The Church as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

We saw previously that the Creed confesses the Church as an object of faith to show how, despite all its historical liturgical diversity (especially in the pre-Nicene period), the true Church was one, and the salvation one experienced there was not affected by where one lived. We look now at the four statements which the Creed makes concerning this saving Church.

First, the Creed describes the Church as one (in the Greek of the Creed mian). As said above, this means that wherever the true Church is found throughout all the world, it is the same Church. The faith it proclaims is the same, whatever may be the slight verbal differences in its baptismal creed, and the baptism it bestows offers the same salvation. The Eucharist it celebrates is the same Eucharist (though the words, actions, and rituals may dramatically differ), so that the same saving Christ is received through the Bread and the Cup. Its pastors (i.e. its bishops) share the same worldwide and indivisible episcopate, each one holding the entirety. As St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote in his The Unity of the Catholic Church (chapter 5), “The episcopate is one, an individual share in which individual bishops hold as owners of a common property.” Through the Church’s bishops, Christians in one congregation are linked with other congregations throughout the world. Thus in its faith, its sacraments, and its internal order, the Church is united and one.

This ecclesiastical unity comes ultimately as a divine gift, and therefore this unity can never be broken, for it depends upon God’s will, not humanity’s. Schism and heresy may cause the schismatic or heretic to fall away from the Church’s unity and to start another and rival church (a “rival altar” in ancient terms), but schism cannot divide the Church internally. This unbreakable unity is the answer to Christ’s prayer in John 17 “that they may all be one.” In this high-priestly prayer, Christ prayed that His disciples would share the unity which He had with His Father: “I in them and You [Father] in Me, that they [the disciples] may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me” (Jn. 17:23). Through the Holy Spirit, believers are united to Christ who is united to His Father, and thus the Church participates in this divine Trinitarian unity between Father and Son.

Though this unity can be strained and the Spirit grieved (see 1 Cor. 1:11-13, Eph. 4:1, 30), the Church cannot be divided in its essence. The phrase from Christ’s prayer in John 17:21 “that they may all be one” is often cited as a mandate to pursue an as-yet-unattained ecumenical unity between different Christian denominations. This is to misuse and misinterpret the verse. Christ’s prayer did not remain unanswered; it was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out upon the Church, uniting believers to Christ and therefore to one another, and the Church’s unity has remained intact since then.

Unity is tremendously important. In our divided world where brother fights with brother and where men are alienated from God, there is a sense that salvation is unity—unity with God, and through Him, with each other. To have unity is to have salvation. That is why schism from the Church was so abhorred by the Fathers, for they considered schismatics not merely as being divided from the Church but also as being divided from God. Whether non-Orthodox Christians today can be equated with the non-Orthodox schismatics of the early church is another question (I would personally suggest that they cannot be so equated, nor can we state that Protestant or Roman Catholic schismatics are divided from God)—but that is not a question that can be considered here. Here it is enough to say that the unity of the Church is considered part of its inalienable essential nature because its unity is its unity with the Father and the Son. She cannot cease being one without also ceasing to be God’s Church and Christ’s Body.

Secondly, the Creed describes the Church as holy (Greek agian). The word “holy” is often misunderstood, and treated as a synonym for “good” or “well-behaved,” but that is far too weak a meaning for the word. The word in Hebrew is qadosh, and it refers to someone or something which is different (sometimes dangerously different) from its surroundings, as God is different from the world. To be holy is to belong to God, and to be separate from the world. Thus, a holy place is a place which is fundamentally different from other places—a place in which God is encountered and which He claims as His own.

One may not treat a holy place as if it were secular or profane without incurring guilt or disaster, and Moses was instructed to remove his sandals from his feet when he stood before the burning bush because that ground was holy (Exodus 3:5). Holy food (such as that of a peace offering, some of the flesh of which was eaten by the worshiper) was food which belonged to God, and thus it could only be eaten in a holy place and while in a state of ritual purity. If a person ate the holy food while ritually impure, God would judge him (see Leviticus 7:19-21). Because the food was God’s food, eating it made one share in God’s holiness.

A holy person (sometimes translated a “saint” from the Latin sanctus) is one who in some way has been dedicated to God and who thus was separated from the surrounding world. Nazirites, for example, were holy to God for as long as they were under their Nazirite vow of consecration (see Numbers 6:1f), and they had to take care to preserve this ritual dedication. While their vow was upon them, they walked with God as His special vessels. Angels were sometimes called “holy ones” (Zech. 14:5), since by definition they were different from the world and belonged to God. Thus whether talking about holy places, holy food, holy people, or the holy angels, holiness was something awe-inspiring, and excited a kind of mysterium tremendum, a sense of the numinous or awe. It meant that what was holy belonged not to the world, but only to God.

Given this tremendous weight attending the concept of holiness, it is all the more amazing that the disciples of Jesus are called “holy ones” or “saints” by the New Testament. For example, St. Paul refers to the Corinthian Christians, for all their faults, as “saints” through their baptismal calling (1 Cor. 1:2), as he does for the Roman Christians (Rom. 1:7), the Ephesian Christians (Eph. 1:1), and the Colossian Christians (Col. 1:2). People remaining unbaptized and far from Christ remained in darkness and sin (see Acts 26:18), but those who joined themselves to Christ through faith and holy baptism had been enlightened and forgiven. In this crooked and perverse world they shone as lights (Phil. 2:15), and were to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish” (Phil. 2:14). Christians in these early days had profound appreciation of the wretched state from which Christ had saved them. Before their baptism, they were no people at all, but now they were the people of God. Before they had no mercy, but now in Christ, they had mercy in abundance (see 1 Peter 2:10). The Christians were humbly conscious that Christ had made them saints, people who now belonged totally to God, people who were different than the surrounding world.

This holiness was not simply the heroic attainment or characteristic of individual Christians—it characterized the Church as a whole. The Creed does not say that the individual Christians were holy (though they were certainly expected to be so); rather, it says that the Church was holy. That is, it was the Church’s faith which led one to transformation; her sacramental mysteries which united to Christ’s saving power; her discipline and pastoral care which kept the believer strong and safe in the Lord’s love. Just as the Church participated in the divine unity which united the Father and the Son, so it also participated in the divine holiness which transformed human nature and made it holy and whole.

The Church is holy in its essential nature. If the Church somehow ceased to be holy, it would lack its power to save—its faith would no longer transform, its sacraments would no longer save, and its pastoral discipline would no longer restrain and heal. That is, the Church would no longer be the Church. Obviously this is impossible, for Christ said the Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) and that the gates of Hades would never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). The Church therefore remains holy and belonging to God in her essential nature so that God may use her to save the world.

Thirdly, the Creed describes the Church as catholic (Greek katholiken). If the word “holy” is often misinterpreted, the word “catholic” is even more often misunderstood, and usually identified with the denominational label “Roman Catholic.” The Greek word katholike is derived from the words kata olos, “according to the whole,” and meant “whole, complete.” It is sometimes translated “universal”: a “catholic pronouncement” was intended to apply to all, and “catholic rule” according to Aristotle meant a general rule. The first extant use of the word is found in St. Ignatius of Antioch (who died around 107 A.D.), and who said that “wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church” (Epistle to the Smyrneans, chapter 8). The idea seems to be that the “catholic church” is the Church in all its fullness and completeness, not just a mere part of it. Thus Ignatius was saying that wherever Jesus Christ is found in the local Christian congregation, however humble it may be and however few its numbers—there is the Church in all its fullness. No local church need lament its smallness of size or its numerical poverty. If Jesus is there among them, all His fullness is there too. As one writer said, (Zizioulas in his Eucharist, Bishop, Church), “the local Church, according to Ignatius, is the very Church of God, the eternal, full, and whole Church.”

Thus, each local church contains all the fullness of Christ, all that is necessary for the salvation and deification of its members. The term “catholic” thus does not mean “universal” in the sense of world-wide dissemination or distribution, that which is spread out through all the world. The Church was “catholic” even on the Day of Pentecost, when it was geographically confined to Jerusalem. But the Church has always contained within itself all the fullness of Christ—“the fullness of Him who fills all in all,” as St. Paul said in Ephesians 1:23. The Church is catholic in that each congregation throughout the world contains all the truth of Christ, all the fullness that is necessary to save anyone that comes to Him through that congregation.

In this way, the Church in its catholicity differs from the heretical churches, for she has the fullness of Christ, and they do not. Thus she is catholic in her inalterable essence and cannot cease from being catholic without thereby ceasing to be the Church. In describing the Church as catholic, the Creed asserts that, unlike the heretics, she has all the truth from God necessary to save the world.

Finally the Creed describes the Church as apostolic (Greek apostoliken). The Greek word “apostolic” is derived from the verb apostello, “to send out,” since the apostles were sent out by Christ into all the world. The Hebrew equivalent is the word “apostle” is sheliach, “ambassador.” The Church is apostolic for she was built upon the teaching and public proclamation of the apostles, and came into being as the fruit of their preaching. This differentiates the true Church from its Gnostic rivals, who were in fact built on the teaching of the various Gnostic teachers, all dating from the second century or later. The Gnostics, it is true, claimed that they were transmitting a secret teaching of the apostles, which these apostles passed on privately to them. Apologists like St. Irenaeus responded with the obvious retort—that what the apostles in fact transmitted to all could be gauged from what the bishops of the great churches (like those of the church of Rome) preached in public. This teaching was the true apostolic tradition, guaranteed by the unbroken succession of teachers who proclaimed that teaching in public in the great churches.

Thus to confess the Church as apostolic meant grounding the Church’s teaching forever after in the teachings of the apostles, found in the New Testament Scriptures and the surviving oral traditions. People may later conclude, if they so choose, that the apostles in fact erred in their teaching, but this will not alter the essential nature of the Christian Faith. Right or wrong (and the Orthodox say it is right), “Christianity” means what the apostles proclaimed, and the Christian Faith thus stands or falls with the validity of this apostolic proclamation.

Some people find this approach hopelessly retrograde, binding the Church forever to out-dated ways of thinking. Does it mean, they ask indignantly, that no further progress in knowledge was possible after the first century? What about advances in science which tell us that homosexuality is an inherited orientation, and so cannot be sinful, as the apostles seemed to think? Are we to reject all advancement that came after the end of the first century? The apostles’ words may be used as a source, they concede, but one must retain the freedom to reject their teaching if it flies in the face of modern science. To do otherwise, they say, is obscurantist fundamentalism, idolizing a vanished past.

Here is where the great dividing line may be found, the great gulf separating worldly and secularized ways of thinking from patristic and Orthodox ones. And it should be candidly admitted that faith in the settled conclusions of Science (meaning “the conclusions purporting to be scientific which I happen to like,” since “Science” never speaks with one voice) can be a form of idolatry too, and many of yesterday’s “settled conclusions of science” have been overturned at a later day. Faith in the reliability of the apostles and faith in the reliability of whatever scientific conclusion happens to be current and popular are both equally forms of faith.

Most of the time, of course, there is no conflict between Science and Religion, since Science, as one wag once said, tells us how the heavens go, while Religion tells us how to go to heaven. But once in a long while, there appears to be a conflict, as scientists (usually social scientists) disagree with the pronouncements of the apostles. When this happens, my money is on the apostles every time, not on the social scientists. Since choosing either the apostles or the social scientists is a matter of faith, I choose to have faith in the ones to whom the risen Christ entrusted His Church. And the apostolic foundation of the Church does not in fact bind it hopelessly to the past. Rather, it liberates it from the tyranny of the present fad and fashion—a tyranny which always today presents itself as “scientific.”

In conclusion, the Creed focuses upon these four descriptions of the true Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and commends them as ways that one may distinguish this Church from its heretical rivals. Ultimately the choice between the Church and its rivals is a matter of faith. That is why the Church is an item in the Creed.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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