A perennial issue in our discussions with Roman Catholics is the issue of whether, in addition to believing God’s word in Scripture, we ought also to trust (in a similar way) in the church. While nothing in Scripture suggests that the church is another rule of faith in addition to Scripture, such that we would accord the church the same credence we give to God and his written word, we are sometimes presented with folks who want to latch onto the creeds.
The so-called Apostles’ Creed (not formulated by them, as some have supposed, but taken from the Scriptures that they left behind for us) includes a phrase regarding the “Holy Catholic Church,” which is often seen as problematic for those who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the creed. The usual way in which this section of the creed is recited in English-speaking churches that recite it is thus:
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
Grammar of the Creed
The grammar of the creed makes a distinction that is not immediately apparent in English. What we “believe in” is God. He is the one in whom we trust. Thus, we “believe in” the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In contrast, we believe that there is a holy catholic church (not the Roman Catholic church, but the universal body of Christ: all those who believe on the name of the Lord), that the saints (by which mean again those who believe) ought to commune together until the Lord’s return, that sins are forgiven by God on the merits of Christ, that the body will be resurrected and re-united to the soul, and that heaven will be eternal. Thus, we are not saying that we trust in the church despite the ambiguity of the English wording (as well as the ambiguity of the wording of the Constantinoplean Creed).
Perhaps it would be helpful to have more than the word of a pseudonymous blogger on this grammatical point. In Creeds of Christendom, historian Philip Schaff explains it this way:
Then, changing the language (credo in for credo with the simple accusative), the Creed professes to believe ‘the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’
– Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1, Chapter 2, Section 7
Paschasius’ or Faustus’ Testimony
The significance of this distinction was not lost on the ancients. Indeed, when we draw this distinction (which today we refer to as Sola Scriptura) we are in agreement with those ancient Christians whose writings have survived (even one from the Rome of that day, which had not descended to the depths of Rome today):
Paschasius, Deacon of Rome (flourished about A.D. 491 – 512) wrote:
Therefore thou sayest, ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,’ because, in supplying the little syllable in, dost thou attempt to produce great darkness? We believe the Catholic Church as the mother of regeneration; we do not believe in the Church as in the Author of salvation. For when the universal Church confesses this of the Holy Ghost, can she also believe in herself? … He who believes in the Church believes in man. For man is not of the Church, but the Church began to be from man. Desist therefore from this blasphemous persuasion, to think that thou oughtest to believe in any human creature: since thou must not in anywise believe in an angel or archangel … We believe the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, everlasting life … The unskillfulness of some have drawn, and taken the preposition ‘in’ from the sentence going next before, and put it to that which follows, imprudently adding thereto more than needed.
– Paschasius, Deacon of Rome, Two Books on the Holy Spirit, Book 1, Chapter 1 (This work is sometimes alternatively ascribed to Faustus of Riez who flourished from about A.D. 433 – 485)
We see the same thing from Rufinus, about a century earlier, who made roughly the same point.
Tyrannius Rufinus (lived about A.D. 344 – 410) explains with reference to the Apostles’ creed:
“The Holy Church; The Forgiveness of Sin, the Resurrection of This Flesh.” It is not said, “In the holy Church,” nor “In the forgiveness of sins,” nor “In the resurrection of the flesh.” For if the preposition “in” had been added, it would have had the same force as in the preceding articles. But now in those clauses in which the faith concerning the Godhead is declared, we say “In God the Father,” and “In Jesus Christ His Son,” and “In the Holy Ghost,” but in the rest, where we speak not of the Godhead but of creatures and mysteries, the preposition “in ” is not added. We do not say “We believe in the holy Church,” but “We believe the holy Church,” not as God, but as the Church gathered together to God: and we believe that there is “forgiveness of sins;” we do not say “We believe in the forgiveness of sins;” and we believe that there will be a “Resurrection of the flesh;” we do not say “We believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” By this monosyllabic preposition, therefore, the Creator is distinguished from the creatures, and things divine are separated from things human.
– Rufinus of Aquileia, A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, Section 36
While we would certainly have some disagreements with the much later writings of Thomas Aquinas, we find some similar sentiments in his discussion:
Objection 5. Further, Augustine (Tract. xxix in Joan.) expounding the passage, “You believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1) says: “We believe Peter or Paul, but we speak only of believing ‘in’ God.” Since then the Catholic Church is merely a created being, it seems unfitting to say: “In the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
Reply to Objection 5. If we say: “‘In’ the holy Catholic Church,” this must be taken as verified in so far as our faith is directed to the Holy Ghost, Who sanctifies the Church; so that the sense is: “I believe in the Holy Ghost sanctifying the Church.” But it is better and more in keeping with the common use, to omit the ‘in,’ and say simply, “the holy Catholic Church,” as Pope Leo [Rufinus, Comm. in Sym. Apost.] observes.
– Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 2b, Question 1, Article 9
Notice how Aquinas agrees with the substance of the objection while seeking to find an acceptable sense for the words.
The idea of arguing that one should be “believe in” the church from the creed is an anachronistic misuse of the creed. It is as anachronistic as supposing that the term “Holy Catholic Church” was supposed to refer to the Roman Catholic church. Both the grammar of the creed (as noted by Schaff) as well as early Christian authors and even the most notable medieval scholastic.
With Alexander of Alexandria (died about A.D. 326), we affirm that we believe in the existence of only one body of Christ, relying on the authority of Scripture:
“And in addition to this pious belief respecting the Father and the Son, we confess as the Sacred Scriptures teach us, one Holy Ghost, who moved the saints of the Old Testament, and the divine teachers of that which is called the New. We believe in one only Catholic Church, the apostolical, which cannot be destroyed even though all the world were to take counsel to fight against it, and which gains the victory over all the impious attacks of the heterodox; for we are emboldened by the words of its Master, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world [John xvi. 33].’ After this, we receive the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead, of which Jesus Christ our Lord became the first-fruits; Who bore a Body, in truth, not in semblance, derived from Mary the mother of God (ἐκ τῆς Θεοτόκου Μαρίας); in the fulness of time sojourning among the race, for the remission of sins: who was crucified and died, yet for all this suffered no diminution of His Godhead. He rose from the dead, was taken into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
– The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Chapter III, The Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople.
How can we know whether a church is part of the Church? If it is apostolical. How can we tell if something is apostolical? Look at the books left behind by the apostles. Human successors can pervert the path of those who went before them, but the unchanging Word of God found in Scripture is the alone reliable measure of apostolicity and catholicity (in the true sense of the term).