Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Four Marks of the Church, Part I

A basic summary of Christian belief can be found in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (called simply the Nicene Creed). This formulation of the faith is generally accepted among most Christian denominations and used in many of their worship services. The Nicene Creed presents a series of concise theological statements about God, the Trinity, the Incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus, His suffering, death and Resurrection, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the Church and the Final Judgment. This Creed (from the Latin: credo“I believe”) was formulated in the Fourth Century primarily through the work of two Ecumenical Councils: the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. It is from these two Councils it receives its name.

The Nicene Creed is an invaluable tool for teaching the faith. Each phrase of the Creed could be elaborated upon to fill volumes of theological books explaining the Church’s teaching on essential doctrines. The words of the Creed are ripe with philosophical implications, which at the time of its composition were hotly debated. Indeed the Creed took its shape at a time of turmoil with Christendom, and was designed to answer challenges posed by heretics of the early centuries. The Nicene Creed thus establishes the truth of Christian doctrine, encapsulating the essence of Christian belief on certain key points, and laying down a standard by which we can judge correct teaching.

The overall structure of the Creed may have originated in the baptismal formulas of the ancient Church. Those to be baptized must first attest to their belief in one God, the Father Almighty, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, and so on. This pattern of baptismal commitment makes the Nicene Creed a rallying point for all Christians who share belief in these essential matters of faith and are baptized into one baptism. Our shared baptism is expressed verbally in our shared Creed.

Christians of many denominations repeat the words of the Creed when gathered for worship. But many do not give much thought to the meaning of the words they say. I wonder if more Christians paid closer attention to the words of this statement of faith, whether we might achieve better unity among Christians. So below I present the entire Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. And following this text I would like to focus on one line in particular, which I believe tells us where Christian unity can be found in a most concrete way…

Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I am using here the latest translation of the Latin which will be used at Catholic Masses beginning in Advent of 2011. As we recite the Creed, we might notice that the words “I believe” (Latin - credo) appear four times throughout: once at the beginning when referring to the Father, once again for His Son, Jesus Christ, and again for the Holy Spirit. This represents our belief in the Trinity of persons Who make up the Godhead. The fourth occurrence of “I believe” is in the following line:

“…I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church…”

This is where our faith takes shape in the physical world. This is where our belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit becomes a lived experience for Christians. And it is here that I would focus our attention on Christian unity.

The Church is described here as having four distinct attributes or “marks” – One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. We will therefore examine these Four Marks and determine what they mean for the Church today. If the ancient Christians determined that Jesus’ Church is best described using these characteristics, and they carefully selected these words to be enshrined in the Creed, then we ought to take a serious look at the meaning of these words. If we recite these words while at worship, then we ought to be certain that we are living out these beliefs in our Christian life.

In Part II we will begin to take up each of the Four Marks individually…


  1. Oops... there's a typo there. It actually reads "who proceeds from the Father". The "and the Son" wasn't added until 589, and only in the West.

  2. Nope, no typo. As I noted in the post above, I am using the translation that will be the standard form used at Mass as of Advent 2011.
    Of course, I understand that "and the Son" was added post-Nicaea in the West; and I understand that for Eastern Churches this is a point of tension. But since I am a Latin Rite Catholic who accepts this addition to the Creed, then it is a non-issue for me. I happen to believe that the "filioque" is an accurate statement of Christian faith and belongs in the Creed.
    Frankly, the Protestants with whom I have discussed this matter have all agreed that the inclusion of "and the Son" is the accepted form of the Nicene Creed.
    Also important to note: this series of posts focuses on the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," not the "filioque" statement. So naturally I did not address that particular issue here. It was simply not within the scope of this writing. I do think that a post on the "filoque" would be a great idea, though. And I do plan on writing such a post in the future.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Thomas, I agree that the Catholic Church is the only church that satisfies the criteria of the four marks. Can you help me understand the authority of those marks to identify the true Church? In other words, where did we get those four?

  4. That’s a great question!

    To start with, the “Four Marks” are listed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. And so they come to us through the work of at least two authoritative Church Councils. We know that Ecumenical Councils are infallible in their teaching, and so as Catholics we can be certain of the truth and authority of these Four Marks because we know that the Church cannot err when the bishops teach in Council.

    But that answer is most likely not good enough for our Protestant brethren. And I think we as Catholics should always be prepared to respond generously and charitably to any challenge to our faith. We need to offer a more thorough reply…

    To that end, I would say at least three things:

    1) In the early Christian centuries, during the formulation of the Creed, Christianity was undivided. This was more than a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation, and more than five hundred years before the East-West schism. And so, Christians spoke with one voice. The early Church from this period gave us doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation which are accepted by all Christians today as divinely revealed Truth. This early Church also put together the Canon of Scripture so that we now have the Bible. So when this same Church describes itself as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” we should weigh those words carefully. If we accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the Word of God in the Bible, based on the witness of the early Church, then we should also accept the “Four Marks” used by that Church to describe herself.

    2) These Four Marks are Biblical. As I mentioned in the above posts, there are biblical reasons that support each of these four attributes of the Church. Just as other Catholic (Christian) doctrines are rooted in the Word of God, so too are the Four Marks. They are not simply pulled out of thin air, but are fully authenticated by the Word of God. We know can trust the Bible as a sure source for Truth, so we can therefore trust that the Four Marks true.

    3) The Four Marks just make sense. Common sense tells us that there ought to be ONE Church because there is only ONE truth. Many competing truths taught by a variety of churches is simply illogical. And common sense also tells us that if God established a Church on earth and promised to be with it forever, then His divine presence would make the Church HOLY. Where God is, holiness resides. Likewise, if God made all of humanity in His image, then the Church would be UNIVERSAL (or Catholic) – it would be meant for all people. And finally, it makes sense that the Church established by Jesus Himself would naturally trace itself back to Jesus’ time (and to the Apostles who were taught by Him). In other words, the true Church would have APOSTOLIC origins. It all just makes sense.

    Having said all of that I would offer a final analogy…We might compare the Four Marks to the Seven Sacraments. We Catholics trust in the power of the Sacraments and we turn to them for grace, because as Catholics we trust the Church’s authority on this matter. But moreover, we rely on the same three things I just listed: 1) the witness of the early Church as they celebrated the Sacraments, 2) the Biblical foundations of the Sacraments, and 3) they just make sense…they touch us in the way that we would expect a loving God to touch us in our physical world.

    As for the precise number - FOUR... I don't think we can know for certain why there are that many and no more or less. I’ve read before that the Seven Sacraments could just as easily been six or eight, but the Church was lead by the Spirit to define precisely seven. The same is true, I suppose, for the Four Marks. The Council Fathers composed the Creed with Four Marks listed, and that is how we received it.

    I’m sure there are other ways of answering your question, but I hope this helps. Thanks for reading!