Four Marks of the Church

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: "[I believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." In Protestant theology these are sometimes called the attributes of the Church.[1] 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."[2] 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[3] and continues in use by some Protestant churches today. Hence, "holy catholic" becomes "holy Christian."[4]

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."[5]

The Eastern Orthodox Church, in disagreement with the Roman Catholic, regards itself as the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and his apostles.[6]


"One" as a mark of the Church

See also: Christendom

"There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—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]). This list in the Pauline letters of factors making Christians one body, one church, is doubtless not meant to be exhaustive, says Francis Aloysius Sullivan, but it affirms the oneness of the body, the church, through what Christians have in common, what they have communion in. Elsewhere, Paul the Apostle says: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This statement was about Christians as individuals, but it applied to them also as groups, as local churches, whether composed mainly of Jewish or Gentile Christians. In 1 Cor. 15:9, Paul spoke of himself as having persecuted "the church of God", not just the local church in Jerusalem but the same church that he addresses at the beginning of that letter as "the church of God that is in Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2). In the same letter, he tells Christians: "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27), and declares that, "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" (1 Cor. 12:12).[7][8] Some scholars have argued that in modern American English, what is rendered as "one," ought to have been rendered as "universal."[9]

"Holy" as a mark of the Church

Main article: Sanctity

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][10] And the Church is holy because God is Holy and the Church shares in God's very own life and holiness.[Eph. 5:30-33]

"Catholic" as a mark of the Church

See also: Catholicism
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."

The word "catholic" is derived from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "general", "universal".[11][12] It is associated with the Greek adverb καθόλου (katholou), meaning "according to the whole", "entirely", or "in general", a combination of the preposition κατά meaning "according to" and the adjective ὅλος meaning "whole".[13][14]

Applied to the church, the adjective "catholic" means that in the church the wholeness of the Christian faith, full and complete, all-embracing, and with nothing lacking, is proclaimed to all people without excluding any part of the faith or any class or group of people.[15][16][17] The adjective can be applied not only to the church as spread throughout the world but also to each local manifestation of the church, in each of which nothing essential is lacking for it to be the genuine Church of Christ.[17][18][19]

For his subjects, Emperor Theodosius I restricted to believers in "the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity" the term "catholic christians", and applied the name "heretics" to others (Edict of Thessalonica of 27 February 380).[20]

In the following year 381, the First Council of Constantinople adopted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, expressing belief in "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church".

"Apostolic" as a mark of the Church

This describes the Church's origin and beliefs as rooted and continuing in the living Tradition of the Apostles of Jesus (cf. the 1913 Webster's Dictionary).[21] The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Church of the East, each claim to have preserved the original teaching of the apostles. They also have apostolic succession in that their bishops derive their authority through a direct line of laying on of hands from the apostles, a claim that they accept can be made by the other churches in this group. The Anglican Communion likewise claims apostolic succession, but its claim is questioned by the others mentioned. Protestantism, on the other hand, holds that what preserves apostolic continuity is the written word: as Milne put it, "A church is apostolic as it recognizes in practice the supreme authority of the apostolic scriptures."[22]

See also


  1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1949), 572.
  2. Creeds of Christendom
  3. 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
  4. For example, see Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House, 2006, p. 158. ISBN 978-0-7586-1217-5
  5. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church
  6. Bishop Kallistos (Ware). The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014656-3. p. 307
  7. Francis Aloysius Sullivan, The Church We Believe In (Paulist Press 1988 ISBN 978-0-80913039-9), pp. 36–38
  9. "Strong's Greek: 1520. εἷς (heis) -- one". Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  10. Whitehead, Kenneth D. "The Church of the Apostles," This Rock, March 1995. See article at
  11. "Catholic". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. (cf. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon)
  13. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2011-09-16.
  14. "On Being Catholic", by Claire Anderson M.Div.
  15. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 830-856
  16. Pope Francis, Talk at General Audience of 9 October 2013
  17. 1 2 Hopko, Thomas. "The Orthodox Faith". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  18. Jenson, Matt; Wilhite, David (2010). The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. A&C Black. pp. 70–75. ISBN 9780567033376. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  19. Second Vatican Council. "Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, 11". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  20. Bettenson (editor), Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 1970 ISBN 978-0-19501293-4), p. 22
  21. Cf. also an Armenian statement, a Roman Catholic statement.
  22. Bruce Milne, "Know the Truth" (2nd edition). (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 271.

Further reading

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