The Church Will Not Fail (Witsius)

Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles' Creed (2 Volumes) In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that we believe “a holy catholic church.”  Catholic here means universal or worldwide.  But what does it mean to say that we believe a holy catholic church?  Notice that it doesn’t say “we believe in the holy catholic church.”  The Creed doesn’t call the Church a Savior or the object of our faith.  Instead, we confess that we believe there is such a thing as a holy catholic church that belongs to Jesus.  Dutch Reformed pastor-theologian Herman Witsius (d. 1708) wrote some helpful comments on this:

When we affirm, therefore, that we believe the Church, we profess, that there has existed from the beginning of time, still exists, and will continue to the end of the world to exist, a society of men chosen by God to salvation, called by the Gospel and the Spirit, professing faith and piety with the mouth, and practicing them in the conduct. We declare, also, that neither the machinations of the world that lieth in wickedness, nor the gates of hell, shall ever prevail against this society.

For it is utterly impossible that the decree of God should fail;
that the promises of God should come to nought;
that the word of salvation should be preached in vain;
that the prophecies respecting the perpetuity of Christ’s kingdom should fall to the ground;
or that Christ should lose the reward of his labor, and become a Master without disciples,
a King without subjects,
a Bridegroom without a bride,
a Head without a body.

(Witsius cites 2 Tim. 2.19, Mt. 16.18, Is. 55.10-11, Ps. 45.6, Dan. 2.44, Lk 1.33, and Is 54.5-6)

Herman Witsius and Donald Fraser, Sacred Dissertations, on What Is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed, vol. 2 (London: Khull, Blackie & Co., 1823), 362.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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6 comments on “The Church Will Not Fail (Witsius)

  1. Alan Beagley says:

    If the “Apostles’ Creed” said what Witsius says it says, maybe it would mean what he says it means.

    In fact, however, it does express belief *in* the holy catholic church:

    “Πιστεύω *εις* το Πνυμα το `Αγιον, αγίαν καθολικην εκκλησίαν,…”

    “Credo *in* Spiritum Sanctum; sanctam ecclesiam catholicam;…”

    And in most English translations:

    “I believe *in* the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church;…”

    • Thanks for the comment, Alan. I don’t think the preposition “in” is meant to include the phrases after “the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t say I believe in the church, I believe in the communion of saints, etc. See also the Nicene Creed, which says, “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church….” The object of faith is not the church or the fellowship of the saints, but the triune God.

      Thanks,
      Shane

      • Alan Beagley says:

        If the εις/in/in were not intended to apply to “the holy catholic church” as well as to “the Holy Spirit”, it was worded very carelessly: the verb (Πιστεύω/credo/believe) should have been repeated and followed directly by the objects *without* the prepositions.

        The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is very clear: the verb occurs just once, at the very beginning, and eventually we get to “*εἰς* μίαν ἁγίαν καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν·”

        • I’m not sure of your point, Alan, sorry. Are you saying the Creed is unbiblical and unorthodox since it makes us confess that we have the same faith in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as we have in the church and communion of saints? Or are you saying we indeed should have faith in the church and communion of saints?
          Thanks for any clarification.
          Shane

  2. Alan Beagley says:

    I did notice the sparse diacritics in the Greek but only just noticed the misspelling: Πνυμα for Πνευμα.

  3. Alan Beagley says:

    I mean that those who wrote our creeds believed that the “holy catholic [and apostolic] church” was an entity in which we should put our trust (it is, after all, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” and Christ said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”). They were not saying merely that they believed that there is such a thing as that church.

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