Catholicity

Churches around the world affirm this statement every Sunday in their liturgy: “I believe in the holy catholic church.” In this act, proclaimers let their brothers, sisters, and the world know what they believe concerning the church, not to mention embodying what they confess. However, no confession of faith has drawn as much controversy as this belief, especially from “low-church” evangelical circles. Many Protestants, hearing the word “catholic” react negatively, for Protestants have protested the Roman Catholic Church for 500 years. What should the church make of this word “catholic”? In order to understand what it means to be “little ‘c’ catholic,” I will first define “catholicity” theologically; explore the canon, creeds, councils, and the church year; and finally draw out a relevant ministry application.


Catholic Definition

The word “catholic” comes from the combination of two Greek words: κατά (kata) and ὅλος (holos).[1] These two words, translated together, mean “according to the whole.” While on the surface this definition seems unimpressive, it provides a helpful starting point in thinking about catholicity in Christianity. In fact, Vincent of Lerins expands this simple definition into a more comprehensive definition: “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”[2] Catholicity, by definition, is the basic components of the Christian faith that are believed and practiced by all people in all times. Indeed, the source for understanding catholic thought comes from Paul himself: “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.”[3] The church, from the beginning, has always been described for her unity.


Catholic Canon

An important aspect of catholicity is a shared canon.[4] As the church set out to fulfill Jesus’ final command in Acts 1:9 in the first several centuries, they needed to ensure that the Church learned from the same Scriptures as it increasingly spread out. If they did not recognize the right books, then a plethora of wrong doctrines could enter the church from non-canonical Old and New Testament books. By having a shared agreement on what books are canonical and what books are not, the church could have a basic, shared standard from which they derived orthodoxy. This means that if Christians derived doctrine from non-canonical books, the church could condemn it swiftly. Not only that but having a shared canon would help presbyters as they taught sermons and lessons—everyone in a particular region (if not, globally as they knew it) would have the same source for instruction.


Catholic Creed

Following from that shared canon is a shared creed.[5] By having a shared confession of faith, the church could discern the in-group (Christians) from the out-group (the world) and Christians from heretical groups. These dual purposes are, first, most evident when the church received catechumens into membership and baptized them on Easter. When the presbytery baptized catechumens, they would recite the Apostles’ Creed (or a proto form of it) as their affirmation of the faith.[6] Second, a shared creed established a collective paradigm which the Church could use to process teachings through, as well as structure their beliefs. This is most evident around 325 when the council of Nicea created the Nicene-Constantinople creed to discern orthodoxy from heterodoxy.[7] Due to the purpose of these creeds, their content was ecumenical. The early church, at that time, was not as concerned with distinguishing theological interpretations among Christians like the Westminster Standards and the London Baptist Confession do today. Moreover, these summaries of faith could then be handed from generation to generation. So, not only did the creeds establish catholicity in the same time period, but they also established catholic belief through time, even to the present day.


Catholic Council

Catholic councils took their shared canon and creed and established them in the church. This process is first observed in Acts 15, when the church gathered for its first conciliar council. In this council, they processed through the Gentile and Jewish issue of circumcision with their shared canon (at least, what they had at the time), and their shared creed (that is, what they each believed). In the end, they came to the conclusion that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be saved. The council members then went back to their respective homes and instructed all members of the outcome. This model of theological reconciliation established a pattern for the church for years to come. The church would regularly come together to discuss issues of the faith—establishing when Easter should be, recognizing the canonicity of biblical books, and creating creedal statements to name a few functions. The presbyters, after these meetings, would disperse and instruct their area of responsibility the outcome of the councils. In fact, this model continues today in the presbyterian polity in their regular presbytery meetings.[8] Not only that, but these teachings did not remain in the past, but are one of the many sources Christians use today for historical theology.[9]


Catholic Calendar

Catholicity should not be restrained to belief solely—it should extend to a church’s life together.[10] One example of this sharing is through the church calendar. In the church calendar, the church remembers yearly the life of Jesus, especially his birth and death.[11] However, a disparity developed in the church concerning when Easter should be celebrated. Essentially, in Christianity, two groups observed two different dates for Easter. The one group consulted the Jewish calendar and celebrated Easter on the Nisan 14.[12] This means that Easter could be observed during the week, which was problematic for the other group that sought to celebrate Easter on Sunday only.[13] Eventually, at the council of Nicea, the methodology to determine when Easter would fall each year was established, and consulting the Jewish calendar was denounced.[14] By keeping the church on the same page, Christians throughout the known world could follow the same calendar and celebrate the same events.


Living as Exiles

Catholicity bears weight in my vocational context. One of my responsibilities at Lancaster Bible College is being an adjunct instructor of Bible and theology. LBC is a non-denominational school that draws in a variety of denominational students—African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Free, Methodist, and Pentecostal to name a few. By conviction, I am Presbyterian and subscribe to the Westminster Standards as one of the best articulations of theological belief. While I am not necessarily barred from teaching these doctrines and a constituent of faculty and students attend Presbyterian churches, I have to reconcile my theological convictions with my catholic context. This dissonance can lead to an opportunity for my community to refine its beliefs and network with those we may not agree. More practically, I can teach broad catholic principles, but help reinforce these vital teachings and deepen a student’s understanding of the topics. Not only that, but if a student brings up a particular theological conviction they have, the class can work through their perspective together, challenging and refining each other’s theology. By advocating for catholicity in the classroom, student and teacher can work through faith issues by challenging and refining each other’s theological system, articulation, and practice while providing the opportunity for this dialogue to continue for years to come.


Works Cited
  • Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
  • LeCroy, Timothy. Empire, Canon, Creed & Council: 313-541 AD Theological Context. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • ———. Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Primary Sources. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • ———. Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Theological Context. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • ———. Live Video Meeting #4. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • ———. The Method and Mindset of Historical Theology. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • St. Vincent of Lerins. “Ancient History Sourcebook: St. Vincent of Lerins: The ‘Vincentian Canon’, AD 434.” Accessed March 6, 2021. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/434lerins-canon.asp.

Endnotes
  1. Timothy LeCroy, Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Primary Sources, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021).
  2. St. Vincent of Lerins, “Ancient History Sourcebook: St. Vincent of Lerins: The ‘Vincentian Canon’, AD 434,” accessed March 6, 2021, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/434lerins-canon.asp. Emphasis original.
  3. Eph. 4:4-6 (English Standard Version).
  4. Timothy LeCroy, Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Theological Context, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021).
  5. LeCroy, Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Theological Context.
  6. Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 109.
  7. Ferguson, Church History Volume 1, 1:110.
  8. Timothy LeCroy, The Method and Mindset of Historical Theology, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021).
  9. LeCroy, Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Primary Sources.
  10. LeCroy, Fathers, Orders, Persecutions: 70-313 AD Theological Context.
  11. Timothy LeCroy, Live Video Meeting #4, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021), 4.
  12. Ferguson, Church History Volume 1, 1:139.
  13. Ferguson, Church History Volume 1, 1:139.
  14. Timothy LeCroy, Empire, Canon, Creed & Council: 313-541 AD Theological Context, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021).

This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.