Thursday, January 04, 2007

One Holy Universal Church

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a fellow Christian who was also a student of the Japanese language. It was notable that while he was also studying Latin in order to read the early Church Fathers more purely, he was not a Catholic.

In fact, we were discussing how to translate the phrase - 'one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church' from the Nicene creed. As one might guess, the word "Catholic" was where our issue came up. I translated it literally but he said (gracefully) "maybe you should say 'universal' instead of the literal translation for Catholic since in Japanese Catholic only refers to the Roman Catholic Church". I said, "I agree with you semantically, but doctrinally I must disagree".

The entire Church was Roman Catholic until the great schism 1000 years after Christ. It was then and only then that the word "Catholic" moved from being descriptive to being a title or label.

All Christians want this title, but not all are privy to it. Some groups have tried to label themselves catholic in accordance with the original meaning of the word (such as the Arian Catholic Church and the Anglo Catholic Church) but neither of these can validly be called Catholic since they have distinct beginnings NOT at the cross, NOT at Pentecost Not even at Nicaea where this creed was pronounced but many centuries later by a rebellious king and in the case of Arian Catholic - by a 4th century heretic already soundly refuted by the Church Fathers many times over. I'm not even sure the Arian Catholic Church extends back that far as it probably is just a rebirth of the heresy.

Those who are not (Roman) Catholic want so desperately for this word to merely mean "universal" and not have any significant link with the Roman Catholic Church but in fact it does.
Now the word "apostolic" seemed much more difficult to translate. I need to find a Japanese Catholic. Many Japanese people are so non-religious that Christian terms (even in Japanese) are very unfamiliar to them and they may never have heard such terms in their own language much less know how to translate it.


Phil S. said...

Hi GodFearin;

Interesting discussion and one that I'm going to link on my patristics roundup on hyperekperissou (

I'm not sure I quite buy it though because I think the semantic sense trumps you. From my reading of the Fathers, I have to conclude that the church at Rome was highly respected and it was considered important to consult it in the doctrinal disputes from the Apostolic Fathers onwards, but there is just enough evidence to say that Rome could not dictate solutions on other churches. What that translates into for me is that I do want to hear what Rome has to say, but I am not bound by the Roman concept of the magisterium residing only with the Pope. The Orthodox, if no one else, have as good a claim to Apostolic succession, so I really can't just stop with the Roman church.

Still, good article and a subject worth thinking about.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Phil thanks for your comments. I noticed on your site that you are reading NT Wright's "Jesus & the Victory of God". I just ordered that book from Amazon and cant wait to start. I was in the library of the most learned scholar I ever knew (and he was a Protestant) and I asked him, out of all these books which is your favorite? Thats the one he said was his favorite. That was several years ago and I just now got around to buying..

Anyway back to the subject, I can understand your reservations and those of my friend who I was discussing it with. It is true, some of the Eastern Catholic Churches have had issues with papal authority long before the final schism in the 11th century, but I think its clear that the most important names of Christianity, Clement of Rome (the 4th pope), Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine and St. John Chrysostom (among others) were all papists.

Here's a link I found with some quotes from them and others.

NotMyOpinion30 said...

This is a little off the topic of the original post, but it ties into it based on the comments thus far.

St. John Chrysostom is the most "hailed" Eastern Doctor of the Church. Not only was he totally loyal to the See of Rome, as can be see in his writings, but one of the reasons why he was banished was because he refused to bend to the political pressures of the Emperor and Empress to be the established "new" pope of Constantinople while he was patriarch because of that humble loyalty.

To date, I have only found one pre-schism Eastern Father who did not recognize the See of Rome as the supreme pontiff, and that was St. Cyprian. Please let me know if I've missed anyone.

Phil S. said...


The N.T. Wright is good. I first read Victory a few years ago, so this is my second read through. I'm enjoying it, although it really is very dense.

Now, as for your comments. I think this is where Protestants and Roman Catholics have difficulty agreeing. I admit that Clement, Ignatius et al respected the church at Rome, but I do think that calling them papists is a bit of a stretch. It does matter what we mean by papist, I think, but, if we are talking about the papacy as it developed over the middle ages in the West, then I would have to say that they weren't for the simple reason that it would be anachronistic to claim that they approved of this much later development. Let's remember that it is only with the fall of the Empire that the papacy achieved the kind of independence that we associate with it now.

To a Protestant perspective, RCs really are reading back into these authors an understanding of the papacy that they simply couldn't have. So, it isn't that these authors clearly supported Rome as a major Christian center that is at dispute, but rather whether this respect has any bearing on the papacy as it stands now.


NotMyOpinion30 said...

Hi phil s.,

I think your absolutely right. This is where Protestants and Catholics have difficulty agreeing. It's been that way since the 16th century!

St. Clement not only respected the successor of St. Peter, he was the successor of St. Peter! I can speak for myself that when I use the term "papist", it is acutally more of just a term of endearment now. I used to be an anti-Catholic Protestant who used to use that term in an uncharitable way.

One of the problems I had as a Protestant with the papacy is that the only relationship that I could make out of it was Rome and the Pope. That made me always think of the Pope as the leader of a man-made religion heavily involved with a beaurocratic hiearchy who was an Italian nationalist that was somehow linked to the pagan Roman Empire.

Once I started reading the Scriptures and the Early Fathers thinking of the Pope as the Successor of St. Peter, my viewpoint completely changed. Next thing you know, BAM!, I became a Catholic (just kidding, it wasn't that easy at all). I can't guarantee that type of conversion would happen with everyone. In fact, I doubt it would.

That is pretty much how all of the Early Fathers I have read besides St. Cyprian have viewed the Pope: the Successor of St. Peter, the head of the Apostles and their successors. Any disputes that could not be handled at the local level were always brought to whoever the Successor of St. Peter was in the Early Church. There is more than enough writings on that. I'll try and post them some day, but I have to get my collection of writings back from a friend that I lent them too. Darn! I knew this would happen!

Anyhow, I respect your beliefs. I understand that this is more of a discussion forum (at least that's how I approach it) and less of a card game. There are many pre-Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers who refer to the Church as Catholic and not universal. But, I suppose that doesn't help matters either. I'm always happy to hear from Protestants who are interested in the Early Church. I hope that you look to the history from the source though!

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Phil > I replied to your comments in a new post because I ended up spending so much time on the reply. :)

Phil S. said...


Fair enough as far as you go. I should note that I don't write from an anti-Catholic position, but rather I would classify myself as a catholic evangelical Anglican. That means that my sympathies are to the catholic tradition, even if I might differ with the Roman Catholic take on it from time to time. Even those disagreements are not fundamental in that I find more in common with Roman Catholics than not.

As for reading from the sources, you don't need to worry there. I've been reading patristics on my own for something like five years and, because of my Classics training, I find it important to read the Fathers themselves. I do that usually through translations (the background of the authors have been known to vary) because reading from the originals (even to someone with over ten years experience in both Latin and Greek) is a little slower and my time is tight with a new family. I am committed to reading original fathers and am currently translating the Life of Martin by Sulpicius Severus on my own blog (as well as commenting on patristic authors and running a weekly Patristic roundup). So, no worries. I am far too interested in the Fathers and much too indoctrinated in proper scholarly procedures not to go to the sources.


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Anglicans baffle me. How the hell do they always end up with the best scholars?!