Catechism: The Church’s Notes or Attributes (Historical)

Previous section: The Notes or Attributes of the Church.

§ 3. Historical

1. What has been the significance of the notes in ecclesiastical history?

The term was early used to define the church by its marks of prerogative and distinction. But it gradually came to denote the tests by which the true church was distinguished from the false.

2. How is this illustrated by the four notes in the early creeds?

In the Apostles’ the notes are “holy, catholic;” in the Nicene “catholic”; in the Constantinopolitan, “one, catholic, apostolic.” Each is an attribute of excellence, and a watchword of discrimination from some heresy of the day.

3. Why do we not limit ourselves to these?

Because the relations of the church are much changed; and the additional characteristics have acquired much importance, especially since the reformation. Around these notes hang almost all ecclesiastical controversies.

4. What controversies are touched by the note of unity?

The question between unity and uniformity; and that between unity and schism.

(1) As to the former, the will of the Spirit has been declared from the beginning: there has never been one outward form of Christianity in the world since the early centuries. It has been found vain to aim at a national uniformity; or even to maintain uniformity in any one place. However desirable that might seem, the One Head of the church has become the Head of manifold and various churches, using them all for the edification of the saints, for the maintenance of the truth, and for the diffusion of the gospel.

(2) As to the latter: schism is in the New Testament a great sin; and therefore it is wrong to break the uniformity of the church. From an apostate church separation is a duty; but, whether this separation be personal or of communities, it must be the last resort, and involves deep responsibility.

5. How does this apply to modern Christendom?

The state of the Christian religion shows that there is no true unity save that which is spiritual. Uniformity is the watchword of the old communions: the Oriental, however, counts Romanism a schism; and Romanism counts all bodies schisms which do not submit to the chair of St. Peter. National churches are generally based on the principle of exclusiveness, but sooner or later they are constrained to abandon this.

6. How does the note of sanctity involve controversy?

Mainly through the question of discipline: which must have as its main principle the maintenance of the internal purity of the church; but at the same time must remember that the fellowship as such has an external and relative holiness.

7. What are the specific bearings of this on ecclesiastical history?

These must be viewed in connection with the note of visibility and its counterpart.

(1) The visible church is only holy at best by imputation. But this truth has been perverted: by making external union with the community suffice; by relaxation of discipline: and by neglect of fences around holy ordinances.

(2) The invisible church, in Christ, is truly sanctified. But this truth has been perverted: by those who have in all ages made membership dependent on experience and confession of spiritual renewal; and have accordingly drawn the line too sharply between the church and the congregation.

8. How does this bear on societies within the church?

From the beginning these have been a refuge from a church too much like the world, and taking two lines: one, the retreat into religious orders, following the “counsels of perfection”; another, more especially since the reformation dawned, seeking more intimate fellowship and mutual supervision in voluntary associations.

9. What has been the general course of these interior societies?

Some have declined and withered away; some have had a long and healthy existence, as in Germany; and some, finally, have become themselves separate churches. Of this last the Methodist Societies are the most remarkable instance in the history of Christendom.

10. Why the most remarkable?

Because they have to a great extent succeeded in combining all the essentials of a Christian church and of a society within the church: their Class-meeting organisation being the centre of the latter.

11. How has the note of catholicity been applied?

In the early creeds the word catholic was used to signify the one universal body as opposed to fragmentary and isolated heresies and schisms. It then had a good meaning; as the bodies representing errors which the several articles of the creeds condemned were really separations from the true church. But since the falling asunder of Eastern and Western Christendom there has been no catholic visible church strictly one in external representation.

12. What is here the relation of heresy to schism?

The term schism (σχίσμα) means division viewed as to the corporate body, the term heresy (αἵρεσις) makes prominent the private judgment which leads to it. But the history of Christianity shews that the words must be applied with discrimination: they have been more abused than almost any others.

13. What principles of discrimination are necessary?

(1) It should be remembered that schism is not chargeable on the mere fact of separation: the body departed from may so act as to render the separation necessary; and separated bodies, called sects, have had the seal of Divine approval in their subsequent history.

(2) The term heresy is indefinite; Christianity was called a Heresy; and the only use of the word now valid is to note those communions which have departed from the essentials of New-Testament doctrine (Acts 24:14).

(3) Every church is responsible for its maintenance of the catholic doctrine against heresy, and of the catholic spirit against schism.

14. What have been the bearings of the note of apostolicity?

At first it was the mark of churches founded by apostles or their authority; then it became the mark of fidelity to apostolic teaching. The latter use it retains.

15. What errors have crept in with regard to this?

Mainly, that which is based on an erroneous view of apostolical succession: the theory, namely, (1) that the authority of the apostles has descended in lineal succession through the bishops; (2) that the primacy of St. Peter has descended through the line of the bishops of Rome; and (3) that the true church can be found only where this descent can be traced, at least in its broad outlines.

16. What is the effect of this?

Unlimited confusion and uncertainty. As applied by Rome, it excludes from Christendom all the Eastern churches before the Reformation, and the entire Protestant world since; as applied by other episcopal communities, it cuts off all non-episcopal communions, and makes their own position very doubtful, even on their own principles.

17. How does the article of “the communion of saints” bear on the whole subject of the notes?

(1) As an article of faith, it asserts that all true Christians believe in their common fellowship with the Holy Trinity in Christ, with the whole community of true believers in the past and present, on earth and in heaven; and in the reality of a mystical oneness in spite of many and wide divisions.

(2) As a confession of that faith it involves the responsibility of using all means to lessen divisions and promote brotherly love: by embracing every opportunity of cooperation for the spread of the Redeemer’s kingdom, which is the one end for which the several churches exist.

This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Higher Catechism of Theology. Read more in Logos Bible Software or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).