The phrase “catholic church” in the Apostles’ Creed is a reference to God’s people throughout history from all different tribes, tongues, and nations. Of course this phrase, “catholic church” is also used by the papacy, which calls its church “The Roman Catholic Church.” But how can a church be tied so closely to a geographical place (Rome) and single person (the Pope) and still be truly catholic?
Herman Bavinck pointed out this inconsistency in volume four of his Reformed Dogmatics. He noted that the terms “Roman” and “catholic” are “mutually contradictory.” He said,
The Roman Catholic Church makes the faith and salvation of humans dependent on a specific place and on a specific person and thereby fails to do justice to the catholicity of Christianity. The name “Roman” or “papal church” therefore expresses its nature much more accurately than “Catholic.”
Bavinck then went on to explain what catholicity truly means:
As a rule, people understand it (“catholic church”) to mean the universal church, which embraces all true believers and is manifest in varying degrees of purity in various churches, or the New Testament church, which… is meant for all peoples and places on earth.
The word “catholic” does not occur in Scripture. But the texts to which the church fathers appeal for the catholicity of the church (such as Gen. 12:3; Ps. 2:8; Isa. 2:2; Jer. 3:17; Mal. 1:11; Matt. 8:11; 28:19; John 10:16; Rom. 1:8; 10:18; Eph. 2:14; Col. 1:6; Rev. 7:9; and so forth) prove that its meaning consists especially in the fact that Christianity is a world religion suited and intended for every people and age, for every class and rank, for every time and place. That church is most catholic that most clearly expresses in its confession and applies in its practice this international and cosmopolitan character of the Christian religion. The Reformed had an eye for it when in various countries and churches they confessed the truth in an indigenous, free, and independent manner and at the Synod of Dort invited delegates from all over Reformed Christianity.
I agree; a truly catholic church will not be dependent upon a certain place or person. An I appreciate Bavinck’s notes that the Christian religion is a “world” religion suited for all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Or, as it says in Scripture, the church Christ died for is an innumerable multitude from all tribes, peoples, and languages (Rev. 7:9).
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