VII: The Holy Catholic Church

Q: In the Creeds, the word “catholic” can be used instead of “Christian.” Are Lutherans catholic?

A: Yes. Lutherans are catholic, but not part of the denomination called "Roman Catholic" which many people (including most Roman Catholics) mistakenly call "the Catholic Church". Lutherans confess the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and if they believe what they say, they are catholic. In the original Greek in the Nicene and Latin of the Apostles' and Athanasian Creeds, the word "catholic" was used. In 15th Century Germany (a century before Luther), the German "christliche" (Christian) was used to translate the Latin "catholicam" (catholic) In popular translations. Because older Lutheran service books were translated into English from German rather than the original languages, the term "christliche" was translated "Christian". Now many Lutherans have returned to the original word: catholic.

The word "catholic" comes from two Greek words: "kata", meaning "throughout" or "according to"; and "holos", meaning "the whole". It is often defined as meaning "universal". Its opposite is not "Protestant" but "limited", "exclusive", "sectarian", or "parochial".

The word was first used to describe the Church in the period A.D. 98-117 by St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. Explaining what the word meant, St. lrenaeus, Bishop of Lyon before A.D. 189, wrote, " ... the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it (this faith), as if living in one house." Thus, the word catholic means the church is universal, not limited to one space or time, for It is one in the faith and practice which the Church continues to pass on in all times and places

Since Christ founded one Church, Lutherans claim membership in that Church, not in a new sect founded in Germany in 1517. Only Christ can establish the Church and only the Holy Spirit can empower the Church. The Lutheran Church was necessitated not as a revolt against the catholic church, but because the medieval Roman Catholic Church was not catholic enough.

The Augsburg Confession at the end of Article XXI states, "As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church or the church of Rome, insofar as the ancient church is known to us from its writers." Thus, within our own confession of faith, we are made one with the church catholic, and proudly proclaim our identify as participants In the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church".

Adapted from About Being Lutheran © Lutheran Liturgical Renewal 1991. Used by permission.