Tolle Lege Institute

The Catholicity of the Reformation

1 August 2018 | Filip Sylwestrowicz

Every week I say in the Church: “I believe (…) the holy catholic Church”. Oftentimes this causes me to meditate on this truth of the Christian faith. I do confess the catholic Church, but in everyday language I call myself a Protestant and not a Catholic. Protestantism is often perceived – also by Protestants themselves –  as a new religious movement which severs its ties with the existing Church and attempts to reconstruct the Christian theology from scratch using the Holy Scripture as the only foundation. In some ways it is a true picture. The Reformation indeed finally breaks with the “old” Church and sets God’s Word as its ultimate authority above the received tradition. But from Reformer’s point of view it was not the same as leaving the Catholic Church. I was recently reminded about this through reading of the Johannes a Lasco biography written by Oskar Bartel. Here is what Bartel says about the self-perception of the Reformed Christians in the 17th century Poland:

“Active members of the Reformed Church in Poland [in 17th c. – FS], both laymen and ministers, considered themselves to be members of the Catholic Church. During the conversation in Toruń (1645) Reformed theologians in response to the confession presented to them by Catholic clergy, emphasised that this confession handed to them by Catholic theologians cannot be considered Catholic, but is rather a confession of the new Roman Catholic Church; their own confession which they presented to Roman Catholic theologians, they entitled: «Presentation of the Catholic Teaching of the Reformed Churches in chief matters of faith». Zbigniew Gorayski, the castellan of Chełm, speaking as the leader of the Reformed party at the aforementioned colloquium in Toruń, was arguing that: «neither to them [our ancestors – O. Bartel], nor to us it ever occurred that we may separate ourselves from our common holy mother which is the true Catholic Church» – with which we identify by the common confession of faith.” 1

Also in the first Protestant confession of faith – the Augsburg Confession – we can find the conviction that there is substantial continuity between the Protestant doctrine and ancient Christian faith. In the first article the Augsburg Confession appeals to the Council of Nicea as a normative statement concerning the nature of God. Its third article affirms that Lutherans agree with the Apostle’s Creed. The confession  also appeals frequently to Christian theologians from the first millenium: in art. 6 and 20 to Ambrose, in art. 18 and 20 to Augustine, in art. 22 to Jerome and pope Gelasius and in art. 23 to Cyprian. Particularly instructive is the article concerning the Church, which says that:

“Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. But the Church is the congregation of saints [the assembly of all believers], in which the Gospel is rightly taught [purely preached] and the Sacraments rightly administered [according to the Gospel].

And unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by men should be alike everywhere, as St. Paul saith: «There is one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all».” 2 

Reformation did not abandon the claim to the catholicity of the Church, although it did understand it differently than the Roman Catholicism. Protestant understanding of the catholicity is not based upon the continuity of the apostolic office, but rather on the continuity of the apostolic teaching and administration of the sacraments instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Catholic Church is in our understanding everywhere, where the Gospel is preached and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered.

Filip J. Sylwestrowicz – editor of the Tolle Lege Institute’s blog and student of theology at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. He has a licencjat (BA) in Hebrew Studies from University of Warsaw.


  1. Oskar Bartel, Jan Łaski, Warszawa 1999, pp. 128-129. My own translation.
  2. “The Augsburg Confession” art. 7, in: Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom With a History and Critical Notes, vol. 3, Grand Rapids 1983, pp. 12-13.