Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Ecclesiastical Polity Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

On the Attributes and Marks of the Church (1)

The four adjectival modifiers of the word “church” in the Creed (one, holy, catholic, apostolic), though sometimes confused with the “marks” (notae) of the church, are not “marks.” They are attributes.

That is to say, oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity as they are used in the Creed are not things we use to distinguish one body from another. They are descriptions of what the church actually is; they summarize truths that are known by faith (“We believe…”). Oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are not projects for man to undertake. They are not ideals to be achieved by the effort of anyone, because they have already been achieved by God in his creation of the church as this kind of assembly rather than that kind. The true church, the church that the Creed speaks of, the church that is an object of faith, is one; she is holy; she is catholic; she is apostolic. There is nothing man can do to make it so, and nothing he can do to unmake it.

Let us take oneness as an example. How do we know that the church is “one”?1 Because Jesus prayed that it would be in John 17. The prayers of Jesus, the Son of God, are not denied; Jesus prayed “that they may be one”; therefore they are one.2

Or, again, how do we know that the church is “holy”? Because God has hallowed it; it is his electing call that makes it so: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:3-4). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-7).

How do we know that the church is “catholic”? “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (Rev. 7:9-10). “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-3).

How do we know that the church is “apostolic”? Because the Word declares it to be so: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21).

But, again, the church that bears these attributes is an object of faith, together with everything else in the Creed. And if, in turn, we walk by faith, we do not walk by sight; and this means that we do not at present see the objects of our faith enumerated in the Creed. We do not with the eyes of our flesh see the Father; we do not at this time see the Son (John 17:10); we do not see the Holy Spirit; and we do not see the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in the sense in which that term is used here.3 We believe, and so we know these things by faith.

If the language of the Creed presumes the invisibility (at least until the Second Coming) of the enumerated objects of faith, then oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity cannot be “marks” of the church, because marks demand perception: they are those things by means of which we distinguish one perceptible thing from another. If we take the language of the Creed at face-value, then, talk of “marks” would appear to be out of place and inapplicable as a gloss on what the relevant section means to say.

There is, of course, something (or things) we do see; that topic must be deferred until next time.


  1. These terms obviously raise questions of definition (“church”; “one”) that cannot be pursued here.
  2. In my stupidity, I had never realized this connection until I heard this passage preached on recently.
  3. It seems to me that this must be the case if the Creed is using its language consistently.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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