Attributes of the Church

Traditionally, there have been ascribed four attributes to the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These attributes are supported by Scripture and derived from the Nicene Creed (AD 381) which reads, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” It is important to note that these attributes are different than the marks of the church, which we will look at next. The attributes of the church make up the essence of the church, what the church always is by definition and believed to be in faith, whereas the marks of the church (which we will look at shortly) can be used to identify and discern a true church from a false church. 

One

The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is one. As St Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, there is “one body and Spirit,” just as there is also one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4–6). Jesus taught of this essential unity during His earthly ministry. In John 10:16, speaking of bringing Gentiles into his fold, Jesus says that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Later on during what is called his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus asks of the Father that all who would believe in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one (Jn. 17:20–21).

And yet, what are we to do then with real and perceived divisions in the Body of Christ? There are the Protestants, the Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox. Amongst the Protestants there are dozens of major denominations with all sorts of differences among them, in the Reformed world alone you have many micro-denominations with all sorts of quirks, and then in the average American town you have plenty of churches that have very little interaction with one another. Where is the oneness in our current ecclesiastical situation?

First, as we have already noted, we confess the church is one by faith. Despite our differences and divisions, Christians are united by faith in Christ and His gospel. And we are not only united by our common faith, but by Christ Himself, who is the head of the church, his Body (Col. 1:18). As Herman Bavinck succinctly stated it, Christ “joins His churches together and builds them up from within Himself as the head (Eph. 1:23, 4:16, 5:23, Col. 1:18, 2:19), gathers and governs it (John 10:16, 11:52, 17:20–21, Acts 2:33, 47; 9:3ff), always remains with it (Mt. 18:20), is most intimately connected with it (John 15:1ff, 17:21, 23, 1 Cor. 6:15, 12:12–27, Gal. 2:20), and dwells in it by His Spirit (Rom. 6:5, 8:9–11, 1 Cor. 6:15ff, Eph. 3:17).”[1] Christ is the source of our unity.

Second, this one universal church is the body of Christ, and so is each local congregation, just as each individual Christian is a member of the Body (1 Cor. 12). We see this reality play out in Scripture regarding the early church. As the church quickly grew in size in each city, the believers practically could not meet all in one place by the thousands (at least not regularly). Therefore, synagogues, lecture halls, and homes were used as gathering places for worship. Each of these “house churches” were individually called a church, and yet despite their separation from one another on one level, they still were constituted as one church in that particular city (Acts 5:11, 8:1).[2]

Therefore, the concept of individual local churches is a biblical one. It is part of God’s plan. Whenever an unbeliever comes into contact with a Christian, they are coming into contact with a member of a specific local congregation. And each local congregation, as Dr. J.I. Packer once put it, is “called to fulfill the role of being a microcosm of the church as a whole.”[3]

Holy

The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is holy. When St Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he greets them as “saints” who have been chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world, that they should be “holy and blameless before Him” (Eph. 1:1, 3–4, see also 1 Cor. 1:2). The church’s holiness is grounded in God’s sovereign electing grace. Reformed scholastic theologian, Marcus Friedrich Wendelin, described the church’s holiness as consisting of two parts, “the holiness and righteousness of Christ acquired through faith” and “the renewal and sanctification of hearts.”[4]This means that the church is holy because it is objectively so in Christ by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, and that the church is a communion of saints, who have been given new hearts, who seriously desire to obey God in all things, and are being continually sanctified until that final Day when they are glorified in Christ. As Louis Berkhof helpfully summarizes, the church is holy in its members “as holy in Christ and holy in principle, in possession of new life, which is destined for perfect holiness.”[5]

As we have considered previously, the attributes of the church are what the church is by definition and what we confess by faith. Therefore, as John Webster noted in his book Holiness, the church’s holiness is “by virtue of its sheer contingency upon the mercy of God.”[6] It is God’s doing. He has called the church out, and set it apart, to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). 

But when observing the church today, and the church of the past, don’t we still see sinful men? Yes. While the church is objectively holy in Christ, its members are still in the process of being sanctified, daily confessing sin in repentance and receiving forgiveness by the mercy of God. As St John makes clear, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8–9). Christ gave up Himself to redeem us and to purify us as a people for Himself, who would be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14). And He is sanctifying his Bride, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:26–27).

Catholic

The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is catholic. The word ‘catholic’ often is misunderstood today as referring to specifically the Roman Catholic Church. But that is not its definition in the Apostles Creed or in the early church (and as we will see, calling the church both Roman and catholic is somewhat contradictory). By confessing that the church is catholic, we are saying it is universal, that the church is not bound by geographical places or periods of history but exists everywhere where the gospel has reached and been received. This also ties into the oneness of the church, further demonstrating the extension of our unity both across land and time, but also a unity of catholic doctrine. For example, the church in Egypt and the church in Idaho are both part of this one catholic church. As St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, the church “is called ‘catholic’ because it extends over all the world… and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines…”[7] Lastly, according to St Cyril, the church is also catholic because “it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of humankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned…”[8]

While the word “catholic” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. Beginning in Genesis, when the Lord calls Abram he promises to make him a great nation, stating that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). This global, or catholic, vision is repeated throughout the Old Testament. In Psalm 22 we read that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You” (Ps. 22:27). Likewise, the Lord through Malachi declared that, “from the rising of the sun to its setting My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to My name, and a pure offering…” (Mal. 1:11). In the New Testament, we find in the Great Commission the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), demonstrating the Lord’s desire for the church to spread out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And in the Book of Revelation, we read that Christ in His death purchased “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9–10). 

Apostolic

Lastly, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is apostolic. This means that the church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and their teaching and continues to rest on this foundation to this day. Some churches wish to trace this apostolic lineage through an unbroken line of bishops. This is unnecessary, and also quite impossible to do with any honest accuracy. Instead, we should understand the church’s apostolicity to be not the succession of people or places connected to the apostles, but the succession of apostolic doctrine.

We know that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles because St Paul states so in his letter to the Ephesians: “…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophet, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” (Eph. 2:19–20). This church is being built up, even today, into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). The church is apostolic in essence because it rests on this foundation, even as it matures and is led into the knowledge of all truth by the Spirit (Jn. 16:13).

Why Do These Attributes Matter?

Why is it important to emphasize the essence of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? It is important because too many Protestants today do not truly understand themselves to be members of the historic church. Often the furthest back evangelicals go is when their particular local church was founded or the year in which they were saved. This naturally creates a problem when a faithful church member stumbles across the writings of the early church fathers and wonders how we got here from there. Finding no conscious historic connection in their own church, these saints wander off to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, in search of the one truth church, as if these traditions had exclusive rights to being the inheritors of the faith once delivered. This should not be. We in the Protestant church have a great and glorious inheritance, which includes both the Reformation and all the ages of the church leading up to it.

There is a common misconception that the Reformation was a move away from the apostolic church, and thus a departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This is demonstrably untrue, and it must be untrue if we claim to be members of the church founded by Christ, the church that He promised to never abandon (Mt. 28:20). As John Williamson Nevin so clearly stated,

“What a depressing imagination, if only it were properly laid to heart, is that by which the papacy is taken to have been for eight long centuries the grave of all true Christianity; and the honor of the Reformation is supposed to require that the whole life of the Middle Ages should be relinquished to Rome, as part and parcel of the great apostasy, instead of being claimed as the catholic heritage of the Reformation itself. If Protestantism be not derived by true and legitimate succession from the church life of the Middle Ages, it will be found perfectly vain to think of connecting it genealogically with the life of the church at any earlier point.”[9]

We cannot even think to imagine that we can lay claim to the historic church by simply jumping over centuries of church history. Instead, we should see these centuries as preparing God’s people for the renewing fruit of the Reformation. Philip Schaff put it this way, “The Reformation is the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church…”[10] It is the proper continuation and maturing of the church. But instead of following the work of the Spirit, the Roman Church exchanged true catholicity with a fixation on the particularities of Romanism.[11]

In John Calvin’s letter to the King of France, which serves as the dedication in his Institutes, he noted that the Roman Catholics accuse the Reformers’ doctrine of being “new, and of rent birth… they ask if it be fair to receive it against the consent of so many holy fathers and the most ancient customs; they urge us to confess either that it is schismatical in giving battle to the church, or that the church must have been without life during the many centuries in which nothing of the kind was heard…”[12] Calvin’s response to these charges are as follows.

First, it is “injurious to God” to call his sacred word “novel.”[13] Yet he acknowledges that “to them, I very little doubt it is new, as Christ is new, and the gospel is new…”[14]—a condemnation of their spiritual health. He continues by stating it matters little that these biblical doctrines have “long lay buried.”[15] God, in his kindness, has restored them to his church, and therefore they “ought to resume its antiquity just as the returning citizen resumes his rights.”[16]

Second, “it is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the fathers, as if the fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority, the better part of the victory would be ours…” (emphasis mine).[17]Calvin points out that the church fathers are not exclusively in support of the Roman church. The fathers were both “admirable and wise” and at the same time sometimes in error as all men are.[18] And it seems to Calvin that the Roman Catholics like to adore their “slips and errors” and “overlook, or disguise, or corrupt” their true statements that cohere with Protestant doctrine.[19] In order to prove his point, Calvin then walks through over a dozen quotations from the church fathers that directly contradict the practices of the Papists, showing that the fathers are not all on their side. 

Third, regarding whether the church had life prior to the Reformation, Calvin says “the church of Christ assuredly has lived, and will live, as long as Christ shall reign at the right hand of the Father. By his hand it is sustained, by his protection defended, by his mighty power preserved in safety…”[20] The Reformers are not at war with the church, since they, “with one consent, in common with the whole body of the faithful [they] worship and adore one God, and Christ Jesus the Lord, as all the pious have always adored Him.”[21] The Reformers did not believe that the church ceased to be for centuries. Calvin goes on to argue that the Roman Catholics failed to acknowledge the invisible church, which is not confined nor defined by the Roman church and its hierarchy. Whereas the Protestant faith confesses that “the church may exist without any apparent form, and, moreover, that the form is not ascertained by that external splendor which they foolishly admire, but by a very different mark, namely, by the pure preaching of the Word of God and the due administration of the sacraments.[22]

Find other posts in this series here.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 280.
[2] Ibid.
[3] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 201.
[4] Heinrich Hoppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 663.
[5] Louis Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine (London, UK: Banner of Truth Trust), 141.
[6] John B. Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), Loc. 615-618.
[7] Angelo Di Berardino (ed.), Ancient Christian Doctrine Vol. 5: We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 74.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Phillip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 48.
[10] Ibid. 73.
[11] Ibid. 74.
[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), xxiii.
[13] Ibid. xxiv.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid. xxv.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid. xxix.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. xxiv.

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