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Don’t believe in the Church

I am quite happy if people add comments below about the grammar of the original Greek of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the original Latin of the Apostles’ Creed, but for this particular post I’m going to call in Augustine and John Calvin and The Catechism of the Council of Trent, and note that in the two creeds there is a shift from the I/we believe IN Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to I believe the Church.

I believe in God; I believe in Jesus; I believe in the Holy Spirit – I have been saying this is not like “do I believe that Sydney exists?” “Do I believe that the Tooth Fairy exists?” The word “belief”, so far in our reflections here on the creed, is about trusting, entrusting. It is more akin to I believe in the All Blacks. I believe in democracy. It’s that kind of belief.

It is worth reminding, before we proceed, that the Creed at Nicaea (325) concluded at “And in the Holy Spirit” Full stop. But that is not where we stop nowadays, and it is also not where we stop in the Apostles’ Creed.

So we’ve covered belief, entrusting ourselves to the mystery of the universe, the one we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now the word “belief” turns up a fourth time in the Creed.

“I believe in the holy catholic Church”, or “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. So is this the same sort of belief as the belief in God?

Saint Augustine said No.

He stressed believing in God. And then he said, I believe the church.

I commit myself, I entrust myself to the mystery of reality we call God. But I do not do this with the church.

The church is a group of human beings, with mixed motives, a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. Do not entrust yourself, do not believe in the church. Believe the church, but do not believe in it.

We look up to role models; we can end up idolising an individual. And then we hear about some terrible thing they have done. We find out some dark secret about them. And we are shattered. But all of us are in the same (sinners’) boat. Yes, let’s try and become better people; let’s try and care more for others; let’s try and take responsibility for the world around us – but be honest with yourself that you are not perfect. I am not perfect.

People point to terrible contradictions, hypocrisy in the lives of Christians, church people, even saints. The more church history you know – the worse it can look. And the more involved in church you are, the more you will know that it is a messy, mixed up community – just like any other.

Distinguish between the end, your goal, your purpose – and the means to get to that goal. For me, I hope my goal is the mystery at the heart of it all, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And the church is the means – not the goal. I do not, we do not, believe in the church. We believe the church.


John Calvin writes in the Institutes of the Christian Religion

The particle “in” is often interpolated, but without any probable ground. I confess, indeed, that it is the more usual form, and is not unsupported by antiquity, since the Nicene Creed, as quoted in Ecclesiastical History, adds the preposition. At the same time, we may perceive from early writers, that the expression received without controversy in ancient times was to believe “the Church,” and not “in the Church.” This is not only the expression used by Augustine, and that ancient writer, whoever he may have been, whose treatise, De Symboli Expositione, is extant under the name of Cyprian, but they distinctly remark that the addition of the preposition would make the expression improper, and they give good grounds for so thinking. We declare that we believe in God, both because our mind reclines upon him as true, and our confidence is fully satisfied in him. This cannot be said of the Church, just as it cannot be said of the forgiveness of sins, or the resurrection of the body.

The Catechism of Trent has

With regard to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we not only believe them, but also believe in them. But here we make use of a different form of expression, professing to believe the holy, not in the holy Catholic Church. By this difference of expression we distinguish God, the author of all things, from His works, and acknowledge that all the exalted benefits bestowed on the Church are due to God’s bounty.


This is the twenty-fifth post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship
They eighth is Truly God truly human
The ninth is Conceived by the Holy Spirit
The tenth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 2)
The eleventh is Born of the Virgin Mary
The twelfth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 3)
The thirteenth is Crucified under Pontius Pilate
The fourteenth is crucified
The fifteenth is Holy Saturday
This sixteenth is He descended to the dead
The seventeenth is on the third day he rose again
The eighteenth is Seated at the right hand of the Father
The nineteenth is Judge the living and the dead
The twentieth is I believe in the Holy Spirit
The twenty-first is But Wait, There’s More!
The twenty-second is And the Son
The twenty-third is Filioque
The twenty-fourth is Two hands of God

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7 thoughts on “Don’t believe in the Church”

  1. Certainly a very viable point, as far as it goes.

    The way I’d look at it: we don’t always see God – “glass darkly”, vision clouded by suffering etc – but we claim to believe in God. Such is numenosity.

    Nor do we always see the holy catholic and apostolic church, either, with its cloud of human failing, but we can believe *in* said church as an ideal distillation beyond what we see, and be glad of its manifestation as and when we see it.

  2. And of course, this is a distinction made by the Book of Common Prayer too, where the phrase is “And I believe One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. I really like this distinction and have always disliked the fact that it has disappeared in the modern translations of the Creeds found in our 1985 Canadian B.A.S. Thanks for this post, Bosco.

  3. In Greek, there in the «εἰς» in the phrase about de Church too.

    I would say, rather, the opposite. I don’t believe the Church, but in the Church. Why?

    The Church is, first of all, an EVENT. It happens? When? Foremostly when “eucharistizing”. Then, «when to or three gather together». I can believe IN that, with no problem.

    As for the spouse of the Lord, ever unfaithful, she is whom I cannot certainly believe. She is holy, only because Christ is holy. She has nothing to say. She has only to hearken unto the Holy Spirit, and to make penance again and again.

  4. I wonder if this is more of a philological issue, out of which Augustine and Calvin make a rhetorical point.

    One overlooked point is that πιστεύομεν, credo and believe are not quite synonymous across these three languages. In Greek, πιστεύομεν is normally intransitive with a preposition (in the creeds, εἰς). When used transitively, it has the sense of ‘entrust’, so the intransitive usage is somewhat reflexive in meaning. Latin credo was classically transitive, followed by the accusative (credo aliquid) of a thing (I believe this is true), and by the dative (credo alicui) of a person (to trust someone’s opinion: believe of someone). It seems that the prepositional phrase (credo in aliquem) is modeled on the Greek prepositional phrase (Latin in + acc translates Greek εἰς + acc) to import the Greek sense of entrusting oneself in someone, rather than the Latin sense of trusting someone’s opinions.

    In the creed, the Greek texts are πιστεύομεν εἰς throughout: there is no change when we get to εἰς μίαν, ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν. In Latin, however, the form credo in aliquem is used for the first three belief clauses, but cannot be used for a thing (there is no credo in aliquid). Thus, there has to be a reversion to the classical transitive credo aliquid.

    Because the Greek and Latin verbs are not perfect fits for each other, the Latin translation accidentally might be considered to be adding extra meaning, seeing as it cannot mirror the uniform Greek usage. So, I think Augustine might be overemphasizing this. On the other hand, aside from the grammar, there is a difference between believing in a person and a thing.

    I wonder how much the 1543 King’s Book English creed (used in subsequent Prayer Books) is just following the Latin. It does seem that Early Modern English used the verb believe more freely in transitive constructions, denoting a more intellectual credence, rather than entrusting oneself to another.

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