Thursday, September 10, 2009

Believing About the Holy Catholic Church


A perennial issue in our discussions with Roman Catholics is the issue of whether, in addition to believing God's word in Scripture, we ought also to trust (in a similar way) in the church. While nothing in Scripture suggests that the church is another rule of faith in addition to Scripture, such that we would accord the church the same credence we give to God and his written word, we are sometimes presented with folks who want to latch onto the creeds.

The so-called Apostles' Creed (not formulated by them, as some have supposed, but taken from the Scriptures that they left behind for us) includes a phrase regarding the "Holy Catholic Church," which is often seen as problematic for those who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the creed. The usual way in which this section of the creed is recited in English-speaking churches that recite it is thus:
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
Grammar of the Creed
The grammar of the creed makes a distinction that is not immediately apparent in English. What we "believe in" is God. He is the one in whom we trust. Thus, we "believe in" the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In contrast, we believe that there is a holy catholic church (not the Roman Catholic church, but the universal body of Christ: all those who believe on the name of the Lord), that the saints (by which mean again those who believe) ought to commune together until the Lord's return, that sins are forgiven by God on the merits of Christ, that the body will be resurrected and re-united to the soul, and that heaven will be eternal. Thus, we are not saying that we trust in the church despite the ambiguity of the English wording (as well as the ambiguity of the wording of the Constantinoplean Creed).

Schaff's Explanation

Perhaps it would be helpful to have more than the word of a pseudonymous blogger on this grammatical point. In Creeds of Christendom, historian Philip Schaff explains it this way:
Then, changing the language (credo in for credo with the simple accusative), the Creed professes to believe 'the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.'
- Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1, Chapter 2, Section 7

Paschasius' or Faustus' Testimony

The significance of this distinction was not lost on the ancients. Indeed, when we draw this distinction (which today we refer to as Sola Scriptura) we are in agreement with those ancient Christians whose writings have survived (even one from the Rome of that day, which had not descended to the depths of Rome today):

Paschasius, Deacon of Rome (flourished about A.D. 491 - 512) wrote:
Therefore thou sayest, ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,’ because, in supplying the little syllable in, dost thou attempt to produce great darkness? We believe the Catholic Church as the mother of regeneration; we do not believe in the Church as in the Author of salvation. For when the universal Church confesses this of the Holy Ghost, can she also believe in herself? ... He who believes in the Church believes in man. For man is not of the Church, but the Church began to be from man. Desist therefore from this blasphemous persuasion, to think that thou oughtest to believe in any human creature: since thou must not in anywise believe in an angel or archangel ... We believe the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, everlasting life ... The unskillfulness of some have drawn, and taken the preposition ‘in’ from the sentence going next before, and put it to that which follows, imprudently adding thereto more than needed.
- Paschasius, Deacon of Rome, Two Books on the Holy Spirit, Book 1, Chapter 1 (This work is sometimes alternatively ascribed to Faustus of Riez who flourished from about A.D. 433 - 485)

Rufinus' Testimony

We see the same thing from Rufinus, about a century earlier, who made roughly the same point.

Tyrannius Rufinus (lived about A.D. 344 - 410) explains with reference to the Apostles' creed:
“The Holy Church; The Forgiveness of Sin, the Resurrection of This Flesh.” It is not said, “In the holy Church,” nor “In the forgiveness of sins,” nor “In the resurrection of the flesh.” For if the preposition “in” had been added, it would have had the same force as in the preceding articles. But now in those clauses in which the faith concerning the Godhead is declared, we say “In God the Father,” and “In Jesus Christ His Son,” and “In the Holy Ghost,” but in the rest, where we speak not of the Godhead but of creatures and mysteries, the preposition “in ” is not added. We do not say “We believe in the holy Church,” but “We believe the holy Church,” not as God, but as the Church gathered together to God: and we believe that there is “forgiveness of sins;” we do not say “We believe in the forgiveness of sins;” and we believe that there will be a “Resurrection of the flesh;” we do not say “We believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” By this monosyllabic preposition, therefore, the Creator is distinguished from the creatures, and things divine are separated from things human.
- Rufinus of Aquileia, A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed, Section 36

(for a larger context, see here)

Aquinas' Testimony

While we would certainly have some disagreements with the much later writings of Thomas Aquinas, we find some similar sentiments in his discussion:
Objection 5. Further, Augustine (Tract. xxix in Joan.) expounding the passage, "You believe in God, believe also in Me" (John 14:1) says: "We believe Peter or Paul, but we speak only of believing 'in' God." Since then the Catholic Church is merely a created being, it seems unfitting to say: "In the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church."
Reply to Objection 5. If we say: "'In' the holy Catholic Church," this must be taken as verified in so far as our faith is directed to the Holy Ghost, Who sanctifies the Church; so that the sense is: "I believe in the Holy Ghost sanctifying the Church." But it is better and more in keeping with the common use, to omit the 'in,' and say simply, "the holy Catholic Church," as Pope Leo [Rufinus, Comm. in Sym. Apost.] observes.
- Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 2b, Question 1, Article 9

Notice how Aquinas agrees with the substance of the objection while seeking to find an acceptable sense for the words.


The idea of arguing that one should be "believe in" the church from the creed is an anachronistic misuse of the creed. It is as anachronistic as supposing that the term "Holy Catholic Church" was supposed to refer to the Roman Catholic church. Both the grammar of the creed (as noted by Schaff) as well as early Christian authors and even the most notable medieval scholastic.

With Alexander of Alexandria (died about A.D. 326), we affirm that we believe in the existence of only one body of Christ, relying on the authority of Scripture:
“And in addition to this pious belief respecting the Father and the Son, we confess as the Sacred Scriptures teach us, one Holy Ghost, who moved the saints of the Old Testament, and the divine teachers of that which is called the New. We believe in one only Catholic Church, the apostolical, which cannot be destroyed even though all the world were to take counsel to fight against it, and which gains the victory over all the impious attacks of the heterodox; for we are emboldened by the words of its Master, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world [John xvi. 33].’ After this, we receive the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead, of which Jesus Christ our Lord became the first-fruits; Who bore a Body, in truth, not in semblance, derived from Mary the mother of God (ἐκ τῆς Θεοτόκου Μαρίας); in the fulness of time sojourning among the race, for the remission of sins: who was crucified and died, yet for all this suffered no diminution of His Godhead. He rose from the dead, was taken into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Chapter III, The Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople.

How can we know whether a church is part of the Church? If it is apostolical. How can we tell if something is apostolical? Look at the books left behind by the apostles. Human successors can pervert the path of those who went before them, but the unchanging Word of God found in Scripture is the alone reliable measure of apostolicity and catholicity (in the true sense of the term).



Anonymous said...

At the last of the last in the conclusion above, you wrote: "....How can we tell if something it apostolical?...". Shouldn't the word "it" rather be "is"?

One way we know this body is of The Body of Christ in the affirmative comes from the affirmation while in communion with Saints.

Why is this so hugely important?

Well consider a couple of ideas from the writings of Paul, the Apostle:::>

Act 20:26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you,
Act 20:27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
Act 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Act 20:29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
Act 20:30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

Body Life causes the members of It to see and understand Paul's alarm and warnings. There are wolves preying on unstable and unsuspecting souls today. It is next to impossible to be "picked" off or ripped off once you are fully engaged with the communion of Saints, having been added to Her, The Church.

And, amazing as it is, it keeps you safe from false doctrines that come into Body Life, as we also see Paul address in the citation above. One, He knows and the Church knows there are wolves out there. Two, the Church knows one another well enough to realize that there are some within the Church that would also "draw you away" to unsound doctrines. These sort of people teach twisted things.

Second, sense what Paul is saying about True Apostolic authority, which can only be realized within the Body of Christ and communion of Saints. It is here that one gains the certainty of the forgiveness of sins and established in the "Living Hope".

2Th 1:10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

"....because our testimony to you was believed...".

See 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Within the Body Life of the True Believer, any delusion or what is false is made apparent. Why would anyone believe they, on their own, could go toe to toe alone with:::> ".... the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders,
2Th 2:10 and with all wicked deception..."?

Paul also writes:::>

2Th 2:16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace,
2Th 2:17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

You would not expect anyone fully of the "world" to "comfort" your hearts and "establish" His good hope and grace, would you?

No, I think not.

Finally,:::>2Th 3:1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you,
2Th 3:2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.


Not all in communion of Saints have "strong" Faith and the place God provides for the edification of His Faith within our hearts and souls is the Holy Catholic Church and the communion of Saints. Not in the world where not all have faith!

I would observe then that "Cross Life" is a life whereby you are crucified with Christ, yet you live.

There is no one who has ever been successful crucifying their own self. One, conceivably can pound one nail through one's ankles to the cross and possibly one nail through one wrist to the cross, but therein lies the dilemma of the other nail and wrist! :)

Turretinfan said...

yes, thank you for the correction, which I have implemented. Thanks as well for bringing Scripture to bear on the topic!

Pilgrimsarbour said...

A very good and interesting article, TF. Thank you. You use the word trust quite a bit, which I found reassuring given my recent discussion with a Catholic. He insists that "trust" in Christ is completely unnecessary for salvation. His argument is that "faith" is merely mental assent to whatever God has revealed. I have been unable to persuade him otherwise from the Scriptures or by logic.

Are you aware of any such official Catholic teaching that says trusting in Christ is unnecessary, or as my commenter has suggested, even sinful because it implies that God is possibly untrustworthy?

My response to his assertion is here if you're interested.

Turretinfan said...


That's an interesting question. It is likewise my experience that RCs typically view faith as assent, I cannot recall off-hand where that is dogmatically defined.

CCC144 To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to "hear or listen to") in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.


CCC150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.17

17: Cf. Jer 17:5-6; Pss 40:5; 146:3-4.

(italics in original)

You'll notice that CCC150 seems to include an aspect of trust, though the emphasis is on assent. In practice, most RCs seem to be almost (if not entirely) focused on assent.

Turretinfan said...


Thanks for the link to that debate.


Pilgrimsarbour said...

Thanks so much for your reply, TurretinFan. I really appreciate you taking the time to do some legwork for me on that.

It's interesting to note the passing reference to "trust" there in the CCC, but I realise it's just that--passing.

I would like to read more Reformed material on the issue of fiducia, and how that developed as relevant to the Reformers' definition of faith as notitia and assensus. I suspect it all comes back to their understanding of the nature of justification.

I don't have time to read Machen's What is Faith? again at the moment, although I'm sure I'd find at least some of my answers there.

John said...

While that ambiguity might exist in the Latin version of the creed (I don't think it does, but we'll grant you the possibility), no such argument can be made about the Greek:

Πιστεύω εἰς τὸ

We know that Πιστεύω carries over. We have to agree that τὸ carries over, because without an article it would be bad Greek. We can't have that εἰς in the middle not carrying over when the words around it do, so your argument certainly fails in the Greek, and quoting some Latin fathers about their opinion of the Latin doesn't change that.

There are other instances in the Greek bible where people "believe in" things other than God. One example is Ex. 19:9 where they πιστεύσωσιν εἰς Moses. Apparently nobody was offended by this Greek. Or Ro 4:18 where Abraham ἐπίστευσεν εἰς becoming a father.

John said...

And the creed of Nicea certainly says "In".

Εἰς μίαν, Ἁγίαν, Καθολικὴν καὶ Ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν.

Turretinfan said...


a) You're referring, no doubt, to the Constantinoplean addition to the Nicean Creed. The Nicene Creed originally just stopped at "Holy Ghost."

b) The Latin version of that Constantinoplean creed omits the "in."

c) There is some dispute over the referent of "in the ... church" within the creed's context (i.e. is it to be understood with reference to "believe," with reference to the prophets speaking (in the preceding phrase), or to the subsequent acknowledgment of one baptism.)

d) In any event, the fathers cited above all survived Constantinople (381), so unless you think that their testimony should be discredited for some reason, or you think that there was any church father of that era that interpreted the Constantinoplean creed as suggesting faith in a creature, your point seems not just moot but a red herring.


Turretinfan said...


As for the claim about the Greek of the Apostles' creed, I wonder where you get your information.

a) Do you think that Greek was the original language of this creed? If so, why?

b) Your grammatical argument is also a perfect argument for requiring the "believe in" to apply "αγίων κοινωνίαν," to "άφεσιν αμαρτιων," to "σαρκος ανάστασιν," and to "ξωήν αιώνιον."

The absurdity of that result should be sufficient to make you re-think your argument.