The Trinity and the Holy Catholic Church

As I Was Saying

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Writing on the holy catholic church got me thinking about denominations. What are they, exactly, and how to they relate the the one holy catholic church?

I recently read an article on denominations that suggested that the Holy Trinity provides an analogy, if not a model, for how we think about the church.

Through the church, it is God’s purpose to draw people in Jesus Christ into the fellowship of the Trinity. Just think of what Jesus says in John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the one God exists in three persons (hypostases in Greek). Each person of the Holy Trinity is so deeply woven in love with the others that they share a common will and purpose. The early church called it perichoresis, a dance of divine love.

When Jesus prays “that they may be one just as you are in me and I am in you,”he is praying that the unity of the triune God will be the lived experience of the church. In other words, the fellowship of trinitarian love is the model, the template, for life in the church of Jesus Christ.

This is a way of thinking of churches and denominations. God dwells in his church through the Son and Holy Spirit. It is the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Just as the one God is known in three persons (hypostases in Greek), so each part of the church, congregations, denominations, is a hypostasis, a personal expression of of the one God.

That means that the church, in all its places and forms, is one as God is one. It means that the most important calling of the church is to be an expression of that trinitarian unity of will, purpose, and love—“that the world will know that you sent me and love them even as you have loved me.”

If that’s true, then the unity of the church is no “side matter,” something to think about after we have taken care to mark our our own territory. It is essential to the church’s life and identity. Breaking that unity is deeply sinful—not just because it represents a sad parting of the ways, but because it is a form of denial of the very being of God.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (6)


Thanks Len for your thoughts on the Trinity.  Such a social construct for the Trinity helps take the mystery away from what many call the mystery of the three in one.  I remember that Dr. Neil Plantinga gave a similar explanation.  Very helpful.  Thanks. 

It might be nice if the church universal could get it together in a similar bond of love.  But I think you are living in a fantasy world if you think such a bond is even remotely possible on this earth.  The reason for the diversity of denominations is just the opposite of what you suggest or hope for.  Since the time of the Reformation, even earlier, churches have split from each other because of their inability to agree with each other and most often there has been great hostility between splitting groups and denominations.  You don’t have to go far from our own Reformed expression of the Christian faith to see the animosity that exists between groups and denominations that call themselves Reformed.  It might be nice to think that the RCA and the CRC are moving in that direction of union. But that still leaves the Protestant Reformed, the Orthodox Reformed Churches, the Canadian Reformed Churches, and those churches are bound much closer together doctrinally than to the Baptist, Pentecostal, Mormon, Methodist, and the list can get multiplied by the hundreds of denominations.  I say, get real.  The likelihood or possibility of finding such unity among the world wide universal church is a pipe dream that is as likely as me getting that 700 horsepower Corvette that I’ve always dreamed of.  Well, maybe there is hope... but I have my doubts.  Maybe though, we could start by working for unity in our own individual churches and then our denomination.  That’s a biggy.

How do rumination so like this square with the language of our Confessions? For example, the 29th Article provides a fairly straightforward way to judge true and false churches.
That is of the Belgic confession

Thanks Benjamin for the straightforward way to distinguish true and false churches.  Using the Confession as a guide, I guess the CRC is pretty well excluded from being a true church.  How often do our churches use “church discipline” to correct faults?  Seldom to hardly ever.  That is one of the so-called marks of the true church according to the Confession.  But of course we do not consider the Belgic Confession as infallible.

I would greatly appreciate a CRC resource that precisely explains how best to relate the Confessions to present church life.

I understand CRC members are encouraged to remember that these documents were composed within the context of the Reformation and subsequent years of strife and sectarianism.  Does this mean we can dimiss the "true and false church" criteria of Article 29? 

Benjamin, as you may know, there are many within the CRC who add the mark of “evangelism” to the three marks of a true church mentioned in art. 29.  How could the church be true without engaging in evangelism or outreach?  So already we see a shortcoming in the article. 

Beyond that, recognize that the Reformers of the 16th century highlighted the significance of the way in which the Lord’s Supper was administered.  The Reformers had a contempt for the Roman Catholic church and its administration of the mass or Lord’s Supper.  Today, although we may formally differ with Catholics on the Lord’s Supper (real presence, spiritual presence, represents the body and blood) we do not doubt that Catholics do remember the sacrifice of Christ in their participation.  We don’t fault them like the Reformers did, by making a mountain out of a mole hill.

As to the practice of church discipline (another mark of the true church), for a variety of reasons today, it is very seldom practiced.

And how do you judge the pure preaching of the gospel, yet another mark?

It all seems pretty slippery to me.  Would you really want to judge a church’s validity by those three marks?  So definitely recognize the historical and cultural context in which it was written and also recognize that the confessions of our church are not infallible.  I really doubt that many see this as any kind of definitive guide for judging churches today.