Reflections on Reformed Catholicity as Commonly Conceived

Reflections on Reformed Catholicity as Commonly Conceived

But the disagreement, itself part of a larger debate about catholicity, does highlight the problems with that doctrine as it is often presented. By catholicity I mean the attribute of the church by which it is not limited to any one nation, class, or era, but is present wherever and whenever there is true faith and the bonds of the Spirit. It is a spiritual unity diffused through space and time: wherever there is true Christ-embracing faith, there is the church. Catholicity is not visible or formal unity as such, but unity in the Spirit and in the truth that he has revealed in word, sacraments, fellowship, charity and works, etc.). 

Last summer Derrick Brite published an article at Reformation 21, “William Perkins on Keeping It Catholic,” that occasioned a skirmish concerning catholicity by bringing forth a response from a Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister writing pseudonymously with Calvin’s nom de plume ‘Charles D’Espeville.,’ which in turn brought forth the remonstrance of R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California. Many of the particulars do not merit reconsideration. Brite’s original article is no longer available, while the RCA’s minister’s fit of high dudgeon, while understandable given his personal history with Rome and its historic tyranny over the souls of men, was not pristinely accurate in all its representations.[1]

But the disagreement, itself part of a larger debate about catholicity, does highlight the problems with that doctrine as it is often presented. By catholicity I mean the attribute of the church by which it is not limited to any one nation, class, or era, but is present wherever and whenever there is true faith and the bonds of the Spirit. It is a spiritual unity diffused through space and time: wherever there is true Christ-embracing faith, there is the church. Catholicity is not visible or formal unity as such, but unity in the Spirit and in the truth that he has revealed in word, sacraments, fellowship, charity and works, etc.).[2]

The problem is not with the concept as such, but with how it is discussed. One, catholicity wants a better scriptural defense. Many people appeal to the concept as correct without any attempt to demonstrate its scriptural basis. There are passages at hand to do so like 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 12:13; Ephesians 4:3-6; Acts 9:31; 10:34-35; Revelation 5:9; and 7:9 (amongst others), but they want elaboration, even in accomplished theologians who are otherwise long on exegesis. The Scripture index for Berkhof’s Systematic Theology is 23 pages long, and yet he fails to reference Scripture a single time when discussing catholicity. The Scripture index of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is 47 pages long, yet his consideration eschews detailed scriptural reflection at many points: in two pages of consideration of catholicity (“The Church is Catholic,” Vol. IV, 282-284) his only reference to Scripture is in an Augustine quote that appeals to Jude 19 (rather dubiously for our purposes viz. catholicity).[3] He elsewhere cites Scripture plentifully, but in a single clause and without elaboration (322).

Nor has this lack of exegesis been limited to previous eras and longer works. Brite’s original article did not reference Scripture except obliquely in conclusion with an appeal to Jeremiah 6:16, and appealed rather to Perkins’ historical example to plead the cause of catholicity. Clark appeals to 1 Kings 19:18 (and Romans 11:4) and elaborates upon the practical outworking of Acts 1:8, but the bulk of his useful article is concerned with the confessional and historical nature of catholicity. To be clear, we do confess the church’s catholicity (Westminster Confession 25.1-4), and we find support for it in history; Clark is right to appeal to such things in his helpful consideration of catholicity.

But if one’s position is that many contemporary evangelicals are effectively radical sectarians (‘biblicists’) with a benighted view of the church and her history, then appealing more to history, confessions, and the opinions of sundry medieval and ancient teachers than to Scripture is not a prudent approach in trying to convince said evangelicals of the validity and importance of catholicity. Nor can this be limited to dealing with traditional bastions of evangelical belief like independent churches, for as that RCA minister’s article demonstrated, disregarding catholicity is common even in professedly Reformed denominations. Given that many evangelicals are not only ignorant of catholicity but actually take offense at it, convincing them that the concept is a real attribute of the church is best approached by establishing its scriptural validity, not with appeals to things that many evangelicals do not recognize at all (confessions, teaching of early church figures), or about which even the professed adherents or those of a more Reformed bent often have a lukewarm and inconsistent devotion (ibid.).

So it is with historical appeals as well. The proponents of catholicity argue that the Protestant churches and their foremost leaders have always been cognizant of their own catholicity, as evidenced by their practice of appealing to councils, creeds, and the opinions of earlier thinkers in establishing the continuity and fidelity of their own doctrine. That historical argument seems correct, but is naively practiced in many cases; for it does not accomplish much when one’s target audience regards the church as having veered into apostasy from an early date. Saying ‘see, this is catholic because Tertullian and Aquinas believed it too’ doesn’t work when one’s audience either doesn’t know who such people are or thinks that they are apostates whose opinion ipso facto doesn’t matter. The defenders of catholicity therefore make a practical error when they argue its validity primarily on historical and confessional grounds without first demonstrating the scriptural fidelity of the things to which they appeal.

A second problem with catholicity is that its typical form seems unlikely to win the people of Rome on the opposite side, for she has a different definition of catholicity than we. She regards its essence as lying in communion with herself: “Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome” (Roman Catechism 834). Indeed, catholicity is another of the many things that we need to recover from the corrupt notions of the church that Rome has propagated.[4] When we therefore appeal to catholicity to urge the legitimacy of our churches, they are apt to dismiss us (e.g., their catechism refers to us as “ecclesial communities” (1400), not churches).[5]

This is the weakness in something like Perkins’ A Reformed Catholic, to which Clark and Brite appealed. Saying that a Reformed Catholic is one “that holds the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church; yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine whereby the said religion is corrupted”[6] seems unlikely to convince most members of Rome, and as a dual polemic/irenic approach it contains another inherent weakness which is the third problem with catholicity. Catholicity requires careful explanation in relation to Rome. In that same work Perkins says of Rome “we take it to be no Church of God.” He never speaks of Rome being catholic, and actually juxtaposes the Roman and Catholic churches.[7] How then can we speak of catholicity having any part here? For catholicity is a mark of the church, and yet here we are denying that Rome is a true church, which would appear to mean that any concurrence of belief between us is a matter of coincidence, not catholicity.

The answer, which is already latent in Perkins, is twofold. One, catholicity is a mark of both the visible and the invisible church. Though Rome be no true church, yet we suspect that there are many faithful in her midst, who by their faith in the truth are members of the invisible catholic church in spite of the visible communion of which they are a part. “For the popish Church and God’s Church are mingled like chaff and corn in one heap: and the Church of Rome may be said to be in the Church of God: and the church of God in the church of Rome; as we say the wheat is among the chaff, and the chaff in the wheat.” Second, catholicity is a mark not only of the church, but of that body of faith and practice to which she adheres (albeit with greater or lesser purity), hence in his subtitle Perkins argues that “the Roman religion” is “against the Catholic principles and grounds of the Catechism” (defined as The Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

Establishing catholicity of belief, however, presents an enormous difficulty. Rome can simply say that what qualifies as catholic is what she officially approves, as demonstrated by such formal approval, ubiquity, and antiquity. Many a contemporary evangelical can simply see if something is prescribed or forbidden in Scripture and reject or accept it accordingly. We must consider whether a thing not only has a long and wide pedigree, but whether it comports with Scripture’s teaching. The more traditional Protestant, that is, has a harder task than both, for he may not merely take the church’s word for it or use Scripture as an encyclopedia of belief, but must have a broad knowledge of history and scriptural doctrine so that he can determine if a popular, long-established belief or practice is correct.

It is just here that a further difficulty arises, for it soon becomes evident that there are things that have a long and wide pedigree that are clearly at odds with Scripture (e.g., images). What then are we to make of a mistaken thing that large swathes of professing believers and whole institutional churches have done for centuries? That version of an evangelical conception of history that imagines the church departed into darkness in the second century and largely remained there until the Reformation, when the primitive church was reconstituted, might not be correct simpliciter, but it has abundant reasons and appears, as Allen and Swain note in the beginning of their book Reformed Catholicity, in no less illustrious a theologian than B.B. Warfield.

This brings me to the final difficulty with many present conceptions of catholicity, which is that they do not seem to have a good explanation for apostasy in the church, and especially take no notice of the great apostasy (or rebellion, 2 Thess. 2:3) that many believe finds at least partial fulfillment in Rome’s corruptions. Indeed, some of our retrievers and promoters of catholicity get carried away in their enthusiasm and greatly exaggerate the beneficence of various historical figures. Credo calls Aquinas a “beam of orthodoxy” in its issue about him, apparently forgetting that he taught the damning sin (1 Cor. 6:9) of idolatry (Summa III, Q. 25, A.4). This present fondness for catholicity means, in other words, that we risk having an imbalanced understanding of the church and her history, one in which we so much emphasize continuity and similarity in belief that we forget the ancient faults from which God has graciously delivered us (Ps. 80:3, 7; Ecc. 7:10; Lam. 5:21).

Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation

[1] For example, his claim that vatican means “diving-serpent” is contradicted by the Online Etymology Dictionary, and his claim about Rome “burning of hundreds of thousands of Christian martyrs” cannot be approved since, though Papal cruelty was often great, the precise number and means of death of people who died at the hands of members of that communion are uncertain, and since many victims would not be considered martyrs of the true faith.

[2] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, pp. 57-60 (pdf version). Available here:

[3] Arguably this arises because of the organization of Bavinck’s discussion of the church. The section immediately prior (“The Church is One”), beginning on p. 279, does contain extensive scriptural reflection and ends with mentions of catholicity that are then elaborated in “The Church is Catholic.”

[4] Alas, her efforts to lay sole claim to catholicity have caused many Protestants to misunderstand its true nature and to take her definition (if unknowingly), of which the response to Brite’s article was an example. My local PCA church uses a modified form of the Apostles’ Creed that refers to the “holy Christian church.”

[5] But not necessarily in all cases. Matthew Levering, a Romanist professor, has praised Matthew Barrett’s The Reformation as Renewal. The difference between what the Roman communion officially teaches and what her people actually do and believe is a common difficulty in comprehending Rome.

[6] All quotes from Perkins have been modernized somewhat.

[7] In a single case he speaks of “Roman Catholics,” but elsewhere speaks of the “Roman” and “Catholic” churches as separate, most notably by saying that “the Roman Church, though falsely, takes unto itself the title of the true Catholic church” (all spelling modernized).

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