What Does It Mean to Be “Catholic?”

What Does It Mean to Be “Catholic?” April 22, 2017

What Does It Mean to be “Catholic” If Not Belonging to the Church of Rome?


Over the past many years of my career as a Protestant Christian theologian I have had many encounters with fellow Protestant Christians—including Baptists and others in the Free Church tradition—who would like Protestants to be “catholic” (with a small “c”). Most of them do not mean that Protestants should join the Catholic Church whose headquarters on earth is the Vatican; most of them do mean something else by “catholic,” but pinning down exactly what they mean is not always easy. In fact, I would say that many of them—mostly Protestant theologians—disagree about what they mean as soon as certain hard questions are asked.

For those who wonder about my “credentials” to talk about this issue, let me say, without boasting, that I have been involved in many “Catholic-Protestant” dialogue events as well as many conversations among Protestants about the meaning of being “catholic” (but not Roman Catholic). In recent years some theologians in my “tribe” (moderate Baptist) have been promoting what some observers have labeled “Baptocatholic” to describe their vision for Baptist identity.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

So what does “catholic” mean if not “Roman Catholic?” Well, of course, it has to be acknowledged right away that the Roman Catholic Church would claim a monopoly on being truly “catholic” (although there have been overtures toward the Eastern churches and some language from the Vatican that some observers believe mean the RCC is gradually recognizing some of those churches as truly catholic). Some Protestant churches have always thought of themselves as “catholic” in some senses of that word. A few have even included “catholic” in their name (e.g., The Catholic Apostolic Church). The Church of England and most Anglican churches around the world consider their church truly “catholic” without meaning “Roman Catholic.”

The word “catholic,” of course, simply means “universal.” To Roman Catholics that means the church of Rome, led by the bishop of Rome, the pope, is the one true organized church of Christ on earth with other “churches” being only “ecclesial communities” (like para-church organizations). They do not mean that only members of the RCC are Christians, but they do mean that non-members are not visibly united with the one true church—yet. Protestants are “separated brethren” (at best).

At the opposite extreme are those Protestant churches (some of them don’t even like the word “Protestant”) that reject being “catholic” in any sense except perhaps teaching the doctrines of the apostles who wrote the New Testament. They are, in their own eyes, “catholic” to the extent that they preach and teach the same gospel of Jesus Christ preached and taught by the first century apostles. Many of these shy away from the word “catholic” entirely because of its adoption by the RCC and its use by some Protestants to mean, for example, “apostolic succession” of bishops.

So, I ask myself, as a Baptist and Free Church Protestant theologian, “Am I ‘catholic’” in any sense of the word? Does it matter? If I am “catholic,” in what sense would that be?

For those of you who wonder why any of this matters—it’s because within my “circles” many Baptist and other Free Church theologians (and some pastors influenced by them) are strongly promoting our being or becoming “catholic.” Many of my students (former as well as present) are at least strongly interested in this movement (if it can be called that) toward identifying as “Protestant catholics” or even “Baptocatholics.” The ecumenical movement may be dead in its older manifestations, but now it seems to be filtering down into the ranks of Free Church Protestants—whose parents and grandparents would never have considered themselves “catholic” in any sense.

In my circles, being labeled “catholic” in any sense—even “Baptocatholic” (or “baptocatholic”)–has ramifications. It’s political (in terms of denominational and institutional religious politics). A Baptist (or other Free Church) person who identifies as also “catholic” might have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

One of my theological heroes, a mentor without knowing it (mainly through is books), was evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010). He belonged to the United Church of Christ but was much more conservative than many people in that denomination and was constantly pressing for the UCC to move back toward the “middle” of the theological spectrum. He taught his entire theological career at a Presbyterian seminary. His Ph.D. was from the University of Chicago Divinity School and he was a pietist Protestant who also claimed to be catholic in some sense of that word.

I have long agreed with Bloesch (and others) that one can and should be both Protestant and catholic. His main audience (through his books) was moderate-to-progressive evangelical Protestants. He drew on a very broad spectrum of theologians—including church fathers, medieval Christian thinkers, Protestant reformers (especially Luther and Calvin), post-reformation theologians (both Calvinist and Arminian), and so-called “neo-orthodox” theologians (Karl Barth was a favorite of Bloesch’s). But he positioned himself, or tried to position himself, squarely in the center of a “big tent” of evangelical Protestantism while also frequently quoting and referencing Catholic mystics especially.

By “catholic” Bloesch clearly meant being in harmony with and learning from historical, classical, traditional Christianity broadly defined. He once told me he considered another evangelical theologian “sectarian” because he insisted that one could not be truly, authentically Christian without subscribing to the modern doctrine of “biblical inerrancy”—as defined, for example, by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

For Bloesch, and I will say here, today, for now, until convinced otherwise, for me, “catholic” simply means “Nicene”—believing in the main, classical doctrines of ancient and reformation Christianity—especially the deity and humanity of Christ (incarnation) and the Trinity. And I will add to that “salvation by grace alone” (which I am certain the “fathers of Nicea and Constantinople” agreed about).

So what does that mean practically? Negatively–simply that I cannot consider authentically Christian any expression of Christianity that does not include those doctrines. I have not decided how those doctrines ought to be expressed—whether formally or informally—, but I cannot consider a church, for example, as truly, fully Christian that denies those doctrines or ordains to ministry people who deny those doctrines. Positively—simply that I accept as fellow Christian believers people, churches, that embrace (preach and teach) those doctrines and willingly enjoy Christian fellowship with them.

Every “rule of thumb” has exceptions, of course, and I do make certain exceptions to the above when I consider a person who claims to be Christian but does not embrace “the faith of Nicea” (meaning the essence of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) to be confused. I have met fellow Christian believers who, for whatever reason, simply do not understand that faith, those doctrines, and questions them due to confusion.

My point, however, is that I want all Christians, of whatever denomination, tribe or tradition, to embrace, preach and teach, that Nicene Faith of the ancient Christian church and am not satisfied until they do.

Of course, I recognize and admit that there are some self-identified “Christians” who do embrace that Nicene Faith, those crucial Christian doctrines, whom I would not consider authentically Christian for other reasons.

My point here is simply that, to me, as to Bloesch and many other Protestants, “catholic” simply means believing and teaching the ancient and very biblical doctrines articulated by the ancient Christian theologians at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. And being catholic in that sense, with understanding (so I am not talking about people who don’t understand or are confused), is part of being authentically Christian—especially as a church or Christian organization.

With that I am satisfied and have no interest in pushing for “visible and institutional unity of the churches” into one great, worldwide organization.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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