John Pearson (1613-1686) on the catholicity of the Church

John Pearson

 

John Pearson (1613-1686) was, without question, the preeminent Reformed divine in the Church of England after the Restoration. Pearson was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (1661-1673), Master of Jesus College, Cambridge (1660-1662), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (1662-1672), and Bishop of Chester (1673-1686). Widely esteemed in his day for his expertise in patristics and the oriental languages, he produced various theological works, but was particularly renowned for his Exposition of the Creed (first edition 1659), the standout systematic work in the Church of England during the later Stuart period.

Every Sunday, Christians around the world confess the Apostles’ Creed, and, in the ninth of its twelve articles, they confess the Church to be catholic. What is meant by this? Previously we have considered Bénédict Pictet (1655-1724) on the catholicity of the Church, and related excerpts from Matthew Poole (1624-1679) and Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713).  Below is Pearson’s explanation  (minus the lengthy marginal notes in Latin and Greek):

[T]he word Catholick, as it is not read in the Scriptures, so was it not anciently in the Creed […] but being inserted by the Church, must necessarily be interpreted by the sense which the most ancient Fathers had of it, and that sense must be confirmed, so far as it is consentient with the Scriptures. To grant then that the word was not used by the Apostles, we must also acknowledge that it was most anciently in use among the Primitive Fathers, and that as to several intents. For first, they called the epistles of S. James, S. Peter, S. John, S. Jude, the Catholick Epistles, because when the Epistles written by S. Paul were directed to particular churches congregated in particular cities, these were either sent to the churches dispersed through a great part of the world, or directed to the whole Church of God upon the face of the whole earth. Again, we observe the Fathers to use the word Catholick for nothing else but general or universal, in the ordinary or vulgar sense; as the Catholick resurrection is the resurrection of all men, the Catholick opinion, the opinion of all men. […]

When this title is attributed to the Church it hath not always the same notion or signification; for when by the Church is understood the house of God, or place in which the worship is performed, then by the Catholick Church is meant no more than the common Church, into which all such persons as belonged to that parish in which it was built were wont to congregate. For where monasteries were in use, as there were separate habitations for men, and distinct for women, so were there also churches for each distinct: and in the parishes, where there was no distinction of sexes as to habitation, there was a common Church which received them both, and therefore called Catholick.

Again, when the Church is taken for the persons making profession of the Christian Faith, the Catholick is often added in opposition to hereticks and schismaticks, expressing a particular Church continuing in the true Faith with the rest of the Church of God, as the Catholick Church in Smyrna, the Catholic Church in Alexandria [etc.].

Now seeing these particular Churches could not be named Catholick as they were particular, in reference to this or that city, in which they were congregated, it followeth that they were called Catholick by their coherence and conjunction with that Church which was properly and originally called so; which is the Church taken in that acceptation which we have already delivered. That Church which was built upon the Apostles as upon the foundation, congregated by their preaching and by their baptizing, receiving continued accession, and disseminated in several parts of the earth, containing within it numerous congregations all which were truly called churches, as members of the same Church; that Church I say, was after some time called the Catholick Church, that is to say, the name Catholick was used by the Greeks to signifie the whole. For seeing every particular congregation professing the name of Christ was from the beginning called a Church, seeing likewise all such congregations considered together were originally comprehended under the name of the Church, seeing these two notions of the word were different, it came to pass that for distinction’s sake at first they called the Church, taken in the large and comprehensive sense, by as large and comprehensive a name, the Catholick Church.

Although this seem the first intention of those which gave the name Catholick to the Church, to signifie thereby nothing else but the whole or universal Church, yet those which followed did signifie by the same that affection of the Church which floweth from the nature of it, and may be expressed by that word. At first they called the whole Church Catholick, meaning no more than the universal Church; but having used that term some space of time, they considered how the nature of the Church was to be universal, and in what that universality did consist.

As far then as the ancient fathers have expressed themselves, and as far as their expressions are agreeable with the descriptions of the Church delivered in the Scriptures, so far I conceive we may safely conclude that the Church of Christ is truly Catholick, and that the truly Catholick Church is the true Church of Christ, which must necessarily be sufficient for the explication of this affection, which we acknowledge when we say, we believe the Catholick Church.

The most obvious and most general notion of this Catholicism consisteth in the diffusiveness of the Church, grounded upon the commission given to the builders of it, Go teach all nations, whereby they and their successors were authorized and empowered to gather congregations of believers, and so to extend the borders of the Church unto the utmost parts of the earth. The Synagogue of the Jews especially consisted of one nation, and the publick worship of God was confined to one country (Ps. 76:1-3; 147:29) […] The temple was the only place in which the sacrifices could be offered, in which the priests could perform their office of ministration; and so under the Law there was an enclosure divided from all the world besides. But God said unto his Son, I will give the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession (Mark 15:15). And Christ commanded the Apostles, saying, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature; that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). Thus the Church of Christ, in its primary institution, was made to be of a diffusive nature, to spread and extend itself, from the city of Jerusalem, where it first began, to all the parts and corners of the earth. From whence we find them in the Revelation, crying to the Lamb, Thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by the blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation (Rev. 5:9). This reason did the ancient Fathers render why the Church was called Catholick, and the nature of the Church is so described in the Scriptures.

Secondly, they called the Church of Christ the Catholick Church, because it teacheth all things which are necessary for a Christian to know, whether they be things in heaven or things in earth, whether they concern the condition of man in this life, or in the life to come. As the Holy Ghost did lead the Apostles into all truth, so did the Apostles leave all truth unto the Church, which teaching all the same, may well be called Catholick, from the universality of necessary and saving truths retained in it.

Thirdly, the Church hath been thought fit to be called Catholick in reference to the universal obedience which it prescribeth; both in respect of the persons, obliging men of all conditions, and in relation to the precepts, requiring the performance of all the evangelical commands.

Fourthly, the Church hath been yet further called or reputed Catholick, by reason of all graces given in it, whereby all diseases of the soul are healed, and spiritual virtues are disseminated, all the works, and words, and thoughts of men are regulated, till we become perfect men in Christ Jesus.

In all these four acceptations did some of the ancient Fathers understand the Church of Christ to be Catholick, and every one of them doth certainly belong unto it. Wherefore I conclude that this Catholicism, or second affection of the Church, consisteth generally in universality, as embracing all sorts of persons, as to be disseminated through all nations, as comprehending all ages, as containing all necessary and saving truths, as obliging al conditions of men to all kind of obedience, as curing all diseases, and planting all graces, in the souls of men.

The necessity of believing the holy Catholick Church, appeareth first in this, that Christ hath appointed it as the only way unto eternal life. We read at the first, that the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:47), and what was then daily done, hath been done since continually. Christ never appointed two ways to heaven; nor did he build a Church to save some, and make another institution for other men’s salvation. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12); and that name is no otherwise given under heaven than in the Church. As none were saved from the deluge but such as were in the Ark of Noah, framed for their reception by the command of God; as none of the first-born of Egypt lived, but such as were within those habitations whose doorposts were sprinkled with blood by the appointment of God for their preservation; as none of the inhabitants of Jericho could escape the fire or sword, but such as were within the house of Rahab, for whose protection a covenant was made; so none shall ever escape the eternal wrath of God, which belong not to the Church of God. This is the congregation of those persons here on earth which shall hereafter meet in heaven. These are the vessels of the Tabernacle carried up and down, at last to be translated into, and fixed in, the Temple.

Secondly, it is necessary to believe the Church of Christ which is but one, that being in it we may take care never to cast ourselves, or be ejected out of it. There is a power within the Church to cast those out which do belong to it; for if any neglect to hear the Church, saith our Saviour, let him be unto thee as an heathen man, and a publican (Matt. 18:17). By great and scandalous offences, by incorrigible misdemeanours, we may incur the censure of the Church of God, and while we are shut out by them, we stand excluded out of heaven. For our Saviour said to his Apostles, upon whom he built his Church, whosoever’s sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosoever’s sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20:23). Again, a man may not only passively and involuntarily be rejected, but also by an act of his own, cast our or reject himself [out of the Church], not only by plain and complete apostasy, but by a defection from the unity of truth, falling into some damnable heresie, or by an active separation, deserting all which are in communion with the Catholick Church, and falling into an irrecoverable schism.

Thirdly, it is necessary to believe the Church of Christ to be holy, lest we should presume to obtain any happiness by being of it, without that holiness which is required in it. It is not enough that the end, institution, and administration of the Church are holy; but, that there may be some real and permanent advantage received by it, it is necessary that the persons abiding in the communion of it should be really and effectually sanctified. Without which holiness the privileges of the Church prove the greatest disadvantages, and the means of salvation neglected, tend to a punishment with aggravation. It is not only vain but pernicious to attend at the marriage-feast without a wedding garment, and it is our Saviour’s description of folly to cry, Lord, Lord, open unto us, while we are without oil in our lamps. We must acknowledge a necessity of holiness, when we confess that Church alone which is holy can make us happy.

Fourthly, there is a necessity of believing the Catholick Church, because except a man be of that he can be of none. For seeing the Church which is truly Catholick containeth within it all which are truly churches, whosoever is not of the Catholick Church, cannot be of the true Church. That Church alone which first began at Jerusalem on earth, will bring us to Jerusalem in heaven; and that alone began there which always embraceth the faith once delivered to the Saints. Whatsoever Church pretendeth to a new beginning, pretendeth at the same time to a new Churchdom, and whatsoever is so new is none. So necessary it is to believe the holy Catholick Church.

Having thus far explicated the first part of this article, I conceive every person sufficiently furnished with means of instruction, what they ought to intend, when they profess to believe the holy Catholick Church. For thereby everyone is understood to declare thus much: I am fully persuaded, and make a free confession of this, as of a necessary and infallible truth, that Christ by the preaching of the Apostles, did gather unto himself a Church consisting of thousands of believing persons, and numerous congregations, to which he daily added such as should be saved, and will successively and daily add unto the same unto the end of the world: so that by the virtue of his all-sufficient promise, I am assured that there was, hath been hitherto, and now is, and hereafter shall be so long as the sun and moon endure, a Church of Christ one and the same. This Church I believe in general holy in respect of the Author, end, institution, and administration of it; particularly in the members, here I acknowledge it really, and in the same hereafter perfectly, holy. I look upon this Church not like that of the Jews limited to one people, confined to one nation, but by the appointment and command of Christ, and by the efficacy of his assisting power, to be disseminated through all nations, to be extended to all places, to be propagated to all ages, to contain in it all truths necessary to be known, to exact absolute obedience from all men to the commands of Christ, and to furnish us with all graces necessary to make our persons acceptable, and our actions well-pleasing in the sight of God. And thus I believe the holy Catholick Church.

– John Pearson (1613-1686), An Exposition of the Creed, 4th edition (1676), p. 345-351