In the early days of the Church, the word “catholic” was a term of unity.
“It literally means ‘universal’ or ‘general,’” said Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham.
In the very earliest literature, the word was used in Antioch in the early second century, when the apostles were still in recent memory, George said.
But it took on a whole different meaning when the Roman Catholic Church took it on — and when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg castle door 500 years ago and started the Reformation.
“Part of what he did was actually reclaiming the catholicity of the Church — he was saying the Bible and the Church is for everybody,” George said.
That’s why George and nearly 800 others have signed a new Protestant confession commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — to proclaim unity and reclaim the historical unity of the word “catholic.”
“We think of the Reformation as a great point of division, but it can be a source of unity among believers,” said George, who served as co-chair of the confession’s steering committee.
The statement, called “A Reforming Catholic Confession,” is not an “anti-Catholic document,” it’s an effort to “say again not what we are against but what we are for,” he said.
“Within the Reformation, there was a great affirmation of the tenets of the gospel. It was a back-to-the-Scriptures movement, back to the early church.”
‘Common core’ of belief
The confession is supported by theologians across many denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal and Presbyterian. Their hope and prayer is “for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come,” as stated in the confession’s introduction.
According to George, beyond any differences that various denominations may have, “there is a common core of Christian belief, and we want to stand together on that.”
The Reformation, he said, “was a clarion call on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a summons to biblical catholicity. Five hundred years later, its message of forgiveness and renewal is still urgent.”
Signatories include Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Robert Smith, professor of Christian preaching at Beeson.
To read the full text of the confession, see below. (TAB)
The Reforming Catholic Confession
What we, protestants of diverse churches and theological traditions, say together “We believe …”
That there is one God, infinitely great and good, the creator and sustainer of all things visible and invisible, the one true source of light and life, who has life in himself and lives eternally in glorious light and sovereign love in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14) – co-equal in nature, majesty, and glory. Everything God does in creating, sustaining, judging, and redeeming the world reflects who God is, the one whose perfections, including love, holiness, knowledge, wisdom, power, and righteousness, have been revealed in the history of salvation. God has freely purposed from before the foundation of the world to elect and form a people for himself to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6), to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:3-14).
That God has spoken and continues to speak in and through Scripture, the only infallible and sufficiently clear rule and authority for Christian faith, thought, and life (sola scriptura). Scripture is God’s inspired and illuminating Word in the words of his servants (Psa. 119:105), the prophets and apostles, a gracious self-communication of God’s own light and life, a means of grace for growing in knowledge and holiness. The Bible is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it commands, trusted in all that it promises, and revered in all that it reveals (2 Tim 3:16).
That God communicates his goodness to all creatures, but in particular to human beings, whom he has made in his own image, both male and female (Gen. 1:26-27), and accordingly that all men, women, and children have been graciously bestowed with inherent dignity (rights) and creaturely vocation (responsibilities).
That the original goodness of creation and the human creature has been corrupted by sin, namely, the self-defeating choice of the first human beings to deny the Creator and the created order by going their own way, breaking God’s law for life (Rom. 3:23). Through disobedience to the law-giver, Adam and Eve incurred disorder instead of order (Rom. 8:20-21), divine condemnation instead of approval, and death instead of life for themselves and their descendants (Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:12-20).
That Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God become human for us and our salvation (John 3:17), the only Mediator (solus Christus) between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), born of the virgin Mary, the Son of David and servant of the house of Israel (Rom. 1:3; 15:8), one person with two natures, truly God and truly man. He lived a fully human life, having entered into the disorder and brokenness of fallen existence, yet without sin, and in his words, deeds, attitude, and suffering embodied the free and loving communication of God’s own light (truth) and life (salvation).
The Atoning Work of Christ
That God who is rich in mercy towards the undeserving has made gracious provision for human wrongdoing, corruption, and guilt, provisionally and typologically through Israel’s Temple and sin offerings, then definitively and gloriously in the gift of Jesus’ once-for-all sufficient and perfect sacrificial death on the cross (Rom. 6:10; 1 Pet. 3:18) in the temple of his human flesh (Heb. 10:11-12). By his death in our stead, he revealed God’s love and upheld God’s justice, removing our guilt, vanquishing the powers that held us captive, and reconciling us to God (Isa. 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:14-15). It is wholly by grace (sola gratia), not our own works or merits, that we have been forgiven; it is wholly by Jesus’ shed blood, not by our own sweat and tears, that we have been cleansed.
That the gospel is the good news that the triune God has poured out his grace in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that through his work we might have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Jesus lived in perfect obedience yet suffered everything sinners deserved so that sinners would not have to pursue a righteousness of their own, relying on their own works, but rather through trust in him as the fulfillment of God’s promises could be justified by faith alone (sola fide) in order to become fellow heirs with him. Christ died in the place of sinners, absorbing the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), so that those who entrust themselves to him also die with him to the power, penalty, and (eventually) practice of sin. Christ was raised the firstborn of a renewed and restored creation, so that those whom the Spirit unites to him in faith are raised up and created a new humanity in him (Eph. 2:15). Renewed in God’s image, they are thereby enabled to live out his life in them. One with Christ and made alive in him who is the only ground of salvation, sinners are reconciled with God — justified, adopted, sanctified, and eventually glorified children of the promise.
The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit
That the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, the unseen yet active personal presence of God in the world, who unites believers to Christ, regenerating and making them new creatures (Tit. 3:5) with hearts oriented to the light and life of the kingdom of God and to peace and justice on earth. The Spirit indwells those whom he makes alive with Christ, through faith incorporates them into the body of Christ, and conforms them to the image of Christ so that they may glorify him as they grow in knowledge, wisdom, and love into mature sainthood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). The Spirit is the light of truth and fire of love who continues to sanctify the people of God, prompting them to repentance and faith, diversifying their gifts, directing their witness, and empowering their discipleship.
That the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is God’s new society, the first fruit of the new creation, the whole company of the redeemed through the ages, of which Christ is Lord and head. The truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the church’s firm foundation (Matt. 16:16-18; 1 Cor. 3:11). The local church is both embassy and parable of the kingdom of heaven, an earthly place where his will is done and he is now present, existing visibly everywhere two or three gather in his name to proclaim and spread the gospel in word and works of love, and by obeying the Lord’s command to baptize disciples (Matt. 28:19) and celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19).
Baptism and Lord’s Supper
That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call “sacraments,” are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper communicate life in Christ to the faithful, confirming them in their assurance that Christ, the gift of God for the people of God, is indeed “for us and our salvation” and nurturing them in their faith. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are physical focal points for key Reformation insights: the gifts of God (sola gratia) and the faith that grasps their promise (sola fide). They are tangible expressions of the gospel insofar as they vividly depict our dying, rising, and incorporation into Jesus’ body (“one bread … one body” — 1 Cor. 10:16-17), truly presenting Christ and the reconciliation he achieved on the cross. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper strengthen the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins and communion with God and one another through the peace-making blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:26; Col. 1:20).
That through participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as prayer, the ministry of the Word, and other forms of corporate worship, we grow into our new reality as God’s people, a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9, 10), called to put on Christ through his indwelling Spirit. It is through the Spirit’s enlivening power that we live in imitation of Christ as his disciples, individually and corporately, a royal priesthood that proclaims his excellent deeds and offers our bodies as spiritual sacrifices in right worship of God and sacrificial service to the world through works of love, compassion for the poor, and justice for the oppressed, always, everywhere and to everyone bearing wise witness to the way, truth, and life of Jesus Christ.
That in God’s own time and way, the bodily risen and ascended Christ will visibly return to consummate God’s purpose for the whole cosmos through his victory over death and the devil (1 Cor. 15:26). He will judge the world, consigning any who persist in unbelief to an everlasting fate apart from him, where his life and light are no more. Yet he will prepare his people as a bride for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9), giving rest to restless hearts and life to glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44; Phil. 3:21) as they exult in joyful fellowship with their Lord and delight in the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21:1-2). There they shall reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 22:5) and see him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 22:4), forever rapt in wonder, love, and praise. (“A Reforming Catholic Confession” full text)
Watch for more articles on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in upcoming issues of The Alabama Baptist.