The Four Marks of the Church is a term describing four specific adjectives — one, holy, catholic and apostolic — indicating four major distinctive marks or distinguishing characteristics of the Christian Church. The belief that the Church is characterized by these four particular "marks" was first expressed by the First Council of Constantinople in the year 381 in its revision of the Nicene Creed, in which it included the statement: "[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." In Protestant theology these are sometimes called the attributes of the Church. They are still professed today in the Nicene Creed, recited in the liturgy of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and many Protestant churches' worship services.
While specific doctrines, based on both tradition and different interpretations of the Bible, distinguish one Church or denomination from another, largely explaining why there are so many different ones, the Four Marks, when defined the same way, represent a summary of what historically have been considered the most important affirmations of the Christian faith.
The ideas behind the Four Marks have been in the Church since early Christianity. Allusions to them can be found in the writings of 2nd century early Church Father and bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. They were not established in doctrine until the First Council of Constantinople in 381 as an antidote to certain heresies that had crept into the Church in its early history. There the Council elaborated on the Nicene Creed, established by the First Council of Nicea 56 years before by adding to the end a section that included the affirmation: "[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." The phrase has remained in versions of the Nicene Creed to this day.
In some languages, for example, German, the Latin "catholica" was substituted by "Christian" before the Reformation, though this was an anomaly and continues in use by some Protestant churches today. Hence, "holy catholic" becomes "holy Christian."
Roman Catholics believe the description "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" to be applicable only to the Catholic Church. They hold that "Christ established here on earth only one Church" and they believe in "the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church". While "there are numerous elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside her structure", these, "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity". The eastern Churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church thereby "lack something in their condition as particular Churches". The communities born out of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation "do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constituent element of the Church."
According to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, describing the earliest days of the Church, the Apostolic Age, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."[Acts 2:42]
I believe in one God....
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ....”
"There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."[Eph. 4:5-6]" One describes the unity of the body of Christ. These words from the Creed speak of the followers of Jesus Christ as united in their belief in one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church is one because as the Church's members we are joined together by Jesus[Jn 17:20-23]" He prays for Christians to have unity, saying this unity will provide the most compelling evidence to the world that he is the Savior of the world.
The word holy means set apart for a special purpose by and for God. It does not imply that the members of the Church are free from sin, nor that the institution of the Church cannot sin. Christ's Church is holy because it is Christ's Church: "...upon this rock I will build my Church."[Matt. 16:18] Jesus founded his Church to continue his redemptive and sanctifying work in the world. Christians understand the holiness of the universal Church to derive from Christ's holiness.[Matt. 16:19]
Shortly before convoking the council that inserted into the Nicene Creed the description of the church as catholic, Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which limited the ecclesiastical application of this term to upholders of the teaching of the First Council of Nicaea. These alone were authorized to use the title of Catholic Christians, while others were ordered to be called heretics.
The word "catholic" means "universal" according to most Western interpretations, pronouncing the universality of Christ's church. It refers to the wholeness and totality of all true believers in Jesus as the Christ. The Church as the Body of Christ is not limited to a time, place, race or culture.
On the contrary, Roman Catholic and Orthodox interpretations understand it as meaning that the Church includes a diversity that it combines into a harmonious whole, it is where Christ provides "the true confession of faith, the fullness of the sacramental life, the authenticity of the ordained ministry", and it is sent to every human being and "embraces a vastness of people, of peoples who profess the same faith, who are nourished by the same Eucharist, who are served by the same Pastors":
Jesus drew near and said to them, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."
This describes its origin and beliefs as rooted in the teachings of the Apostles of Jesus (cf. the 1913 Webster's Dictionary). All Christians understand apostolic to mean continuity in the church's teachings from the apostles throughout history, not just in the 1st century. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church also claim that each of their respective Churches alone is the true Church, although they believe that both Churches have "Apostolic Succession" of the priesthood. They, as well as churches of Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East, also believe that their bishops derive their authority through a direct line of laying on of hands from the apostles. Protestantism, on the other hand, holds that the written word preserves apostolic continuity: as Milne put it, "A church is apostolic as it recognizes in practice the supreme authority of the apostolic scriptures."
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1949), 572.
- Creeds of Christendom
- See footnote 12 in The Book of Concord, Translators Kolb, R. and Wengert, T. Augsburg Fortress, 2000,p. 22. ISBN 978-0-8006-2740-9
- For example, see Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House, 2006, p. 158. ISBN 978-0-7586-1217-5
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church
- Bishop Kallistos (Ware). The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014656-3. p. 307
- Whitehead, Kenneth D. "The Church of the Apostles," This Rock, March 1995. See article at http://www.ewtn.com/faith/Teachings/churb2.htm
- Bettenson (editor), Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 1970 ISBN 978-0-19501293-4), p. 22
- Online: <www.religionfacts.com/christianity/denominations/comparison_charts.htm>
- Robinson, B.A. "Grouping Christian Denominations into Families." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2006. Online: 22 Sep 2010 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_deno.htm>
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 830-856
- Pope Francis, Talk at General Audience of 9 October 2013
- Cf. also an Armenian statement, a Roman Catholic statement.
- Bruce Milne, "Know the Truth" (2nd edition). (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 271.
- Four Marks of the Church by Kenneth D. Whitehead
- The Four Marks of the Church by Fr. William Saunders
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