“[I believe] In One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” (Nicene Creed)
As an Orthodox Christian I confess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan everyday during both my morning prayer and my evening prayers, as well as at every Divine Liturgy. The first three sections of the Creed deal respectively with the orthodox (“little o” and “big o”) teaching on the persons of the Holy Trinity; The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. Immediately after the final confession on the Holy Spirit, finishing off the confession of the Holy Trinity, comes the confession in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”. One can tell that by immediately following the confession of the Holy Trinity that the confession of the Church was of utmost importance during the time of the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (It’s formulation came out of the first two ecumenical councils; 325 AD, and 381 AD) as well as it’s continued importance in all those confessions who adhere and confess to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century the debate over the nature of the Church has arisen: Is the Church a visible community? Or is it an invisible body, made up of the various true believers across the Christian confessions, which is known only to God?
The question about the nature of the Church (Visible or Invisible) is one of the many issues that draw a clear-cut distinction between the Orthodox Church and the various Protestant denominations. Protestants will make claim that there is no one visible community that can have an exclusive claim to being the “one true Church” and that there is no one single community that has it all right. Therefore the Church is invisible by nature, since it is not a visible community, but rather it is made up of all true believers from across the various confessions, and only God knows who is truly a member of the Church. The Orthodox Church (along with the Roman Catholic Church, but I am not a proponent of the Roman Catholic Church – since I’m Orthodox – and will not bring them into the discussion; I’m comparing what the Orthodox Church confesses about the Church with what Protestants confess about the Church) staunchly objects to the “invisible theory” of the Church. She confesses that she is the, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” and that all who are outside of the Orthodox Church are, to put it bluntly, outside of the Church. As an Orthodox Christian myself I wholeheartedly confess that the Orthodox Church is “The Church”, and in what follows I will lay out why I believe that there is one visible Church.
To start, we must recognize the language employed throughout the Pauline Epistles in regards to the Church. St. Paul constantly refers to the Church as “the body of Christ” (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 3:6 & 5:23, Colossians 1:18 & 1:24). The language employed by St. Paul here is not metaphorical, but rather that those who have been baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27) and through the Holy Spirit are now, mystically, members of His body (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Further Scriptural evidence for the Church truly being united to Christ as members of His own body can be found in the words of Our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ Himself when He confronts St. Paul (then Saul of Tarsus) on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Saul had only been persecuting the infantile Church yet Christ Himself shows no distinction between His Church and Himself in His bold confrontation. So as we move on we must recognize that the Church is truly the body of Christ which He is the head of (Colossians 1:18). He is the Bridegroom who takes His bride and becomes one flesh, “”For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)
So we have arrived at the understanding that Ecclesiology is intimately tied to Christology. In the Orthodox Church our Ecclesiology is understood within the framework of our Christology (the Christology confessed by the seven ecumenical councils), our Pneumatology (the understanding of the Holy Spirit), as well as our Trinitarian theology (For a remarkable treatment of how these three principles inform Orthodox Ecclesiology I would highly recommend reading the article, “Concerning the Third Mark of the Church” by Vladimir Lossky as is found in his book, “In the Image and Likeness of God”, and well as the chapter “Two Aspects of the Church” in his book, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”) I may get into the Pneumatological and the Trinitarian dimensions in Orthodox ecclesiology, but for our purposes here I want to focus on the Christological aspect.
“The Church, in it’s Christological aspect, appears as an organism having two natures, two operations, and two wills.” (Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church). In the confession of the Incarnation we believe that in Jesus Christ is the union of two natures (divine and human), with a human will according to His human nature and a divine will according to His divine nature, as well as the complete harmony and co-operation between the two wills in everything that He does. The same is confessed about the Church, for just as in Christ, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9) so is the Church the body of Christ, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). Just as when the Word became Flesh He became a particular person who was both fully God and fully man fully united (and He indeed was fully human; someone you could see with your eyes, followed where He went, and crucify with your hands) so there is a particular, visible Church which contains the full union of our human nature to the divine nature through the Holy Spirit, thus becoming one with Christ, “All separation between Christology and ecclesiology vanishes in the Spirit” (John Zizoulas, “Being as Communion”). “In the history of Christian dogma all the Christological heresies come to life anew and reappear with reference to the Church. Thus, there arises a Nestorian ecclesiology, the error that would divide the Church into distinct beings: on the one hand the heavenly and invisible Church, alone true and absolute; on the other, the earthly Church (or rather ‘the churches’) imperfect and relative, wandering in the shadows, human societies seeking to draw near, so far as it is possible for them, to that transcendent perfection” (Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church) In fact, to confess an “invisible Church” is not the result of orthodox Christology, as Vladimir Lossky has demonstrated it is actually the product of a Nestorian Christology! Correct Christology results in a visible ecclesiology rather than an invisible one.
If we confess that there is one, visible Church, logically the next question follows: How do we find it? How are we able to find which visible community is in continuity with the visible community established by the Apostles? Here we turn to St. Ignatius of Antioch (himself a disciple of St. John The Evangelist/Theologian) who is writing around 107-108 AD, “Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church” (Letter to the Smynaeans) The visible Church is marked by the bishops, and those who are with the bishops are in the Church. This is because the bishops are those elders who were ordained by and succeeded the Apostles, it was the bishops who received and held fast to the tradition given to them by the Apostles and continued on in the community that received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. “Every local Church therefore finds its center and its unity in the bishops, not so much because he is its local head and pastor, but because through him it is included in the mysterious “sobornost” [“catholicity”] of the Church-body for all times.” (Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Sacrament of Pentecost) Through the bishop the faithful are included in the catholicity that marks the Church. Here I shall briefly note (as to note get lost on a rabbit trail) that “catholicity” does not mean “universal” in a geographical sense, otherwise the Church founded in the Upper Room would’ve been less catholic than the Church after is had begun to spread, rather, “catholicity is a quality of the revealed Truth given to the Church. One might say more exactly that it is a mode of knowledge of the Truth proper to the Church, in virtue of which this Truth becomes clear to the whole Church, as much to each of her smallest parts as to her totality” (Vladimir Lossky, “Concerning the Third Mark of the Church) and this Truth is conferred upon the Church by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Indeed the catholicity of the Church is the inner life of the Church in the Holy Spirit, and this Church is marked by the bishops who had the hands of the Apostle’s laid on them, having the Holy Spirit conferred upon them, and continuing to live in the catholicity of the Church. One must also be able to trace themselves back to the Apostles through their bishop (“Apostolic Succession”) to be a part of the visible Church. This method of distinguishing who is in the Church, and who is not, is first seen in the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, “All, therefore, who wish to see the truth can view in the whole Church the tradition of the apostles that has been manifested in the whole world. Further, we are able to enumerate the bishops who were established in the Church by the apostles, and their succession even to ourselves” (Against the Heresies, Book 3) The Church is identified by those bishops who have both the apostolic succession, as well as who keep the tradition of the apostles (it is on this second point that the Orthodox Church does not recognize the succession of the Roman Catholic Church, or the Anglican Church). On top of this it is necessary that these bishops with apostolic succession remain in communion with one another, as we can find in the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the third century, “We, the bishops who preside of the Church, are under the foremost obligation to grasp tightly this unity and to assert our title to it, with the object of proving that the episcopate in itself is one and indivisible” (The Unity of the Catholic Church)
So even as we search through the writings of the early Fathers of the Church we see that the Church is one visible community, found and identified through the bishops who maintain the apostolic tradition along with apostolic succession. To remove even one of these principles is to render any claim to being the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” null and void. But someone may be quick to reply, “What do you have to say about St. Augustine then?” First of all when it comes to St. Augustine, one must never isolate him from the rest of the Church Fathers, neither should they rely solely upon him for all things dogmatic. It is true it seems that St. Augustine draws a distinction between a “visible” and an “invisible” Church, but let’s look at the text, “Therefore “the Lord knoweth them that are His;” they are the sheep. Such sometimes do not know themselves, but the Shepherd knoweth them, according to this predestination, this foreknowledge of God, according to the election of the sheep before the foundation of the world: for so saith also the apostle, “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world.” According, then, to this divine foreknowledge and predestination, how many sheep are outside, how many wolves within! and how many sheep are inside, how many wolves without! How many are now living in wantonness who will yet be chaste! how many are blaspheming Christ who will yet believe in Him! how many are giving themselves to drunkenness who will yet be sober! how many are preying on other people’s property who will yet freely give of their own! Nevertheless at present they are hearing the voice of another, they are following strangers.” (The City of God) This text cannot be read without understanding that St. Augustine draws this conclusion based upon his understanding of “predestination” (something that I will not be tackling in this post; that would be a rabbit hole from which it would be quite difficult to return) and that when he speaks of those who are presently outside of the visible Church but are “the sheep” he is saying that due to predestination and God’s foreknowledge that they will yet be a part of the visible Church. St. Augustine himself does not refute the belief in the visible Church, for elsewhere he says, “There is no other valid means of making Christians and remitting sins, except by causing men to become believers by the institution of Christ and the church, and
through the sacraments…” (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book III)
The Church is one, visible community, united to Christ through the Holy Spirit, who possesses the full revelation (the Truth) of God, given by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. The Apostles passed on the Truth through apostolic tradition to their successors (the bishops) and through ordination conferred to them the mark of catholicity. Those bishops who maintain the apostolic tradition, who maintain apostolic succession, and who remain in communion with all the bishops that hold onto apostolic tradition/succession are the visible marks of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, and this Church remains today; the Orthodox Church.