four marks


One of the difficulties faced is creating an ecclesiological rubric that can receive broad acceptance. Positively, there is broad acceptance of Scripture as at least theologically informative. This being the case, a clear a modest Scriptural basis should broaden acceptance. Negatively, there are vastly different definitions of the four marks of the church, especially “catholic” and “apostolic.”

Coming from a decidedly conservative Protestant position and a non-creedal tradition (Baptist), it is likely that I do not understand the related issues. I cannot–and frankly should not–please everyone (for, if we disagree, some or all of us are wrong). The most I can do is be as biblically sound as I can and let the chips fall where they may.

Question: How might one find the ecclesiological commonality without sinking to the lowest common denominator?

Reflecting on Emil Brunner’s discussion of “apostolica” in Dogmatics Vol. III

When we look at church, we see form–or forms. Brunner insists that form is not an essential aspect of church and that a church is not apostolic if it concretizes its forms (social or dogmatic) rather than critiquing them according to the apostolic witness. Forms of church and dogma are subject to adjustment and correction. Three factors must be considered in the process: the “then” of church, its essence as the Ekklesia witnessed by the Apostles; the “now” of present culture and history; and the “when” of the eschatological future.

Are these three (especially the first and the last) clear enough for the several traditions to agree upon?

Apostolicity is a subject of much disagreement. Some traditions hold to a specific form of apostolic succession. Barth

refutes this as external, insufficient, and false.

For Barth, apostolic means the community listens to and is subject to the Scriptures. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit works and brings the Church into alignment with the work and will of God.

As such, apostolicity is the concrete measure of the other three marks. We cannot know whether a specific church is one, holy, and catholic outside of its following or not following the Scripture.

Here is his summary from page 712 of IV.62 (peruse an excerpt here)

Una describes its singularity. Sancta describes the particularity which underlies this singularity. Catholica describes the essence in which it manifests and maintains itself in this particularity and singularity. And finally, apostolica does not say anything new, in relation to these three definitions, but describes with remarkable precision the concrete spiritual criterion which enables us to answer the question whether and to what extent in this or that case we have or have not to do with the one holy catholic Church.

Continuing with Barth

The catholicity of the church, by which is meant that which is general and comprehensive, the essence of which true church is recognized as true, is found only in the union of the church with her Head, Jesus Christ. Any church having a different essence—as in its ecclesiastical structure or doctrinal commitments—is not the true church. Catholicity, therefore, is not a matter of human wisdom, but is a matter of trust and is known by revelation. It is found in the real, essential connection between the body of Christ—the church—and the Head—Jesus.

The first three marks are given by revelation and understood by faith. This puts them beyond human reach and places them squarely in the purview of the Holy Spirit. The question is, how can we know whether a specific congregation bears the marks? Barth answers this question with apostolicity…but more on that later.

Continuing Barth’s discussion of the four marks:

When I look at myself with earthly eyes, I do not see a holy person. When I look at the church with earthly eyes, I do not see a holy church. I am filled (to a lesser or greater degree) with a mixture of worship and doubt. The church is filled (to a lesser or greater degree) with a mixture of worship and doubt. This is evident to earthly eyes. Yet, something else is evident to the eyes of trust. Hidden within the earthly/visible church (of which I, as a follower of Jesus Christ am necessarily a member) is the holy, indestructible body of Christ. This is a matter of revelation and is seen and known only by trusting the Spirit.

Each of us is holy only in Jesus. Only Jesus determines our relationship to him. All we can do is trust. This same trust must be exercised as we relate with those who profess trust in Christ. It is only when we accept one another’s profession that we can confront one another’s practice and belief.

Unity (and too often uniformity) and division seem to be constants in the church. At the very moment when the church is striving for ecumenism, denominations are splitting. Barth shows us (in Church Dogmatics) that a unity based on external conformity or agreement is a false unity. True unity is only gained by a radical and intentional trust in the One Head, Jesus Christ. Barth also shows us that in its visible/earthly for, the one church will have historical, cultural, national, etc. differences. Unity is not gained by the removal of such differences–or even by forced doctrinal conformity–but by relationship in and participation in the One Head. Such unity–and confession of disunity–is the responsibility of each local gathering.

(continuing with Clowney)

In his chapter on holiness and catholicity, Clowney brings us back to the Scriptures and past traditional doctrine. Drawing on Paul’s epistolary salutations, he discerns two movements in holiness. In the initial movement, those who trust Christ are given Christ’s righteousness and are made holy. In the continuing movement, those who trust Christ are commanded to live accordingly and be holy. The church (the gathered holy ones) is holy in both movements.

In his discussion of catholicity, Clowney goes against merely inclusivist notions and grounds his definition in the Church’s connection to Christ. The church is composed of all those who are in Christ. While this is seemingly inclusive, Clowney goes on to note that the church is composed only of those who are in Christ. This is decidedly exclusive and goes against such documents as Vatican II.

The question is, by what visible/knowable criteria are holiness and catholicity discerned?