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On the Attributes and Marks of the Church (2)


In the previous post we saw that “one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic” are attributes of the church. The church as the Creed speaks of it has these characteristics already, and it has them because it is elected in Christ to be this kind of thing rather than another kind. This church is put before us as an object of faith.

But how does the church of the Creed relate to the local assemblies of professing Christians we see around us, which we also call “churches” (plural)?1 Two questions immediately present themselves. (1) How are we to know if a particular group bearing this name participates in or has some connection to the “church” referred to in the Creed? And (2) how are we to distinguish between a true (or more true), or at least healthy (or healthier), assembly of professing Christians and one that is false (or less true), or at least unhealthy (or less healthy)?

From “Attributes” to “Marks”

It is at this juncture that talk of “marks” or notae of the church becomes appropriate and serviceable. The notae are those very things by which we can tell whether an assembly bears a meaningful and real relationship to the creedal church and her Lord and how healthy that relationship is.

The Protestant Reformers customarily cataloged such “marks” in lists of varying length (see, for instance, a recent brief discussion here). For instance: Word (or Word purely preached) and sacraments (or sacraments rightly administered); sometimes discipline (or discipline properly practised) is added.

I would argue, in fact, though I have no intention of doing so here, that all such marks can be subsumed under the one Ur-Mark, that of the Word.2

The reason for this is not far to seek.

I have already mentioned that the Creed’s church is what it is, and is the way it is, because God has elected it in Christ be so: God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The Creed’s church is, in other words, a creatura verbi divini, a creature of the divine Word, called into existence through the person and work of the Word made flesh.

Creatura Verbi Divini?

It stands to reason, then, that we can determine an assembly’s relation to that church by its possession of–or its being possessed by–that same Word; likewise, we can know the truth or health of an assembly by its adherence to that Word, construed as both the church’s Lord and the speech of the church’s Lord.

For the sake of illustration, let us take as an example the Great Commision as recorded in Matthew 28.

When Jesus is about to ascend into heaven, he tells his disciples what they are to do: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The disciples are to make disciples of the nations (μαθηταὶ…μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη). The meaning of this command is filled out in two participles: “baptizing” and “teaching” (βαπτίζοντες…διδάσκοντες). These are activities that involve (1) identification with the Lord’s name and (2) conformity to the Lord’s speech. Those who are “disciples” are to come into the same master/pupil relation to Jesus as the eleven enjoyed.

We might say, in other words, that Jesus’ “schools” on earth are identifiable by sacrament (baptism) and Word (teaching)–and even sacrament is, in the Pauline view, strictly subordinate to the preaching of the gospel, that is, to the Word (as I recently argued here).3


To sum up, then: the notae Ecclesiae are useful for determining whether a body has a relation to the church of the Creed and for attempting to discern how healthy that relation is. We should observe that these are two different things: it is possible to baptize–superstitiously; it is possible to teach the Word–corruptly. Contrariwise, it is possible to do both of these things–purely, or well.4

The former, that is to say, tells us something important about what a church most basically is. The latter, a question of degree admitting of widely varying gradations, tells us something important about how a church can be a corpus sanum. The more closely an assembly adheres to the dominical and apostolical pattern under the guidance and judgment of the divine Word–and Paul assumes that this is open to public verification, as I tried to show recently–the healthier it will be.

Or again, to put it slightly differently: the more closely an assembly adheres to the divine Word, the more it will manifest the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity attributed to and possessed by the church in which we claim to believe in the Creed.

  1. Cf. the practice of the Apostle Paul in writing to particular groups, e.g. “the church of God that is in Corinth,” “the churches of Galatia,” etc.
  2. That is, there is an analogy between the ideal (but no less real for all that) and perfect church of the Creed and local assemblies of Christians, and a participation of the latter in the former.
  3. This is one reason, among others, why I remarked above that the “marks” are subsumable under the heading of the Word.
  4. The distinction also puts organizational structure in proper perspective: no one institutional form is of the essence of the church. But this does not render such matters unimportant; far from it.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

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