Jonker, W.D.

Catholicity, Unity and Truth



II. Catholicity, Unity and Truth


The unity of the Church has become a dominant theme in the life and thought of the Christian Church in our age, perhaps just as had been the case with the doctrines of the Trinity, of Christ, of sin, grace and justification in previous ages (Lohse 1963; 238). The great New Testament texts on the unity of the Church (Jn 17, 1 Cor, Eph, etc.) have so impacted on the mind of the Church that they cannot be ignored.

These texts were known to the church in previous generations too, but somehow it seemed possible to interpret them in such a way that the visible disunity of the church was not experienced as something totally unacceptable. Especially the trend to understand these words as referring to the invisible unity of the church in Christ played a decisive role in this respect. It seemed possible to believe the biblical message on the unity of the church without being disturbed too much by the existing disunity. Theories about the multi- or pluriformity of the churches were developed „in deference to the facts of history and the existing condition” (L. Berkhof 1974:573) to explain the disunity in such a way, that it seemed quite acceptable, yes, even as the will of God.

Today, however, the church in the whole world has become much more aware of the anomaly, of the contradiction between fact and norm. The churches of the Reformed family have shown themselves to be keenly interested and willing to be actively involved in the search for a greater manifestation of the visible unity of the Church of Christ. Together with other churches in the world they have to come to grips with the biblical command to seek and maintain the unity of the church. They cannot avoid the challenge to seek greater clarity on what they really mean when they confess the unity and catholicity of the Church.

The churches which came together in the mid forties to constitute the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (now the Reformed Ecumenical


Council) did so because they believed that the unity and catholicity of the church should not only be confessed, but also practiced and made manifest in obedience to the Word of God. They were, however, wary of any form of unity that would jeopardize the truth of the gospel because they were convinced that real unity and catholicity were impossible without faithfulness to the truth.

This situation makes it imperative for the churches within the fellowship of the REC to clarify their position on the relation between catholicity, unity and truth. By so doing they can come to grips with the real ecumenical challenge without becoming unfaithful to the command to continue in the truth handed down through the church’s teaching (II Tim 3: 14).



The word „catholic” is not used in the Bible but, as in the case of many other words, it became part of ecclesiastical language to give expression to specific aspects of biblical truth. Derived from the Greek words kata and holon, the adjective katholikos means „that which belongs to the whole” or „that which comprehends the whole or the totality.” Applied to the church, the word could express something of the true identity of the church, especially of the universality of its being, the fullness of its message and the comprehensiveness of its calling as taught in the Bible.

Due to the fact that the Bible itself does not use the concept, it is of course possible to use it in different senses, depending on what kind of holon (wholeness) one has in mind (Ernst Wolf 1959:1226-1227). We need not enumerate all the different possible meanings of the word. For our purpose we may observe three senses that became prominent during the history of the church, and which are still of special relevance to us. We may distinguish them as: (a) catholicity as the geographical, temporal and cultural universality of the church; (b) catholicity as the spiritual identity of the church abiding in the fullness of the truth of the gospel; and (c) catholicity as the unqualified recognition of the one Lord and the totality of his sovereignty over every aspect of life.


Universality in Space, Culture and Time

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, seems to be the first to have used the term „catholic” in connection with the Church. In his letters, dating from the beginning of the second century, the expression „catholic Church” primarily means: the church as a whole as it exists in the whole world in contrast to the local church. This may be called the extensive or geographical sense of the word (H. Berkhof 1962:10-11).

That the church is universal in this sense can be derived from the command of Christ to proclaim the gospel throughout the whole world (Matt 28:19, Acts 1:8). The New Testament gives us a picture of the spreading of the gospel and the founding of the church in all the regions of the inhabited world. It uses the word ekklesia not only to denote the local church (which is the case in the majority of instances) but also of the body of believers in the whole world (Matt 16: 18; 1 Cor 12: 28), and in a comprehensive sense of all who belong to Christ (cf. Eph 1: 22; Col 1: 18 etc.).

When we call the church „catholic”, however, we have in mind not only the geographical universality of the church as it is spread over the whole earth, but also its cultural universality, because it includes amongst its members Jews and gentiles alike (Eph 2), as well as all those „from every tribe and language and nation” who have been bought by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 5: 9). When Paul writes to the Church of Corinth, he refers to their being called to be holy ,,together with all who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1: 2). The church is catholic because it counts its members among all peoples and classes, races and cultures (Gal 3: 28; Col 3: 11). The church speaks in all languages. As the one people of God it transcends all barriers and differences of a national, cultural or social character that would normally divide people, binding them together in the one household of God (Eph 2: 22).

At this point there is an overlapping of the concepts of catholicity and unity. It is clear that these two attributes of the Church are in any case interrelated in such a way that the terms „catholicity” and „unity” are correlative and often can be used interchangeably. When the unity of the church is threatened, the catholicity of


the church is threatened with it. Likewise, if the catholicity of the Church is impaired, the unity of the church is shattered. For this reason the biblical message on the unity of the church implies its catholicity. Unity and catholicity mutually presuppose one another. As a matter of fact, one may say that the attributes of the church should not be seen as different qualities, but rather as different aspects of the one great attribute of the Church, viz., that it is Christian. Because the church is the church of Christ, it is one, holy and catholic. If one of these attributes is lost or neglected, the true character of the church is impaired.

The New Testament knows but one church, the church that has its origin in the love and election of the Father (Eph 1: 4-5, 11), the church that is the fruit of the reconciliation through the Son (Eph 1: 6 ff) and the result of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1: 13). It is simply impossible that the Father can have more than one church, or that Christ can have more than one body, or that the Holy Spirit can have more than one temple. The New Testament speaks about the church in a trinitarian context, making it clear that the unity of the Church goes hand in hand with the unity of God’s work of salvation. This is the message of Ephesians 4: 4-5: „There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The repetition of the words „one” and „all” is an indication of how closely the unity and the catholicity of the Church are bound together.

In addition to the geographical and cultural connotations of the concept, catholicity clearly has also a temporal meaning. The church is one and catholic because it encompasses all the children of God, not only of the entire world, but also in all ages, in the whole of time. To put it in the words of the Belgic Confession: the one church of God is catholic, because it „has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof” (Art. 27). It is obvious that the biblical doctrines of covenant and election form the basis of the conviction that the one Church of God includes all the children of God under the old and the new covenants, because all of them are united with Christ and are members of his Body (cf. Rom 9-11; Gal 3; Rev 7 etc.).


Catholicity as the Fullness of Truth

Although the term „catholicity” originally may have been used primarily to indicate the geographical, cultural and temporal universality of the Church (usually referred to as quantitative catholicity), it was clear from the outset that it had a qualitative connotation as well. It could thus be used to express the identity of the true church (Küng 1967:347). In this sense the term came to denote the authenticity or the essence of the church, the element of real churchiness that is found among authentic Christian believers of all ages and times (Mudge 1963:21). In the same passage already cited, Ignatius also says: „Where Jesus is, there is also the catholic Church.” Taken seriously, it means that Christ is the true catholicity of the church, because the identity of the true church consists in its relationship to Christ.

In the course of history this connotation of catholicity has led to an apologetical use of the term. It happened when the existing majority church was uncritically seen as catholic in contrast to the sects and schismatics. In the fourth century, for instance, the concept of catholicity was used to distinguish between those who belonged to the „whole Church” and the schismatics who had severed their ties with the church because of doctrinal differences. Only those who lived in communion with the catholic church (that is: the historical church or the church of the majority) were regarded as orthodox; the rest were heterodox, because they were outside of the catholic church.

The term „catholic” thus became equated with orthodoxy. In itself that was not wrong, because catholicity and truth are correlative in the same way as catholicity and unity are. It was wrong, however, to assume that the majority church alone was ipso facto in possession of true catholicity, and that therefore the majority Church alone could claim to possess the whole truth. Nevertheless, since the days of Augustine this type of argument was used, and it became one of the central tenets of Roman Catholic apologetics in later ages. According to the well-known Canon of Vincent of Lerins (434) the true catholic faith can be distinguished from the falsehoods of heresy as „that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (Bettenson 1967:84). This meant that historical legitimacy and the general acceptance


of doctrinal views became the criterion for catholicity and orthodoxy alike.

The Reformation discarded this apologetical use of the concept as without biblical warrant. It contended that the norm for true catholicity could not be sought in mere geographical and temporal universality, nor in the general acceptance of the doctrines of the Church, but only in the adherence to the Word of God. According to G.C. Berkouwer, the concept of catholicity has always in the first place referred to the decisiveness of the gospel for all times and all peoples, and consequently to the decisiveness of the Church in which this gospel is kept and proclaimed (Berkouwer 1970:128). Already Cyril of Jerusalem defined catholicity inter alia as adherence to „the whole truth”, and this interpretation has always played a role in the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Beinert 1964; Meyendorff 1983). Likewise, the Donatists in their defence against Augustine argued that the catholicity of the Church could not be understood without reference to the Church’s faithfulness to the Word of God (H. Berkhof 1962:11-14).


Catholicity, Unity and Truth

Obviously there is a very close relation between catholicity and unity on the one hand, and catholicity and truth on the other, which makes it evident that there must likewise be a correlation between unity and truth. Catholicity, unity and truth cannot be divorced from one another in the life of the church without damage to its very essence.

In the New Testament the local church is regarded as the Church of God in the full sense of the world. It is a complete church and as such all the attributes of the church can be applied to it. The local church is one, catholic and Christian, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3: 15).

It is impossible, however, to infer from this that the local church may legitimately isolate itself from other local churches and thus from the church universal. The relation of the local church to the universal church should not be seen just as that of a part to the


whole, because as a complete church it is identical with the universal church, being its local manifestation (Weber 1962:619). Exactly for that reason, however, it must maintain the bond of unity with all other local churches. The attributes of unity, catholicity and perseverance in the truth which belong to the local church simply transcend the boundaries of the local church. What is true of the local church should also be true of the universal church. It should be catholic and united in the truth, the one family and household of God. If unity, catholicity and confession of the truth are to become manifest locally, there is no reason to doubt that it is the will of God that the unity, catholicity and mutual confession of all the children of God on earth should be sought and made visible to the glory of God. Within the dimensions of the great musterion that is revealed in Christ, the aspects of unity, catholicity and truth are indivisibly bound up with the universal plan of God for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles alike (Eph 1: 9; 2: 11-22). This universality should also be reflected in the existence of the visible Church.

It is therefore reactionary and objectionable to say, as some Protestant theologians have done, that the catholicity of the Church had „nothing to do with her expansion over the whole world” (Van Niftrik 1953:238). The fact that the local church is catholic simply implies that the local church should foster its unity with „all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 1: 2). The fact that Calvin applied the concept of catholicity primarily to the invisible church was often misused in later times to defend the view that the visible unity of the church was a matter of expediency, or that there was no need whatsoever to propagate any form of unity other than that of confession and service. Of course nobody would deny that the local church should be visibly one, or that there should be visible unity within the national churches or denominations. The moment, however, one raises the matter of the visible unity of the church in a more universal sense, apologetical arguments are used to defend the status quo of disunity as in accordance with the nature of the Church.

This is a misunderstanding of the intention of the Reformation and of the teaching of the New Testament. Calvin did not deny the extensive catholicity of the Church, nor the fact that it applied


„in a certain sense” to the visible church (Calvin Inst. IV, 1,2). He did not underestimate the visible unity of the church and the necessity to foster it (Nauta 1965:131 ff; Nijenhuis 1959; Weber 1959). The whole idea of Reformed church government as it was developed by Calvin and his followers clearly demonstrates that they honored the biblical view of the visible unity of the church. They argued that it was according to ius divinum that local churches should come together in assemblies to manifest, practice, foster and protect the unity of the church on a regional, country-wide and ecumenical basis. The Reformation differed from Rome in its ideas of how the visible unity of the church should come to expression organizationally, but it did not reject the idea of the visible unity of the church as such. On the contrary, the idea of different denominations existing side by side, recognizing each other as true churches of God and fostering friendly relations with one another but without any desire to seek and realize the visible unity of the church would have been totally unacceptable to them.

The Reformed tradition has from its beginning displayed a very high regard for the unity and catholicity of the church. The Reformers did not want to separate themselves from the church. Their intention was rather a profound reformation of it. Even when they were banished from the Roman Catholic Church, they did not regard themselves as forming a new church, but were convinced of the continuity between themselves and the Church of Christ as it had existed since the time of the apostles. The Confessio Belgica clearly defines the true church as an historical and identifiable body of believers that exists through the ages in opposition to the false church. „From this Church no person ought to withdraw himself, because all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it and to maintain the unity of the Church” (Arts. 27, 29).

Of course the unity of the church is broken when the truth of the gospel is denied. But we should not easily let one another go because differences arise. The truth itself is catholic and therefore unifying (Eph 4: 11-16). The truth is grasped „together with all the saints” (Eph 3: 18). Because we know in part and prophesy in part (I Cor 13: 9) we need other Christians to assist us in knowing the truth. Differences of opinion may often lead to a clearer vision of the truth. We may not simply identify our own interpretation


of the Bible with the truth of God, nor our own denomination with the true church of God, and make a high-handed decision to maintain our isolation from others. The lines of communication among the churches must increasingly be opened (De Jong 1980:230). The communion of the saints is not a luxury that one may opt not to practice, because both the love for our brothers and sisters and our zeal for the truth should urge us to seek the unity of the church.

When our zeal for the truth tends to become divisive in the sense that it continually threatens the unity of the church and fosters a spirit of withdrawal from the fellowship with other churches, we may have reason for some caution. At least we will have to ascertain whether the differences in question are of such a nature that we have no choice but to withdraw ourselves. We may well ask whether our concept of the truth is not perhaps lacking in depth, and whether we are sensitive enough as far as the unity and catholicity of the church are concerned. The truth of the gospel is obviously more than our formulation of it.

The apostle Paul had reason enough to accuse the churches in Corinth, Galatia and in other places of forsaking the truth which he had taught them. Yet he did not abandon them or advise the faithful Christians to form their own new congregation. Instead he urged all Christians to maintain the unity of the church, and the New Testament letters give us a clear picture of the struggle of the apostles to preserve the unity of the church. We should try to do the same.


Catholicity and the Lordship of Christ

In his well-known lecture on „The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church” (1888), Bavinck distinguished another aspect of catholicity. It can be defined as the significance of the Christian faith for the totality of human life. Because Christ is the head of the Church and the cosmos alike, he has the right to demand that his sovereignty should be recognized in every sphere of life, both ecclesiastical and secular. The church is catholic when it proclaims and obeys the Lordship of Christ.


The interpretation is especially typical of the Reformed view of catholicity. Bavinck purposefully uses the concept of „Christianity” in addition to that of the church, because he wants to explain that catholicity is more than an attribute of the church as an institution. It is also an attribute of the Christian religion as such, which aims at nothing less than „the sanctification of the whole earthly reality” (Bavinck 1968:21 ff, 30 ff).

In the so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28: 18-20 we read: „All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” The multiplication of all-inclusive terms in this passage is simply remarkable. The lordship of Christ is of a total character and He claims not only the totality of the earth and all the nations as his dominion, but also the totality of the life of all those who follow him.

During the last fifty years the topic of catholicity has been discus-sed extensively in ecumenical circles. The Roman Catholic theologian, Yves Congar, has stimulated this discussion by a number of publications (Congar 1937:1972 etc.). His basic idea is that catholicity should be interpreted in the light of the Pauline texts on the pleroma or fullness of God which lives in Christ in a bodily form and is given to the Church in Christ (Col 2: 9; Eph 1: 22 ff, 3: 19, 4: 10 ff). He interprets the pleroma as the fullness of divine powers through which all things are made new and brought to their fullness. The church is catholic because it is the fullness of Christ and incorporates into its own existence the fullness and diversity of creaturely life, thus bringing it to its own fulfillment.

It is not necessary to go deeper into the thoughts of Congar or those influenced by him. Neither it is necessary to discuss the criticism that has been launched against his interpretation of the biblical concept of fullness (cf. H. Berkhof 1962:21 ff, 39 ff, 69 ff; Mudge 1963:21 ff). What interests us is the fact that these modern discussions have highlighted the relationship between catholicity and the headship of Christ over church and cosmos. Because Christ is the Lord over all principalities and powers and over all things in heaven and on earth, his sovereignty is universal.


Christianity and the church are catholic because they recognize, proclaim and obey him in every sphere of life.

This is what Bavinck called the sanctification of the whole earthly reality. The catholicity of the church should therefore also reveal itself in the prophetic witness of the church in the world. No church can be truly catholic if it withdraws itself from the public sphere to concentrate in a pietistic way on individual salvation, abandoning its calling to proclaim the dominion of Christ over the totality of our life.



In the light of what we have said about the different aspects of catholicity, we must conclude in the first place that the church has a calling to manifest the catholicity which it confesses. No church should ever settle for an exclusive view of the church by becoming a church for a specific nation or class, race or color. No church should foster an inward-looking attitude which jeopardizes the confession that it is part of the one, world-wide and catholic Church of Christ. Neither should any church become sectarian in its complacency by regarding itself as the only true Church of Christ and by taking a negative attitude towards Christians of other denominations and persuasions. A church that feels no hurt because of the disunity and fragmentation of the Christian church and has no zeal for the reunification of the total Church of God on earth is simply lacking in its understanding of catholicity as a gift and a challenge that is given to the church in Christ.

Our second conclusion must be that the church has a calling to maintain and protect the truth of the gospel, because there can be no catholicity without a common adherence to the truth. This aspect has received much stress and attention within the Reformed Ecumenical Council circles, and rightly so. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons for the existence of the Reformed Ecumenical Council, that it may be a faithful witness to the truth of the gospel in a time of secularization and the proliferation of ideological trends. But if the REC wants to fulfill this duty, it should be humble enough to admit that the truth is not something that can


be possessed once and for all, but that it can be maintained only by living it and practicing it in the ever-changing situations in the world.

Our third conclusion is that the member churches of the REC must be willing to proclaim their prophetic witness in the world. This is an aspect of the catholicity of the church. In our time this has become a rather difficult issue, because of the tendency to politicize the church and to use it as an instrument in the battle between ideologies. In this respect the churches should assist one another to discern the spirits and to proclaim the headship of Christ in every sphere of life over against the tendency to subject the totality of life to an ideological scheme.

The reason for the existence of the REC can be none other than to serve the unity and the catholicity of the Church, and to do it by upholding the truth of the gospel against the threat of false gospels and ideologies, no matter where they originate.



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