During his tenure as professor at the theological school of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck delivered an address to an audience of colleagues, students, and trustees on 18 December 1888. His address was entitled, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.” Among his points of emphasis was the difference between Luther and Zwingli, on the one hand, and John Calvin, on the other, with respect to the breadth and scope of redemption as the integral recreation of all reality in Christ Jesus. The Calvinist understanding of religious catholicity—all of life is to be lived under the claims of King Jesus, and all of life is religious—naturally influenced the reformation of the church. Whereas Rome has tied salvation to subjection to the papacy, the Reformed did not view Reformed churches as the only salvific institution. The church as the body of Christ is one, it is universal, and it is therefore not limited in space or time, said Bavinck.
One of the dilemmas arising from this ecclesiology involved the recognition of other, non-Reformed churches as churches of Jesus Christ, including the Roman Catholic Church (opinions on this matter, however, varied among Reformed theologians). This dilemma became perhaps most pressing and practical when it came to recognizing the baptism administered by these other, non-Reformed churches. The Reformers acknowledged as valid the baptism administered by all Christian churches (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and Remonstrant churches). All of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.
In the face of this dilemma, Protestants developed the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith. John Calvin himself sought to protect church unity with the use of this distinction, since without it, the church would over time degenerate through schism after schism into sectarianism. Unlike Rome, who called everyone a heretic who departed from that church’s teaching, Protestants have also found useful the distinction between doubt, error, and heresy. Not every doubt is an error, and not every error is a heresy.
The theological distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith was understood strictly in confessional terms. A fundamental truth was defined in terms of one’s own confessions. Bavinck pleaded, however, for a more organic view of the catholicity of church and her confession of the truth.
“In the same way that the one universal Christian church comes to more or less purity of expression in individual churches, in the same way the one universal Christian truth comes to more or less pure expression in the various confessions of faith. There is no universal Christianity present above the confessional divisions but only in them. No one church, no matter how pure, is identical with the universal church. In the same way no confession, no matter how refined by the Word of God, is identical with the whole of Christian truth. Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine. The one, holy, universal church that is presently an object of faith, will not come into being until the body of Christ reaches full maturity. Only then will the church achieve the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, and only then will she know as she is known.”
According to Bavinck’s analogy, just as the one universal church transcends any particular church, so too the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession.
This claim can easily be misconstrued and misunderstood.
The story is told of several blind men who were asked to place their hands on an elephant—one on the animal’s tusk, another on the trunk, a third on its ear. Each man was asked to describe, on the basis of what his hands “saw,” what an elephant was. The first said the elephant was really like a spear, the second that the elephant was like a snake, and the third that the elephant was like a fan. Each was right and each was wrong, because although each held part of the truth in his hands, none held all the truth. This fable is often used to defend the claim that each world religion has only part of the truth, and none of them has all the truth. If we put them all together, we would have a closer approximation of the truth.
Some make a similarly improper claim about Protestantism: each denomination, each confession has part of the truth; put them all together, and we would have a closer approximation of Christian truth.
This is not at all what Bavinck meant when he insisted that the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession. He meant, rather, that because of the nature of human understanding and expression, there is always room to grow, room for improvement, opportunity to arrive at a fuller understanding. His metaphor of organism and growth takes account of history, of the progress of time, and of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church—a spiritual growth that does not go against or contrary to that which the church has enjoyed and confessed before, but growth that extends and deepens the church’s living grasp of the Bible’s truth. Bavinck did not claim that because a particular confession is limited in content, historical in origin, and focused in its teaching, it is therefore inadequate or untrue in any way. His point was that a particular confession is not, and cannot be, exhaustive of the truth. Once more: all of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.
What Bavinck wrote in 1888 resembles in part the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) in 25.4, where it is confesses that
“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (italics added).
(To be continued.)
 The Dutch original was entitled De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk, and was published in 1888 by Zalsman (Kampen); an English translation by John Bolt is available as “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” in Calvin Theological Journal 27, no. 2 (1992): 220-51. Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 240.  Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 250-251.