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.
Why the Church’s Catholicity Is Important
It is important that the church be catholic. It is important because that is the only way God can reveal the fullness of the riches of His grace. In the last verses of Ephesians 2the apostle Paul describes how the middle wall of partition was broken down through the blood of Christ and reconciliation was accomplished, so that Jew and Gentile alike could become one body in Christ. Together they form that one glorious temple built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets of which Christ is the chief cornerstone, and in which God dwells.
That is possible because we are saved by grace. That is why this entire section is introduced with the words, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works” (Eph. 2:8). It is grace alone.
Why? The apostle explains that in verse 7 when he says, “That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” The riches of God’s grace are infinite. Every time we confess the Apostles’ Creed, including that one article of which I am speaking tonight, we say, “I believe.” Then the thought passes inevitably through my mind, “I believe it. I can’t demonstrate it. I can’t prove it. I can’t understand it. I can’t make it clear to you. But I believe it. It’s an object of faith.” The riches of God’s grace are so infinitely great that they can be revealed only in a church composed of a multitude which no man can number, of individuals saved by grace in different ways. That is, all are saved in full connection with the kind of people they are, the place where they were born, the nature of their upbringing, their racial and national characteristics, the personalities with which they were endowed, the spiritual pilgrimage which led them out of the bondage of sin into the fellowship of the church—their own grace in each one.
When I look at you, I see a different grace, a different kind of grace, than is manifest in me. It takes a catholic church. Diamonds alone will not do it. You need sapphires and rubies and emeralds and all the precious stones known to man to reveal the beauties and riches of God’s grace in this life and in the life to come. The riches of God’s grace cannot be sung by a soloist. They have to be sung by a choir, by a choir composed of a large number of different voices singing different parts, but harmonizing and all singing one song, the song of Moses and the Lamb. The riches of God’s grace cannot be revealed by a piano solo or a violin solo. It takes an orchestra. You have to look for the trumpets and the violas, and the cellos and the base viols, the clarinets and the flutes, and all the rest. One instrument cannot do it. The riches of the grace of God are too great. How can one individual, how can even a million individuals, each one of them in his own way, contain the riches of the infinite grace of almighty God? And, if I may say so, it ought to be obvious that this is why the doctrine of salvation by grace is fundamental to the whole of the Christian faith—the doctrine one can sacrifice only at the cost of destroying the church.
What Are Its Implications for Us?
That is the catholicity of the church. What a marvelous doctrine! What a profound purpose. Into all eternity we shall marvel at the riches of God’s grace only because we see each other and dwell together as the body of Christ. Yes, as the body of Christ—one body. “I believe one holy catholic church.” Catholicity is impossible, absolutely impossible, without unity. It is a strange doctrine, so strange that the Scriptures say we ought to look at some figures in order to appreciate what this is.
A human body is one organism, one unity. But if you did not know anything about a human body, or if you had never seen a human body, and you looked at a toe lying on a table and alongside of it an ear, you would say to yourself, “It’s utterly impossible that these belong to the same entity. How can two such diverse things belong to the same organism?” Paul alludes to that in I Corinthians 12. Strange members, totally different from each other, go to compose the unity of one body. So much is this true that not one single member of the body has any meaning or any significance or any importance, and, as a matter of fact, cannot even be saved apart from the unity of the whole.
That means that the unity of the church is a complete and perfect unity because not one additional member can be added to that unity. From that unity cannot be subtracted even one member. Somehow, in some mysterious way, it is a perfect unity because all of God’s grace is revealed right here in this unity. Take one away, you subtract from the grace of God. Add one, the grace of God becomes a monstrosity. Add a third ear to a person’s head—what kind of unity do you have? None. Catholicity rests on unity because all the attributes of the church are true of the church only in Christ.
It is with a few remarks about this that I conclude.
The unity of the church is what we are urged, compelled, by Scripture to seek. The unity of the Spirit, Paul calls it in Ephesians 4. And he calls it the unity of the Spirit because he wants us to be sure that we understand that this unity and diversity is God’s creation, not ours. We are called diligently to seek to preserve the unity of the church. But it is not a unity which we, by our labors, create. It is a unity of such infinite diversity that it would be impossible for us to do it.
However that may be, it is that unity of the church that is sometimes so difficult to define. Each denomination draws a kind of a circle by which it defines what it means by the unity of the church. Some draw a great big circle — a circle that is so big that it embraces not only Christianity in a broad, general way but also those who are still committed to the idolatry of heathenism and to pagan ritual and idol worship. They are willing to do that. But that is not the true unity of the church. When they draw that kind of a circle, they are not drawing a circle that defines the limitations and boundaries of the church.
The unity of the church is in Christ. And Christ, in His own person and natures, as the head of the church, is the fullness of the revelation of God who is truth in Himself and in His own divine being. Because the unity of the church is a unity which she has in Christ, that unity must be defined in terms of the truth as it is revealed in God and as it is contained on the pages of the infallible Scriptures.
In a way, the Spirit helps the church draw that circle and has been helping the church draw that circle throughout the centuries by the confessions of the church. Our own churches have said that we seek contact with the church of Christ which confesses the truth of the Scriptures as expressed in the three forms of unity and the Westminster standards. That is the circle we draw. It is a proper circle because really the Holy Spirit drew it. The Holy Spirit drew it because the confessions are the fruit of the work of the Spirit in the church in the past.
Within that circle we stand. Within that circle we stand with the church of Christ. We are called to stand there and we are called to live together within that circle with all the churches throughout the world insofar as God makes that possible for us in the unity of the Spirit. In that way, here on earth, something of the catholicity of the church is experienced. You cannot go to Singapore or to Myanmar without pondering the mystery of the catholicity of the church. It is impossible.
There are many in every nation, tribe, and tongue who are working in the great task of building the house of God. Once in a while we hear far away the sound of hammers pounding nails and we pause to listen and we say, “Ah, there are others building the house.” Sometimes we hear the whir of saws and we say, “There are others elsewhere working on the house that God is building. We don’t know where. We can’t quite tell where. And we don’t know who they are. But we can hear it if we will listen.”
But sometimes there are some of God’s people working in another room right next to the one in which we are working. It pays for us to walk over to that room once in a while and talk to them. That is what, God willing, we are going to continue to do with our sister churches and others with whom we have contact. We are going to go over to another room as they have come to this room. We are going to talk to them about building the house. The conversation we will have about building the house is going to be crafted, under God’s blessing, according to our faith in the catholicity of the church. We are not going to be telling each other, “You are not really working on the house.” We are not going to say, “It looks to us as if you are building a shack or a shanty and you ought to quit and come into the house and get to work on the house.” No. We are going to say, “You’re working on the house. Thank God we know you.” And we are going to talk about what a joy it is.
Synod just said that, did it not? When we talk together, we must talk together not only about those things on which we disagree, but about those things on which we do agree. That means talking about those things that are involved in being busy with the same house.
It will happen sometimes that others are going to say to us, when they come to our room where we are working, “It looks to us, brethren, as if you are using bent nails. You ought to straighten your nails. You can do a better job.” Or, “You ought to sharpen your saw. The lines that you are cutting with your saw are crooked.” And what we ought to say when you tell us that is, “Thanks! We didn’t notice that we were using bent nails.”
But sometimes we may have something similar to say to them. We will look at the corner of the wall and ceiling where you are building and we will say, “Is that quite square? Will you check it again with the architect’s drawing, the Holy Scriptures?” In that way we will help each other to build the house and be able to cooperate in the work more and more.
But we are not going to go to another church, and they may not come over here, and say, “Quit working in your room and come into our room and help us,” because God has called them to work in their room, whether it be Australia or Singapore or Northern Ireland. We are working in our room which is called the United States.
And we are not going to ask them to wear the same kind of clothes we do because we think our coveralls hold the hammer better. No, they have found that the clothes they are wearing are suitable for the work that God gives them to do.
In that way we talk about the same house on which we are laboring, but appreciate and rejoice in the diversity of laborers and the size of the house. And we remember that God saves Australians as Australians, and Welsh as Welsh; and He does not save them by making them Dutchman. Thank God.
So we rejoice in the riches of grace. That is our calling: to rejoice in the riches of sovereign grace revealed in that wonderful work of saving a church catholic. Once in a while, I hope that when we visit another room in this great house, we can sit down with the laborers there and take a break from the work and have a cup of coffee together. Then we can talk about what a privilege it is to be busy in the same work and how thankful we can be that God builds the house and that we are only laborers. I think if we do that, then we will probably set our cups down for a moment and sing together: “Except the Lord the house shall build, the weary builders toil in vain.”
In that way we will look together to the day when God will have completed that glorious temple that Paul describes in Ephesians 2. Then God Himself will dwell in it and all the riches of His grace will be revealed perfectly and completely. And we will revel in the riches of the grace of almighty God revealed in that which we confess: one holy catholic church.