Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

ecclesiology (2)

The catholicity of the Church

“Catholicity” refers to universality. The issues of catholicity are very broad. Questions such as: should Protestants recognize Roman Catholic baptism? How far abroad from our own tradition should we look for insight?

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers recognized that the Church had declined a long way. And yet, pioneers that they were, they were not individualists. They drew heavily from the writings of the Early Church Fathers, and a lot more heavily from the medieval period than they are often given credit for. They recognized that they were not the first generation granted the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and were ready to listen for the voice of the Spirit in the teachings of those who had gone before them.

In a day in which ancient Church history is anything before the onset of the ministry of Billy Graham, we need to recover the catholic vision of the Reformers.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Charles Hodge: “Do Roman Catholic Clergy Count as Ministers of the Gospel?” An important discussion relating to the validity of Roman Catholic baptism.

Charles Hodge: “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?” From the Princeton Review, April 1846.

Anthony N. S. Lane:  John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.)

John Williamson Nevin: “Catholic Unity.” (An appendix to Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism.)


If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.9

Of old, certain peculiar prerogatives of the church remained among the Jews. In like manner, today we do not deprive the papists of those traces of the church which the Lord willed should among them survive the destruction. God had once for all made His covenant with the Jews, but it was not they who preserved the covenant; rather, leaning upon its own strength, it kept itself alive by struggling against their impiety. Therefore - such was the certainty and constancy of God’s goodness - the Lord’s covenant abode there. Their treachery could not obliterate His faithfulness, and circumcision could not be so profaned by their unclean hands as to cease to be the true sign and sacrament of His covenant. Whence the Lord called the children born to them His children [Ezek. 16:20-21], when these belonged to Him only be a special blessing. So it was in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England after the Lord established His covenant there. When those countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, the Lord used two means to keep His covenant inviolable. First, He maintained baptism there, a witness to this covenant; consecrated by His own mouth, it retains its force despite the impiety of men. Secondly, by His own providence He caused other vestiges to remain, that the church might not utterly die. . . .

However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine. Daniel [Dan. 9:27] and Paul [2 Thess. 2:4] foretold that Antichrist would sit in the Temple of God. With us, it is the Roman pontiff we make the leader and standard bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. The fact that his seat is placed in the Temple of God signifies that his reign was not to be such as to wipe out either the name of Christ or of the church. From this it therefore is evident that we by no means deny that the churches under his tyranny remain churches.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.3.11-12