Words Make a Difference: “Christian”

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What’s the proper adjective to modify “Church” in the Third Article of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: Should it be “holy Christian church” or “holy catholic Church”?

Luther used Christlich, the common German translation of catholicam.
Today French Lutherans use universelle = universal.
Swedes say allmännelig = everywhere.
Norwegians say almen = everywhere.
Germans say allgemeine = everywhere.

The point: Christ’s church is universal, and Lutherans around the world use different words to convey this universality.

The 1958 Service Book and Hymnal (SBH) used “Holy Christian Church” but with a footnote commending “catholic.”

All subsequent hymnals used “catholic,” creating confusion since most people associate the word “catholic” with “Roman Catholics.” As Gerhard Ebeling states[1]:

I can therefore only consider it harmful and hopeless to seek to possess ourselves of the concept “Catholic,” “Catholicism” in an evangelical sense. In saying that, I am well aware that it occurs in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, but also that Luther constantly interpreted it by “Christian.” For the simple fact is that the concept “Catholic” involves the confusion of the vera unitas ecclesiae with the unitas of an ecclesiastical body – which means it involves the tendency to bind the holy, Christian Church “to place and time, to person and gesture, by means of laws and outward pomp” (Schwabach Articles,12).[2]

Thus the more accurate and more ecumenical term is “Christian.” Those who insist on using “catholic” are really anti-ecumenical because they are using the creeds to give a privileged status to a particular church rather than direct all to the Christ in whom is our true unity.



[1] Gerhard Ebeling, “The Significance of Doctrinal Differences for the Division of the Church,” Word and Faith (London, SCM Press, 1960) 183-84.

[2]The seventeen Schwabach Articles were composed by Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, Brenz, and Agricola in the summer of 1529. They were used in October at a meeting in Schwabach to establish the Schwabach Articles, the basis for a united Northern German confession. The Schwabach and Torgau Articles (1530) served as the template for the Augsburg Confession.