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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Retrieving Catholicity: The Gift of Wholeness and the Task of Love in a Fragmented World

Published Sunday, November 1, 2020 By Scott R. Swain

The church is the crowning achievement in the work of salvation planned by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and brought into reality by the Spirit (Eph. 1:3–14). The Father’s “plan for the fullness of time” is to sum up all things in heaven and earth under the headship of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). This plan is realized, in part, in a covenant community that is the body, building, and bride of Jesus Christ, its head (Eph. 1:22–23; 2:20; 5:23). In this covenant community, the grace purchased by Christ the redeemer (Eph. 1:7) is poured out by Christ the ruler in the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:22–23; 5:18) to the glory of God the Father: “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).

According to common Christian confession, the defining features or “marks” of this covenant community are unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. (1) These four marks are vital indicators of the church’s being and well-being. Not only do they indicate the identity of the true church, distinguishing it from others falsely claiming these marks, but “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6). These four marks also indicate the vocation of the church. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and endowed with the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, the church is called to pursue unity and holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1–3)

“Catholicity” refers to the church’s “universality” or “wholeness,” and that in two senses. First, the church is “whole” in its composition. The church is composed of people called from all nations, all social classes, and all walks of life, men and women, young and old (Matt. 28:19; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5:22–6:9; Col. 3:11; James 2:1–5). Peter Martyr Vermigli tells us,

With him, there is no partiality of persons. He has not shown favoritism to peasants or artisans, men or women, princes or servants, poor or rich, barbarians or cultured people, as though by their status he should be moved to elect them. But from all over the world and from among all kinds of people he has drawn some to himself in his sovereign grace. Thus we have the Church, one universal body, in which all sorts of persons may participate. (2)

Second, the church is “whole” in its teaching. The church follows all that Jesus commanded his apostles to teach regarding doctrine and morals (Matt. 28:20). In the church, every form of unbelief and disobedience is cured by means of the “wholesome teaching” (Titus 2:1) of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). (3) Drawn from every tribe, language, people, and nation and instructed in the whole counsel of God, the church is a kingdom of priests, a catholic chorus that “with one voice” (Rom. 15:6) offers praise to God:

The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee:
the Father of an infinite majesty;
thine honourable, true and only Son;
also the Holy Ghost the Comforter. (4)

Sins against the church’s catholicity include heresy and schism. According to Augustine, the former “harms the faith,” whereas the latter, “through malicious divisiveness,” abandons “fraternal charity.” (5) Conversely, according to Herman Witsius, the church’s catholicity may be preserved through “the love of truth and the spirit of charity.” When “cultivated with equal care,” these virtues “constitute the most shining ornaments of a Christian—that is, of a truly noble mind.” (6)

Because it is often misunderstood, we need a clear understanding of the biblical basis of the church’s catholicity. Because it is always threatened by false teaching and division, we must be aware of forces that tend to corrupt the church’s catholicity as well. Because the church is always being reformed by God’s word and Spirit, we must renew our commitment to confessing and practicing the church’s catholicity in our own day. To this end, the purpose in what follows is to trace the biblical foundations of the church’s catholicity, to identify specific threats to the church’s catholicity that have emerged in the course of its historical development, and to recommend a path for retrieving the church’s catholicity today.

Biblical Foundations of the Church’s Catholicity

Scriptural teaching on catholicity begins “in the beginning,” with the announcement that all things were created by one God through his word and Spirit (Gen. 1:1–2; Ps. 33:6, 9; John 1:1–3) and that all human beings are descended from one man (Acts 17:26). When the same man introduced the disintegrating power of sin into the world, alienating human beings from God and one another (Gen. 3–4; Rom. 5:12), the same God intervened with the promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s offspring—“the Lion of the tribe of Judah”—restoring human beings to their vocation as worshipers of the one true God (Gen. 12:1–9; 22:18; 49:10).

The Bible’s first mention of the church by name strikes the note of catholicity. In Genesis 35:11, God promises Jacob: “A nation and a congregation [Heb. qahal] of nations shall come from you.” When the first congregation appears in the wilderness following Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Acts 7:38), its composition includes both physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and a “mixed multitude” from other nations who, by virtue of circumcision, are granted the same rights and privileges as Abraham’s natural offspring (Exod. 12:38, 48).

God’s purpose of gathering a catholic people to himself continues in the conquest of Canaan, as Gentiles such as Rahab and later Ruth are included among God’s covenant people, an inclusion noted with delight by evangelists and apostles (Matt. 1:5; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). After Israel’s exile from the Promised Land due to covenant infidelity, the prophets look with hope to the day when God will send his word from Zion to draw the nations to himself, that they may unlearn the sinful customs inherited from their ancestors and learn to walk in the paths of the Lord:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isa. 2:2–4)

The church “under the gospel” (7) fulfills the prophetic hope of a catholic community drawn from all nations to observe all of God’s ways. Indeed, only in the gospel of Jesus Christ could the catholicity of the church come in its fullness, for only in the gospel do we find the sure foundation of reconciliation between God and all peoples (Eph. 2:14–16) and the full and final revelation of the Father’s plan for the fullness of time (Eph. 1:10).

By means of an unholy alliance against the Lord and his anointed (Ps. 2:1–2), Jesus was crucified, after being charged with blasphemy by Jewish authorities (Mark 14:53–65) and with sedition by Gentile authorities (Mark 15:1–15). But in the mystery of God’s sovereign providence, “this was the Lord’s doing” (Mark 12:11; Ps. 118:23). By bearing the curse of the law in his body on the cross, Jesus abolished the dividing wall temporarily imposed by the Law of Moses between Jew and Gentile, reconciling them to God and to one another, and making a new humanity (Mark 15:38–39; John 11:51–52; Eph. 2:14–16; 1 Pet. 2:24). In Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand, God reversed the judgment reached by the nations’ unholy alliance and declared his Son “Lord and Christ,” the rightful object of divine worship, the anointed agent of divine rule (Acts 2:36; Rom. 1:4). Thus, as the one given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” Jesus commanded the apostolic church to make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and teaching them to observe all that he commanded them (Matt. 28:18–20). In Jesus’ name, the apostles proclaimed the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit to Jew and Gentile believers and their children (Acts 2:38–39), inviting them to kiss the Son through faith and repentance, lest he be angry with them and they perish in the way (Ps. 2:12).

Taking the scroll from his Father’s right hand and opening its seals, it is the Lord himself who reveals the whole counsel of God to and through the Spirit-inspired testimony of his prophets and apostles; and it is the Lord himself who, through his word and Spirit, gathers and perfects the whole people of God from every tribe, language, people, and nation that they might serve his Father as a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:1–2, 5–6; 5:5-10; cf. John 15:26–27; 16:12–15). In Jesus Christ alone, the crucified and now risen Lord, we have the true cornerstone of the church’s catholicity and its sovereign guarantor against the onslaught of the gates of hell (Matt. 16:16–18; Mark 12:10; Eph. 2:19–22). In Jesus Christ alone, we have one who, with the Father and the Spirit, is worthy to receive all praise from all peoples (Matt. 28:19; John 5:23; Rev. 5:12–14). For this reason, the catholic church throughout the world assembles under one unifying banner: the confession of Jesus as Lord (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 4:5).

Catholicity in History

Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God realizes his plan for a catholic church: Leading the whole people of God through baptism unto instruction in the whole counsel of God. From the early days of the apostolic church, we see this instruction summarized under the threefold rubric of faith, love, and hope (Rom. 12:3, 9–12; 1 Cor. 13:7, 13; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:2; 4:9, 13; cf. Eph. 4:4–6). This way of summarizing the faith finds dominical warrant in Jesus’ command to baptize in the Triune name (Matt. 28:19; cf. Eph. 4:5), the command to love God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40), and the command to pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). For this reason, Augustine rightly recognized in the creed (which summarizes the Trinitarian faith handed down in baptism), the double love command, and the Lord’s Prayer a summation of moral and theological teaching that rests on Jesus Christ, “the true foundation of the Catholic faith,” (8) and the teaching of “sacred scripture.” (9)

In his Letters to Serapion, Athanasius acknowledged an unbroken chain of catholic teaching in “the tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which is nothing other than what the Lord gave, and the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved.” (10) The seeming serenity of statements like this, however, should not mislead us. The catholicity of the church has always been both gift and task, an inviolable grant that the church has nevertheless struggled to maintain against the errors of heresy and schism. Irenaeus deployed a Trinitarian rule of faith against the gnostics in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Augustine appealed to the double love command, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, in battling the Donatists. (11) At its heart, the Great Schism between East and West was a dispute about how to faithfully receive and transmit the most authoritative postbiblical summary of the catholic faith, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The crisis of the Western church at the time of the Reformation was a crisis of catholicity. When Reformation-era Protestants reaffirmed the supreme authority of Jesus Christ over the church and the supreme authority of Scripture for the church’s faith and practice, they also reaffirmed the church’s catholicity. (12) This reaffirmation, however, brought them into conflict with the Church of Rome, which had increasingly tied catholicity to the pope as the institutional head of the church and supreme interpreter of Holy Scripture. (13) Later in the modern era, Protestant churches witnessed further challenges to the church’s catholicity in the movement toward “deconfessionalization.” Whether motivated by Erastian mandate, as in Germany, or by a more general Enlightenment antipathy toward orthodox doctrinal formulas, as in the Anglo-American world, new forms of Protestantism looked for ways of defining the “essence” of Christianity beyond the confines of traditional ecclesiastical creeds and confessions. (14) If from the perspective of confessional Protestantism, Rome erred in excess with respect to the church’s catholicity, adding doctrines and practices beyond the warrants of Holy Scripture, then these new forms of Protestantism erred in defect with respect to catholicity, losing hold of doctrines and practices vital to biblical Christianity.

Today, the catholicity of the church continues to be both gift and task. On the positive side, Christianity continues to be a global phenomenon, a sign of the church’s catholic identity. The growth of the church in the Global South is especially encouraging, and many Southern Hemisphere churches have exhibited courageous leadership in calling Western churches on the brink of apostasy to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of a secular culture. On the negative side, false teaching and sectarian division run rampant among some of the fastest growing churches around the globe. Prosperity preachers put the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Give us this day our daily bread”) in the place of the first petition—an act of idolatry if ever there was one (Matt. 6:31–33; Col. 3:5). Churches in North America continue to reckon with sins committed against African-American brothers and sisters, dating back to the transatlantic slave trade, while those most animated in professing the “centrality” of the gospel sometimes struggle to situate the gospel within a broader catholic framework for faith and life.

Retrieving Catholicity

What is the path forward for churches eager to embrace their catholic inheritance and fulfill their catholic calling? Part of the answer lies in diagnosing where individual congregations and denominations stand vis-à-vis a properly defined notion of catholicity. As we observed above, the catholicity of the church can be corrupted by addition or subtraction. Do our congregations and denominations exhibit unhealthy tumors on the body of divinity—whether in the form of strange teaching or in the toleration of sinful behavior—that must be excised for the sake of the church’s health and survival? Do our congregations and denominations display signs of moral and theological malnourishment through failures in catechesis or lack of brotherly love? If our churches are to realize the integrity that the God of peace intends for them (1 Thess. 5:23), then catholic wholeness must be restored.

However we may answer these diagnostic questions with respect to our own churches and denominations, the prescription for recovering catholic wholeness and health remains the same. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the sole head of the church, the future of catholic Christianity lies in joyfully embracing the whole counsel of God and the whole people of God. But where do we begin?

In the mid-1520s, as the result of various parish visitations among Lutheran churches, Martin Luther concluded that a one-sided emphasis on preaching the gospel of justification had left many German Christians theologically and spiritually malnourished and underdeveloped. “Despite the fact that the gospel has returned,” Luther lamented, “they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs.” (15) The Reformer’s response to this crisis of theological and spiritual formation was to publish two catechisms in 1528, the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism. These catechisms taught, in a form accessible to uneducated laypersons, the basic elements of catholic Christianity: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. (16)

In seeking to retrieve the catholic substance of the Christian faith today, we can do no better than to begin where Luther did: in teaching the Apostles’ Creed, which summarizes our faith; Jesus’ double love command, which summarizes our duty; and the Lord’s Prayer, which summarizes our hope. Thankfully, many churches already possess in their confessions and catechisms rich resources for instructing the people of God in the catholic substance of our common faith.

These three summary forms of catholic Christianity not only provide objective coordinates for the church’s catholicity, but they also provide a subjective orientation for the Christian life, directing us on the path to Christian wholeness. As noted above, Augustine traced the triad of faith, love, and hope back to the Lord himself, “the true foundation of the Catholic faith,” and the teaching of “sacred scripture.” (17) For Augustine, this triad marked a trajectory for the Christian life as a whole, from its inception in faith to its consummation in the beatific vision of God.

When a mind is filled with the beginning of that faith which works through love, it progresses by a good life even toward vision, in which holy and perfect hearts know that unspeakable beauty, the full vision of which is the highest happiness. (18)

Faith that embraces the Triune God as he offers himself to us in the gospel, love that follows Jesus’ path of devotion to God and service to neighbor, and hope that looks with eager expectation for the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ—this, according to Augustine, “is what the whole body of doctrine amounts to.” (19) This, we might add, is what Christian wholeness amounts to as well. If this is what it means to embrace the whole counsel of God, then what might it mean to embrace the whole people of God?

The confession of Jesus as Lord is the fundamental unifying principle of the church’s catholicity, the authoritative center that defines the circumference of this society’s reach (1 Cor. 1:2). Particular congregations may instance more or less pure expressions of this confession and, in certain cases, may so betray this confession as to become false churches (Rev. 2–3). (20) All endeavors aimed at extending fellowship between churches must flow from this confession (Eph. 4:5) and must aim at deepening our mutual embrace of this confession (Eph. 4:13). (21)

This is why the well-meaning but naive counsel to minimize theological differences between churches for the sake of deepening catholic society is futile. At the end of the day, the result of such a strategy is to sacrifice catholic society as well. As Vermigli observes, Christian unity is “worthless without the unity of faith.” (22) “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)—this is the gift and calling of true Christian ecumenism, of true catholic unity among churches. Catholic substance provides ballast to catholic society.

Only a mature grasp of the content of the Christian faith, wedded to a spirit of brotherly love, is up to the task of discerning where real agreements and disagreements exist between various churches, how we might capitalize on agreements, and how we might overcome—or at least learn to tolerate where possible—disagreements. Mature theological judgments on these matters made by mature Christians are the means to the kind of mature Christian unity that Paul envisions in Ephesians 4:13: “Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

In many cases, doctrinal differences are not the barrier to deeper expressions of catholic fellowship. Instead, pedestrian social sins pose the major roadblock. Rivalry, suspicion, and lack of brotherly love inhibit catholic society among God’s people. Whenever and wherever these sins are observed, we do not need to appoint a denominational committee to realize catholic wholeness. We need to repent.

In other cases, churches suffer from more vicious, more deeply ingrained habits of social disintegration such as racism, resentment between social classes, and so forth. These vicious habits are sins against our baptism (Gal. 3:27–28) that must be exorcised in obedience to our baptismal vow, renouncing Satan and all his pomp. In their place, virtues—such as godliness, justice, and temperance (Titus 2:11–14)—along with love in all its forms (1 Cor. 13) must be cultivated in view of Christ’s first and second comings. “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:8).

In considering opportunities for deepening catholic fellowship between churches, it is also important to remember, as Herman Bavinck observed over a century ago, that not every denominational difference constitutes an actual ecclesiastical division. (23) Differences of geography, language, culture, and even ecclesiastical order may, in certain cases, be cherished as signs of Christ’s universal Lordship over all peoples in all places.


The catholicity of the church is both gift and task. It is a gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be received by faith (Eph. 4:5), and it is a task of Christian love to be pursued with all humility, gentleness, and patience (Eph. 4:2). The catholicity of the church is also an object of Christian hope, ultimately guaranteed not by the faith and love of the church but by the Lord himself who gave his life for the church and effectually intercedes on its behalf, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). In the Spirit of the Son, we may ask the Father for the fulfillment of this hope as well.

May our most great and wonderful God, who begat his own eternal Son Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, by eternal generation and sanctifies him to us by eternal predestination, that he may be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption—may that same God also bestow upon us the spirit of wisdom, that growing stronger by his power we may increase in the saving treasures of this knowledge and wisdom unto the unity of faith and recognition of him, until we become a complete man according to the proper measure of the stature which is fitting for that most distinguished and glorious body in Christ Jesus our head and Savior, for his glory. Amen. (24)

Scott R. Swain is president and the James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida. He is author of The Trinity: An Introduction (Crossway, 2020) and editor, with Michael Allen, of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology (Oxford University Press, 2020).

  • Scott R. Swain

1. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381).
2. Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed,” in The Peter Martyr Reader, ed. John Patrick Donnelly, S.J., Frank A. James III, and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 36.
3. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18.23.
4. Te Deum Laudamus.
5. Augustine, Faith and the Creed, in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Volume 8: On Christian Belief, ed. Boniface Ramsey (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2005), 171.
6. Herman Witsius, “On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism in the Case of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under the Covenant,” MJT 17 (2006), 187.
7. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2.
8. Augustine, Enchiridion, in The Works of Saint Augustine, 275.
9. Augustine, Enchiridion, 274.
10. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, in Works on the Holy Spirit: Athanasius the Great and Didymus the Blind (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 96. According to Athanasius (97), the Lord laid “the foundation of the Church” when he commissioned the apostles to baptize the nations in the Triune name.
11. Augustine, Faith and the Creed, 171.
12. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.1–2.
13. Vermigli, “Commentary,” 36–38.
14. Adolf von Harnack, What Is Christianity? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).
15. Martin Luther, “Preface to The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 348.
16. See Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 164–70.
17. Augustine, Enchiridion, 275, 274.
18. Augustine, Enchiridion, 274.
19. Augustine, Enchiridion, 275.
20. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.4–5.
21. Westminster Confession of Faith, 26.2.
22. Vermigli, “Commentary,” 36.
23. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:317–19.
24. Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 234.
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