Ordained Servant Online
John A. Muether
The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, by Richard D. Phillips, Philip G. Ryken, and Mark E. Dever. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004, xi +146 pages, $9.99, paper.
Awash as we are with books that (1) claim the church today is in crisis and (2) prescribe the means for its reinvention, it is easy to overlook this modest collection of essays. Based on addresses delivered at a 2003 meeting of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, this review of the attributes of the church, as confessed in the Nicene Creed, is well suited for a short adult Sunday school series.
The authors concede that the contemporary church, by schisms rent asunder and by heresies distressed, rarely shines in its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. But Philip Ryken reminds us that to confess that “we believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” is to acknowledge that the church and her attributes are articles of faith. Often defying empirical evidence, unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are at once gifts with which the Spirit of Christ has endowed the church and goals to which we are called to aspire.
Ordained Servant readers might be tempted to dismiss the treatment on the catholicity of the church, because it comes from a Baptist contributor, Mark Dever, who pastors Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. But they should resist that temptation. Dever is that rare breed of “high church” Baptist (in the best sense of that term), and many Presbyterians would be better Presbyterians if they read more from his pen. Here he demonstrates that catholicity is a rich and robust term; “universal” does not serve as an adequate synonym. (Which suggests that “catholic church” should replace “global church” in our vocabulary.) Dever writes that catholicity means that “each Christian has concern for all other Christians elsewhere.” This claim has more significance than we realize. Concern for other Christians extends to reforming them, and so commending the Reformed faith is an act of catholicity. Proclaiming the doctrines of sovereign grace from our pulpits, honoring the sanctity of the Lord’s Day, catechizing our children in the Reformed faith—in these and other practices we are witnessing both to a watching world and to other Christians. This is not sectarian isolationism; it is Reformed catholicity.
A book of this size will inevitably frustrate a reader who wants to see themes further developed. I wished for greater reflection on the value of church discipline in reinforcing the attributes of the church. And Phillips’s plea for an “evangelical unity” based on unspecified “essentials” seems to diminish the function of confessions in defining our unity. Still the authors write with clarity and succinctness, as, for example, in drawing helpful distinctions between catholic and Roman Catholic (the latter literally being a contradiction in terms) and in explaining why apostolicity demands neither apostolic succession nor the continuation of apostolic gifts. This refresher course serves to remind us of why we can and should continue to recite the Nicene Creed in public worship.
In the framing of the book, the four attributes receive a chapter apiece, sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. This is fitting as it allows Christ to have the first and last word in this discussion of the church. In the introduction, Phillips ties Christ’s “great promise” (“I will build my church”) to the “great principle” of the church that immediately follows in Matthew 16: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (v. 21). Here is an insight that is universally absent in new recipes for the church: the path for the church is the way of the cross. In its weakness it proclaims the power of God unto salvation, and in its suffering the church maintains its one, holy, catholic, and apostolic witness.
John R. Muether is a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, and the historian for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2013.