The New Testament Marks of the Church

Introduction:

As most Christians know, the traditional marks of the Church, taken from the Nicene Creed, are that the Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Each of these can be traced directly to New Testament precedents (Ephesians 4 is a good place to begin, where all of them are manifest). Indeed, most, if not all, Christians can agree with them, though their implications may create some controversy.

But rather than talk of the “Nicene” marks of the Church, I want to highlight three other New Testament markers. As will be seen, I am sensitive to these marks particularly and specifically because of my background in Protestant churches. They are as follows: The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, is the dwelling place of the Living God, and is one Body.

The Pillar and Ground of the Truth:

I begin with two important verses:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-14 (ESV)

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth. 1 Tim. 3:14-15 (ESV)

This is often overlooked by Protestants. Protestants necessarily must make the Scriptures the foundation of our Faith. If they make the Church their foundation, one automatically must inquire, “Which one?” We cannot appeal to the “invisible Church” because our very notion of the “invisible Church” carries with it irreconcilable contradictions. Does the invisible Church believe, for example, that baptism by immersion is essential to being saved or not? One cannot claim that the invisible Church is indifferent to this matter, because after all, sincere and pious believers who presumably are part of the invisible Church believe that this matter is important. And what could be more important than a proper understanding of how one gets to be part of the invisible Church?

So, Protestants are forced back to the Scriptures. But nowhere are the Scriptures called “the pillar and ground of the Truth.” Indeed, if the Scriptures were absolutely important to the founding of the Church, then one is left with the problem of how to found the Church prior to the writing of the New Testament Scriptures? Presumably the Church was founded some twenty or more years before the writing of the first of the New Testament Scriptures, but if so, it was founded apart from the Scriptures. And of course, no New Testament congregation had all the New Testament, let alone any of the books of the New Testament for many decades.

More telling, Protestants cannot agree on the proper interpretation of key biblical passages. Are works part of saving faith or not? Can one lose one’s salvation after having been (really) saved? There are as many interpretations as there are Protestants.

Clearly, then, the Scriptures cannot be the foundation of the Christian faith. Scriptures support the Christian faith. They are indispensable to the Christian faith, but if the Scriptures were to ever be completely lost to us, we would not suffer. The Church has kept alive all which we need to embrace the Christ of the Gospel. Christians need not worry overmuch about attacks on the faith that take on the Christian Scriptures, alleging contradictions, fiction and so forth. The Church existed before the completion of the Christian Scriptures, and quite plausibly would continue to exist without them.

Indeed, the Church is the one who confirmed and verified exactly which Christian writings were to be included in the canon of Scripture. The Church kept and preserved the manuscripts of the Scriptures, to the point of execution. And the Church has laid down the standard of proper interpretation of the Scripture.

What Protestants often fail to realize is that if you take away the Church, and leave the ancient disciples with nothing more than the Scriptures, the Church would not have been founded until after the death of the Apostle John. In short, we would not be talking about the “New Testament Church” but the “Second Century Church” as the original. We would also have no clear teaching on: the Trinity, the life of Jesus, the role and place of the Old Testament, on whether Jesus was God-incarnate or not, on whether the body was important to salvation or not, and so forth. We take all these things as pretty much given, and point to the New Testament for evidence of these dogmas. But in point of fact, opponents to the Trinity, to Jesus as God-incarnate, and so forth, also utilized the Scriptures. What solved these controversies was not a particular hermeneutic, the voting power of the majority, or the speaking in tongues. Rather, it was the self-evident fact that Christians have believed these things from the beginning—and evidence pointing back through the Fathers to the apostles was mounted effectively.

In other words, it was the Church, as pillar and ground of the Truth, that verified and confirmed what Christians believed and are to believe. The Scriptures are part of that verification and confirmation, make no mistake. The Scriptures are an essential and non-negotiable aspect of the life of the Church. We need them. But we need them because we need the Church who gave them to us and interprets them for us.

The Dwelling Place of the Living God:

Another important verse:

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. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV)

Protestants have consistently taken most of the “you” passages—such as the one above—in individual terms. That is to say, what Paul is saying here is that “you, Clifton Healy” are a dwelling place of the living God. This is true, of course, by virtue of the gift and seal of the Holy Spirit. But it is only a part of the truth. And if left by itself, it is a distorting, and potentially heresy-making, part of the truth.

The fact of the matter is, almost all of the “you” passages which Protestants apply individualistically are plural “you’s.” That is to say, Paul is addressing the group of Christians at, say, Ephesus, collectively: “you all.” Modern English lost the second person plural form (“ye”) more than a century ago. So, when we read “you” in the English translations of the New Testament, we hear “me.” Or, to put it more bluntly: Most of the time Paul is not speaking to you, the individual Christian, but the Church. And if Paul is speaking to you, he is doing so on the presupposition that you are part of the Church.

This distinction, then, is important. The living God dwells, not in individual Christians, as such, but only in his Body, the Church. In fact, this Church that God dwells in is the one founded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. As Paul says earlier in the chapter of the verse above, there is one Church (about which more in a moment), and it is in that one Church that God dwells.

God does not dwell in just any gathering of two or more Christians. Indeed, the verse (Matthew 18:20) which many Protestants claim for home Bible studies, or low attendance Sunday evenings, is not a promise that Christ will bless just any gathering of two or more believers. Rather, it is a promise that when the Church prays and exercises discipline upon an impenitent member, it is Christ himself acting in the Church administering the discipline. In other words, it’s not about individual Christians coming together but about the Church acting in Christ’s behalf.

So, where does God dwell? In the Church that is apostolic. And, as we will see shortly, apostolic means not only in doctrine—and many claiming apostolicity of doctrine do so incorrectly—but also apostolic in historical, which is to say, incarnate, descent. To say it another way, there is only one Church where God dwells.

The Lord’s Body is One Body:

What is that one Body?

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:20-23 (ESV)

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4-6 (ESV)

First of all, the one Church is the one Christ formed with his disciples, and which is a mystical unity with the Trinity. The one Church is not merely an institutional unity. In fact, apart from the mystical union with Christ and the apostles, no amount of institutional unity will make the Church.

But this one Church is also not merely a mystical unity. The one Church has a bodily life, which is to say, a history. The institutionality of the Church, therefore, is as essential as the mystical unity of the Church.

Indeed, neither the visible, institutional unity of the Church nor the mystical unity, are actually anything different from one another. They are both the unity that makes the Church. Or, rather, the unity of the Church is necessarily manifest in its fullness as a visible institution and a mystical spiritual union.

Therefore, it is rationally and ontologically impossible for all of the institutional divisions among Christians (Roman, Orthodox and Protestant) to be the visible and manifest mystical unity which necessarily constitutes Christ’s Church. One cannot both be one and be many.

This leads inescapably to the following conclusion: the one Church, which is both a mystical and a bodily unity, cannot be all the churches of Christendom, nor all the (true) Christians among them. The former denies the mystical union (by including division and schism), and the latter denies the institutional union (by excluding the organized visible manifestation of the Church). From this follows the conclusion: there is one Church in which the mystical and visible unity that is necessary to the life of that Church obtains.

We have no other recourse than to ask: Where is that Church?

Conclusion:

There are many other important marks of the Church in the New Testament. One can speak of love, faith and hope, especially love. One can speak of the martyrs of the Apocalypse. One can speak of the episcopacy, of evangelism, of service to the poor.

But coming from my background, when these three essential aspects made their mark on me, I could only come to one conclusion. My answer to the question “Where is that Church?” is crystal clear and unequivocal. And such conviction grows more each day.

14 thoughts on “The New Testament Marks of the Church

  1. “Presumably the Church was founded some twenty or more years before the writing of the first of the New Testament Scriptures, but if so, it was founded apart from the Scriptures.”

    Right, it was founded before the NT, but not apart from the OT. Would you say that the Church needed the OT for its own self-understanding, in a sense? And when the gospels and letters were written, they were chock full of OT references, indicating that the OT was necessary to understand Christ and the new community he formed.

    When the Ethiopian came to Philip, didn’t they look at the OT together, for example? Of course, he didn’t understand it apart from the church (in the form of Philip), but it was still essential. Wouldn’t the very earliest Christians have used the OT in their worship? I don’t mean to limit the idea of scripture to the actual physical text, either. You clearly made the distinction between the Scriptures and the NT, but could you say more about the role of the OT in the founding of the church?

  2. Clearly, Paul (or Paul’s translators) needed the word “y’all.”

    Clifton, you wrote, “One cannot both be one and be many.” And… the Trinity? Or do you just mean human beings? In which case, can you not be a Healy family member and be uniquely Clifton? Etc.

  3. Megan:

    You rightly pointed out my lack of clarity. Of course God is both one and many.

    But what I was trying to communicate was the impossibility of unity and schism coexisting. Though many, God is one and undivided, and so his Church.

  4. Jennifer:

    I was perhaps overemphasizing one aspect of pre-NT Church life to make a point. You are absolutely correct that the (to Christians) Old Testament was part and parcel of that life. But even the “Old Testament Church” was founded prior to the writing of its (our) Scriptures.

    As to the role of the OT in the Church, I’m not so certain I’m competent to say much about it. But since that’s never stopped me otherwise, perhaps I can put forward some inchoate thoughts.

    First of all, it would not be a role such as that put forward frequently by conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists. Somehow, from these, one gets the impression that if the Scriptures (OT and NT) were ever to be proven false or contradictory or in any other way to have their propositional truths compromised, that Christianity would fall apart altogether.

    But it does not seem that Israel pre-first century was quite so Masoretic as Israel post-Jamnia. Within the OT itself there seems to be a wealth of “midrashim” put on various prior accounts: Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, etc. I’m not claiming later interpretations discredited the historicity or facticity of previous events, but that they felt free to offer differing accounts of the meaning and significance of those events. What was important was not some propositional truth, but the covenant relationship to the God of Israel and to one’s neighbor.

    We see this in the freedom NT writers interpret OT verses and events. Paul and his Hagar allegory, for example. But this freedom was given because of the hermeneutical key of the Messiah now come: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the blessed man of Psalm 1; the one like a son of Man of Daniel 10; and so forth.

    It seems the OT for the NT Church was a text of worship, of promise. It was not gleaned so much for propositional dogma and apologetical prophecy, but rather was sifted as wheat with which to make bread.

    The NT Chuch could have existed apart from the OT Scriptures, it seems, since the reality of the OT promise and hope was the God-man, and not a collection of scrolls. But the OT gave witness to the revelation of God in Christ, and helped make sense, retroactively as it were, of all that they had experienced.

    Still, the Gentiles, apart from the God-fearers/converts to Judaism, for example, didn’t seem to need the OT Scriptures–witness Paul’s use of their own poets and philsophers–to enter into covenant with Christ, and they soon outnumbered the Jewish believers.

    None of that probably makes any sense. But those’re my thoughts at this time. Thank yew for yer support.

  5. Thanks for responding to my first thought. I’d like to hear your response to my second, though — the metaphor of being a member of the Healy family and simultaneously being uniquely Clifton.

  6. Megan:

    Sorry. I failed to grasp the distinction between the questions you intended. Am I right in inferring that what you’re getting at is the importance of relationship between the diverse members of Christ’s Body and the Body itself, and thus one’s “dual ontology”?

    On the chance I have my inference correct, I would respond this way. I am certainly unique. (Hold off on the retort–if you can!) Even though I am the fifth Clifton generationally, all of us Clifton’s have had middle names that have differed. But even if I was the junior of a junior of a junior of a junior, it would still be the case that I was a unique person.

    But my uniqueness is based radically in my coming forth from the Healy family tree. My personality has a history that, paradoxically, precedes my existence, and is shaped and bounded by that which is beyond me. I am only the unique me that I am because of the family from which I have been generated. My uniqueness would be radically and absolutely different if my surname were Burroughs, say. But this is true not only of me, but of all Healy’s stemming from our family tree. Our unique personalities/personhoods share a common root: “Healyness.” And in that commonality we share a unity that is more foundational to our being than is our uniqueness, for without the common root, we would have no personhood.

    It seems to me that this metaphor analogues fairly directly onto the Church-Church member relationship. Whether it analogues as directly onto the Trinitarian relationship is perhaps controversial. I tend to think it does, since traditional Orthodox theology has God the Father as the singular font of the Godhead. But then, the essence of the Godhead is, as it were, Personality as opposed to being (in Zizioulas’ phrase “being as communion”), so for humans, who take their personality from the being of the community out of which they are generated, the dynamic is different, if not exactly opposite.

    But then again, I may have my inference wrong, in which case I’ll need to start again.

  7. I’ll just say that your inference is adequate. As usual, you and I differ on first principles. So your argument holds water *if* one buys the first principle; if one doesn’t, it doesn’t. And there’s an end.

  8. If I may offer a technical correction?

    Actually an argument may hold water (be true) whether or not the first priniciples are convincing to one not holding such principles. But of course, if one does not buy those first principles, it is not likely to convince, even if true.

  9. Clifton, you know that by “hold water” I meant “convince,” not “be logically adequate.”

    If all you’re aiming for is logical adequacy, I think you’re aiming too low.

    But if you need the last word, hey, it’s your blog.

  10. “The NT Church could have existed apart from the OT Scriptures, it seems, since the reality of the OT promise and hope was the God-man, and not a collection of scrolls.”

    No, not a collection of scrolls, but the stories and prayers and prophecies, etc. that those scrolls contain. I do not think the NT Church coudl have existed apart from the OT scriptures, in that sense. That’s why I said I don’t mean actual physical texts above. If Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT, the OT has to exist. The covenant has to exist, and the covenant was made known through the scriptures, and thus the church exists because God chose a particular people and then a particular Person. This particular people only understood who they were through God’s revelation, which was passed down through the Scriptures.

    I would say the Gentiles very much needed the OT. Paul and the Church Fathers used their language of philosophy, but Robert Louis Wilkins argues, convincingly I think, in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, that it’s a mistake to think of “the hellenization of the OT and gospel” but that the scriptures were primary in uh… biblicizing… hellenistic culture.

    I don’t think, then, the Church could do without the Scriptures. If all physical texts disappeared, we would still hopefully remember all the stories and pass them along. Before the NT scriptures, the early Christians knew people who knew Jesus, and thus got their stories second or third or fourteenth hand, but those stories still functioned scripturally, I’d argue.

  11. Jennifer:

    I don’t think, then, the Church could do without the Scriptures. If all physical texts disappeared, we would still hopefully remember all the stories and pass them along. Before the NT scriptures, the early Christians knew people who knew Jesus, and thus got their stories second or third or fourteenth hand, but those stories still functioned scripturally, I’d argue.

    You’ve made my point better than I’ve been able to. I’m trying, rather unsuccessfully, to emphasize that it’s not either Scripture or nothing, but that Scripture itself is one facet of the living tradition of the Church (People of God) which has come down to us. If Scripture had not come written, it would have been preserved orally in the Tradition.

  12. May I chime in?

    We all know that the apostles held authority in their day. What they said was “end of conversation” because they were Apostles of Christ himself. However, when they left the scene, where then was the authority?
    Well, what they had left behind was their writings which were circulating throughout the empire. (I know many would say they left behind people whom they had passed their authority onto as well, ie: second generation apostles.)
    However, the church, even when determining the canon, chooses those writings which were written by Apostles or by those who were directly associated with them. Beyond that, they make decisions to cut certain writings because they were not as credible, or maybe authoritative…
    I see that as considering the writings to have Authority because they were from Authoritative sources. Thus, giving scripture Authority, as if it were the Apostles here today.
    That is why I consider the scriptures to be authoritative. The Church did not give them their authority, but simply recognized it.

  13. John:

    What you say is true. But the Apostles were not some separate entity off somewhere. They were the foundation stones of the Church.

    Furthermore, presumably the Apostles wrote other letters which were not preserved. How did Christians know which apostolic writings were Scripture and which not? The Church.

    What makes the Scripture foundational, in the Church’s Tradition, is, indeed, the fact that it was written by the Apostles. But before the Apostles wrote any single line of Scripture, they formed the Church, and that Church received and confirmed the apostolic authority in those documents.

    The Church preceded the Apostolic writings. The Church received and confirmed those writings. The Church is the proper interpreter of those writings.

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