Presbyterian Salsa: Westminster's Recipe for the "Communion of Saints"

A. Craig Troxel

New Horizons: March 2011

The Church

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The Home Church

The Church and Economic Recovery

If the French are right that "the sauce is everything," it took Latin cuisine to prove it. Salsa (Spanish for "sauce") has become the leading condiment in the world. How can plain ketchup compare with the combination of hot and spicy peppers, with their varieties of fruity, smoky, and woodsy tones, along with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and lime, to create just the right panache of zest, aroma, and finish to perk up any palate?

Similarly, the church is an ingenious blend of spiritual gifts and graces, a variety of strengths and experiences, which give her a robust depth and complexity. We confess this reality when we say, reciting the Apostles' Creed, "I believe ... in the communion of the saints." Historically, the church has viewed the doctrine of the communion of the saints as vital to its self-understanding. For example, our Confession of Faith devotes a whole chapter to the subject.

In contemporary theological discussions on the doctrine of the church, "community" has taken center stage. The word is often found in church bulletins, slogans, and mission statements. Everyone is either "looking for community" or wants to "build community." Some make "community" the central idea of all theology.[1] But is this "community" the same thing as the "communion of the saints"?

The Background of the Apostles' Creed

The Apostles' Creed arose from the Old Roman Creed, a baptismal formula from the second half of the second century.[2] During the succeeding centuries, this Roman symbol, with slight modifications, spread around the Roman Empire to Northern Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, and Gaul. It is from the Gallican line that scholars trace the Apostles' Creed. The form that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli would have recognized is the version of the Apostles' Creed that we use today in our churches.[3]

The phrase "communion of the saints" (sanctorum communionem) was a late addition to the Apostles' Creed and did not emerge before the fifth century. It is not found in the Creed's confessional treatments by Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, nor in the creeds of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). When Ambrose and Augustine instructed their flocks to memorize and recite the Creed, it did not mention the communion of the saints.[4] In fact, when representatives from the East appeared at the Council of Florence (1438-1445), they said that they knew nothing about a so-called Apostles' Creed.[5]

What Has "Communion of the Saints" Meant Historically?

The interpretation of "communion of the saints" has shifted through the ages. The issue is whether the word sanctorum in the Latin phrase should be translated "holy things" or "holy people" (saints)—either is grammatically possible.[6] Technically, the phrase could refer either to a sacramental union—a communion that the believer has with the "holy things" of God, or to a living fellowship—a communion that the believer has with the "holy people" of God and with God himself.

The sacramental view is that the phrase means that we participate in the sacraments, especially in the elements of the Lord's Supper. This view arose in later medieval theology, represented by theologians like Abelard. This view has become increasingly popular since the late nineteenth century.

The second view is that the phrase expresses the communion that all believers have with Christ and one another. Sometimes this has been understood to refer just to the fellowship between living saints, and sometimes to the union between all saints, both living and departed. But the phrase ultimately expresses the fellowship of all the saints of all ages. This view was the dominant conception in the early Middle Ages, represented by Peter Lombard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Since the sixteenth century, this has been the prevailing view.

Like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic theology has taught something of a mixture of the two views. On the one hand, Catholic theology has stressed that "communion" explains the mysterious union between the church militant on earth, the church triumphant in heaven, and the (alleged) church expectant in purgatory. Yet Rome has also maintained that this phrase affirms the communion that a Christian worshiper has with the transubstantiated elements of the Mass.

In the confessional tradition of the Reformation, as expressed in the Augsburg Confession, the Book of Common Prayer, the Belgic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Cambridge Platform, the members of the church are said to have a blessed union and communion with one another and with Christ.[7] The Second Helvetic Confession says that those "who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God, in Jesus Christ the Saviour, by the word and the Holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all those good graces which are freely offered through Christ ... are sanctified by the blood of the Son of God. Of these is that article of our Creed wholly to be understood, 'I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.' "[8] Question 55 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that "the communion of saints" means "First, that believers, all and every one, as members of Christ, have part in him and in all his treasures and gifts. Secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts, readily and cheerfully, for the advantage and welfare of other members." Calvin recognized that the phrase expressed that the church is a community of heart and soul, a diversity of graces and gifts.[9] Although the Reformed creeds encourage us to imitate the faith of deceased saints, they never promote venerating, invoking, or praying to them. And the Reformed tradition further denies that the communion of the saints necessarily entailed acceptance of the Roman See.

Modern and Postmodern "Community"

The modern trend is to speak of the church as a "community." Some of this emphasis can be traced back to Friedrich Schleiermacher, the "father of modern theology," who believed that the church was above all a "fellowship," and that the whole nature and idea of the church must derive from that assumption. Ever since, strands of liberal theology, liberation theology, process theology, ecumenical theology, and the social gospel have developed the theme of community in their understanding of the church. However, underneath their theology lie assumptions that undermine the supernaturalism of the biblical view of the church's life. Their vision has been shaped too often by socioeconomic, political, anthropological, and philosophical concerns, and sometimes expressed in naturalistic terms. They may describe "community," but that is certainly not the "communion of the saints."

Postmodern theology has also invigorated discussions on the church by reasserting the theme of "community." Postmodernists emphasize that people are social beings who unfold their essence by living in communities of kinship. And, they say, since all knowledge is situated in a specific context (community), people come to truth by learning the meaning of the language of a particular community. Much of this discussion harks back to the important study, Community and Society, written by Ferdinand Tönnies in 1887, which has figured prominently in the development of the sociological understanding of community. Postmodern theologians have leaned heavily on social theory to support their understanding of community, and, in turn, they have provoked leaders of the "emerging church" to seize upon the idea of community as a unifying theme. Some even favor abandoning the word "church" altogether, in favor of the term "community."

While some may applaud postmodern efforts to make community the central motif of the doctrine of the church, the truth of the matter is that this agenda, in the hands of some of its exponents, seems to share the same horizontal orientation of its older theological relatives. Modern notions of community represent a view of the church that is devoid of the depth, richness, and reality of the Lord's presence. Absent is the active ministry of the church's exalted Head. The preaching of the Word is passé. The Great Commission must move aside for the greater priority of social justice. We must eagerly practice an "incarnational ministry," but not necessarily preach (or believe in?) the Incarnation itself. The church's chief end is no longer to reach up to God with holy hands in worship. It is to reach out with helping hands to the world. Past generations of the church have understood that the church must do both—in their appropriate ways. The church's mission is to reach out to the world, but never without the gospel, and not at the expense of her conduit of spiritual life in worship. The church is to extend horizontally and outwardly to the world, but not without the good news that draws us vertically and spiritually into a relationship with God. Just like the older liberalism, the postmodern vision is simply too flat and too thin. It is a theological purée.

What Is the Communion of the Saints?

When the Confession of Faith addresses the communion of the saints, it stresses the primacy of the union and communion of a Christian with Christ by faith in his graces and work. Only then does the Confession develop the solidarity we have with "one another in love" and in "each other's gifts and graces" (26.1). Also, the Confession affirms the agency of our mutual communion in the person of the Holy Spirit, and through the graces, gifts, and fruit that he supplies. The communion of the saints obligates us, according to our God-given abilities and faith, to meet the needs of other Christians, needs of both body and soul (Gal. 6:6; Heb. 13:16).

The Confession is only summarizing what the Bible teaches. Like the early church, we must be "devoted" both to the church's teaching and to its fellowship (Acts 2:42). The church is strengthened as the Spirit ministers the word of God and as members do their part, using their respective gifts of the Spirit to encourage one another (1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 4:16). Without them, the church cannot grow properly or soundly. As "stewards of God's varied grace," we must use our giftedness "for the common good" in order "to serve one another" (1 Pet. 4:10; 1 Cor. 12:7). The New Testament lists many ways in which we must help each other: we must love, serve, forbear, forgive, accept, comfort, greet, welcome, encourage, exhort, admonish, teach, instruct, build up, confess sin to, speak the truth to, live in peace with, be kind to, do good to, pray for, show hospitality to, and have fellowship with one another. This is how the church "builds itself up in love" (Eph. 4:16).

Nevertheless, what is key to the communion of the saints is to see its divine foundation, nature, and priority. The communion of the saints is built upon our union with the crucified and risen Christ, and it is maintained through the agency of the Holy Spirit. For example, as believers serve in the church, they do so with gifts that they cannot create or stir up. These are "the manifestation of the Spirit"—generated, empowered, nurtured, and blessed by him (1 Cor. 12:7). Also, these gifts are intended, primarily and ultimately, to lead us into a deeper communion with God. Even the faith by which we exercise our gifts is not manufactured by us, but is wrought by the Spirit. All of the power, vitality, wisdom, sweetness, and purpose of the communion of the saints is from and for the Head of the church. Although God has condescended to maintain this communion through the bonds of human love and gifts, the communion of the saints lives and flourishes because of divine power and grace.

Lastly, the communion of the saints is more than a mere community of persons. We must never forget what is at the very core of the church's mission—to make disciples who "observe all" that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). This includes obeying the call to be holy, that is, to be "saints." Christians are instructed to walk as those called out from this world. We are set apart by our love and compassion, but also by our purity and holiness. There is a great difference between a community of persons in the world and a communion of saints who are not "of the world." Yet this is one way in which we bring a unique flavor to the world—we are its salt. We distinguish ourselves from the world as we cry out to God in prayer, seeking his gracious power to resist sin and walk in righteousness—something we cannot do in our own strength, whether or not we are in a community.

We should not isolate our union with the triune God from our union with our brothers and sisters. Also, we should never separate our communion with one another from its foundation and lifeline, the communion that we have with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Father sees and commends our mutual service, done in secret (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). Christ gives our spiritual sacrifices their acceptable fragrance (1 Pet. 2:5). The Spirit apportions, empowers, and stirs up every gift and grace (2 Tim. 1:7; 1 Cor. 12:6-7). The presence and power of the living God gives the communion of the saints its life, its intensity, its heat and light, its structure and its spiritual vitality, its accountability and its freedom, its unity and diversity, and its gifts and graces. This is God's doing. This joy, wisdom, love, and beauty that we enjoy in one another's fellowship comes from Christ, who is working in and through us by his Spirit. It is a communion that we have, not just with fellow Christians, but with God. And in terms of the communion of the saints, it is everything.


[1] John R. Franke, The Character of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 122-24.

[2] John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (3rd ed.; Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 22-23; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (3rd ed.; New York: Longman, 1972), 127.

[3] Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 368-69, 411-20; Leith, Creeds, 24.

[4] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 1.55.

[5] Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 4; Leith, Creeds, 24.

[6] The question is whether sanctorum is masculine ("holy people") or neuter ("holy things").

[7] Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3.417; Leith, Creeds, 273, 387-88.

[8] Leith, Creeds, 141.

[9] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.3; 4.1.7.

The author is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton Ill. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, March 2011.

New Horizons: March 2011

The Church

Also in this issue

Our Collapsing Ecclesiology

The Home Church

The Church and Economic Recovery

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