The Holy Catholic Church

John H. Armstrong


I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

These are the familiar words of the Apostles’ Creed, a historic and simple summary of basic truths confessed by early Christians. Though most certainly not the direct product of the twelve apostles of Christ, it is commonly agreed that this short creed is a summary statement of the apostles’ teaching. It is in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament.

Most Catholics know this creed well. They are often surprised to hear Protestants quote it. Likewise, some evangelicals are equally surprised when they hear fellow evangelicals recite it. Often evangelicals are even more surprised to discover that here is an ancient creed that is not so much an abstract and mysterious document as a living, vibrant, profession of essential truths believed by all Christians over the centuries.

Here we have a universal starting point for Christian affirmation. A creed expressing vital, foundational Christian truths confessed by believers long before the rupture of the visible church in the sixteenth century. But all that needs to be confessed is not in this creed. Nothing, for example, regarding grace or the authority of Scripture is found here. Nevertheless, it is a beginning — a starting point for all historic Christian confession.

Living trust in Christ requires that Christian faith be rooted in history as well as in present experience. True confession cannot exist without the New Testament itself, and the New Testament requires that we confess allegiance to Christ, both to His person and His work. All who profess love for Christ need to understand this.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “I am an evangelical Christian. I cannot confess that I believe in the `holy catholic Church.’ That language is not acceptable to me. I believe in a biblical, New Testament church, but not a holy catholic church.”

Through the centuries believers have confessed their faith by asserting that they believe in the holy catholic church. This is not anti-evangelical language. It was our Lord who constituted His church as a holy catholic church when He said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). This often disputed text asserts that Jesus is committed to His church. Because the church is His, it is holy, or “set apart” from ordinary purposes. Because it is a church spread over the whole earth, encompassing peoples of every background, both ethnically and socially (see Revelation 5:9), it is a catholic (meaning “universal”) church.

When we use the words Roman Catholic, however, we are talking about something else, namely, a communion linked to the historic authority and practice of Rome. That is why the abbreviated name Catholic is properly capitalized when it is used in this book with reference to the Roman Catholic Church. In this case Catholic is being used of a particular communion of people, not as a reference to all Christians who make up the universal, or catholic, church of Christ.


The apostle Paul confessed the affirmation “one body [church] one Lord, one faith” (Ephesians 4:4—5). Though Christians have differing beliefs of what the visible church should look like, they agree that there is a universal church in the world.

The word Catholic (when referring to Roman Catholicism) is a relatively recent term. Until the sixteenth century it was simply “the church.” Sometimes it would be “the church catholic.” Not until some years after the Protestant Reformation did the church, historically based in Rome, begin to use the title “Catholic” to distinguish itself from the Protestant movement. The church, headquartered in Vatican City with its argument for the succession of apostles back to Peter, became the Roman Catholic Church. This name distinguished itself not only from European Protestantism but from another branch of Christendom — the Eastern Orthodox Church, with its many similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, excepting loyalty to the papacy and the requirement of celibacy for its priests.

Further, when the Evangelical Alliance was formed in the United States in 1867, it adopted a nine-point doctrinal statement based on its English counterpart, which expressed a similar understanding of our essential agreement in early church history It included the following:

Resolved, that in the same spirit we propose no new creed, but taking broad, historical, and Evangelical catholic ground, we solemnly reaffirm and profess our faith in all the doctrines of the inspired word of God, and in the consensus of doctrines as held by all true Christians from the beginning. And we do more especially affirm our belief in the divine-human person and atoning work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as the only and sufficient source of salvation, as the heart and soul of Christianity and as the center of all true Christian union and fellowship. (Schaff and Herzog, 4:222)

The World Evangelical Fellowship, formed in our present century, represents various associations of regional and national fellowships of evangelical churches. It stands in the same tradition of thought by confessing, in part, the following: “We believe in. . the unity of the Spirit of all true believers, the church, the body of Christ.”

What is meant by these evangelical Christian affirmations when they speak of the church as catholic? And what is meant by the modifiers “broad, historical, and Evangelical catholic ground” used in the above statement? To answer that question we need to consider the doctrinal unity that came to the historic church in the first five centuries following the death of Christ and the apostles.


The visible church of Jesus Christ sought from its very beginning to maintain its essential oneness in teaching and life. In the midst of a hostile and anti-Christian culture, this was vital to its strength. Opposition from outside the church threatened it with intense periods of persecution, as various Roman emperors came and went over the centuries. Ten bloody seasons of persecution resulted.

The overall effect of these attempts to stop the growth of the church was a continual purifying of the church from nominal professions of faith. This ultimately brought deep and lasting growth in both power and influence. As the old saying goes, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church!”

What threatened the church even more in these early centuries was error from within. The infant movement was threatened with compromise and heresy. The visible body of Christ on earth was distressed repeatedly by serious heresies. What did the leadership of the young church do to counteract this insidious virus within her?

Over the first four centuries a number of councils were, convened to address these doctrinal errors. Bishops (presbyters, or leaders of churches and groups of churches) met at important cities for months at a time to consider important doctrinal and moral issues facing the church. Some of these councils were called for political reasons. Others became, quite honestly, platforms for leaders whose motives were not always noble. Yet through it all, God’s providence overruled. God the Holy Spirit was at work guiding the church into a fuller and deeper understanding of the essential truths that would protect the message of Christ and His apostles from errors that would destroy it.

It is not surprising that in the early centuries the church addressed these kinds of problems so directly. Had not the apostle Paul written, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. . . . For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)? The foundation of the church was Christ. About this there must be no lingering doubt. What made Christianity a vital religion in the ancient Roman culture was the uniqueness of its founder — both His unique person and His unique work. To build on any foundation other than Christ Jesus was, simply put, to invite disaster. It was to build with wood, hay, and straw, not gold, silver, and precious stones (see verse 12).

The early history of the church followed Paul’s pattern. It built a solid confessional foundation. This foundation was laid by these early councils and creeds. Affirmation followed affirmation, and denial followed denial. These all were necessary if the church was to be faithful to the work of the apostles — namely, the New Testament Scriptures themselves.

These historic councils addressed matters such as the discipline of ministers, schism, and doctrinal heresies. The principal heresies addressed in these early centuries dealt with matters related to the person of Jesus Christ. Was He really God? Was He truly man? How are we to understand the triune nature of the Godhead in light of Christ being eternal God, yet distinct from the Father, who is also eternal God? And what is the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son?


Catholics and evangelicals share a consistent loyalty to the creeds of these early orthodox fathers and theologians. When the Protestant Reformation took place in the sixteenth century, there was never a serious battle over any of these great truths that had united the church for centuries. There is still much we share together in these bedrock foundational beliefs.

Since the turn of this century much of Protestantism has turned more and more away from these historic Christian statements of faith. In more recent years that same liberal virus has infected Catholic theologians and, with them, many parish priests as well. We live in an era quite different from the way things used to be. In the past we could have assumed that all Catholics and Protestants agreed on the orthodox creedal statements from the first five or six centuries. But that has changed. Modernist ministers and priests have jettisoned truths once held by all who named Christ in our traditions. And that has confused many church members.

Our young people go away to Catholic and Protestant schools only to have essential Christian truths undermined by professors who are financially supported by the families and churches of these children. What is happening? A twentieth-century error has influenced both Catholics and evangelicals. It attacks almost everything previously assumed as part and parcel of the historic Christian faith. This has caused many Catholics and evangelicals to realize that we have a new common enemy. Both secularism and materialism threaten to bring down Western culture. Moral chaos abounds, both in personal lives and in society at large.

In the face of this challenge, especially in Europe and the United States, Catholics and evangelicals are increasingly talking about the common enemies of their faith. We are finding out that we agree on most of the writings of the early church fathers and the councils and creeds of Christendom. This often comes as a surprise to people on both sides of the Reformation. The result has been a growing awareness of our need to work together in areas where we are being attacked by forces that are distinctly related to twentieth-century life.

Protestant evangelicals need to understand that we confess a continuity of truth through the ages and that these early church creeds are gifts to us. Certainly we subject them to the authority of Scripture, as we will see in chapter 5, but we believe that much of what Scripture teaches, especially regarding the nature of God and Christ, is plainly defended and set forth by these ancient creeds.

Evangelicals share more than a few vital biblical truths with Catholics. We seek to cultivate a distinctly Christian worldview. We both believe — if we reject the modernist criticism now present in our respective traditions—that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. We are consistent supernaturalists who believe in the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of Christ. We confess faith in His ascension into heaven and in His future bodily return. We believe in life after the grave and in the judgment that follows. We even sing some of the same songs, use the same biblical texts in our public worship, practice intercessory prayer, and develop a spiritual life grounded on faith in Christ.

Catholics need to understand that evangelicals are not radicals who broke away from the ancient faith of the church. Luther, Calvin, and the early Protestant Reformers strongly affirmed their loyalty to the creeds and went far to demonstrate that they were true heirs of the early church. This is precisely why we still have so much in common. Evangelical faith is not novel. It is not anti-catholic faith, given how the historic church has understood catholicism. The Reformers never dreamed of “throwing out” historic affirmations in whole or in part.

What the early Protestant Reformers did do was to challenge a church authority that they believed contradicted itself. There is a world of difference in both spirit and practice between reactionaries and reformers. They believed, quite simply, that the visible church had gone beyond the authority of Scripture. They further asserted that the gospel had been lost through the evolution of doctrine. This evolution so corrupted the visible church, according to the Reformers, that complete reformation in vital areas of faith and practice was the only solution.

In this book we will consider what caused this Reformation and what doctrinal areas were at the heart of the divide. We will ask, “Does it still matter?” and, further, “How should evangelicals and Catholics address these differences in a new atmosphere that invites better understanding and greater tolerance?”

Table of Contents

The Dark Ages? (chapter 2)


John H. Armstrong (M.A., Wheaton Graduate School; D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary) was a pastor for twenty-one years. He is the director of Reformation and Revival Ministries. The author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored?, he was also the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. He and his wife live in the greater Chicagoland area.

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