The Protestant view of the Church is certainly expressed in that article of the Apostles’ Creed which reads: “I believe an holy catholic church.” Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian’ Religion, writing on the “Church,” and specifically setting forth the meaning of the article: “I believe an holy catholic church,” writes as follows (Book IV, Chapter I, paragraph II, and we quote: “That article of the Creed, in which we profess to, believe THE CHURCH, refers not only to the visible Church of which we are now speaking, but likewise to all the elect of God, including the dead as well as the living. The word BELIEVE is used, because it is often impossible to discover any difference between the children of God and the ungodly, between his peculiar flock and wild beasts. The particle IN, interpolated by many, is not supported by any probable reason. I confess that it is generally adopted at present, and is not destitute of the suffrage of antiquity, being found in the Nicene Creed, as it is transmitted to us in ecclesiastical history. Yet it is evident from the writings of the fathers, that it was anciently admitted without controversy to say, ‘I believe the Church,’ not ‘in the Church.’ For not only is this word not used by Augustine and the ancient writer of the work ‘On the Exposition of the Creed,’ which passes under the name of Cyprian, but they particularly remark that there would be an impropriety in the expression, if this preposition were inserted; and they confirm their opinion by no trivial reason. For we declare that we believe in God because our mind depends upon him as true, and our confidence rests in him. But this would not be applicable to the Church, any more than to ‘the remission of sins,’ of the ‘resurrection of the body.’ Therefore, though I am averse to contentions about words, yet I would rather adopt a proper phraseology adapted to express the subject than affect forms of expression by which the subject would be unnecessarily involved in obscurity. The design of this clause is to teach us, that though the devil moves every engine to, destroy the grace of Christ, and all the enemies of God exert the most furious violence in the same attempt, yet his grace cannot possibly be extinguished, nor can his blood be rendered barren, so as not to produce some fruit. Here we must regard both the secret election of God, and his internal vocation; because he alone ‘knoweth them that are his’; and keeps them enclosed under his ‘seal,’ to use the expression of Paul; except that they bear his impression, by which they may be distinguished from the reprobate. But because a small and contemptible number is concealed among a vast multitude, and a few grains of wheat are covered with a heap of chaff, we must leave to God alone the knowledge of his Church whose foundation is his secret election, Nor is it sufficient to include in our thoughts and minds the whole multitude of the elect, unless we conceive of such a unity of the Church, into which we know ourselves to be truly engrafted. For unless we are united with all the other members under Christ our Head, we can have no hope of the future inheritance. Therefore the Church is called CATHOLIC, or universal; because there could not be two or three churches, without Christ being divided, which is impossible. But all the elect of God are so connected with each other in Christ, that as they depend upon one head, so they grow up together as into one body, compacted together like members of the same body; being made truly one, as living by one faith, hope, and charity, through the same Divine Spirit, being called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but also to a participation of one God and Christ. Therefore, though the melancholy desolation which surrounds us, seems to proclaim that there is nothing left of the Church, let us remember that the death of Christ is fruitful, and that God wonderfully preserves his Church as it were in hiding-places; according to what he said to Elijah: ‘I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal’.”—end of quote.
The Church of God is therefore an object of faith: “I believe an holy catholic church.” How drastically this view differs from the Romish conception of the Church, namely that the Church is a company of men externally bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith, the same sacraments (seven), and under the government of legitimate pastors, especially the pope. That the church is, the object of faith and can be embraced only by faith is readily understandable. First, it is the object of faith because of its catholicity. The church is catholic, universal. The Church is constituted of an innumerable host, greater than the stars in the sky, the sand along the seashore, the dust upon the ground. The Church consists of an innumerable number of elect, of the past and the present and the future. This Church we cannot possibly see. All we can see is an insignificantly, infinitesimally small segment of it. To, confess an holy, catholic, universal church surely means that we confess something that appears utterly contrary to what the eye can see.
Secondly, this article of the Apostles’ Creed is an object of faith because it expresses that we believe anholy catholic church. This surely defies all human understanding. That the Church of God is holy means that it is completely separated from all sin and pollution and is wholly consecrated unto the Lord. However, all that we see is sinful and corrupt and defiled. One could never conclude from the appearance of the people of God in the midst of the world that the Church of God is an holy catholic church; pure and perfect and undefiled. That the Church of God is holy is therefore something that can only be believed. It is strictly an object of faith.
Thirdly, we believe an holy, catholic church. We do not believe in holy churches, but in an holy church. Hence, the Church of God is one. This is surely the testimony of Holy Writ. We read in Eph. 4:3-7: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” And in I Cor. 12:1-14 we read: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy: to another discerning of spirits: to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.” How contrary this is to all human understanding experience! To be sure, for several centuries of the New Dispensation there was only one Church of Christ. The first great schism in the New Dispensation occurred in the middle of the eleventh century when the church in the East (the Greek church) broke away from the Church in the West (the Latin church). And the next great division took place in the sixteenth century at the time of the Reformation. Hence, prior to 1517 there was, at least in the West and in name, only one Church of God in Christ in the midst of the world. But with the movement of the Reformation came division. The Protestant Church broke up subsequently into hundreds of fragments. Today we witness a tremendous number of churches: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, and these churches are again cut up and subdivided into many segments and branches. How many different churches are there not which subscribe to the same Three Forms of Unity to which we also, as Protestant Reformed churches, subscribe? The Roman Catholic Church prides itself in the fact that it is one, and declares that Protestantism must stand condemned because of the hopeless division which characterizes it. And yet we believe in the oneness of the Church, believe that there is only one God, one Christ, one Spirit, one baptism, and that therefore the elect Body of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be, is not characterized by division, but by unity. In the Church of God is no, discord, no division, only unity and harmony. This is surely in conflict with that which greets the eye. All we see is division. Indeed, we can only believe that the Church is one.
And this is not all. Fourthly, when we believe an holy catholic church, we also believe that this catholic, universal Church of God in Christ is destined for eternal and heavenly immortality. We believe that the people of God live, cannot die, and shall live forever. To quote the Scripture in support of this is surely unnecessary. But, also this is contrary to all human life and experience. What we see and experience is exactly the opposite! We are mortal, natural, subject to all the ravages of sin, of disease and death. We are not incorruptible but corruptible, not heavenly but earthy, not immortal but mortal. Dying we die, and our journey through this vale of tears carries us irresistibly from the cradle to the grave. This is the indisputable testimony of our earthly existence. And yet we believe that the Church of God is an holy catholic church, called out of sin and darkness and death and into the life of God’s everlasting covenant, to, live with God in Christ and to reign with Him even forever. It is therefore not difficult to understand the apostle Paul when he writes: Behold, I show you a mystery. A mystery is not necessarily something incomprehensible (although there are mysteries that are incomprehensible); it is surely not a contradiction, because a mystery cannot live; but a mystery is something which lies completely beyond the scope of all our earthly existence. And this is surely applicable to the faith of the Church when it believes “one holy catholic church.”
This is, first of all, the Protestant view of the Church. The Church of God is surely an object of faith. It is not simply an external company of men, professing the same faith, using the same sacraments, under legitimate pastors, especially the pope. It is the elect Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, chosen from before the foundation of the world, destined for everlasting life and immortality, one in love and agreeing in true faith, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Building of God, the one fold of Christ, called to proclaim the praises and virtues of the alone glorious God.