Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. This is the text of the speech given at the graduation exercises of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in June, 2000.
From time to time over the past years we have come to experience in the halls of the seminary something of what it means to be part of a catholic church. That was true again this past year. It seemed to me, therefore, that “The Church and Her Catholicity” would be an eminently suitable topic on which to meditate for a little while this evening.
There are other reasons, however, why I wish to speak on this topic. Those of our Protestant Reformed churches who confess together every Lord’s day the Apostles’ Creed confess our faith as including this truth: “We believe in one catholic church.” While we confess this truth, we do not always understand and appreciate what it means. In our thinking and in our actual life, however, that confession of a faith in a catholic church becomes a bit abstract. We tend to have the notion that the denomination of which we are a part happens to be the most important denomination on the face of the earth and that, although God has His people in every land and gathers His church from every tribe and tongue and nation, nevertheless the rest of the church in the world somehow revolves around us. It is almost as if we think to ourselves that God would be hard pressed to do the work of the church if it were not for our diligent labors and for the crucially important place which we occupy in the unity of the entire church of Christ. That is a serious and sad mistake. It is because I see this in myself and in others, that it is not without profit to address ourselves to this question tonight.
There is one more reason why I chose to speak on this (this may be, after all, the most important reason of all). Over the years I have come to appreciate the doctrine of the catholicity of the church more and more. As a matter of fact, personally, I consider it to be one of the most beautiful doctrines in the whole of Scripture. Perhaps you will not agree with that; that makes no difference. It grows on me—the truth of the catholicity of the church. It is amazingly beautiful. It has innumerable implications for doctrine and life. But its beauty especially is to be found in the fact that the Scriptures point us to one rather startling and, in my mind, extraordinarily significant truth: the fullness of the riches of the grace of almighty God cannot be revealed in all their beauty except through a catholic church. That especially is the point of view which I wish to emphasize.
What Catholicity Is
The eternal purpose of God as He determined it in His counsel from before the foundations of the world is this: to glorify Himself and His own great name through a church redeemed in Christ. That is the one purpose of God. That is the reason why He does all things and has done all things. He created heaven and earth and all that they contain for the church. He created angels and devils for the church. He created man for the church. He created Paradise in Eden for the church. All things are only to serve the purpose of the church. All that He did, all that He does, is centered in His purpose to reveal Himself in all His glory in the church.
From the very beginning, in a certain sense of the word, that church was a catholic church. Although that did not become immediately evident before the Flood, it was only a very short time after the Flood that one crucial event in the history of the world pointed with unmistakable clarity to God’s purpose to save a catholic church. I refer to the catastrophe, the fiasco, of Babel. The immediate purpose of God at Babel was to prevent the Antichrist from revealing himself prematurely and from establishing a universal kingdom before the time was ripe for that. If Antichrist had established such a kingdom at Babel, the church would never have been saved. The existence of the church in the world would have been impossible.
Nevertheless, that was secondary. That deadly wound with which the beast was wounded cannot eventually be healed except in the blood of Christ. And it is healed in the blood of Christ in such a way that Babel is reversed and the curse of Babel is lifted. The fiasco of Babel becomes the triumphant victory of a catholic church. It was at Babel that God created the nations, the races, the tongues, and the peoples that inhabit the earth. Babel serves a catholic church.
In the days of the patriarchs that church was, in a certain sense of the word, catholic, although gradually the church became limited to Abraham and his descendants. One could also find the church in Jerusalem, of all places, where a people were being ruled by Melchisedek, priest of the Most High God. You could find it at Sinai, where Jethro instructed his family in the ways of Jehovah and took care of his sheep. You could find it in Haran, where Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Nevertheless, God narrowed the line to the descendants of Abraham until Israel became His chosen people.
We often like to think of the fact that the nation of Israel was composed of Jews. As a matter of fact, it was not. It had more foreign blood, more heathen blood, more Gentile blood than Jewish blood. It was a catholic church in the making, even in the days of Israel’s history. All the sons of Jacob, without exception, married either Canaanitish or Egyptian women. Israelite blood, therefore, at the very outset, was fifty percent non-Jewish.
God continued to bring heathen into the nation of Israel in strange and startling ways, almost as if to remind Israel, “The church is catholic. You are a chosen people, set aside from all the nations of the earth. You, above all the nations of the earth, are favored by God. But don’t ever forget: The catholic church is in embryo form in you.” He brought Rahab out of the smashed city of Jericho. He brought Ruth out of Moab to be a mother of Christ. He brought Egyptians out of Egypt to journey with Israel on the long way to Canaan. He brought the Gibeonites to Israel and incorporated them into the nation so that they became part and parcel of the nation of Israel. He even brought the daughters of Moab into the nation when the unmarried daughters of Moab were saved at the time Israel visited its fury upon the nation after the sin of Baalpeor.
So it was. Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, was a Hittite. Araunah, on whose threshing floor David offered his sacrifices to stay the plague, was a Jebusite. Even some of David’s chief men and fiercest warriors were from other lands.
There was one thing, however, about the nation that persisted in the old dispensation simply because Christ had not yet come. That is, although in a certain sense of the word and from a particular point of view the nation of Israel was the catholic church, it was not quite that. It was not quite that because anyone who was joined to the church of Christ in the old dispensation had to become a Jew. He became a Jew through the rite of circumcision. He was incorporated into the Israelitish nation. He adopted the culture of the Jews and he was a part of the nation that went to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple. He was, to all intents and purposes, no longer a Hittite, or a Jebusite, or a Gibeonite, but a Jew — all because Christ had not come.
There is something about the Old Testament, though, that is always looking beyond this dispensation of shadows. When one reads the psalms and the prophets, he cannot miss that tone of eager anticipation of a better day to come. Think, for example, of Psalm 68, that beautiful psalm that David wrote at the time when the Ark was brought up to Jerusalem as a picture of the exaltation of Christ. David sings: “Princes shall come out of Egypt (the house of bondage from which God had delivered His people!), Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” That was the psalmist. That was at the time when the Ark was brought to Jerusalem. And then, “Sing unto God ye kingdoms of the earth; sing praises unto the Lord” (vv. 31, 32). It is no wonder that that verse ends with the word “Selah,” which means, “pause for a moment, take a breath, meditate on this, this is staggering.” Egypt, Ethiopia? Yes, another day is coming.
So it was with the prophets—Isaiah in particular. “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (60:1-3).
When the Lord Jesus Christ came to this earth, He came as a Jew. So much was He a Jew that He could trace His genealogy all the way to Abraham. He was so much a Jew that He had to undergo the rites and rituals of the Jewish nation that had been given to Israel at Sinai. He was conscious of His Jewishness. He was conscious that all the life of His earthly ministry He remained a Jew. He would not stray outside the boundaries of the promised land. His ministry was to the Jews.
When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleaded with Him to heal her daughter, He turned a cold shoulder to her and told her it was none of her business. She prevailed upon Him to make an exception because she anticipated the faith of Gentiles (Matt. 15:21-31). When the Greeks asked to see Jesus, and asked Thomas in particular on the eve of His crucifixion to make arrangements with the Lord to see Him, the Lord told Thomas in no uncertain terms, “Tell them, No.” And the reason which He gave was this, that He had not yet ascended. So He began to speak of His cross, of His death, of His resurrection, and of His ascension. He was a Jewish Christ (John 12:20-33).
He was a Jewish Christ when He hung on the cross. The superscription on the cross said that: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” Nevertheless, if you watched closely, there was an almost perceptible change in the Lord as He hung there suffering. The change was reflected even in the fact that Pilate, God’s instrument, directed that the words of the superscription of the cross be written not only in Hebrew, but also in Latin and in Greek. It’s as if the Lord is saying, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews indeed, but take note, you Greeks, and observe, you Romans, that presently He will be the King of (what Paul calls in the last chapter of Galatians) the true Israel of God—the church gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue.”
He arose, no longer a Jew, but a catholic Christ. That was why Mary was not permitted to touch Him—”I have not yet ascended. You want to touch Me in the wrong way. I am not a Jew any longer. You may not treat Me as one of your nation. I presently will ascend.” He ascended, not as a Jewish Christ, but as a catholic Christ. He did that because His death was the shedding of His blood for a universal church. John, in his marvelous gospel, wants us always to recognize that. Already when he describes the ministry of John the Baptist he describes John the Baptist as preaching this gospel: “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the same thing: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:14). Lest there be any doubt about the implications and meaning of that expression of the Lord to Nicodemus, He goes on to make it unmistakably clear: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). It is almost a jubilant shout concerning the universality of the work of Christ that echoes again and again in the Gospel according to John.
The climax was in the exaltation of Christ. ReadDaniel 7. There one sees with Daniel, in a stirring and extremely beautiful vision, the exalted Christ being brought before the throne of the Ancient of Days, and one discovers that all the nations of the earth were given to Him as His possession.
So Christ poured out upon the church a catholic Spirit. The catholic Christ poured out upon the church a catholic Spirit. The Spirit is not parochial. The Spirit is not narrow. The Spirit is not the possession of one people. He is catholic in the truest sense of the word. That is the meaning of the sign of speaking in other tongues. We must not be mistaken about that sign. That speaking in other tongues does not simply mean that, now that the Spirit is poured out, things are going to be different from the old dispensation. It means that the church will now burst forth from her national boundaries of Jewry and spread over the length and breadth of the earth. God saves every nation as a distinct nation.
This is important. Everyone who was gathered together in Jerusalem on Pentecost; everyone who came together at the sound of the rushing mighty wind; everyone who heard the 120 speak could understand the Aramaic. There was no need for the miracle of tongues in order to make people from other nations understand. They all knew Aramaic. They all knew the spoken language of Jerusalem—even though they were from the dispersion. It was not in order to make the speech of the 120 intelligible and understandable that the Spirit gave to them this remarkable gift. When one of the 120 came to an Egyptian and spoke to an Egyptian in the language of Egypt, the Holy Spirit was saying to that man, “What in the world are you doing here in Jerusalem celebrating a feast of the Jews? Go back home. Stay there. You don’t have to come to Jerusalem to be saved. Youdon’t have to speak Hebrew in order to be incorporated into the church of Christ. Stay at home. Live your life as an Egyptian. Don’t change anything in your life as far as the country in which you live is concerned. God will save you there. And God will save you as an Egyptian, with all your national and racial characteristics. The need to become a Jew in order to be saved is forever gone.”
That was, after all, the great battle in Galatia. That was the reason for Paul’s writing of the epistle to the Galatians. There is no need for circumcision. There is no requirement of it, because no one has any longer to become a Jew to be saved.
So the Holy Spirit, as a catholic Holy Spirit, sent by a catholic Christ, gathers a catholic church. He goes into all the nooks and crannies of the globe. He travels into all the by-ways and alleys of the world. There is not one corner of the globe where the Holy Spirit does not go to collect and to gather those for whom Christ died, those who have been chosen by God from all eternity to be a part of the catholic church.
The wonderful part of it all is that they must be saved as their nationality and racial characteristics require. There is an almost infinite diversity in the church of Jesus Christ. I can only mention some of it. Fundamental to it all is the reversal of Babel, the healing of the wound of the beast, a real and true healing—by the blood of reconciliation in the cross of Jesus Christ. But the wonderful thing, the altogether astounding thing, is that not Egypt-becoming-Jewish will be saved, but Egypt will be saved. Not Ethiopia by coming to the temple will be saved, but Ethiopia will stretch out its hands to God as Ethiopia.
Nations have personalities. Races have personalities. Families have personalities. Individuals have personalities. God wants those racial, national, family personalities saved and preserved. A German is saved as a German. A Dutchman is saved as a Dutchman. He is not made Polish. A Chinaman is saved as a Chinaman. He is not made an Occidental. It has to be that way. Any effort to make it different is contrary to the will of God, who has a greater purpose in mind than that of creating a church which is composed of racial or national clones. His purpose is to reveal the riches of His grace.
There is an infinite variety in the church. This variety is of race, of nation, of family, of individual. That is what is so important about the marvelous work of salvation. As a pastor, I have often had the feeling in my soul when dealing with a particular recalcitrant sheep, I wish he were not so stubborn! If only God would make him less stubborn, maybe we could get somewhere with him. He is like a billy goat.
Well, God is not going to make him any different. God gives to every man his personality. Whether that is stubbornness or weakness; whether that is spinelessness or foolhardiness; whether that is a tendency to be happy in one’s life or forever down in the dumps—God gives to each man his personal characteristics. Those characteristics are never going to be changed. Those characteristics are not going to be changed by grace.
Grace does not make a stubborn man less stubborn. What grace does do is make him stubborn about the right things, which Scripture happens to call “steadfastness.” Grace does not make the mild character bold as a lion. But grace puts the mildness of an individual in the service of a church. Grace does not make a tactless person tactful. But grace does put tactlessness under the subjection of grace in order that it may serve the purpose of the church.
So it is. What a variety of characteristics. Even the attributes of old age—the glory of the hoary head—or the attributes of children are preserved in the catholicity of the church. The glories, the beauties, of every age of life are preserved by God through death into His everlasting kingdom of heaven.
All these things become a part of that infinite variety that goes to make up the church. In fact, even sin comes in the service of the catholicity of the church. It takes a different kind of a grace (I don’t profess to understand the mysterious ways of God) to save a prostitute than to save a smug, self-righteous hypocrite. The same grace will not do. It takes a different kind of a grace (all unmerited favor; all God’s amazing irresistible power to save) to save a Dutchman than to save an African. The same kind of grace will not do.
Each sinner, saved by grace, has his own unique, personal, individual, spiritual pilgrimage, which is in the most marvelous way tied to the particular and unique place which that same individual will occupy in the church in glory. How the Lord delivers this one sinner from the depths of depravity and fits him as a sinner saved by grace for his place in glory is the grace unique to him.
That is what the Bible means, for example, when in the letter of the Lord to the church of Pergamus the Lord promises to those who overcome that He will give them a white stone, in which there will be written their name, which no other man can know. It is their name. It is their name because it fits them. It fits them because it precisely defines how that one sinner saved by grace was brought by the power of grace, in distinction from all the others, into the unity of the one church of Jesus Christ (Rev. 2:17).
In the church, therefore, we find the infinite variety that we confess when we confess one catholic church.
… to be continued.