin Luther recommended people regularly to meditate on and pray through the Apostles’ Creed. Lee Gatiss, the director of our patrons the Church Society, will be blogging through the Creed during Lent 2018; if you would like to think more about the Creed, I would recommend reading his posts (http://churchsociety.org/blog/).
Are we catholic? Yes
The word “catholic” as used in the creed comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means “throughout the whole”, “general”, or “universal”. We sometimes use the word “catholic” in a non-religious context. So for instance, if someone likes both Classical music, Country & Western, and jazz, we might say that he has “catholic tastes” in music: his taste isn’t narrowly restricted to one sort, but encompasses many different sorts of music.
So in a Christian context, when we say that the church is “catholic” we mean that it is “universal”. As early as 107 AD Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church at Smyrna that “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church”. So when we say that we believe in the catholic church, we are saying that we believe that there is only one church, made up of all Christians scattered across the world, and spread out through time. At the moment, they gather as different churches or congregations in the different places where they live. But one day, when Christ returns to call his loved ones home, the church will gather as one around his throne, to praise him forever. The church is the Bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:23-26 and Revelation 19:9), and Christ is not a polyamorist. He only has one bride whom he loves, and so there is one, universal, catholic church. So to be part of the catholic church is to be part of the people whom Christ loves and died to save.
The opposite of being “catholic” is to be sectarian. In this case, we would say that only our church, or our denomination, or our little group are really Christian. When we say that we believe in the catholic church we say that we believe that there is one universal church of all Christians, and we recognize that people who are very different to us are part of that church. Indeed, some translations of the Apostles’ Creed say “universal” instead of “catholic” to avoid confusion; however, it is probably better to use the traditional word as a link with the past.
So when we use the word “catholic” with a small “c” we simply mean “universal”: we believe that there is one universal church to which all Christians belong, and we are part of it. A catholic church holds to the truths of the Apostles’ Creed that have been believed by all Christians at all times and in all places. In this sense, Christ Church Düsseldorf is catholic.
Are we Catholic? No
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, things became a bit more complicated. The Protestant churches rejected the authority of the Pope, (the Bishop of Rome), and were excommunicated by him. However, they still claimed to be “catholic”, and the Apostles’ Creed was still used in Protestant churches. In response, those Christians who continued to accept the authority of the Pope and remained in communion with him claimed that they were the only ones who were truly “catholic”, and that the Protestants were heretics and imposters who were not truly part of the catholic church. Before the 16th century, it would not have made sense to talk of “Roman Catholic” Christians, at least in Western Europe”; in the Middle Ages there were simply “Catholics”, who all owed allegiance to the Bishop of Rome. Only after the Reformation, when there were those who claimed to be “catholic” but not “Roman”, did people start to talk of the Roman Catholic Church as a distinct denomination. The Roman Catholic Church continued to make these claims until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Since then, official Roman teaching has changed somewhat, and Rome does now say that Protestants are truly Christians. But Rome continues to teach that to be truly “catholic” one must be “Roman Catholic”; that to be truly and completely part of the universal church, one must accept the authority of and be in communion with the Bishop of Rome.
This is very ironic because the claims of the Roman Catholic Church are not catholic, but sectarian. Rome takes the supremacy of the Pope, a teaching that is not found either in the Bible or in the earliest Christian traditions, and makes acceptance of it a condition of complete fellowship. For this reason, I would prefer not to speak of “Roman Catholics” and “the Roman Catholic Church”, because it comes too close to conceding to Rome that they have a special right to the word “Catholic”. I would really prefer to speak of “Roman Christians” and “the Roman Church”. I don’t mean these terms to be insulting or offensive, but as simple factual descriptions: those Christians who accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome.
So when we use the word “Catholic” with a big “c”, we mean “Roman Catholic”. In this sense, Christ Church Düsseldorf is not Catholic: we are part of a Protestant denomination, we do not accept the authority of the Pope, and we are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
I’m sorry to bring in a complication, but I’m afraid that what I’ve just written is a little too simple. “Catholic” is used in different ways, and the use of small “c” and big “C” by different people isn’t consistent. This is because for fifteen centuries, there wasn’t an issue; it was possible to use “Catholic” without any confusion. For instance, early on the church’s history, “Catholic” was used for those Christians who believed that Jesus was fully God, as opposed to the Arian heretics who thought that he was less than God. In this sense, Christ Church is big “c” Catholic: we believe that Jesus is fully God. Then around the year 1000 AD, the universal church split between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East. The latter became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, (and I could write another post like this on the use of the word “Orthodox”!). The Western Church of the Middle Ages became known as the “Western Catholic” Church. In this sense as well, Christ Church could claim to be “Catholic”, as both Protestant and Roman churches share a common heritage in the Western church.
If you read a book about the Church before the Reformation you may well then find the word “Catholic” used in one of these senses. Also, people will sometimes use “Catholic” with a big “C” when they don’t mean “Roman Catholic”, because of the way the English language works: English likes to use capital letters for technical terms, and of course there has to be a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence. All these reasons explain why, in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is an authority for Anglican churches like ours, the creed has “Catholic” with a big “C”. The standard use of “c” and “C” had not yet been established, and Protestant theologians had not conceded “Catholic” to Rome. Now, the convention of distinguishing between “c” and “C” has been established, and modern liturgies such as Common Worship and An English Prayer Book use “catholic” in the Creed. Although I must confess that as I’ve typed this, I’ve started to wonder if it wouldn’t be better, and much simpler, to reclaim “Catholic” from Rome, and explain clearly what we mean!
Does it matter?
Yes, it does. For a start, we should be clear about what we believe, and we should understand what we say in worship. The Apostles’ Creed is a gold mine for meditation, and for twelve centuries has been the standard material for basic instruction in Christian faith. If we neglect it or misunderstand it, we are the poorer. We should not be sectarian, we should be truly catholic, and enjoy the unity and fellowship that we have with all Christians. It is also a great thing to be part of the Western Catholic tradition. The great Christians of the Middle Ages, like Augustine and Aiden, the first missionaries to Britain, and Boniface and Willibrord, the English missionaries who first brought the Gospel to Germany, do not just belong to the Roman Catholic Church, they belong to us as well. At the same time, we must be clear that we are not Roman Christians. We love and respect our Roman Christian neighbours, and we have much to learn from figures such as Pope Benedict XVI. But we have very deep disagreements with them over matters that go right to the heart of the Christian faith and the eternal welfare of men’s souls. We are catholic, but we are not Catholic.
Gregg R.Allison Roman Catholic Theology and Practise. An Evangelical Assessment Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, pp.163-166, 174-180.
Gerald Bray Creeds. Councils, and Christ, Fearn: Mentor, 1984, pp.97-103.
Gerald Bray God is Love, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, pp.659-683.
Edmund P.Clowney The Church, Leicester: IVP, 1995, pp.90-98.
Peter Toon “Catholicity” in Sinclair Ferguson & David F.Wright Eds. New Dictionary of Theology Leicester: IVP, 1988, p131-132.
E.F Harrison “Catholic” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ed. Walter Elwell, Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1984, p.199.
R.B Kuiper The Glorious Body of Christ Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, pp.61-66.
J.I Packer Growing in Christ Wheaton: Crossway, 2007, pp.75-78.
Carl Trueman The Creedal Imperative, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.