Runia, K.

Catholicity in the Reformed Confessions and in Reformed Theology



V. Catholicity in the Reformed Confessions and in Reformed Theology


When the Reformation took place in the 16th century, the word „catholic” already had a long history. Hans Küng mentions the following senses of the words ecclesia catholica in the centuries before the Reformation: a total, all-embracing church (the original ecclesiastical meaning); an orthodox church (the secondary, polemical meaning); a church extending over the whole earth (geographical catholicity), a church much larger in numbers than any other (numerical catholicity); a church that adheres to that „which is believed everywhere and always by all men”, as Vincent of Lerins put it (temporal catholicity) (Küng 1967: ch 1).

It is clear that the term „catholic” accommodates a great variety of meanings. There is apparently an invisible, spiritual side to it, but also a visible. On the one hand it is recognized that only God knows the true believers, on the other hand the institute itself is clearly visible and discernible. During the Reformation period the emphasis in Roman Catholic theology increasingly shifted to the visible side. Already at the Lateran Council, under Leo X, the Thomist Prierias had defined the church as follows: „The universal church is essentially a calling together of all believers, virtually the Roman Church and the supreme pontiff; it is representatively the college of cardinals, virtually it is the supreme pontiff” (RE, X, 334). The famous Italian Jesuit Bellarminus developed this definition still further by stating: „The Church is a union of the same Christian faith, bound by confession and the communion of the same sacraments under the dominion of legitimate pastors and chiefly of the one Vicar of Christ on earth” (ibid.). The same line of thought is present in the „Profession of the Tridentine Faith”, as formulated by Pope Pius IV in the bull Injunctum nobis (1564): „I acknowledge the holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church for the mother and mistress of all churches; and I promise and swear true obedience to the Bishop of Rome, successor to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and Vicar of Jesus Christ” (Schaff II 1877:209).1


It was quite natural that the Reformation created a serious problem to the Roman Catholic Church. But at this very point the Reformation was also a problem to itself! The Reformers, as well as others, had to answer such questions as: Which church has the right to call itself catholic? How are catholicity and unity, which are „correlative concepts” (Küng 1967:299) to be related? At first the Reformers strongly emphasized that they were catholic in the sense of orthodox „according to the Scriptures”. Yet they also had to face the question of how to regard other churches with similar claims. In the course of time they began to use the distinction „true” and „false” church, but this distinction itself, however helpful, raised a host of new questions (see Chapter VII).

Naturally, it is impossible to deal with all these questions in this one chapter (cf. also H.B. Weijland, infra). We must limit ourselves and therefore shall first deal briefly with Luther’s view, then turn to Calvin, to be followed by a survey of the Reformed confessions (both Continental and Anglo-Saxon), and finally close with a brief discussion of the views espoused by some leading Reformed theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries.



We start with Luther because he was the first of the Reformers and as such was the first to face the new questions. Over against the Roman Catholic identification of the one holy and catholic church with the Church of Rome, Luther stressed that the church is first of all a highly spiritual reality. Although composed of real people, living on earth and thus visible, the church in its innermost being is invisible, known only to God. Well known is Luther’s famous statement: Ecclesia est abscondita, latent sancti — the church is concealed, hidden are the saints. This church is universal or catholic, as appears from the following brief quotations: „The church is a gathering of all the Christians upon earth”. „The being, life and nature of the Christian people is not a bodily assembly but an assembling together of hearts in one faith”. „Though they be separated a thousand miles from one another they are still an assembly in the spirit” (Rupp 1953:318). Of this church we confess: I believe one holy Christian church,


the communion of the saints. No one says: I believe one holy Roman church, a communion of Roman Catholics, for it is clear that the church is not tied to Rome, but as wide as the world, gathered in one faith, spiritual and not bodily (Polman III: 244ff).

All this does not mean that for Luther the church is not at the same time a visible reality. In the Articles of Smalkald (1537) he says that „thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (Tappert 1959:315). And in a letter of 1542 to his friend Amsdorf he writes: „For the church must appear in the world. But it can only appear in a covering (larva), a veil, a shell, or some kind of clothes which a man can grasp, otherwise it can never be found. But such a mask is a married man, somebody in political or domestic life, John, Peter, Martin, Amsdorf, etc., yet none of them is the church, which is neither man nor wife, Jew nor Greek, but Christ alone” (Luther Weimar Edition 9, 608 no. 3709). There is a manifest tension in all these statements. The main emphasis is on the spiritual nature of the church. It is the body of Christ, it is Christ Himself, to whom the believers, and they only, belong. But this spiritual nature is always enveloped in the flesh, even though it is not flesh and does not live according to the flesh. Because it is in the flesh it is also discernible. More than once in his writings Luther mentions the outward marks by which the church may be discerned.2 But even then he maintains that the church can be discerned only by faith. The Augsburg Confession (1530, written by Melanchthon) sums it up well: „It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (Tappert 1959:33).



In many respects Calvin followed Luther in his view of the church. At the same time we can observe a development in his thought, when we study the successive editions of the Institutes (Polman III: 261; Scholl 1974:168; Ganoczy 1968:149)3.

Already in the Epistle Dedicatory added to the first edition (1536) Calvin states that the controversy with Rome turns on two hinges:


„first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable; secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy” (Institutes 1536, transl. Battles 1975:12). Over against this Calvin states: „We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire”. It is evident that here the emphasis is on the so-called invisible church. We find the same in the text of this edition. The article about the church in the Creed is explained in the following manner: „First, we believe the holy catholic church — that is the whole number of the elect, whether angels or men; of men, whether dead or still living; of the living, in whatever lands they live, or wherever among the nations they have been scattered — to be one church and society, and one people of God. Of it, Christ, our Lord, is Leader and Ruler . . . Now this society is catholic, that is, universal, because there could not be two or three churches. But all God's elect are so united and conjoined in Christ that, as they are dependent on one head, they also grow into one body . . .” (Institutes 1536:78f.). Here the church is essentially seen as the company of the elect and therefore as an object of faith and as such invisible. Yet Calvin cannot escape the question: But where is this church to be found? His answer is similar to that of Luther. He, too, points to the marks of the church: „Where we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, where we see the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, the church of God exists” (Institutes 1536:85).

In the second edition (1539) we notice a shift in Calvin’s thought toward the visible church. This shift has at least three causes: his contacts with Bucer during his stay in Strasbourg; his own labor in the church; and the meeting in 1537 with the Anabaptists who spiritualized the church entirely. Now Calvin does not first of all speak of the church as the spiritual body of Christ but as the external means of grace. Also, for the first time, the idea of the church as „Mother” appears and the term ecclesia visiblis is used (Ganoczy 1968:150, 153). But all this, naturally, raises the question of the una catholica. Calvin himself writes: „The universal church is the multitude gathered from all nations, which, dispersed from place to place, yet agrees in the one truth of the divine doctrine and is kept together by the bond of the same


religion. In it the singular churches, which are distributed through city and country according to the demands of life, are so comprised that each one of them legitimately bears the name and authority of church” (Ganoczy 1968:153).

This is a fine statement, as far as it goes, but it does not really solve the problem of a divided church. Which church now is the „true” mother? It is interesting to note that Calvin himself does not use the distinction „true” and „false” church, although he does speak of falsehood entering into the church and even of the death of such a church (Institutes 1559: IV,ii,i). Rather, he tries to find a solution by speaking of „vestiges” of the true church, even in the Roman Church of his own day (Ganoczy 1968:156).

In the third edition (1543) still more attention is given to the visible church,4 even though God’s election remains the true foundation of the church. In the fourth edition (1559, further references in brackets) all elements of the earlier editions are brought together in a final synthesis. A.D.R. Polman is of the opinion that this makes the argument „intricate and tortuous” (Polman III:268). Although there is some truth in this evaluation, even Polman must admit that in this final edition Calvin remains consistent in his view of the church, as it developed throughout the years. Starting with the church as „Mother”, he immediately turns to the article of the Creed and says that it „refers not only to the visible church [our present topic, K.R.] but also to all God’s elect” (IV,1,2). This church is called „catholic” or „universal” „because there could not be two or three churches unless Christ be torn asunder — which cannot happen”. Here „catholic” primarily refers to the invisible church to which all the elect belong. But in the next section he immediately turns to the visible church again and says: „This article of the Creed also applies to some extent [aliquatenus] to the outward church, in that each of us should keep in brotherly agreement with all God’s children” (IV, 1,3). In the word aliquatenus we notice the same tension again which we observed in Luther. We believe that this is an insoluble tension. It is due not only to the split caused by the Reformation (although this certainly did exacerbate the tension), but it is basically due to the fact that the church exists in a sinful world. Even if there were one visible church in the whole world, there still would be a tension, because (as Augustine already observed)


many who seem to be outside are inside and many who seem to be inside are outside (Augustine: V, 38).


The Reformed Confessions

The confessions of the 16th century5 generally show the profound influence that Calvin exerted on the theology within and the confessions of the various Reformed churches in Europe. Next to Calvin we in particular mention H. Bullinger, the author of the Second Helvetic Confession.

The early confessions are rather simple and straightforward as far as our topic is concerned. They are clearly written in opposition to and as a defense against Rome. Gradually, however, the confessions become more explicit and complicated. Apparently the reflection continued and the authors became more aware of the questions that were raised, not only by the break with Rome but also by the fact that the Reformation itself split into various churches. In addition, they had to take into account the views of the spiritualist sects, which not only opposed the idea of national churches, but at times even rejected the very idea of an institutional church.

In Zwingli’s Sixty-seven Articles (1523) we find a few short and terse statements. Christ is called „the Head of all believers, who are his body” (art. VII). „From this it follows, first that all who live in the Head are his members and children of God. And this is the church or fellowship of the saints, the bride of Christ, ecclesia catholica” (VIII) (C37). The Ten Theses of Bern (1528) open with a thesis about the church: „The holy, Christian church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger” (C49). In both confessions the statement is general and all emphasis is on Christ as the Head of the church and on his Word.

The Tetrapolitan Confession (1530), which is a full-scale confession, is much more extensive on the topic of the church. Again the emphasis is on Christ as the Head. The church itself is even identified with the kingdom of heaven. „The church of Christ, therefore, which is frequently called the kingdom of heaven, is the fellowship of those who have enlisted under Christ and


committed themselves entirely to his faith” (C72). „This the Holy Ghost rules, from this Christ is never absent, but he sanctifies it to present it at length to himself blameless”. It is a very general description with the emphasis on the spiritual nature of the church. Essentially the church is an object of faith and therefore invisible (although this term is not yet used). But at the same time it is said that the church „can be seen and plainly known from its fruits” (C73).

The First Confession of Basel (1534) describes the spiritual nature of the church in these words: „We believe one holy, Christian church, the fellowship of the saints, the spiritual assembly of believers which is holy and the one bride of Christ, and in which all are citizens who truly confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and who also confirm such faith by works of love” (C92). The First Helvetic Confession (1536) speaks of the two sides of the „holy, universal church”. It is built and gathered together upon the living rock, Christ, and is „the fellowship and congregation of all saints which is Christ’s bride and spouse” (C105). It „is known to God’s eyes only”, but it is also known and gathered „by visible signs, rites and ordinances which Christ himself has instituted”. These signs, etc., however, are not mentioned by name.

Twenty years later, The Confession of Faith of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556) does mention the marks. It not only states that the one holy church of which Jesus Christ is the only Head is „not visible to man’s eye but only known to God”, but also emphasizes that this very same church „is visible and seen by the eye”, for it „has three tokens or marks whereby it may be known” (CI34), namely, Scripture as the Word of God (not preaching!), the sacraments and ecclesiastical discipline.

In the following years we see new elements appearing in the confessions.

The French Confession of Faith (1559) says that believers ought to join the church and submit to the yoke of Christ, „wherever God shall have established a true order of the church” (C153). The next article for the first time uses the term „true” in connection with the church, for, since there are more bodies that call themselves


church, it has become a matter of paramount importance „to discern with care and prudence which is the true church”. The answer is straightforward: „It is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches”.

The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560) stresses the temporal and geographical catholicity: „We believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one kirk . . . This kirk is Catholic, that is, universal, because it contains the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations and tongues, be they of the Jews or be they of the Gentiles . . .” (C175). The emphasis is still on the spiritual nature: „This kirk is invisible, known only to God, who alone knows whom He has chosen”. But the fathers of this confession realized that they had to say more. What about the concrete, empirical church? How can we distinguish this „true kirk” from „the filthy synagogues”? This question is answered in chapter XVIII, under the heading: „The notes by which the true kirk shall be determined from the false and who shall be the judge of doctrine” (C176). The well-known three marks follow. „Wherever these notes are seen and continue lor any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true kirk of Christ”. It is interesting to note that the confession itself adds that now it does not speak of the „universal church”, but of „particular kirks”, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, etc. Such kirks it claims to have in Scotland, „because of the doctrine taught in our kirks”! The confession, however, does not inform us how the universal church and the particular churches relate to each other.

The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) is very elaborate on the doctrine of the church. It has no less than five articles on the church, the first three of which are of particular significance for our subject. Art. 27 begins with a description of the „one catholic or universal church” (C208). It is „a holy congregation and assembly of true Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost”. Next, the catholicity of this congregation or assembly is worked out in two ways: (a) temporally — it has been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof; the ground is that „Christ is an eternal king, which, without subjects, he cannot be”; (b) spatially — it is not limited to a certain


place or to certain persons, but is „spread and dispersed over the whole world” (C209). It is noteworthy that this confession does not put the emphasis on the elect but on the believers. Does this mean that it speaks of the visible church only? Polman is of the opinion that this would be a wrong conclusion. He maintains that, against the backdrop of the Reformed theology since Calvin, Art. 27 principally speaks of the invisible church as the mystical body of Christ, as the congregation of true Christian believers, but to some extent (aliquatenus!) also of the visible church (Polman III:275). The same is true of art. 28, that first states that outside this holy congregation there is no salvation. Polman rightly maintains that this, too, first of all refers to the invisible church that is known to God only. And yet, to some extent, it also concerns the visible church.

This becomes clearer in the second part of Art. 28. The confession continues to speak of „this holy congregation . . . of those who are saved” and states that no one may withdraw himself from it, but that „all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ” (C209). All this still applies to the invisible church, but it is becoming clear that this church is also visible, for instance, in its doctrine and its discipline. This becomes even more evident in the last part of the article which speaks of the duty of all believers „to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it” (emphasis added). The confession operates on a double front here: against Rome — the believers ought to withdraw from those who do not belong to the church; and against the spiritualists — the believers ought to join the holy congregation wherever God has established it. Obviously, this is not a „secessionist” view, which turns secession into a kind of „principle” that has to be applied wherever there is some deviation from the truth. Only when the church to which one belongs no longer can be recognized as „this holy congregation”, does secession become a duty. Such was, according to the Reformers, the case with Rome. Calvin wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto: „We indeed, Sadoleto, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman Pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves,


whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation” (Olim ed 1966:75).

Nevertheless, this raises the question: How do we know where this holy congregation is? The confession discusses this question in Art. 29, under the heading: „Of the marks of the true church, and wherein she differs from the false church”. Again the three marks are mentioned (C210), after which the whole matter is summarized in the words: „in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ is acknowledged as the only Head of the church”. From such a church „no man has a right to separate himself”. These words seem to be very clear and are stated in absolute language. Do they mean that only „reformed churches” are true churches? Polman has shown that all Reformers (with an occasional exception on the side of Luther) recognized all the churches of the Reformation as true churches. In other words, they recognized within the una catholica a plurality of true churches. The Belgic Confession does not mention this explicitly but rather leaves it open. It does not make the distinction between more or less pure churches either. It only makes a clear distinction between the true and the false church. Of the latter it says that „she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ”; yes, she „persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God” (C211). Article 29 then closes with the words: „These two churches are easily known and distinguished from each other”. At that time the whole matter apparently was as clear as crystal!

Turning to the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), written by Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli, we find a similar line of thought. Again the church is described as „an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints, . . . all citizens of the one city” (C261). „Catholic” again is given a temporal and spatial meaning (C262). Next, several distinctions are introduced, such as the church militant and the church triumphant; the former „has always had many particular churches; yet all these are to be referred to the unity of the catholic church”. Of this church Christ is the sole Head


(C263). There is no room for the idea of primacy in this church. But does the separation from the Church of Rome not mean endless dissension and strife in the church? Can the churches of the Reformation really be seen as true churches? (C264). The answer is that there were also wranglings and dissensions in the apostolic church, and yet it was a true church. Moreover, the true church can be recognized by the notes or signs, „especially the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God” (C265).

So far we have dealt only with the continental Reformed confessions (apart from the Scottish Confession). Reformed confessions in the Anglo-Saxon world largely follow the same pattern as those on the continent. It is interesting to note, however, that the Thirty-nine Articles (1563) of the Church of England (the only church that was „reformed” as a national church) speaks only of the „visible church”, which is a congregation of faithful men, characterized by two marks: the preaching of the pure Word of God and the pure administration of the sacraments (P499).

The next two confessions are from the 17th century and in them we can note a further development. The Irish Articles of Religion (1615) describe the universal church in the usual manner, but speaking of „particular and visible churches” they introduce the idea of „more or less sincerely” with regard to the three marks of the church (P538). This line is continued in the Westminster Confession (1647). It starts with the catholic or universal church which is invisible and consists of the whole number of the elect (P657). But the visible church is also catholic or universal, for it is not confined to one nation „as before under the law”. This (visible) catholic church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible (P658). „Particular churches” that are members of this catholic church, are „more or less pure”, according as they comply with the three marks (preaching, sacraments, worship). The purest churches are „subject both to mixture and error”. Some have so degenerated that they are no longer churches of Christ but „synagogues of Satan”. It is clear that here the dialectical tension between catholicity and particularity, between invisibility and visibility, between true and false has been dissolved and replaced by a long line on which true and false, so to speak, are the two „ideal” or „ideal-typical” extremes and each true church is somewhere between these extremes. As long as it is still somewhere on this line and has not become false, it is part of this


visible catholic church and therefore also of the invisible catholic church.


Some Reformed theologians

The famous American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the first great representative of the so-called Princeton School, closely followed the views expressed in the West-minster Confession. In his doctrine of the church he put all emphasis on the „invisible” church. According to him the church, of which the Scriptures speak, is not a visible society but the communion of the saints. Again and again he returns to this same point. „The Church as the communion of saints is one; as an external society it is not one; therefore, the Church is the company of believers, and not an external society” (Hodge 1879:20; further page-references between brackets). This church is catholic, for it embraces all the people of God (25). Again it follows: „No such [external] society does embrace all such men, and, therefore, the Church is not a visible society” (26). Likewise, no external society is perpetual; therefore, „external organization is not essential to the Church” (28). The attributes of holiness, unity (under which catholicity is subsumed) and perpetuity do not belong to any external society, but only to „the communion of the saints, the company of faithful men, the mystical body of Christ” (29). But what then about the visibility of this church? Hodge’s answer is: it is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible (55). It consists of men and women who are visible; its members manifest their faith by their works; they are separated from the world; finally, the true church is visible in the external church, just as the soul is visible in the body (55ff.). It is clear that Hodge has no problem with the dividedness and brokenness of the visible church. Since the attributes really pertain to the invisible church, which is known to God only, and since the external organization of the church is only secondary, there is no real need to concern ourselves with the question what the relationship is between our own denomination and the „catholic” church of the Creed. All tensions have dissipated. It is enough to know that our visible church is an external form of the invisible mystical body that is holy, one, catholic, apostolic and perpetual (28).


The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper in some ways moved more along the lines of the ecclesiology of the Westminster Confession than that of the Belgic Confession, especially with regard to the distinction of the „true” and the „false” church. In his Stone Lectures on Calvinism (74) he praises the Westminster Confession for its consecration of „the dogma of the invisible church”. Later on, in De Gemeene Gratie, he wrote that the Belgic Confession in this respect represents the „first” period of the Reformation, in which the Reformers and their followers could only think in terms of the „one” church. Consequently, „a church was false or true” (Kuyper III 1902:229). But in the following period it was no longer possible to maintain this and the idea of several true churches next to each other was generally accepted. Kuyper himself distinguishes between the invisible and the visible church. The former is the company of the elect, which is an object of faith and is confessed in the Creed and in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, as he says in E Voto Dordraceno (1892-95, 135, further page-references between brackets). The latter is present wherever two or three persons profess their faith in Jesus Christ and manifest their faith by their Christian life (the church as „organism”). This, naturally, will lead to the establishment of an institution for the administration of the Word (the church as „institution”). So Kuyper (146), speaks of the church in a threefold sense: the church invisibilis, visibilis and formata (148).

Catholicity, Kuyper says in his Dictaten Dogmatiek (IV, 190), is an attribute of the invisible church, for this church is a „reconstruction of the entire fallen human race”. But this attribute cannot be applied to the visible church. In fact, none of the attributes apply to it. Here we can speak only of the notae or marks of the church. It is obvious that Kuyper has no problem with acknowledging a multiplicity of churches next to each other. His theory of the „pluriformity” of the church fits in neatly with this conception of catholicity. In fact it is a necessary consequence of it. As the whole human race has spread over the earth in a great array of various „forms”, so the „catholic” church too had to manifest itself in various forms (Calvinism, 77).

Herman Bavinck, professor of dogmatics, first at the Reformed Seminary of Kampen, and from 1902-1921, as the successor of Abraham Kuyper, in the Free University of Amsterdam, devoted


his first rectoral address in Kampen to the topic of The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church (Bavinck: 1888/1968, page references in brackets).6 It is one of his finest publications. In it he takes issue with some of the sectarian tendencies in his own secession church. After having dealt with the scriptural data he states: „This catholicity of the church, as the Scriptures portray it and the first congregations show it, is of a moving beauty. He who shuts himself up in his own small church or conventicle, does not know it and has never experienced its power and comfort in his own life” (11). At the very end of his address he says: „There is no general Christianity above religious difference, yet it is present in these differences. Just as not one single church, however pure, coincides with the universal church, so not one single confession, however much purified according to the Word of God, may identify itself with the Christian truth. Every sect that regards its own circle as the only church of Christ and believes to be the sole owner of truth, pines and dies away, as a branch severed from its trunk” (40).

Bavinck is averse to all sectarianism. He is equally averse to the Roman Catholic claim of „organizational” catholicity, which, coupled with its dualism of nature and grace, naturally leads to suppression and inquisition (20). He fully agrees with the Reformers who returned to the view of the New Testament, according to which the church is the congregation of all true believers, the people of God (24). The church, outside of which there is no salvation, is the invisible church, the mystical body of Christ. „Henceforth the unity and catholicity of the church lacked its own organization”. In this context Bavinck quotes the Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 17: „Since there is always but one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, and one Shepherd of the whole flock, one Head of this body, and, to conclude, one Spirit, one salvation, one faith, one Testament or covenant, it necessary follows that there is only one church, which we call catholic because it is universal, scattered through all parts of the world, and extended unto all times, and is not limited to any times or places” (C262).

Bavinck, however, is well aware of the problems caused by the new view of the church. For it raises the question: to what extent can a church become impure and yet remain a true church of Christ (25)? How can we retain both the catholicity of the church and the absolute character of the truth? The Reformation could


not give an unqualified answer here. Although both Lutheran and Reformed churches claimed to be true and pure churches themselves, they at the same time recognized other churches also as churches of Christ. Some even recognized Rome as an ecclesia Christi. All of them recognized the baptism of all other Christian churches, be they Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, Anabaptist or Arminian. They could do this only by distinguishing between essential and non-essential articles of faith, a distinction that is already found in Calvin. Bavinck holds that Protestants had to acknowledge some flexibility as to the purity of the preaching of God’s Word (26) and also had to take a different view of heresy and schism. For Rome these concepts were very clear and simple: he who denies a doctrine of the (Roman) church is a heretic and he who secedes from the (Roman) church is a schismatic. The Protestant churches can no longer maintain this. „Now heresy is only persistent error in the essential articles, and consequently it has become a floating concept. It is no longer incompatible with true faith and regeneration. Believers too can fall into heresy, continue to live in it, perhaps even die in it” (27). It is clear that Bavinck did not write this easily. As a son of the Secession of 1834 he was a confessional man and wanted to submit wholeheartedly to the truth of Scripture. Yet he realized that it is impossible to identify God’s truth with one special confession or God's church with one particular denomination. And so he fully retained the tension contained in the word „catholicity”. Although he applied it primarily to the invisible church, he could not avoid applying it to some extent (aliquatenus!) to the visible church as well, and he was willing to accept the consequences: heresy and schism are no longer unequivocal concepts. Each time anew the church has to decide whether it has to do with a „real” heresy, i.e., a heresy pertaining to an essential article of the Christian faith. Each time anew the church has to ask itself whether in the religious differences it can recognize another church as true church of Jesus Christ. In this way Bavinck also comes to a doctrine of „pluriformity” of true churches next to each other, but he stated it much less effusively than Kuyper, who saw pluriformity as a necessary, God-willed development of the church (Kuyper, Gemeene Gratie III 237ff., 274).

Gerrit C. Berkouwer, who occupied Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s chair of dogmatics from 1945-1973, followed Bavinck’s line of thought


rather than that of Kuyper. In his volume on The Church he presents a „dynamic ecclesiology”, with the main emphasis on the visible church on earth (Berkouwer: 1976:25; further page-references in brackets). He does not wish to work with some „ideal” picture of the church, which is a kind of futuristic dream, but continually deals with the „real” church in its correlation with Christ, who is its Head and who continually searches and tests this „reality”. The church can remain his church only when it constantly listens to his voice as it comes through the Scriptures. So to Berkouwer the concept of catholicity is not first of all quantitative, but rather qualitative in nature (107f.). Likewise continuity, which is an aspect of catholicity, is not simply identical with unchangeability. „There is a kind of unchangeability or continuity that lacks perspective — an archeological phenomenon that lacks fruitfulness and is powerless to be a blessing in new, changed times” (191). The church is called „to interpret the good news purely for new worlds of thought, new historical experiences, and other languages” (192). As is to be expected, Berkouwer rejects Kuyper's doctrine of the pluriformity of several churches side by side as too easy a solution for the problem of catholicity and truth (55ff.). He himself tends to go into the direction of a „plurality” of various insights within the one church (62). This does not mean that he accepts an unlimited pluralism. As a matter of fact, he has a separate chapter on „the boundaries of the church” (131-164) and speaks extensively about the concept of heresy (115ff., 377ff.). In other words, he fully recognizes the tension that is inherent in the concept of catholicity, but to him it is primarily the tension of plurality within the unity and catholicity of the church.

The last Reformed theologian we want to discuss briefly is Hendrikus Berkhof. In 1962 he published an important study on the catholicity of the church (Berkhof 1962: page references in brackets). Following the Roman Catholic theologian M.Y. Congar (23ff.) he uses as his starting point the New Testament concept of „fullness” (cf. Eph, Col), but he gives it a different content from Congar who sees „fullness” as a flowing together of all kinds of insights and all sorts of piety into the truth. Together these make up the fullness of the one catholic church. Berkhof uses the term in a much more critical sense. To him it is primarily a christological concept. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul uses it in the


context of the authority and rule of Christ and therefore it is indicative of the domain over which Christ reigns. Although this domain is the whole creation, it is visible only (and already!) in the church. All this does not mean that Berkhof advocates a static view of catholicity. On the contrary, he emphatically states that catholicity in the sense of „fullness” is both a gift and a task (6 If.). The fullness is found both at the beginning and at the end of the road, it is at the same time the terminus ab quo and ad quem (64). And so we are not surprised to read his conclusion that „the church is catholic because and in as far as this dominion is proclaimed and practiced by her” (81).

Here catholicity is again a concept full of tension. It is not a simple quantitative concept attributed to some ideal church, a kind of ecclesiological pie in the sky, but it is primarily qualitative in nature. It is the given starting point and the assigned purpose to which each church has to extend itself in a continual struggle of renewal. Naturally, no church can do this without taking into account all the other churches that exist next to her. Catholicity and ecumenicity belong together. Berkhof puts it thus: „Ecumenicity is the purpose and fruit of catholicity” (110). But then he immediately goes on to reverse this thesis and writes: „Catholicity is also the purpose and fruit of ecumenicity”. Both need each other. Ecumenicity without catholicity means only an apparent unity. Catholicity without ecumenicity means a defective and shallow catholicity. In this view of Berkhof we find the various elements which were already present in the thinking of the Reformers, joined in a new correlation. Catholicity is no longer a simple spatial and/or temporal concept, but it is simultaneously both starting point (gift) and purpose (task). It comes from Christ who is the fullness of God's grace, and it calls to obedience to Him so that his fullness may flow into the church. It is present (as a gift) and eschatological (as a promise and an assignment) at the same time.



1. It is interesting to note that the same idea is still present in the documents of Vatican II. In the Constitution on the Church it is recognized that there are two sides to the one church. It is a visible society, but it is at the same time a spiritual community. Nevertheless, when the „one holy catholic and apostolic” church is circumscribed, the document says: „This Church organized and


constituted as society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Ch. 1,8). The word „subsists” should be noted. The original draft contained the word „est” but this was subsequently changed into „Subsistit”. The identification does not seem to be complete, nor is it totally exclusive, as appears from the sentence immediately following: „Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and the truth are found outside its visible confines.”
2. See in particular his writings Of Councils and Churches, 1539, and Against Hans Worst, 1540.
3. See also Alexandre Ganoczy, Ecclesia Ministrans — Dienende Kirche und Kirchliche Dienst bei Calvin, 1968, 149ff.; Hans Scholl, Calvinus Catholicus — Die Katholi-sche Calvinforschung im 20. Jahrhundert, 1974, 168ff.
4. The title of the first chapter of Book IV is: „The true church with which as Mother of all the godly we must keep unity”.
5. The majority of the confessions are quoted from A. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions in the Sixteenth Century (indicated in the text by C and page number). The confessions not found in Cochrane are quoted from P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol III 1877 (indicated in the text by S and page number).
6. De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk, 1888. Reissued in 1968 by G. Puchinger.



Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, De Baptismo.
Bavinck, H. De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk (The Catholicity of Christianity and Church), 1888 (repr. 1968).
Berkhof, H. De Katholiciteit der Kerk, 1962.
Berkouwer, G.C. The Church, 1976.
Calvin, J. Institutes, 1536; Institutes, 1539; Institutes, 1543, Institutes, 1559; „Reply to Sadoleto” in Tracts and Treatises 1539.
Cochrane, A. Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, 1966.
Ganoczy, A. Ecclesia Ministrans — Dienende Kirche und Kirchliche Dienst bei Calvin, 1968.
Hodge, C. The Church and its Polity, 1879.
Küng, H. The Church, 1968.
Kuyper, A. Calvinism (Stone Lectures, 1898) n d; De Gemeene Gratie, 1902-05; Dictaten Dogmatiek IV 1910; E Voto Dordraceno II 1892-95.
Luther, M., works of, Weimar Edition IX; Of Councils and Churches, 1539; Against Hans Worst, 1540.
Polman, A.D.R. Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, N d [1948-52]. 4 vol.
Olim, J.C. (ed.) John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, 1966.
RE: Realenzyklopädie für Protestantische Theologie und Kirche, Vol. 10, 1962 ch. 1 (on Bellarminus).
Rupp, G. The Righteousness of God, Luther Studies, 1953.
Schaff, P. The Creeds of Christendom, 1877.
Scholl, H. Calvinus Catholicus — Die katholische Calvinforschung im 20. Jahrhun-dert, 1974.
Tappert, T.G. (transl. and ed.) The Book of Concord, 1959.