One, Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic – the Marks of the Early Church

On Sunday we read the Nicene Creed together as a prayer.  This ancient confession of faith that flowed from the Council of Nicea in the fourth century has been used by churches throughout history as an accurate explanation of the central truths of the Christian faith.  But I did see a few eyebrows raised and have had some questions over one phrase in the creed, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,”  Of course, for many in our congregation and in the St. Louis area the term catholic refers to the Roman Catholic Church, represented by Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and the other leaders.  This really was not the meaning intended by the use of these phrases as it is placed in this and other early creeds.  Rather, as the early church wrestled with the early heresies they encountered in the second and third centuries they also began to define four marks of the true church.  These four marks were that the church was one, holy, apostolic, and catholic.  Here’s a little bit about the original meaning, and also the meaning we hold as we read this together.

One – before the church is represented by the local body of believers in a given city, it is a universal and eternal people bought by Christ.  Calvin would later refer to this One Church as the church invisible, made up of all believers in all places and in all times.  This term stressed the ultimate unity of the people who had been bought with the blood of Christ and delivered from sin.

Holy – God’s people are a holy people, a royal priesthood, a people for God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9).  The church is holy because as a people we are set apart for the glory and purpose of God.  And the church will demonstrate holiness in their lives by living with different values and morals.

Apostolic – As heresies arose the importance of the teaching of the apostles became paramount.  Apostolic succession was important, not so much in terms of official people who held an office, but in terms of a bishop or local church holding to the core truths that were passed on by the apostles.  While heresies such as Marcionism, Gnosticism, and Docetism became a threat to the early church, Christians responded by developing creeds and baptismal confessions affirming the teaching passed on by the Apostles.  The most well known of these is the Apostle’s Creed. In baptismal confessions, candidates were asked about their belief in God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, born of the virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen, ascended, and coming again.  And they were asked to affirm belief in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the dead.  The point here is that what the early church meant by apostolic meant that believers affirmed the core teachings passed on in the Scriptures from the Apostles, including the belief in the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, and the atonement purchased by Jesus on the cross.

Catholic – Notice in the creed catholic is not capitalized.  Catholic in this creed is not a reference to Roman Catholic.  The word literally means “universal” or “according to the whole”.  So, on one level, this is an affirmation of the universal church.  A local church is part of a greater whole.  But it also referred to a true church that received the whole.

“To separate itself from various heretical groups and sects, the ancient church began calling itself ‘catholic.’  This title underscored both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood.  It was the church ‘according to the whole,’ that is according to the total witness of all the apostles.  The various Gnostic groups were not ‘catholic’ because they could not claim this broad foundation…  Only the church ‘catholic,’ the church ‘according to the whole,’ could lay claim to the entire apostolic witness.” (Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. P. 66)

So, what do we mean by affirming the one, holy, apostolic, catholic Church?  At Genesis we can comfortably recite the Nicene Creed and see ourselves as a part of this great people of God, chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Spirit.


We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Comments are closed.