“…In one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”
The four words, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, are called the four notes or marks of the church. In other words, they give us the four basic characteristics of the church.
When we see the word “one” we are apt to say that the church is not one. After all, in addition to the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches. It seems the church is divided, and only ‘one’ in some vague, spiritual, invisible sense. However, we as Orthodox would say that the Orthodox Church is the one church. At first glance this may seem terribly arrogant. It appears that we are denying that the word church can be used for the non-Orthodox, and indeed, there are some who would say that we cannot use the word church for non-Orthodox. It can also seem that we are saying that we are better than other Christians. But we aren’t saying that. Rather, we are saying that where we Orthodox differ from other churches, it is the Orthodox Church that is, in fact, Orthodox. To give a few examples, as Orthodox we can appreciate the Roman papacy as an institution. We can say that in a united church, the Bishop of Rome would have the position of ‘first among equals’. However, when the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Pope is the infallible primate of the Church and that he can make infallible statements about faith and morals on his own authority, without the consent of the Church, we would say that the Roman Catholic Church is wrong in teaching this.
In regard to Protestantism, we can admire its devotion to the Bible. The Protestant love of the Bible, which is visible both in personal devotional reading and in scientific biblical scholarship, is something which we as Orthodox can appreciate and admire. However, when Protestants deny the role of Tradition in interpreting the Bible, we can say they are wrong.
So, we as Orthodox say that we have the “right belief” (this is what Orthodox means) when we differ from Catholics and Protestants. That doesn’t mean that we deny the fact that we admire aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism. Moreover, we might recognize we have much in common. After all, the Catholics and many Protestants recite the Nicene Creed, just as we Orthodox do. We know from past articles in this series that there is, at least, one difference between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox versions of the Creed, but this does not change the fact that we are at one in the rest of the Creed. So, we as Orthodox make the claim that we are the One Church.
The Creed tells us that the church is holy. We believe, quite literally, that the church is the Body of Christ. Christ is the head, we are the members. As Saint Paul writes:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Cor 12:12-23, 27)
We cannot say that the Body of Christ is anything other than holy. One might object to this saying that the ‘church’ has done many bad things throughout the course of history.
However, this is a bad way of stating things. Of course individual Christians have done and do bad things, sometimes in the name of the Church. But we commit sin on our own. The Church itself does not sin. As a matter of fact, when we sin we are separating ourselves from the Church. This does not mean that we are ‘unbaptizing’ ourselves when we sin, but we are distancing ourselves. In that sense confession is like a new baptism, in that the stain of sin is removed by the tears of repentance. The tears we shed at confession, as the water of baptism, wash away any sins we have. Now, of course, many of us have never shed a tear at confession (and we shouldn’t force ourselves to do so) but the point of confession is restoration to the Church.