Retrieving Catholicity: A Reformed Perspective

Scott R. Swain
Tuesday, November 1st 2022
Nov/Dec 2022

The church is the crowning achievement in the work of salvation, planned by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and brought into reality by the Spirit (Eph. 1:3–14). The Father’s “plan for the fullness of time” is to sum up all things in heaven and earth under the headship of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). This plan is realized, in part, in a covenant community that is the body, building, and bride of Jesus Christ, its head (Eph. 1:22–23; 2:20; 5:23). In this covenant community, the grace purchased by Christ the redeemer (Eph. 1:7) is poured out by Christ the ruler in the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:22–23; 5:18) to the glory of God the Father: “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).

According to common Christian confession, the defining features or “marks” of this covenant community are unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.[1] These four marks are vital indicators of the church’s being and well-being. Not only do they indicate the identity of the true church, distinguishing it from others falsely claiming these marks, but “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6). These four marks also indicate the vocation of the church. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and endowed with the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, the church is called to pursue unity and holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

Today, the catholicity of the church continues to be both gift and task. On the positive side, Christianity continues to be a global phenomenon, a sign of the church’s catholic identity. The growth of the church in the Global South is especially encouraging, and many Southern Hemisphere churches have exhibited courageous leadership in calling Western churches on the brink of apostasy to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of a secular culture. On the negative side, false teaching and sectarian division run rampant among some of the fastest growing churches around the globe. Prosperity preachers put the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Give us this day our daily bread”) in the place of the first petition—an act of idolatry if ever there was one (Matt. 6:31–33; Col. 3:5). Churches in North America continue to reckon with sins committed against African American brothers and sisters, dating back to the transatlantic slave trade, while those most animated in professing the centrality of the gospel sometimes struggle to situate the gospel within a broader catholic framework for faith and life.


Retrieving Catholicity

What is the path forward for churches eager to embrace their catholic inheritance and fulfill their catholic calling? Part of the answer lies in diagnosing where individual congregations and denominations stand vis-à-vis a properly defined notion of catholicity. As we observed above, the catholicity of the church can be corrupted by addition or subtraction. Do our congregations and denominations exhibit unhealthy tumors on the body of divinity—whether in the form of strange teaching or in the toleration of sinful behavior—that must be excised for the sake of the church’s health and survival? Do our congregations and denominations display signs of moral and theological malnourishment through failures in catechesis or lack of brotherly love? If our churches are to realize the integrity that the God of peace intends for them (1 Thess. 5:23), then catholic wholeness must be restored.

However we may answer these diagnostic questions with respect to our own churches and denominations, the prescription for recovering catholic wholeness and health remains the same. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the sole head of the church, the future of catholic Christianity lies in joyfully embracing the whole counsel of God and the whole people of God. But where do we begin?

In the mid-1520s, as the result of various parish visitations among Lutheran churches, Martin Luther concluded that a one-sided emphasis on preaching the gospel of justification had left many German Christians theologically and spiritually malnourished and underdeveloped. “Despite the fact that the gospel has returned,” Luther lamented, “they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs.”[2] The Reformer’s response to this crisis of theological and spiritual formation was to publish two catechisms in 1528, the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism. These catechisms taught, in a form accessible to uneducated laypersons, the basic elements of catholic Christianity: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.[3]

In seeking to retrieve the catholic substance of the Christian faith today, we can do no better than to begin where Luther did: in teaching the Apostles’ Creed, which summarizes our faith; Jesus’ double love command, which summarizes our duty; and the Lord’s Prayer, which summarizes our hope. Thankfully, many churches already possess in their confessions and catechisms rich resources for instructing the people of God in the catholic substance of our common faith.

These three summary forms of catholic Christianity not only provide objective coordinates for the church’s catholicity, but they also provide a subjective orientation for the Christian life, directing us on the path to Christian wholeness. As noted above, Augustine traced the triad of faith, love, and hope back to the Lord himself, “the true foundation of the Catholic faith,” and the teaching of “sacred scripture.”[4] For Augustine, this triad marked a trajectory for the Christian life as a whole, from its inception in faith to its consummation in the beatific vision of God.

When a mind is filled with the beginning of that faith which works through love, it progresses by a good life even toward vision, in which holy and perfect hearts know that unspeakable beauty, the full vision of which is the highest happiness.[5]

Faith that embraces the Triune God as he offers himself to us in the gospel, love that follows Jesus’ path of devotion to God and service to neighbor, and hope that looks with eager expectation for the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ—this, according to Augustine, “is what the whole body of doctrine amounts to.”[6] This, we might add, is what Christian wholeness amounts to as well. If this is what it means to embrace the whole counsel of God, then what might it mean to embrace the whole people of God?

The confession of Jesus as Lord is the fundamental unifying principle of the church’s catholicity, the authoritative center that defines the circumference of this society’s reach (1 Cor. 1:2). Particular congregations may instance more or less pure expressions of this confession and, in certain cases, may so betray this confession as to become false churches (Rev. 2–3).[7] All endeavors aimed at extending fellowship between churches must flow from this confession (Eph. 4:5) and must aim at deepening our mutual embrace of this confession (Eph. 4:13).[8] This is why the well-meaning but naive counsel to minimize theological differences between churches for the sake of deepening catholic society is futile. At the end of the day, the result of such a strategy is to sacrifice catholic society as well. As Vermigli observes, Christian unity is “worthless without the unity of faith.”[9] “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)—this is the gift and calling of true Christian ecumenism, of true catholic unity among churches. Catholic substance provides ballast to catholic society.

Only a mature grasp of the content of the Christian faith, wedded to a spirit of brotherly love, is up to the task of discerning where real agreements and disagreements exist between various churches, how we might capitalize on agreements, and how we might overcome—or at least learn to tolerate where possible—disagreements. Mature theological judgments on these matters made by mature Christians are the means to the kind of mature Christian unity that Paul envisions in Ephesians 4:13: “Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

In many cases, doctrinal differences are not the barrier to deeper expressions of catholic fellowship. Instead, pedestrian social sins pose the major roadblock. Rivalry, suspicion, and lack of brotherly love inhibit catholic society among God’s people. Whenever and wherever these sins are observed, we do not need to appoint a denominational committee to realize catholic wholeness. We need to repent.

In other cases, churches suffer from more vicious, more deeply ingrained habits of social disintegration such as racism, resentment between social classes, and so forth. These vicious habits are sins against our baptism (Gal. 3:27–28) that must be exorcised in obedience to our baptismal vow, renouncing Satan and all his pomp. In their place, virtues—such as godliness, justice, and temperance (Titus 2:11–14)—along with love in all its forms (1 Cor. 13) must be cultivated in view of Christ’s first and second comings. “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:8).

In considering opportunities for deepening catholic fellowship between churches, it is also important to remember, as Herman Bavinck observed over a century ago, that not every denominational difference constitutes an actual ecclesiastical division.[10] Differences of geography, language, culture, and even ecclesiastical order may, in certain cases, be cherished as signs of Christ’s universal Lordship over all peoples in all places.

The catholicity of the church is both gift and task. It is a gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be received by faith (Eph. 4:5), and it is a task of Christian love to be pursued with all humility, gentleness, and patience (Eph. 4:2). The catholicity of the church is also an object of Christian hope, ultimately guaranteed not by the faith and love of the church but by the Lord himself who gave his life for the church and effectually intercedes on its behalf, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). In the Spirit of the Son, we may ask the Father for the fulfillment of this hope as well.

May our most great and wonderful God, who begat his own eternal Son Jesus Christ, our redeemer, by eternal generation and sanctifies him to us by eternal predestination, that he may be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption—may that same God also bestow upon us the spirit of wisdom, that growing stronger by his power we may increase in the saving treasures of this knowledge and wisdom unto the unity of faith and recognition of him, until we become a complete man according to the proper measure of the stature which is fitting for that most distinguished and glorious body in Christ Jesus our head and Savior, for his glory. Amen.[11]

Excerpted from Scott R. Swain, “Retrieving Catholicity: The Gift of Wholeness and the Task of Love in a Fragmented World,” Modern Reformation (November/December 2020).

Scott R. Swain is president and the James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida. He is author of The Trinity: An Introduction (Crossway, 2020) and editor, with Michael Allen, of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology (Oxford University Press, 2020).

1. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381).
2. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 348.
3. See Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 164–70.
4. Augustine, Enchiridion, 275, 274.
5. Augustine, Enchiridion, 274.
6. Augustine, Enchiridion, 275.
7. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.4–5.
8. Westminster Confession of Faith, 26.2.
9. Vermigli, “Commentary,” 36.
10. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:317–19.
11. Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 234.
Tuesday, November 1st 2022

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