Notae ecclesiae

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notae ecclesiae ( Latin for "characteristic of the church") is a term in Christian ecclesiology that emerged in the 16th century. In the pre-Reformation churches it usually designates the four essential characteristics of the universal church , unity, holiness , catholicity and apostolicity, which were first written down as essential characteristics of the church in 381 at the first council of Constantinople in the creed of Nicaea and Constantinople . In contrast, the churches of the Reformation defined word and sacrament as identifying marks. The more recent ecumenical discussion works to overcome the contradiction.

The essentials in the view of the pre-Reformation churches


Already in the time of the early church the fundamental essential attributes of the church developed. Already in the ancient Roman creed (approx. 135) holiness is mentioned as an attribute of the church, in the creed of Nicaea (325) catholicity and apostolicity are added. In the 381 extended form, the Nicäno-Konstantinopolitanum, the four attributes appear together for the first time:

"We believe [...] the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"

- Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople, First Council of Constantinople (381)

In the Greek text of the Confession the verb πιστεύομεν pisteúomen is in the plural ("we believe"), in the Latin version, however, in the singular credo ("I believe"). In Christian worship, when the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed is spoken, the plural version usually applies: "We believe in the one God ..." ( Praise to God No. 586,2, Evangelisches Gottesdienstbuch , 2nd edition 2001, P. 105). In the German-speaking world, however, the Apostles' Creed is more common, in which the singular form is used and only holiness and catholicity are mentioned as attributes.

Particular importance was attached to the characteristics in the controversies between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation , in which they served as the basis for denying that the Reformation churches were a church.


The Roman Catholic Church , consisting of the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches , claims to be the one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church in full reality. The 16 autocephalous Orthodox churches claim the same . Behind this is the understanding that the Niceneum describes and prescribes a sacramental and therefore official-institutional unity, whereby this refers to each of the two groups since the schism of 1054 . All churches in full communion with the Pope see him as the bearer of the unified service that Jesus conferred on Peter ( Mt 16:18  EU ).

The Protestant churches also emphasize that the unity of the church is predetermined by its origin; the individual churches have "to give visible testimony to this gift of God as the basis of living communion between the churches in the diversity of their historical forms."

Ecumenical endeavors aim at a greater unity of the multitude of Christian denominations according to Eph 4,3–6  EU and Joh 17,21  EU . The most difficult question is the concept of unity itself, which for the churches of the Catholic tradition cannot be separated from the sacramental, eucharistic unity and thus from the question of authority and validity. The formula "visible unit ( visible unity )," which in the WCC is customary, originates from the Anglican tradition. It is acceptable for Lutheran churches because their own confessional tradition was very reluctant to determine which structural factors must be present so that the basic functions of the church (proclamation of the gospel, celebration of the sacraments) can be fulfilled. This enables the Lutheran churches "to recognize and acknowledge genuine realizations of the one Church of Jesus Christ in very different churches"; Lutheranism also realizes itself in diverse church structures.


The characteristic of holiness is relatively undisputed between the denominations. It says that through the gospel proclaimed in and through her, and through the presence of Christ in her, the church is uniquely God's property and his mark in the world.

Catholicity / universality

Etymologically the word derives Catholic from the Greek adjective καθολικός Catholicos , the whole thing concerning generally ', or the adverb καθόλου katholou , in general, completely' off. The best description is therefore "wholeness" or "abundance" and "universal" as an extension.

The church as a whole is considered to be general , because it is willed by God, if it is one and one for all time. In the abstract, the church is considered catholic when it is inwardly one with Christ and thereby becomes a salvation instance.

Ignatius of Antioch used the phrase "the Catholic Church" to distinguish it from other groups that differed in doctrine and life from the bishops of the Roman Church. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church designates all breakaway or heretical communities as non-Catholic . The Anglican churches see themselves as part of the Catholic Communion , even if they are not under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Protestant churches understand Catholic in the sense of an abstract, general and universal church. In the apostolic creed, evangelical reformed Christians confess, for example: "... the holy, universal Christian church".


Apostolicity means the conformity of the church with its apostolic origin in the early church . The apostles formed the foundation of the church and its message in the early days and are considered to be the guarantors of the transmission of the church's faith . Tertullian describes her deeds around 200 as follows:

“[They went] out over the world and proclaimed [the faith in Jesus Christ] also to the Gentiles. And so they planted churches in each city, from which the later churches later borrowed an offshoot of faith and the seeds of doctrine and borrowed them every day to become churches. Precisely for this reason they too can be viewed as apostolic, because they are the descendants of apostolic communities [...] So there are many and numerous churches, and yet they are only one, that apostolic, original one, from which they all come. "

- Tertullian : De praescriptione haereticorum 20

Apostolicity was of particular importance in the controversy with Gnosis , in which the ecclesiastical theologians saw the transmission of true teaching through the apostles and their successors as guaranteed. The Gnostic teachings could thus be effectively warded off as subsequent, extra-Christian influences.

The pre-Reformation churches as well as some Anglican churches regard as a sign of apostolicity not only the content-wise agreement with the teaching of the apostles at the origin of the church, but also the personal transfer of the church's authority through the apostolic succession . According to this understanding, the church in the full sense can only exist through the continuity that an uninterrupted line from bishops to the apostles can be traced back. If this sign of apostolicity is missing, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, it is a question of a " church community " in which many characteristics of a church are fulfilled, but not in their full meaning.

Most Protestant churches see “the constant return to apostolic witness” as the core of apostolicity, ie a successio fidelium (succession of believers). Another interpretation aims at the charismatic gift of the apostle service . This ministry or office exists in numerous Christian groups of the Pentecostal movement and the churches that have emerged from the Catholic-Apostolic communities . Some of these groups only speak of the church in the full sense when there is also apostolic service.

The characteristics of the church in the Reformation tradition

Reformation theology allowed the classic characteristics to apply, but defined its own characteristics, which should show where the true church was to be found. In 1520, Martin Luther called Von dem Papstum zu Rome as the “mark, because one can perceive where the same church is in the world, its baptism, sacrament and the gospel”. This stipulation found its classic expression in Article VII of the Confessio Augustana , according to which the Church "is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are properly administered". Similarly, John Calvin ( Institutio Christianae Religionis , 1559, Book IV, I, 11f) and Article 19 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England of 1563, which in turn was incorporated as Article 13 in John Wesley's Methodist Articles of Faith of 1784. It can therefore be seen as a general Protestant doctrine that the correct proclamation of the Gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments - or, even shorter, word and sacrament - are the notae ecclesiae .

Occasionally, further characteristics are found in the office of the keys ( confession and absolution ), the order of the ministry of preaching, prayer, suffering for the sake of the gospel and observance of the second table of the Decalogue (Luther, Von Konziliis und Kirchen , 1539), church discipline ( Confessio Scotica XVIII) and the realization of true discipleship ( Second Helvetic Confession XVII).

The notae ecclesiae in the ecumenical discussion

After the different identifying marks of the church were used for centuries to confirm one's own being a church and for polemics against denominational opponents, a different approach prevailed in the ecumenical discussion after the Second World War. In many interdenominational dialogues, both the four essential attributes and the Reformation characteristics were dealt with, with a positive reception from both sides and for the critical reassurance of one's own being a church. They are not in opposition, but complement each other. Martin Friedrich sums it up as follows: “The four Nicene attributes show how the church is or should be. Right proclamation and administration of the sacraments, on the other hand, show where the church is. "


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Herbert Frohnhofen: §8. The essential characteristics of the Church: unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity. (PDF) In: Theology scripts. Retrieved July 20, 2015 .
  2. Denzinger-Hünermann No. 150
  3. Denzinger-Hünermann No. 10-30, Praise to God No. 2, 5)
  4. Michael Bünker , Martin Friedrich (ed.): Die Kirche Jesu Christi / The Church of Jesus Christ (= Leuenberger Texte 1). 5th edition. Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 2018, p. 37.
  5. Bernd Oberdorfer , Oliver Schuegraf (Hrsg.): Visible unity of the church in a Lutheran perspective. A study by the Ecumenical Study Committee of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany and the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. EVA, Leipzig 2017, ISBN 978-3-374-05288-2 . P. 99.
  6. Michael Bünker, Martin Friedrich (ed.): Die Kirche Jesu Christi / The Church of Jesus Christ. 5th edition Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 2018, p. 38.
  7. WA 6, p. 301, lines 3-6.
  8. WA 50, pp. 628-642; Knut Alfsvåg: Notae ecclesiae in Luther's On the Councils and Churches. In: International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, 2008, pp. 33-42.
  9. Martin Friedrich : Church (= Ecumenical Study Booklets 14 = Bensheimer Hefte 108). Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-87122-5 , p. 176.