Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Church’s Mark of Apostolicity, the Preservation of all the Rest

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 11, 2014

When it comes to the marks of the Church identified in the Nicene Creed (one, holy, Catholic and apostolic), the mark of apostolicity is by far the most straightforward. The fullness of Revelation in Jesus Christ was entrusted to the apostles, who were commissioned to carry on his mission in the Church until the end of time. It is inescapable, therefore, that the authentic Church of Jesus Christ must (and will) be characterized by an unbroken connection with the apostles.

Traditionally, the understanding of apostolicity has been developed under the same three headings as for unity. The Church must be (and is) apostolic in terms of doctrine, sacraments, and social life. Thus the Church possesses the fullness of the apostolic faith, the fullness of the apostolic means of sanctification in the sacraments, and the fullness of apostolic authority in her pastors, who shape what we might call the social dimension of the Church—her visible extension in time and space, through her members considered as a community.

That the Church should be a visible body throughout history is only what we ought to expect for any true “embodiment” of the mission of the Incarnate Son of God. Our Lord never pretends that the human person is not a unity of body and soul. In both the institutional character of the Church and her sacramental fostering of holiness, the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ are suitably mirrored. Moreover, this Incarnational character fairly demands that apostolicity consist of something more than just doctrine—than just ideas, so to speak. It consists also, as I have already noted, in the fullness of sacramental life, and in a visible body authoritatively governed by those who possess a true succession from the original apostles themselves.

There is a common Protestant argument, developed primarily by Lutherans, that apostolicity consists in the preservation of the full Christian tradition, and that Catholics are to be faulted for a narrow insistence on lines of succession. Aidan Nichols, OP, in Figuring out the Church, offers a telling rejoinder. Nichols explains that if the whole tradition is the content of apostolicity (which it is, for no part of what was committed to the apostles may be lost), we must not forget that a sacramentally tactile succession from the apostles is its very form. Without this formal succession in the apostolic college, the content of the tradition would degenerate into an endless debate, with no possible decisive resolution.

In fact, as the great apologists and theologians have argued since the second century (an early example is Tertullian), it is precisely the incorporation of new bishops by previous bishops into the apostolic college with and under Peter that extends this apostolicity through time and space, thereby guaranteeing it as a decisive mark of the Church’s identity. While apostolic succession is insufficient to make a good Catholic, to lack it—including its juridical connection to the Petrine head of the college—is quite simply to vacate all claims of being “the Church.” Indeed, such deficiencies separate a claimant decisively from even the possibility of an affirmative judgment.

The Trinitarian Impetus of the Church

One of the greatest themes in Nichols’ treatment of the marks of the Church is his demonstration that these essential and visible characteristics are all rooted in what we might call the dynamic of the Trinity itself. We have seen this theme in the discussion of the other three marks, and one of the reasons apostolicity is the simplest of the marks to explain is that it is so easy to grasp its spiritual connection to the Trinitarian life of God. It is the second and third persons of the Trinity who are always directly engaged in the impetus of the Church, as we have seen. This impetus is best understood, perhaps, in the implications of the Incarnation and of Pentecost, not only for the time in which they happened, but for the entire future of this world, and the glorious fulfillment of all things in the next.

And this spiritual connection for apostolicity is immediately obvious, for an apostle is “one who is sent”. The Church is commissioned and sent by Christ (as for example in the command to the apostles to preach and baptize all nations) and empowered by the Holy Spirit (as demonstrated, for example, on Pentecost) to carry forward and make available the salvific Incarnational presence of Our Lord to the very end of time. It is precisely through this “sending”, this continuous apostolicity rooted in the life of the Trinity itself, that the Church completes the work of Christ, gathering up the peoples, and presenting them to the Father in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now it so happens that one of my readers is fond of remarking, as he has done again after each of these little essays on the marks of the Church, that any consideration of the special character of the Church is misplaced since so few of her members, even among the shepherds, seem to live the Christian life to the full, with a deep commitment to charity and truth. But surely most readers will have no trouble grasping that the whole point of knowing the Church better in her essence is to grow in a realization of the transforming power at our disposal, and to feel more keenly how shameful it is for us to act in any way which makes her true identity difficult for others to see.

Here we must remember the insight we discovered when considering unity and holiness: It is through the grace-filled action of the Church that we are drawn ever more fully into what she truly is, the Body and the Bride of Christ; and it is through our own resistance to this fundamental ecclesial action that we still manage to sin. All of us mar the Church by our own resistance just as surely as we have all contributed to the wounds Christ suffered through resistance to his saving mission.

But just as this is no excuse not to seek to know Our Lord better, so it is no excuse—far from it!—for refusing to know the Church. The first way to know her better is through a consideration of her four essential marks. And among these marks, we see that it is precisely her apostolicity which defines and guarantees her unity, holiness and catholicity. There is tremendous scope for meditation here, and for action, and for newness of life.

Previous in series: The Church’s Mark of Catholicity, on the Surface and in its Depth

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 15, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    "...any consideration of the special character of the Church is misplaced since so few of her members...seem to live the Christian life to the full." Isaiah wrote: "If the Lord of Hosts had not left us a small remnant, we would have become as Sodom, would have resembled Gomorrah." As said elsewhere, the Church's special character is shown in the sublimity of its doctrines, in its 2,000-year persistence, in its charitable works, in the holiness of its saints, in its universal outreach...