Church History Snapshot: What does “Catholic” mean?

The first sentence of the Athanasian Creed states, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith.” At first glance, reading that sentence may have forced you to form an opinion based on the word “catholic.” In today’s world regarding that term, it usually refers to the Roman Catholic Church. But what does the term “Catholic” actually mean? Although the Roman Catholic Church is usually denoted by the capital C, in the context of early church history and the Athanasian Creed, the term here means something else entirely. Considering that the Roman Catholic Church didn’t exist yet, the use of the term in the Athanasian Creed isn’t telling its readers to submit to the Roman church and its authority.

Rather, it’s calling for the universality of the church body and its beliefs. This universality, or “catholicism,” was possibly the most important characteristic that could be denoted by the church during the early church period. If the early church wasn’t united in its dogma and core beliefs, today’s church body would be drastically different. There would be all forms of heresy contrary to dogmatic belief in the church, so the validity of Christianity as truth would be shaken. That is to say, differences in major belief would have torn down the early development of the Christian faith. So what did the term “catholic” mean during this time, who started using the word, and why should we embrace it today? 


The word “catholic” comes from the Greek adjective, “katholikos” previously stated to mean “universal.” An apostolic church father, Ignatius of Antioch, is responsible for the use of this term. Ignatius writes multiple epistles to various churches on his way to martyrdom, but the epistle to the church at Smyrna is noted for its inclusion of the word “catholic.” In Ignatius’ epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he writes, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude be also; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Ignatius appears to write this to Smyrna with the implication that the church was already catholic or “united.” During Ignatius’ lifetime, the church had to be catholic to combat the heresies that berated them into defending their beliefs. 


In the same epistle aforementioned, the first documented and coined use of the word was by Saint Ignatius in about 107 A.D, exhorting the church to remain closely united with its bishop. The primary purpose of his epistle was to counter those who made claims towards Docetism. Docetism, an important Gnostic belief, claimed that Jesus only appeared to have a body and that the suffering of Jesus was only through the work of a phantasm or spirit. Ignatius, being one of the early church apostolic fathers, took care to write against this heretical Gnostic thought to stop its infiltration into the church. 

Early church apologists and apostolic fathers worked against heresies like Docetism by writing to churches in areas that were susceptible to heretical influence, similar to Ignatius writing to the Smyrnaeans. What does the prevention of heresy within the church have to do with its unification? To the early church fathers, everything. It is due to the efforts and contributions of Apologists like Ignatius that the church believes specifically what we believe today, and it’s because of written epistles like these that we don’t believe specific doctrines. The call for unification in core dogma and belief among the various churches in the country was of dire importance because, at the time of the early church, determining what was orthodox from heresy determined if a church was Christian or not.


Finally, an important question to ask after learning this information is what does this mean for us? Just like the church in the time of Ignatius, being catholic is of extreme importance to the definition of the church. In our churches today, catholicism prevents the infiltration of many modern-day heresies, and it unites us in our core beliefs. Although the term “catholic” tends to bring to mind doctrinal differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism, the original intention was to unite important similarities. Rather than bringing attention to our petty differences, “catholic” should be embraced by every church so that we remain united in one body and belief. 

If your church is not catholic in regard to being in line with the universal orthodoxy of the church body, then it is going against everything that today’s church history was supported by. The early church survived and produced today’s church dogma as well as it did because it was united in one faith that upheld the catholic belief in the Triune God. Separation from this characteristic brings about the same consequence as during the production of the early church: a schism between what is true and practical to believe and what is heretical and should be cast out.


Brandan Barbee

Writer for the Daily Runner. Majoring in Biblical and Theological Studies. Class of '23