Our church says the Apostles’ Creed nearly every week in our liturgy. In one of the lines, we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church”. For some, this is a strange term. And the reason is because nowadays, the term catholic has come to mean: the Roman Catholic Church. Understandably, many want to sort of shy away from this term.
However, during the time of the Reformation, the Reformers did not feel the same hesitancy for the term “catholic church”. For them the term was not something that belonged to the Roman church in distinction to the other churches. In fact, in all of the Reformed catechisms, the Apostles’ Creed (along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments) was the bulk of the content. I know that in many Protestant traditions, children presented for confirmation memorize and recite the Apostles’ Creed.
So that term was not controversial. But what does it mean then? What did the Reformers understand it to mean? More importantly, what did the early church understand it to mean?
It is important to first point out that the term catholic means “universal”, or more properly, “according to the whole”. So when we say catholic church, what we really mean is universal church, or the church according to the whole. But of course, the question becomes, what does that mean?
Turriten, in his third volume of Elenctic Theology, has a very helpful discussion on this term. He identifies three things “catholic church” is meant to convey:
First, the term catholic church means that the true church embraces all true believers from all times and places, not just a specific locale or time. Turretin explains:
First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers, in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived from the beginning of the world or will live unto the end. In this sense, “the whole family of God is said “to be named in heaven and on earth” (Eph 3:15)…Thus Augustine expresses it on Ps 62: “His whole church, which is diffused everywhere, is his body, of which he is also the Head; however, not only believers of this present time, but also they who were before, and who will be after us even to the end of the world” (Volume 3, p 30)
Catholic properly denotes the assembly of all believers in all places in all times. Hence the term universal: The catholic, universal church is the company of the elect, whether on heaven or on earth. It is the church of all believers in all places for all times.
Secondly, the term catholic church denotes its embrace of all peoples, ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc, in contrast to the Old Testament church which only embraced believers that belonged to the Jewish nation. Turretin explains:
[The catholic church belongs any and all persons], without distinction from every kind, order and state of men. For there is no distinction either to Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Rom 10:12), but in every nationa, he that fears him is accepted by him (Acts 10:35). “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) (p 31)
The church welcomes all without ethnic or class or racial distinction. This was a massive issue during the times of the apostles. Paul spilled much ink over the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. No longer was the church simply within the boundaries of Israel. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, the church embraces all peoples, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor.
Lastly, the church is called catholic in terms of its doctrinal teaching. Churches which teach the whole of apostolic doctrine, with all of its non-negotiables can be called catholic. It teaches and transmits the apostolic doctrine in totality. In contrast, churches who do not teach the whole truth, or who teach what is error, are not thus “catholic”. Turretin explains:
The catholic church is frequently so called by the [early church] fathers with respect to doctrine because it holds and defends the orthodox catholic doctrine; “the whole of which she truthfully holds,” as Augustine says… Vincent of Lerins clearly sets this forth. “In the catholic church itself great care is to be taken that it holds what is believed everywhere, always and by all; for this is truly and properly catholic: which the very force of the name and reason declare, which truly universally comprehends all things”…In this sense, there can be many catholic church; nay, all particular orthodox churches are catholic, as they are often called (p 31)
Meaning, all churches who teach “what is believed everywhere, always and by all” are said to be catholic.