Reformed believers officially confess to believe the apostolicity of the church. The Nicene Creed is one of our official creeds, and in this creed we confess to believe “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Thus it is very important that we understand the meaning of the church’s apostolicity, so that we may confess this truth with understanding from the heart.
When considering the apostolicity of the church we once again make a distinction between the church as the universal body of the elect and the church as an institute upon this earth. First of all, it is the church as the universal body of the elect that is apostolic. The passages cited below to prove the apostolicity of the church refer to the church as the universal body of Christ. But this truth also applies to the church as institute, and thus it is proper to refer to a faithful church upon this earth as an apostolic church.
The Apostolic Church: the Church Holding to the Apostolic Doctrine
That the church is apostolic means that it is built upon the truth set forth by the apostles in the New Testament. Apostolicity has to do with the very foundation of the church. A true church is built upon the Truth, since Christ is the Truth, and this Truth has been set forth infallibly for us by the divinely inspired apostles in the New Testament.
The Scriptures make specific reference to this in a number of places. First, there is Ephesians 2:20, which says that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” Here the truth revealed through “the apostles and prophets” is referred to as the foundation of the church. The prophets referred to in this passage were the inspired prophets of Paul’s day, as is evident from the other references to “the prophets” in the book of Ephesians (cf. Eph. 3:5; 4:11).
In Revelation 21:14, we read the following symbolic description of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem: “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Clearly the reference here is to the apostles not as mere men, but as ambassadors of Christ who spoke the words of Christ. To be built upon the apostles is to be built upon the truth spoken and written by the apostles.
That this is the idea is found more explicitly elsewhere in Scripture. In Acts 2:42, we read that the believers in the new dispensation “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship.” Still today the believers are those who remain “in the apostles’ doctrine.” A church that is truly apostolic is one that continues to proclaim the same truth that the apostles proclaimed and wrote down infallibly in the New Testament Scriptures.
Apostolicity & the Relation of the New Testament to the Old
But if the church is built upon the truth set forth by the apostles in the New Testament, what does that mean for the Old Testament? Obviously it does not mean that the New Testament writings are the only ones to which we hold. Rather, it means that when one is holding to the truth set forth by the apostles in the New Testament, he is, in fact, also holding to the truth set forth in the Old Testament, since it is the same truth taught in both the Old and New Testaments. In addition to this, however, it does mean that there is a certain priority to the New Testament. It is in the New Testament that we have a divinely inspired explanation of what is taught in the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, the truth of the Trinity is taught in the Old Testament, but in our creeds we confess that this truth “which appears to us somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is very plain in the New” (Belgic Confession, Article 9).
To reject the New Testament explanation of the Old Testament is really to deny the apostolicity of the church. For example, there are many who take the Old Testament promises concerning all nations coming to Christ, and say that these promises are teaching that one day soon every nation on this earth will be governed by Christian rulers. Such people try to prove their position by quoting frequently from the Old Testament, while ignoring the apostolic explanation of these promises that is found in the New Testament. The apostles said that the promises concerning all nations coming to Christ are fulfilled when a remnant from the different nations is converted and believes in Jesus (Acts 15:17). The rejection of this is a rejection of the truth of Scripture and very really a rejection of the apostolicity of the church.
A Succession of the Truth, not of Persons
The Romish church says that she alone is the apostolic church because, so she claims, there is a continuous line of succession from the present pope back to the apostle Peter, and from the bishops in the Romish church back to the other apostles. Peter, they say, was the first pope and the rock upon which their church is built. To prove this, they have invented a long line of popes, starting with Peter and ending with their present leader, Pope John Paul II.
Contrary to this, we say that maintaining the truth taught by the apostles is what is important. Let us say, just for the purpose of argument, that Peter was the first pastor of the church in Rome. This would by no means prove that the Romish church today is an apostolic church. All around the world there are churches that once had faithful pastors proclaiming the truth of the gospel, which now have completely apostatized. We know from the epistle to the Romans found in Scripture that there once was a sound church in Rome, a church that was founded by the teaching of the apostles. But this church later apostatized, so that it no longer was an apostolic church. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers knew that the Romish church had a long history, going back to the days of the apostles, but the Romish church had long ago departed from the teaching of the apostles. The Reformers reformed the church by breaking away from this apostate institute and forming congregations that were based squarely and solely on the truth set forth by the apostles in the Scriptures.
The Romish church, of course, rejects this, and appeals to her “catholicity” to prove her “apostolicity.” The church that is truly holding to the truth taught by the apostles will be a church visibly spread throughout the whole world, she says, and churches holding to false doctrines will be confined to only a few regions. But this is based, in part, on Rome’s false view of what is meant by the catholicity of the church, a view that was refuted in the previous article. There is one central mark that indicates whether or not an instituted church is a true manifestation of the one catholic and apostolic church, and that is the mark of the pure preaching of the apostles’ gospel. A true church is a church that preaches the apostolic doctrine, no matter how small she may be, and no matter how few like-minded churches she can find with whom she can enjoy fellowship.
Remaining steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine is our calling. It is the church that does this, and only the church that does this, that also “groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). It is the apostolic church that is holy, living apart from this world and in close covenant communion with her God and Husband.