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Dissecting ‘catholic’ in the Apostles’ Creed

by Kimberly Muehling, Paul Walker, and Jessica Wichers, EMC Worship Committee

In the Apostles’ Creed, we agree that we belong to the “holy catholic” church. What does this mean? Are we saying that we are part of the Roman Catholic Church? What does “catholic” mean anyways?

Let’s unpack the grammar first.

Written in Latin sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, “holy” and “catholic” are adjectives (descriptive). Church is the noun (the thing). So, the church is holy: devoted to the service of God and morally and spiritually excellent, and catholic: including a wide variety of things; all-embracing (see Oxford Living Dictionary).

The exact origin of the Apostles’ Creed has been rather lost to the haze of history. By the 9th century AD, when Charlemagne imposed the version we use today, it was already accepted throughout Christendom. The earlier (AD 381) version of the Nicene Creed uses the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” As there was only a loose conglomeration of churches at the time, many with differing theology, the council of Nicaea could only have meant the universal church.

Even Martin Luther spoke of and to the church as one general group as he experienced it. While he directed criticism to the Pope and traditional practices, the church was simply the general population. Theological barriers have since gone up on all sides and we now identify ourselves as members of specific church groups, but it is important to recognize that we are still one (albeit messy and often dysfunctional) family in Christ. Karl Barth explains, “The church is universal because it is not limited by any barrier, either of state or of race or of culture” (The Faith of the Church, Wipf and Stock, rep. 2006, 117).

So, reading “holy” and “catholic” as adjectives is very different from agreeing to believe in the Catholic Church. If you capitalize the words, you are implying a proper noun, which would mean the actual organization known as the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, within the Roman Catholic Catechism both the adjective and the proper noun are employed. In direct discussion about the Apostles’ Creed, they use the adjective. However, later in the additions from the Second Vatican Council they use the proper noun (Catechism, 1993, see sections 750, 816-819). This change came about gradually as part of the Counter-Reformation.

As the use of catholic is not common in everyday language, some churches have moved to the use of other synonyms in its place, such as global, universal, or diverse. The current Lutheran Service Book uses “holy Christian Church.” While in Living in God’s Kingdom uses “holy catholic church,” EMC churches are free to use different phrasing at their own discretion. After all, we are all translating.

So, however we use the Apostles’ Creed, with our handy lowercase letters, we can freely and confidently agree to participating in the holy catholic church alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ “from every nation, and all tribes and peoples and tongues (Rev. 7:9 NRSV).

Kimberly Muehling (Fort Garry), Pastor Paul Walker (Roseisle), and Jessica Wichers (EFC Steinbach) serve on the EMC Worship Committee under the authority of the Board of Church Ministries. See the Worship Committee’s article Using the Apostles’ Creed in Worship (Jan. 2017).

Kimberly Muehling
Paul Walker
Paul Walker
Jessica Wichers

2 thoughts on “Dissecting ‘catholic’ in the Apostles’ Creed”

  1. Great piece folks–it has become my conviction that the more “catholic” we become the more we will love Jesus and the more we love Jesus the more “catholic” we become, in the small c sense that you describe here. It can also be noted that in the early church “catholic” was a description of a congregation, not only a description of the universal church. A local group of believers was “catholic” if it preached the full, true gospel in accord with the apostles.

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