I Believe in the Church
This last Sunday was communion Sunday at Christ Church (the church we attend in Edinburgh). Unlike Parish where I am the assistant pastor, Christ Church partakes in communion one week every month. At Parish we would take communion every week. However, at both churches before we come to the table we confess our faith together. That confession of faith usually takes the form of reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; The holy catholic church; The communion of saints; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body; And the life everlasting. Amen.
It is easy when saying this week in and week out to skip over words and phrases (in fact, it is funny how often certain words (usually prepositions) are routine skipped, replaced, or added by the entire congregation at times). However, this week the phrase ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’ struck me. What does it mean to say that I believe in the church? In what sense do I mean that? Can I even say this?
As you can imagine there are numerous debates surrounding this phrase. Calvin in the Institutes denies that we actually confess a belief ‘in’ the church and prefers to read it as ‘I believe the church’ (IV.1.2). There is a polemical reason to agree with Calvin in this. As a Protestant, I am hesitant to say ‘I believe in the holy catholic church ’ in the same way that I believe in the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe in the church that way. A confession that puts the church and the Spirit on the same level is committing the error of placing the teaching of the church on an equally authoritative plane as the Holy Spirit inspired Scriptures. This seems to be Calvin’s point.
However, Michael Allen in an essay in the book Theologies of Retrieval notes the positive side of reading this clause ‘I believe the holy catholic church’. Allen says that in saying this we are looking to a way in which we understand the testimony of the church throughout the ages. Whereas the first clause ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ points both to the person of the Holy Spirit and his work, not least in inspiring the Scriptures, the second clause points to the way in which we believe the faithful witness of the church throughout the ages. Thus, when saying ‘I believe the holy catholic church’, we are saying ‘I believe the orthodox faith that the church has been confessed by every Christian, at all times, in all places.’
Allen’s proposal is attractive, and I think to extent some there is validity to what he proposes. However, I want to suggest that keeping the ‘in’ in the phrase ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’ encompasses what Allen is getting at and more. To believe in a holy catholic church is an act of faith. One can look around and the church looks far from holy. All too often the church is tied up in the things of this world and does not look like a people set apart for the purposes of God. I am sure we all know people who would say something akin to ‘I love Jesus. I don’t love the church.’ Usually this sentiment comes from some sort of deep hurt that the church has propagated which is often tied to the church not being holy. To believe in the holiness of the church is an act of faith.
Likewise, to believe in the catholic (i.e. one universal) church is also an act of faith. The empirical evidence seems to prove that the church is anything but one and universal. Just looking at the proliferation of denominations among my people (the Presbyterians) we would wonder in what sense is the church one. To say, that I believe in the catholicity of the church, is an act of faith.
However, this is just what is required to live our lives in the church; faith. To enter into and live life with God, means that we enter into and live life with God’s people, the church. Entering into this life requires faith. The encouraging piece of news in all of this, however, is that the church is built on, built up, and sustained by the Triune God. In eternity past the Father laid the plan for the church to be built. The Son executed this plan promising to build His church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Spirit purifies and perfects this church which is built on Christ, the cornerstone. When we declare that we believe ‘in the holy catholic church’, we declare that we believe this truth. That though we do not see it now, we live in faith. We declare that we believe the covenant promise of God that we hear over and over again in the Bible (‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’).
To declare ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’ requires faith. It points us back to the testimony of the faithful ones in the past saying that we believe what they have said. It causes us to look at ourselves now and call out to the Lord to make us what he told us we are - ‘one and holy’. It gives us hope that one day in the future the church, ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1:23), the bride of Christ, will be presented as the spotless bride of Christ. When we declare this, we declare a truth that can only be believed in faith because it is contrary to all of the empirical data.
This is one reason why we confess of the Apostles’ Creed on the days we take the Lord’s Supper. They both require faith. They both point us back to a work that has been accomplished. They both require us to examine ourselves even now. They both point us forward in hope to a day when all that God has promised to us is accomplished and we will behold him face to face.
So, while I may not see it now and it often seems counter-intuitive by faith I will confess ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’.