Ecclesiology in the Early Creeds

Jun 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In the earliest Christian communities, creeds were widely used among catechumens received into the Church to affirm that the initiate understood and affirmed the fundamentals of the Christian faith.     The early creeds offer us some insight into the ecclesiology of the early Church.  The earliest form of what we now call “The Apostles Creed” was most likely something very similar to the following creed found in a second century Gnostic text:

“I [believe] in the Father almighty, – and in Jesus Christ, our Savior; -and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in the holy Church, and in the remission of sins.”

In addition to the Godhead and the remission of sins, all of our samples in the earliest creeds contain a reference to “the Church”. This deserves our attention (as does anything which the early Christians ranked among the Godhead and forgiveness of sins in terms of paramountcy to Christianity).

What this point demonstrates is that the post-sixteenth century ecclesiology employed by many today is terribly out of sync with the early Church.   Specifically it demonstrates: first, that we cannot read “invisible Church” here. Second, we must understand the “Church” envisioned to hold some sort of authority. Finally, allegiance to this Church is an essential tenet of Christianity.

To prove that the early Christians cannot have meant an “invisible Church” here, one need only replace the word “Church” with “invisible Church” and recite the creed (taking note of how much less sense it makes). An invisible Church is not worth believing in at all much less would it be one of the top five most fundamental tenets of Christianity! The notion of “invisible Church” neither beckons one to affirm it by faith or reject it out of disbelief. It pleads for indifference! When we say “I believe in the invisible Church” or more likely in the form: “the Church is the collective body of all true Christians throughout the world regardless of which denomination they belong to”, it really boils down not to an affirmation of a tenet of Christianity but rather a denial of one. That is, saying “I believe in the invisible Church” is more or less reducible to:  “I don’t believe in the visible Church.”

The invisible Church described above is certainly something that exists whether we believe in it or not. There is truly a sum total of all authentic Christians regardless of which system of doctrine ends up being true. What those who believe in it mean when they assert such things is that the early Christians had this sort of powerless idea of “Church” in mind when they said it. Such a “Church” isn’t worth believing in partially because it asks nothing of the believer. Keep this point in mind as we progress through the next two.

Secondly, the Church of the creeds must have held authority. This is why the creeds beckoned the convert to believe in it in the first place. It had authority which could be pointed to as we saw in Acts 15.  We should recall now that when Jesus beckoned others to believe in Him, He was not (and could not possibly be) asking for mere intellectual assent that He was real. He was asking them to acknowledge His authority (and live accordingly). The creed is acting similarly in regards to the Church. It is not requesting that the convert merely acknowledge that a Church exists (even a visible one how much less an invisible one!), it was asking the convert to acknowledge the authority such a Church had over the Christian being welcomed into her fold.

Finally, that the Church was visible and authoritative was not merely part of the Christian faith, but a defining tenet. In fact, those outside the Church could not properly be called Christians. To be a Christian, meant to be baptized and welcomed into the Church. You couldn’t merely say “I believe in Christ” to be a Christian, you had to also say “I believe in His Church.” We still have to say it today. Attempts at redefining what His Church actually is are as futile as disbelieving it altogether.


Leave a comment »

  1. […] Church Ecclesiology Great post by Tim Troutman on the ecclesiology of the early church as evidenced by the […]

  2. Tim:

    How do you think your conclusion bears on Lumen Gentium‘s assertions that there is such a thing as “imperfect communion” with the Church and that those who are unbelievers “through no fault of their own” can be saved?


  3. Dr. Liccione,

    That’s a good question to raise. Lumen Gentium doesn’t envision an invisible Church when it speaks of ‘imperfect communion’ though it might mislead some to think that the Catholic Church is abandoning or brushing aside her hard visible ecclesiology. This is doubtlessly a part of what prompted Pope Benedict to reaffirm the visible and, more importantly, exclusive nature of the Catholic Church. Just as the full corporeality of Christ’s Body is not compromised by the doctrine of our mystical union via the Eucharist, so do we maintain the full visibility of the Catholic Church while allowing that men, through “imperfect communion”, may be mystically united to her in a way known to God alone.

    Thanks for bringing that up.

  4. It may be said that ecclesiology is implicit in the ancient creeds. To which Church do the Creeds refer? Visible or Invisible?

    As a matter of fact, profession of faith and explicit ecclesiology was a matter of Imperial Law from the time of 380 with the promulgation of the Decree of Gratian, Valentinian & Theodosius (C.Th.16.1.2). The law of the land now decreed that all Orthodox Christians call themselves “Catholic Christians” and practice that “religion which was carried by the divine Peter to the Roman People.”

    Furthermore, Roman primacy of jurisdiction was a matter of profession and civil law with the Promulgation of the Justinian Code (explicitly in 534, Book I, Title I, 1.1.8) with the Emperor bound to bring the whole Orient into subjection to Roman Primacy and forbidding anything not brought to Rome first as “head of all holy Churches.” The law concludes by stating, “every opponent of this confession, this faith, has declared himself a stranger to the holy communion, a stranger to the Catholic Church.”

    Read Book 1-1 here:

  5. Mike,

    I found this to be a helpful way to think about it. A person who desires baptism may receive the effects of baptism, even without the sacrament. This we call the baptism of desire. The grace that comes through the sacrament may precede the reception of the sacrament. That does not mean that baptism is not a visible sacrament. It simply acknowledges that that which is signified may precede or outstrip the sign and ordinary means. We seem to get a glimpse of that in Acts 10:44-48 when the Holy Spirit comes on Cornelius’ family even before Peter can baptize them.

    Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament (LG,1), so likewise the Spirit of Christ may precede or outstrip the Church (i.e. the Mystical Body), in certain respects. This results in the [temporary] imperfect communion of those who have sanctifying grace but are not yet being in full communion. The person who has only “baptism by desire” does not yet have the sacrament of baptism, and is therefore not yet in full communion with the Church, and is not yet a [full] member of the Mystical Body, because the Spirit has preceded [in activity] the sacrament which is the Church. Just as Catechumens who die prior to baptism are not (and have never been) conceived as a violation of the principle of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, so likewise for all those who die in a state of grace but in imperfect communion.

    Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen Gentium, 16)

    Even those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel cannot be saved without being in a state of sanctifying grace. So any who are saved who do not know the Gospel are also in “imperfect communion”, but with less knowledge (and lacking the “elements of sanctification”) than Christians not yet in full communion with the Church.

    Recognizing the ability of the Spirit to ‘outrun’ the sacrament (as John outran Peter), allows us to affirm “imperfect communion” without falling into the “invisible Church” error or denying the sacraments as the ordinary means through which the Spirit infuses grace.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. What’s up Andrew?

    I just wrote my longest C2C post ever and lost it all. That’s probably better though. Thanks for your comments. I just now read them, let me just respond to two points you made.

    “What kind of unity am I looking for?” I might be a little odd in that I will not argue with any Protestant that the Catholic Church has within it some seriously nominal Christianity. For example, right now my wife’s friends are getting pre-marital counseling for their Catholic wedding in October. This couple has lived together for over a year and nobody (priest or Pre-kana couple) has the balls to address their sin or even bring it up. This kind of thing makes me nuts, yet it brings up a very real theological tension between the purity of the Church and the unity of the Church.

    In general, most Protestant denominations hold the purity of the Church above the unity of the Church. By contrast, the Catholic Church holds the unity of the Church above the purity. Here’s the differenc though; if you put unity above purity, then you can (and must!) always and forever fight for the purity of the Church. As soon as the purity of the Church is put above its unity, then unity is forever given up on. You see this in the way the PCA has no concern for the next insane move that the PCUSA might make. We just kind of laugh at it and shake our head. We must always put the purity of the Church as the highest princple for the very reason that in doing so, we commit to fighting for the purity of the Church.

    To answer your other question; no, I did not tell Horton that I have become convinced Rome is right. Granted, this way probably because I struggle with being a coward and its a little difficult to proclaim faith in the Pope in a room with 150 Reformed Christians and no Catholics. But, my cowardlyliness is why I need Jesus, so I can only pray that He will change me.

    As I try to explain to my wife, the most amazing Christian woman I know, (who 7 years ago I made leave the Catholic Church in order for us to get married), how I was blinded to the Catholic Church for so long, I can only tell her that I did not really believe God could be that good. Let me put it is way; in Horton’s class last week he affirmed Karl Barth’s plea that Pastors would stop tyring to get the Bible into the world of the people, but instead try to get people into the world of the Bible. Barth has much to offer both Catholics and Protestants in this assertion. This, “world of the Bible” that Barth spoke of, is, the Catholic Church.

    This time last year I could not escape the logic of the Catholic Church, yet my heart refused to submit. Now, my heart, mind, and whole person, have been utterly captivated. Not to be overly personal Andrew, but I would challenge you to examine whether or not all your objections are really theological. Is it at least possible, that some of your objections are heart based, not head based?

    Much love in Christ our Lord, Jeremy

  7. Tim,

    Excellent post. I am leading a Bible study right now (all Protestants) and we just began, two weeks ago, to go through the Apostles Creed. Your words will be helpful when we get to the article on the Catholic Church. Strong words at the end. What does the Catholic Church mean when it calls Protestants separated “breatheren”. By using the term breatheren, what exactly is the magisterium affirming in terms of what is present in non-Catholic ecclesiastical bodies? – Jeremy

  8. Tim and Bryan:

    The views you’ve expressed in response to my inquiry are almost exactly my own (the difference is too minor to bother about). I especially like what Bryan does with the notion of the Church as sacrament.

    My reason for posing my question to Tim originally is that I wanted to make sure of something I should probably have learned earlier: he isn’t the sort of trad who rejects the idea of imperfect communion. In my experience, most trads hold a “binary” view of communion with the Church: you’re either all the way in or all the way out. That, I believe, is the main reason why the SSPX rejects Lumen Gentium and the whole program of ecumenism. They don’t think the idea of imperfect communion is compatible with the truth that the Catholic Church is…well, the Church.

    Mutatis mutandis, that issue is also what seems to divide Orthodox rejectionists from Orthodox ecumenists.


  9. Dear Jeremy,

    You mentioned an example of impurity within the Catholic Church: “This couple has lived together for over a year and nobody (priest or Pre-kana couple) has the [harumph] to address their sin or even bring it up.” I was married at a large, conservative, highly educated and Reformed Church in Northern Virginia, and the counseling pastor there never asked my wife and I if we had or were remaining pure. It struck us that he would rather not know, and hope for the best.

    “In general, most Protestant denominations hold the purity of the Church above the unity of the Church. By contrast, the Catholic Church holds the unity of the Church above the purity.”

    This doesn’t strike me as a correct assertion. In the former, I think your statement is made true if you qualify “most Protestant denominations” with words like “evangelical” or “Bible-believing” or “conservative” and then you qualify Church very carefully to match the particular ecclesiological view of the particular denomination in question.

    Can you tell me what leads you to believe that Catholics hold unity over purity? I think it is only in the Protestant paradigm that those two ambitions can be separated one from the other. The Catholic Church believes that it is the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (those are the four marks of the Church). By one, it means it cannot be in disunity (so that which is in disunity is outside of it), and by holy it means that it is pure, preserved from error in doctrine or moral teaching. This is why I believe it is incorrect to say that the Catholic holds unity over purity. Impurity of individual Catholics does not make an impure Catholic Church, because the Catholic Church is not merely an institution that is the sum of its human members on earth.

    Peace in Christ,

  10. Hey Tom,

    Let me clarify, and, your right, my perspective in seeing these things (purity and unity) in tension is probably coming from a Protestant paradigm as I was taught of this tension in my Systematic class on Church and Sacraments at RTS. I think what I’m referring to though is an arbitrary level of sinfulness or doctrinal compromise that often seems to be the grounds for starting something new within Protestantism. This is especially visible in the RPCNA leaving the PCA because it basically felt like the PCA was embarrased of its Reformed heritage. From a Protestant perspective, it certainly seems like Rome holds unity at the highest principle, which is good in the sense that by doing so it can always fight for purity. I think my perspective is changing though in understanding ecclesiology from a Catholic rather than Protestant vantage point. Thanks, Jeremy

  11. Dear Jeremy,

    It is interesting that RTS is teaching unity and purity as being in tension with each other. The idea is that man is sinful, so man running the church will always run it afoul, so the church is constantly in need of a reset — a degaussing — to return to purity. Unity necessarily suffers in this process, because some sinful men will hold on to the practices which were sinful, and be unwilling to move with the purifying sinful men. I see no guarantee that the sinful men leading the church in Reform are actually improving things, and so we may be letting go of unity without obtaining the hoped-for doctrinal purity.

    Is it true that the RPCNA split from the PCA? I am not familiar with the RPCNA, and thought the only thing approximating a split from the PCA in its young life has been the CREC.

    Peace in Christ,

  12. Jeremy – we should have something else re: the visibility of the Church specifically related to the Apostles’ creed later this week I hope.

    As for the unity vs. purity, like Tom, I don’t like to think of these two in conflict or tension with each other but I think you’re noticing something legitimate. If you look at something like the PCA or OPC you find a high percentage of people who are seriously committed to Christ. But the ratio within the Catholic Church (as if we could measure such a thing) – we all know would be much lower. This is because the tool that PCA and OPC has to deal with heresy is almost exclusively: schism. They have schismed into a small homogenous group. Those who disagree with them either schism from them or vice versa. So you are left with something like the PCA / OPC. Not so with the Catholic Church. She remains one and avoids schism at all costs.

Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting