Why Protestantism has no “visible catholic Church”

by Bryan Cross

Part of the content of the Christian faith is the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” because that is one article of the Church’s Creed. Concerning the Church, the Westminster Confession of Faith reads:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.1

But, as I show below, Protestantism itself has no visible catholic Church. It has only denominations, congregations, believers and their children. Within Protestantism there is not some one additional entity to which the term “visible catholic Church” refers, consisting of these denominations, congregations, believers and their children.


What allowed the authors of the Westminster Confession to believe sincerely that there was a “visible catholic Church” other than the Catholic Church headed by the Pope, was a philosophical error. This was the error of assuming that unity of type is sufficient for unity of composition. In actuality, things of the same type do not by that very fact compose a unified whole. For example, all the crosses that presently exist all have something in common; they are each the same type of thing, i.e. a cross. But they do not form a unified whole composed of each individual cross around the world. This crucifix, for example, in the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, is not a part of a unified whole consisting of all the crucifixes in the world. All crucifixes are things of the same specific type, but that does not in itself make them parts that compose a unified whole spread out around the world. Similarly, all the apples in the world have something in common — each one is an apple. They each have the same nature or type. But they do not compose a unified whole of which each apple is a part. And other examples can be multiplied ad infinitum.

One way to determine whether something is an actual whole or merely a plurality of things having something in common, is to determine whether everything could be exactly the same, including all the alleged ‘parts,’ except without the alleged ‘whole.’ If the ‘whole’ can be removed without changing anything about its ‘parts’ and without changing anything else in the world, then there is no actual whole, only a mere plurality. If there is merely a plurality of things having something in common, and not an actual whole, then we can remove the alleged ‘whole’ without needing to change anything in the world. But if there is an actual whole, then in order to remove the whole and leaving the parts, we would need to change the world.

For example, in order to remove me and leave all my parts, you would have to change the world, by reconfiguring my parts such that I was dead. But in the case of the alleged entity composed of all the apples in the world, we can take away this whole without needing to change anything about the location, arrangement or motion of any apple in the world. And this shows that in actuality there is no such entity, that is, there is no whole composed of all the apples in the world. If someone used the word ‘Panapple’ to refer to “the entity consisting of all the apples in the world,” then by this test we would know that the term ‘Panapple’ does not refer to an actual unified entity consisting of all apples. Instead, we would know that the term refers to what is in actuality merely a plurality of things, each sharing unity of type.

We can apply this same test to the term “visible catholic Church” in the Westminster Confession to see whether it refers to an actual entity or only to a mere plurality. The “visible catholic Church” is defined by the Confession as consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children. If there were no actual visible catholic Church, but only the term ‘visible catholic Church,’ the Protestant denominations, the Protestant congregations, and the individual Protestant believers and their children, nothing in Protestantism would be any different. All the denominations, congregations,  individual believers and their children would be exactly as they are, if there were not, in addition, this entity referred to by the term “the visible catholic Church.” This shows that the term ‘visible catholic Church’ does not refer to an actual unified entity (i.e. the visible catholic Church), but is merely a name used to refer to what is in actuality a plurality of things having something in common, just as “Panapple” could be used to refer to all apples, even though in actuality there is not one thing consisting of all apples.

When we apply this test to the Catholic Church, by contrast, we find that in order to remove the whole and leave the parts, we have to change the world. This is because the Catholic Church’s hierarchical unity changes and orders the activity of its members.2 And this is also true of a society, on account of its singular government.3 But what allows the removal of the “visible catholic Church” from Protestant ecclesiology, without changing anything else, is that Protestantism mistakenly denies the necessity of hierarchical unity for visible unity at the universal (i.e. catholic) level. Reformed Protestantism recognizes that local churches, in order to be visible, must be hierarchical. No one would say that the fact of there being believers in a city ipso facto constitutes a local visible church. But, this fact is arbitrarily set aside in Reformed ecclesiology’s conception of the visible catholic Church, through its denial that the “visible catholic Church” need be hierarchical. If the local church must be hierarchical in order to be visible, then Reformed Protestants must either form a worldwide hierarchy if they wish to affirm a “visible catholic Church,” or drop the claim that there is a “visible catholic Church” to which they belong.

What are the implications of Protestantism having no visible catholic Church? If Protestantism has no visible catholic Catholic, then given Protestantism, the catholic Church is only invisible. This entails that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is the set of all the elect. This is the route of those Protestants who deny that Christ founded a visible Church. But this position runs contrary to Scripture, because we know from Scripture that there will be tares within the one, holy, catholic and catholic Church, until the angels remove them at the end. And yet by definition there can be no tares within the set of the elect (i.e. elect-to-glory). Likewise, when Matthew records Jesus saying to Peter in Matthew 16:18, “upon this rock I will build My Church”, and then saying, in Matthew 18:17, “tell it to the Church”, and “listen to the Church”, the most natural way of understanding these passages is that the term ‘ekklesia’ (’Church’) is being used in the same way in all three places. And it is clear in the Matthew 18 passages that ‘ekklesia’ there refers to the visible Church, not a merely spiritual entity. Matters of discipline cannot be brought before the set of all the elect. This  shows us that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of which Christ speaks in Matthew 16 is not a mere set; Jesus was not meaning “upon this Rock I will build my set.”

Since, as I have shown above, Protestant ecclesiology has no visible catholic Church, and yet since from Scripture we see that the one catholic Church that Christ founded is visible, Protestantism must either give up the word ‘catholic’ in the Creed (as some Lutherans have done, replacing it with the word ‘Christian’), or seek reconciliation with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, the Catholic Church from which Protestants separated in the sixteenth century.

  1. WCF XXV.2
  2. Catholic ecclesiology is not subject to this elimination of the “visible Catholic Church” because the Catholic Church is a hierarchically organized institution. Reductionism (as applied to living organisms) is the opposite error of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is exemplified in treating a plural-referring term as if it referred to an additional singular entity that in some sense includes all the other singular entities within itself. While misplaced concreteness treats mere pluralities as if they are actual wholes and thus mistakenly inflates the account of ontology, reductionism treats actual wholes as mere pluralities of smaller simples, and in this way fails to account fully for the being and activity of actual wholes. (See Leon Kass’s “The Permanent Limitations of Biology.”) Because the Catholic Church has hierarchical unity, as do organisms, it is not subject to eliminative reductionism, for the same reason they too are not subject to eliminative reductionism. To try to explain the activities of Catholics without referring to the institution to which they belong would necessarily leave out a significant part of the full explanation. It would be like trying to explain the daily life of a human being solely in terms of the movements of the particles of which he is composed. But a complete explanation of the activities of Protestants as such need not refer to some world-encompassing entity, “the visible catholic Church,” over and above the influence of other believers, their local congregation and denomination.
  3. The human race is not a whole; all humans have unity of type, but do not compose a whole.