Sunday, September 23, 2007

More Credal Interpretation From The Reformers

In my old post Creeds and Catholicity, I noted the need to consider the "original intent" of the Creeds' progenitors. In reading more of the McNeil Edition of Calvin's Institutes, I came across an interesting observation of Luther and Calvin's interpretation:

"[Calvin] follows Luther in the view that in the Creed, "catholic church" and "communion of the saints" are terms that refer to the same entity, in which all Christians are members. The invisible church of the elect, whose membership is known to God alone, is differentiated but not dissevered from the organized church visible on earth, whose members are known to each other. (Intro. XII)"

An old judicial canon of interpretation goes something like this: 'where a list is given, no two terms are to be read as identical (or an interpretation reading two terms as identical is to be disfavored)'. The underlying rationale of this judicial canon seems relevant in this instance. Can we fairly say that in our short and carefully wrought creeds, where (otherwise) each term is distinct and precisely written to address some heresy or other, these two terms actually just mean the same thing?


Jim said...


Just because two phrases refer to the same entity does not mean that the two phrases are "identical" and therefore superfluous. The latter phrase can modify the earlier one (narrowing it, broadening it, or explaining it).

To wit, Luther does not suggest that the phrase, "the communion of the saints," is redundant. He rather argues that the "communion of saints" explicates what the "Holy Catholic church" is.

In the Large Catechism, he writes:

"49] So also the word communio, which is added, ought not to be rendered in German as communion (Gemeinschaft), but congregation (Gemeinde). And it is nothing else than an interpretation or explanation by which some one meant to explain what the Christian Church is. . . .

51] But this is the meaning and substance of this addition: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith,
one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. 52] I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the
beginning of entering it."

You might also note that the Westminster Confession of Faith also separately treats the "Church" and the "Communion of Saints" in chapters 25 and 26, respectively.

I think the WCF's treatment of the "communion of saints" provides a really great picture of what the relationships in the church -- any church -- should look like.

And, in the shameless self-promotion category, I posted on the topic here,

Joseph said...


I think you already know the answer to your question.

Thos said...


Thank you for a challenging reply. A benefit of quoting someone else's assertion is that I don't have to get too defensive when challenged. I accept your critique that the 'catholic church' clause and the 'communion of the saints' clause should not be read as identical in the Lutheran view, but that the latter should be read as some type of qualification of the former (and this makes no liar of McNeil either, who merely said that the two clauses refer to the same entity).

I think it is still valid under your Lutheran construction to note that where a list of distinct beliefs ("I believe...") is given, it seems disfavorable to read one belief of the list as qualifying another, where all the others are statements of distinct belief.

But then I think even the Catholics view the latter clause as some kind of qualification of the former -- a statement that those in heaven or purgatory, as well as the faithful on earth, comprise the Catholic Church...

I'm familiar with the WCOF view.

This seems then to come down to 'original intent'. If 'communion of the saints' meant at the time of its addition to include those saints departed (say, to confront Vigilantius, as one theory goes), then that is what we ought to believe it to mean today - otherwise, if unbiblical, we should just alter the Creed (something that the Reformers would naturally be very reluctant to do).

There's an excellent book on this topic, "The Apostles Creed: Its Origin, Its Purpose, and Its Historical Interpretation" (1902) (on GoogleBooks) by Union Theological Seminary Prof. Arthur McGiffert. It has some worthwhile analysis of credal origin. For instance, it mentions that at the time "Catholic" was added to the creed, the word had a definite, exclusive meaning -- a belief in the particular institution, not the "holy church universal". Assuming Prof. McGiffert is right, was the reformation right to commandeer the meaning of credal language to new uses? McGiffert says, "The common Protestant interpretation of the article in the creed, which makes it refer to the holy church universal, is therefore historically incorrect." I wish I had this info when I wrote my prior post on creeds, but thought it at least beneficial to include now.

For our present discussion, Prof. McGiffert notes the obscurity of the 'communion of the saints' clause's origin. But he says, "It was used sometimes to denote participation in sacred things, that is the sacraments, sometimes to denote communion with departed saints. And one or the other of these meanings probably attaches to the article in the creed." I believe that neither of these is the way that the Reformation interprets the clause. He continues, "There is no sign that the article was intended to express the communion or fellowship of believers with each other, or that it was meant as a closer definition of the word "church," as we so commonly interpret it to-day." (His cited evidence is from the usage by councils of the late fourth and early fifth centuries.)

[I've been citing from this link:,M2, around pages 30 and 200. See the Wiki article on McGiffert for an interesting tale of heresy charges for his views in this book.]

I'm all for confessionalism, but is it really proper to use an ancient creed with a meaning different from its traditional meaning? If McGiffert is right (and I'm inclined to agree with his analysis, but don't mean to foreclose further debate on the point), I think the better approach is to simply displace the creed with the denomination's confessional views.

Peace in Christ,

Jim said...


Right, I, too, am a textualist when it comes to construing ecclesiastical (or legal) texts. So no argument on what I understand to be your methodological point. Public texts should be construed using a reasonable reading of the words (as phrases, and in context), as they would have been defined at the time the text was written.

As you probably know, however, there is a difference between originalism and textualism, something that sometimes I've thought that ecclesiastical writers do not seem to appreciate as much as they should.

So my question in approaching this (or any other text) would be: How would the words, "the communion of the Saints" have been understood by a member of the Christian public at the time the phrase was written? (I don't know the answer to that question. I'm happy to accept whatever answer is historically accurate.)

All that being said, I have no dispute with McGiffert's reading on either score.

I entirely grant the we first experience the communion of the saints in the communion of the Supper. Indeed, it was meditating on the implications of the Supper that lead me to "pick up on" our union with each other in Christ's body. It's jsut that I think that the sacramental union of the church means more than sharing in the cup and bread, but that it implies our sharing in the joys and the sufferings of other Christians.

And I might add that I do not exclude our union with departed saints as well, I just never "got that" as the first reference in the Creed. (But I entirely grant that that may be a result of my ignorance of what the text meant at the time it was written.)

And, FWIW, in his sermon on John 17, Luther notes our communion with departed saints as well as living saints (notably, motivating it through the sacrament of the altar as well):

"For to everyone who believes through the word of the Apostles, the promise is given for Christ's sake and by the power of this prayer [John XVII], that he shall be one body and one loaf with all Christians; that what happens to him as a member for good or for ill, shall happen to the whole body for good or ill, and not only one or two saints, but all the prophets, martyrs, apostles, all Christians, BOTH ON EARTH AND WITH GOD IN HEAVEN [emphasis added], shall suffer and conquer with him, shall fight for him, help, protect, and save him, and shall undertake for him such a gracious exchange that they will all bear his sufferings, want, and afflictions and he partake of their blessings, comfort, and joy. What man could wish for a anything more blessed than to come into this fellowship or brotherhood and be made a member of this body, which is called Christendom? For can harm or injure a man who has this confidence, who knows that heaven and earth, and all the angels and the saints will cry to God when the smallest suffering befall him?"

Thos said...


Thanks again for sharing. You're right to note that there is a difference between textualism and originalism. I believe the properly treatment is approach a text for what it says, and use the original (or early/primitive) understanding as a gloss on the text. In the case of the Creeds though, looking back to original intent seems particularly beneficial. The statements of belief are short, bold, and filled with depth because of their purpose to rule out (or keep out from Christian Baptism) certain heresis (heretics).

Maybe I'll post on that McGiffert book to call some greater attention to it than this combox...

Peace in Christ,