It’s time to settle a long-standing question. What does it mean when we say, “We believe in one holy catholic apostolic church.” Specifically, why does the word “catholic” appear in the Nicene Creed and why is it said in an Episcopal church?
The short answer is this – “catholic” doesn’t mean what you probably think it means.
The catechism or teaching of the church (page 854 in the Book of Common Prayer) asks, Why is the Church described as catholic? The answer: “The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.” As much as I appreciate and love the catechism, this is not a full-enough answer for me.
The Nicene Creed was written in Greek. The Greek word translated into English as “catholic” is καθολικὴν. It is not found in the Greek New Testament (I checked, ugh). The word has two meanings, general or universal. In English, the non-military sense of word “general” is found only once in the New Testament. It is in the Letter to the Hebrews talking about the “general gathering” of people. Universal in not found in any English Bible that I could find. Suffice it to say that catholic is a post-Biblical word and concept.
Before I go on, I should say that others would disagree with me and assert that catholic is a Biblical word. They claim the source is Acts 9:31. There are two Greek words that if combined can make it sound like cath-holic. Nevertheless, every single reputable English translation does not combine the two words but rather keeps them separate so the text reads, “Meanwhile, the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samara had peace and was built up.” This author believes is it more than a stretch to say that “throughout” is synonymous with “general” or “universal.”
So why is it in the Nicene Creed and why do we “believe it” every Sunday? What are we believing in anyway?
Let’s assume the New Testament was completed by the year 80. The early Church was a movement mighty in power but quite small in relative size. Even with Peter baptizing thousands in one day it was still, percentage wise, tiny when compared with the Roman Empire. However, by the time the Nicene Creed was written around 325, the movement had grown into what we would recognize as a capital “c” Church. It stretched across the entire empire and even into the emperor’s own household. It was now the “general” Church or “universal” Church; the catholic Church. The problem is there was a reason why the creed had to be written. The universal Church didn’t agree on basic tenets of the faith. The creed was an attempt to bring the general Church together. Thus, by using catholic/general/universal as a belief, it was in a sense saying, “We’re orthodox believers.”
The split of the general Church into East and West in 1054 also changed the linguistic approach to self-define our separate self-governing body of believers. The eastern Christians referred to themselves as orthodox and the western Christians took the name Catholic. And we in the Episcopal Church are somewhere in the middle. Nearly 1,000 years later, the labels still exist. Yet, these are only labels. The truth is the general Church still believes in one God who created all things, seen and unseen. We are still united in our belief that Jesus, born of Mary, is the Son of God. He died, rose, ascended and will return again. We believe in the Lord, the Holy Spirit who is the giver of life and who is worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son. And, we believe the one general/universal/catholic/orthodox Church is holy.
Despite the grandiose language of the Nicene Creed, I believe we are still a movement. It’s a large, universal movement of people following Jesus with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This movement is baptizing thousands per week in China and India. The Jesus Movement is still transforming souls in this world for God’s coming Kingdom. I think this is something we can all stand for and profess our belief in.