One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

 The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed proclaimed that the Christian Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. Since then, these are known as the four signs of the Church. To understand what these signs denote, we must know what the Nicene Creed is and its importance in the Church.

The early Church remained small and was persecuted to the beginning of the 4 century. In AD 312 Constantine I, the Western Roman Emperor proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. In AD 313, Constantine, jointly with Licinius of the Eastern Roman Empire made a proclamation of religious toleration for Christianity within the whole Empire. The proclamation is known as the Edict of Milan. Constantine made the declaration in February 313 and Licinius in June of the same year. But later doubting that Licinius failed purposely in executing the declaration, Constantine attacked the Eastern Empire and attached it to the Western empire. Thus the Roman Empire once again become one.

Christianity became the sole official religion of the whole Roman Empire. But gradually some heretic teachings like Arianism appeared within the church. So to define and defend the pure teachings of the Church, Constantine called a council which was held at Nicaea, a Greek city. The council started on 19 June 325. About 200 to 300 bishops, from many parts of the empire attended the council. So it was called ecumenical. 

The council rejected Arianism and declared that Christ is the "true God" and "of one essence with the Father.”  The council produced the original text of the Nicene Creed. The Creed was originally written in Greek.

In fact, the Creed was not a sudden defense to any particular disastrous heresy. It was developed over the centuries in response to heresies such as Gnosticism, Marcionism, Docetism, and Arianism. Allusion to these Four Signs of the Church can be found in the writings of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who lived in the 2nd century.

However, controversies within the Church did not end with the council of Nicaea. So in 381, Emperor Theodosius I convened the Fist Council of Constantinople. It is also known as the second ecumenical council. The council made some additions to the original Nicene Creed with the intention of defending the faith against heretic teaching that rose after the Nicaea council. Thus the council added these words as the sign of the true Church: " I (We) believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

It is believed that Nicene Creed got its final shape in this council. So it is also known as Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Creed got its final approval in the Council of Chalcedon which was held in 451. The council was convened by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Marcian. About 520 bishops or their representatives attended the council. The council gave final approval to the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is used to this day by Christians to proclaim their belief in God, Christ and His church.

Nicene Creed is not a part of the Scripture. It is not God breathed Word. It is not infallible. It was formed to defend the God given doctrines of the Church. 

The Nicene Creed proclaimed the four marks of the Church. They are, as the Creed professes, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church". These four signs are inseparable and intrinsically linked to each other. Our Lord Himself in founding the Church marked it with these characteristics, which reflect its essential features and mission. Through the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church fulfills these marks. These are not the characteristics that the Church creates or develops or learns by human effort. They are qualities that Jesus Christ shares with his Church through the Holy Spirit.

So the Nicene Creed proclaimed that the true Church must have four sings: oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. These words have remained in versions of the Nicene Creed to this day. But in some languages, for example, German, the Latin "catholica" was substituted by "Christian". This substitution was done by somebody, before the Reformation. Though this might be an anomaly, it exists to this day in the Creed used by some Protestant churches. So for them, the "holy catholic" becomes "holy Christian."

The Creed affirms that the Church is essential. Through the centuries, the Church might not has been pure or perfect. But it is the chosen instrument of God to which all Christians should belong. The Church is purposefully communal and intended to fulfill Christ’s mission. The Church is the only body which can witness Christ in this world. The Church is the keeper and propagator of the Holy Scripture and the revelations it contain.

The Nicene Creed fostered a widespread unity in the church that was grounded in the truth of Scripture, for many centuries. This ecumenical creed is approved by almost all Christian Churches across the globe. Some denominations use slightly different variations. And interpretation of the four signs of the Church vary among denominations.

Roman Catholics claims that the creed, "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" is applicable only to them. They argue that Christ established only one church and the full identity of that Church is found only with the Catholic Church. They agree that some elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her structure. But they are imperfect and out of the fold.

The Eastern Orthodox Church regards itself as the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and his apostles. The Oriental Orthodox Church disagrees with both of them. They claim to be the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and his apostles. They have always kept the true Christology and faith declared by the first three councils, the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople, and the Council of Ephesus. They are the only keepers of the sacred tradition.

Lutheran Churches traditionally hold that they represent the true visible Church. In the Augsburg Confession presented before the Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530, claimed that "the faith as confessed by Luther and his followers is nothing new, but the true catholic faith, and that their churches represent the true catholic or universal church.” 

“Few church bodies today give much regard to being Apostolic. Fewer still seem concerned with the dimension of the holy. When these two qualities become irrelevant to the minds of church people, it is a mere chimera to speak of catholicity and unity.” (R.C. Sproul)

So to understand the true meaning of the creed, "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" we must undertake a careful study examining the claims of different Christian denominations. 


One Church

The first mark of the true Christian Church is that the Church is one. This means, it is single, united and global which has its basis in Christ Jesus. The Church believes in “one God” and “in one Lord Jesus Christ,”. The oneness of the Church was explicitly stated by Jesus Christ in the High Priestly Prayer.


John 17:20, 21

20 "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;

21 "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.


Unity and oneness of the Church are derived from the very essence of the God. It is not our organizational structure but our belief in the one true God. In Him we are united as one.


Apostle Paul revealed the oneness of the Church when he wrote these words to Corinthian church.


1 Corinthians 15: 9  For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.


Apostle Paul, before his conversion persecuted the church at Jerusalem. But he says that the persecution was against the Church as one body. When he persecuted the church at Jerusalem, he was persecuting the church at Corinth also. The suffering of a local church is the suffering of the whole church, because the church is one body.


He repeats this truth in other letters also. Though these words are about the relation of one member to the church, it explains how a local church is connected to the one Church all around the world.


1 Corinthians 12: 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.


1 Corinthians 12: 12, 13, 14

12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.

13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free--and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

14 For in fact the body is not one member but many.


Ephesians 4: 4, 5, 6

4    There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling;

5    one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

6    one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.


Galatians 3: 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


All Christians and all local churches in the world are one body, one church. And what they have in common is one Christ, one faith and one baptism. That means, the faith in Christ and His ordinances unites Christians and the local churches as one.


From the book of Acts and the Epistles we understand that the local churches during the early period considered them as one body. There was no institutional structure with one human authority for all the churches. But they were bound together by the spiritual head of the church which was Jesus Christ. They greeted each other, loved all, sent preachers to other local churches, accepted preachers from other churches, supported each other financially and lived as model for other churches.  


Romans 16: 16 “… The churches of Christ greet you.”


1 Corinthians 16: 19 “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.


Ephesians 1: 15 Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints,


2 Corinthians 8: 18 And we have sent with him the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches,


“the brother” in this verse is not definitely identified. Some scholars suppose it was Luke, who wrote a gospel; others think it was Silas, Barnabas, Mark and Apollos. Whoever it may be, we understand from this verse that the early church did sent preachers and missionaries from local churches to other.


The early churches also were inspired to imitate one another in Christian living:


1 Thessalonians 2: 14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans,


They supported one another financially:


Romans 15: 25, 26

25 But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints.

26 For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.


The Catholics, Orthodox, Methodist, Anglican, Pentecostals and others claim that they are the only true one church that is visible.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Church is one for three reasons (Catechism # 813):


1.      Source - the Holy Trinity, a perfect unity of three divine persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

2.      Founder - Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile all mankind through the blood of the cross

3.      Soul - The Holy Spirit that dwells in the souls of the faithful. He unites all of the faithful into one communion of believers, and guides the Church


According to Orthodox doctrine, the Church is indivisible. One may be in it or out of it, but none can divide it. The unity of the Church is not established by any human authority or judicial power, but by God alone.


Another acceptable argument for the unity of the church is that, she is Christ's mystical body. Christ cannot be divided and so His body. So there is one Church, not many. Church it is united, not divided. The unity of the Church is not the physical unity of all churches under one head or organization. It is a spiritual unity.


St. Augustine advocated a distinction between the visible church and the invisible Church. Augustine believed that the invisible church is found within the visible church. He took this perspective from the parable of wheat and tares. Jesus in that parable said that the church in this world will be a mixed body that include “tares” along with the “wheat.” This is a condition where we can say where the Church is but we cannot say where she is not. On the Day of Judgment and glorification, they will be separated. The true church will inherit the kingdom of God and tares will be thrown to the fire.


At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about this spiritual truth in a plainer manner.


 Matthew 7: 21-23

21 "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.

22 "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'

23  "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'


Jesus is dismissing these false church members because they have never been a part of His true Church. These are not onetime sheep who became goats. They were unbelievers from the beginning. Jesus used the word “many” to speak about the unregenerate members of the visible church. That means, the number of the unregenerate in the visible church will not be negligible. 


A person’s profession of faith is not a sign of regeneration. It is not the fruit. And even the fruit can be deceptive. God, and God alone, can read the human heart. Our gaze cannot penetrate beyond the outward appearance.


So in the present scenario of the church, believers co-exist with unbelievers, the regenerate alongside the unregenerate. So Augustine described the church as a “mixed body” (corpus permixtum). But the invisible Church consist only true believers. It is the Church comprised of the regenerate, or as Augustine observed, the “elect.”


Augustine also said that the invisible Church exists substantially within the visible church. At rare occasions, a true believer may not be connected to a visible church by providence or some other reason. The thief on the cross never had the opportunity to attend a local church. Many martyrs of the early Church period did not live long enough to receive baptism and attend a local church. But they are all members of the true invisible church of Christ.


And also, it is not necessary that all truly regenerate believers should belong to one local church or a particular denomination. They may belong to different congregations. Still all of them are united in one, true, invisible Church of Christ. 


The union of believers is grounded in the mystical union of Christ and His Church. When a person is regenerated, he is “in Christ” and Christ starts living in him. That means, we are all in Christ and He lives in us. This creates a profound unity among the truly regenerated Christians. It is a common bond grounded in one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.


This mystery is expressed by Jesus Christ in His High Priestly Prayer.


John 17: 22 "And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:


But unity is not uniformity. There can be diversity within the oneness. Unity is being one body while uniformity is being the same in appearance and structure. Uniformity is the same in the same way. Unity is abstract, uniformity is concrete. Unity is mystical, uniformity is visible.    


Philippians 2: 2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.


Holy Church


The second sign of the true Church is that it is holy. The Church is holy because its head, Jesus Christ is holy. Church is the holy body of Christ. Holiness of the Church is not that all members of the visible Church are sin free. It means that the Church and her ordinances are holy. The Church helps the faithful to live a holy life.


Holiness is “set apart” for a special purpose by and for God. The Church is set apart to fulfill God's mission on this earth. The Church is set apart as his possession, sanctifying it and making it clean for the purposes of his own glory, filling it with his holiness.


God wants his Church to be holy as He is holy. It is not imitating God’s holiness. It is not equating to the holiness of God. It is being holy by obeying His ordinances and commands. Just like the oneness of the church comes from God’s own unity, the holiness of the church comes from the holiness of God. Holiness is partaking the holiness of God. The church is holy because a holy God is present in it. 


Our Lord, Jesus Christ is the source of holiness. The Church lives in union with Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit the Church enables its faithful members to live in the holiness of God.


A holy church can be identified by its power to witness Jesus Christ. The holy church is a channel that disseminate the presence of Jesus and His kingdom in this world. Being holy in this world is to embody a difference from the world that can be seen and replicated.


Catholic Church


Catholic, as it is used in the Nicene Creed, means universal. The church is a reality that is pertinent to everyone universally. The role of the Church is to spread the Word of God universally across the world. The church is for all irrespective of their cast, creed, race or nationality. Their admission to the church is secured by the blood of Jesus Christ.


The word catholic is derived from the Ancient Greek adjective καθολικός (romanized: katholikos), meaning "general", or "universal". It is associated with the Greek adverb καθόλου (katholou), meaning "according to the whole", "entirely", or "in general", a combination of the preposition κατά meaning "according to" and the adjective ὅλος meaning "whole".


The Church being catholic, should proclaim the wholeness of the Christian faith, full and complete, all-embracing, and with nothing lacking, to all people in this world. The church should not exclude any race, linguistic group, cast, creed, nation from the gospel. This can be fulfilled only by the church that is spread across the world.


The term catholic was used to define the church as early as the first decades of the second century. The Church was not yet spread across the world at that time. It was used to denote quality not quantity. It defined what the Church is, in the sense it is full, complete, all embracing and lacking nothing.


Originally catholicity of the church did not mean universality. Universality is the idea that the Christian faith is for all men. But originally the word catholic distinguished the true church among a growing horde of heretics. The heretics were selective in doctrines and elements of faith. They were not whole and complete. So in the second century, when the term began to be used, catholicity of the church marked the quality of the church. The church was whole in faith and doctrines handed down from the apostles.


Roman Emperor Theodosius I restricted the term "catholic Christians" to who believed in "the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity". He called others "heretics". (Edict of Thessalonica of 27 February 380). He was emphasizing on the quality of the church not on the universality.


But St. Ignatius of Antioch (died: 108 AD, Rome, Italy) in his “Letter to the Smyrnaens”, used the word catholic in the sense "universal" to describe the Church.


The Church is catholic or universal in two ways.


1.      All regenerated and baptized people are part of the Church. The church everywhere preach the salvation through Jesus as the only means for it.


2.      The mission of the Church is universal. The Church is commissioned to proclaim Christ to the entire human race.


Matthew 28: 19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,


The Church is Catholic because Christ is universally present in the Church. It is universal, whole and complete. Catholic is fullness, perfection and wholeness. The presence of Jesus Christ as the head of it makes it universal. As St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the catholic Church.” The Church is whole and complete because it has the fullness of the truth.


At the same time church is local also. All local churches are at the same time local in the sense of serving a locality and catholic or universal being a part of the one Church.


Since the Church is catholic in the sense of universal, it is not bound to a particular human authority. It is not merely a federation of local congregations. It is catholic as it possesses the unity in orthodoxy despite varied locations, languages, ethnicities, races, or denominations.


Apostolic Church


The fourth sign of a true church is that it is apostolic. Apostolic means that the church is rooted in the historic teachings of the apostles. The Church is founded in the Scripture given to her through the apostles, which convey the faith once and for all.


The episcopal churches believe in the apostolic succession. They believe that the bishops represent a direct, uninterrupted line of continuity and special powers from the first Apostles of Jesus Christ. They have authority to confirm church members, to ordain priests, to consecrate other bishops, and to rule over the clergy and church members in their diocese.


The origin of this doctrine is obscure. The episcopal churches interprets the New Testament records in this connection, variously. While the Roman Catholic Church believes that the first disciple of Jesus Christ is Peter, the Orthodox Church argues that it is Andrew.


Different denominations who accept apostolic succession as necessary for a valid ministry has their own arguments. Their arguments are as follows:


It was necessary for Christ to establish a ministry to carry out his work. So Christ commissioned Apostles to continue His ministry. (Matthew 28:19, 20). The Apostles in turn consecrated others to assist them and to continue the work. Thus they created a hierarchical order of bishops and patriarchs. The bishops derive their authority through a direct line of laying on of hands from the apostles.


Episcopal churches also argue that there are evidences to prove that this doctrine was accepted in the very early church. About AD 95 St. Clement, bishop of Rome, in his letter to the church in Corinth (First Letter of Clement), expressed the view that bishops succeeded the Apostles.


In Roman Catholicism the doctrine of apostolic succession is strengthened by the Petrine theory. Petrine theory argues that Jesus designated St. Peter, His disciple, as the first apostle and His representative on earth. Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the church. His ministry was passed on to Peter’s successors as bishops of Rome. Peter received this authority, according to the theory, when Jesus referred to him as the rock of the church.


Matthew 16: 18, 19

18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

19 "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."


So the Roman Catholic Church considered Peter as the first Pope. They believe that the papacy is a continuous line of apostolic succession.


Matthew 16: 18, 19 raise some questions that should be answered to establish the apostolic succession theory.


1.      What was Jesus talking about - the visible church or invisible church?

2.      The true church is visible or invisible? What did Jesus wish to establish?

3.      Can the invisible church be founded on a human being?

4.      Did Jesus really mean that He would build the Church on Peter?


In verse 18, Matthew used two different Greek words to say Peter and “rock”. For Peter Matthew wrote “petros” (pet'-ros). This word signifies a material. It means “a rock, a stone, a detached but large fragment”. Matthew used the Greek word “petra” (pet'-ra) to say rock. This word signifies a person. It means, “a rock, a large stone, the massive living rock”.


Since Matthew used two different words to say Peter and rock, we may rightly assume that, he wanted to covey different meanings. Jesus was not talking about one and the same thing, by “Peter” and “rock”.


Not only that, neither in the Acts of the Apostles nor in the epistles we find any reference to the primacy of Peter above others. No scripture mention that Peter was the head of the whole church. Peter never claimed such a position.


In Acts 2: 47 it is written that, “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” It is not that Peter, being the head of the church, added those who believed. Afterwards, many joined the Church through the ministry of Apostles and evangelists. None was granted membership by Peter. Those who believed, saved and baptized were added to the Church.  


The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Assyrian Church of the East, Swedish Lutheran and Anglican churches accept the doctrine of apostolic succession. They all believe that the only valid ministry is based on bishops whose office has descended from the Apostles. They do not accepts the ministries of the other denominations as valid. Roman Catholics generally regard the ministry of the Eastern Orthodox churches as valid. But they do not accept the Anglican ministry. Some Anglicans, on the other hand, consider episcopacy necessary to the “well-being” but not to the “being” of the church.


The majority of the Protest groups do not accept apostolic succession. They believe in the succession of the apostolic doctrines. The New Testament gives no clear direction concerning the ministry or the governance of the church. Various types of ministers existed even in the early church. So the apostolic succession, as taught by the episcopal churches cannot be established historically. There is no scripture to support the theory of apostolic succession through bishops. The true apostolic succession is spiritual and doctrinal rather than ritualistic.


Apostle Paul advised the Thessalonian church to hold fast on the traditions taught by him by word and epistles, not on a hierarchical order of human succession.


2 Thessalonians 2: 15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.


Here, the Greek word paradosis (par-ad'-os-is) is used for “traditions”. The word signify “a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing. It is tradition by instruction, narrative, precept”. It has a similarity with the Jewish traditional oral laws. It is not about any cultural, social or human traditions. 


So the word “traditions” here signifies anything delivered in the way of teaching by the apostle. It is obviously the doctrines delivered by the apostle to the Thessalonians, through his preaching, private conversation and the epistles. They were revelations from God, spoken or written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not refereeing to the apostolic succession practiced by the episcopal churches. Paul is here admonishing the church at Thessalonica to adhere and practice the traditions of the apostle’s teachings.


The Church is apostolic both in a traditional and a prophetic sense. The Church’s foundational beliefs continue in the living traditions of the apostles of Jesus. The apostolic tradition is the continuity of the teachings and morals of the apostles as revealed in the Bible. The apostolic continuity is preserved by the Scripture. A church is apostolic if it believes and practices the supreme authority of the apostolic scriptures. Prophetic apostolicity is the renewal by the continued work of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit enables the Church to preserve and continue the teachings of the apostles.


Let me sum up this brief discussion with some words of the great theologian R.C. Sproul (13 February 1939 - 14 December 2017). The Nicene Creed remains a key confessional statement of Christian faith.  The “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” reminds us that we are members of a body of believers extending across time and many lands.


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