I saw recently that some protestants are trying to label themselves as authentic Catholics. “Protestants: The Most ‘Catholic’ of Christians.” Reforming Catholic Confession

Who are called Catholics in the Early Church? What were their beliefs?

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    From your link (the 'About' and the 'Explanation' tags) this would appear to be an attempt to obscure the force of the Reformation, obscure the real reason for the Reformation and to merge the resulting two factions into one 'body' supposedly representing the 'original catholic church'. Merging two divided bodies and ignoring the differences that genuinely separate them does not make 'one body', I would protest.
    – Nigel J
    May 5, 2022 at 13:06
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    The word catholic (derived via Late Latin catholicus, from the Greek adjective καθολικός katholikos 'universal') ', and is a combination of the Greek words κατά 'about' and ὅλος 'whole'.The first use of "Catholic" was by the church father Saint Ignatius of Antioch (circa 110 AD) The word in English can mean either "of the Catholic faith" or "relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church" "Catholicos", the title used for the head of some churches in Eastern Christian traditions, is derived from the same linguistic origin. (Courtesy: Wikipedia) May 6, 2022 at 6:59
  • @kad I reopened the question so you can post that as an answer now (although in your own words, please)
    – Peter Turner
    May 6, 2022 at 12:48

2 Answers 2


Who are called Catholics in the Early Church?

In a nutshell: The Early Church or simply put, Christianity.

Apart from some early known heresies, the Early Christian Community was united, in union with one another, universal (catholic) and orthodox.

Even the term Catholicos is a title used for the head of certain churches in some Eastern Christian traditions as early as the fourth (4th) century.

Catholicos, plural Catholicoi, is a title used for the head of certain churches in some Eastern Christian traditions. The title implies autocephaly and in some cases it is the title of the head of an autonomous church. The word comes from ancient Greek καθολικός, pl. καθολικοί, derived from καθ' ὅλου (kath'olou, "generally") from κατά (kata, "down") and ὅλος (holos, "whole"), meaning "concerning the whole, universal, general"; it originally designated a financial or civil office in the Roman Empire.2 The name of the Catholic Church comes from the same word—however, the title "Catholicos" does not exist in its hierarchy.

The Church of the East, some Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic churches historically use this title; for example the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the Church of the East, the title was given to the church's head, the Patriarch of the Church of the East. It is still used in two successor churches, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East, the heads of which are known as Catholicos-Patriarchs. In the Armenian Church there are two catholicoi: the supreme catholicos of Ejmiadzin and the catholicos of Cilicia. The title Catholicos-Patriarch is also used by the primate of the Armenian Catholic Church. In India, an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox Church; and regional head of Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, an autonomous Church within Syriac Orthodox Church, use this title. The first is known as Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan and the latter as Catholicos of India but unequally same according to the constitution of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

In modern days, when we hear the term Catholic or Orthodox, we think of those terms as being the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

But in Early Church this was not the case. Even to this day, the Orthodox Church employs the term catholic in some Eastern Churches as it’s official title: The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America.

We must remember that in the Early Church both East and West we’re united in their faith and we’re orthodox in their teachings.

The term has been incorporated into the name of the largest Christian communion, the Roman Catholic Church. All of the three main branches of Christianity in the East – Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church and Church of the East – had always identified themselves as Catholic in accordance with apostolic traditions and the Nicene Creed.

Distinguishing beliefs of Catholicity, the beliefs of most Christians who call themselves "Catholic", include the episcopal polity, that bishops are considered the highest order of ministers within the Christian religion,as well as the Nicene Creed of AD 381. In particular, along with unity, sanctity, and apostolicity, catholicity is considered one of Four Marks of the Church, found in the line of the Nicene Creed: "I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church."


The Greek adjective katholikos, the origin of the term catholic, means 'universal'. Directly from the Greek, or via Late Latin catholicus, the term catholic entered many other languages, becoming the base for the creation of various theological terms such as catholicism and catholicity (Late Latin catholicismus, catholicitas).

The term catholicism is the English form of Late Latin catholicismus, an abstract noun based on the adjective catholic. The Modern Greek equivalent καθολικισμός katholikismos is back-formed and usually refers to the Catholic Church. The terms catholic, catholicism, and catholicity are closely related to the use of the term Catholic Church.

The earliest evidence of the use of that term is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 107 to Christians in Smyrna. Exhorting Christians to remain closely united with their bishop, he wrote: "Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

From the second half of the second century, the word "catholic" began to be used to mean "orthodox" (non-heretical), "because Catholics claimed to teach the whole truth, and to represent the whole Church, while heresy arose out of the exaggeration of some one truth and was essentially partial and local". In 380, Emperor Theodosius I limited use of the term "Catholic Christian" exclusively to those who followed the same faith as Pope Damasus I of Rome and Pope Peter of Alexandria. Numerous other early writers including Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), Augustine of Hippo (354–430) further developed the use of the term "catholic" in relation to Christianity. - Catholic (term)

Just a little note about the term orthodoxy, while we are discussing terms in the Early Church!

Orthodoxy is [the] adherence to correct or accepted creeds, especially in religion.

In classical Christian use, the term orthodox refers to the set of doctrines which were believed by the early Christians. A series of ecumenical councils were held over a period of several centuries to try to formalize these doctrines. The most significant of these early decisions was that between the homoousian doctrine of Athanasius and Eustathius (which became Trinitarianism) and the heteroousian doctrine of Arius and Eusebius (Arianism). The homoousian doctrine, which defined Jesus as both God and man with the canons of the 431 Council of Ephesus, won out in the Church and was referred to as orthodoxy in most Christian contexts, since this was the viewpoint of previous Christian Church Fathers and was reaffirmed at these councils. (The minority of nontrinitarian Christians object to this terminology.)

Following the 1054 Great Schism, both the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to consider themselves uniquely orthodox and catholic. Augustine wrote in On True Religion: "Religion is to be sought…only among those who are called Catholic or orthodox Christians, that is, guardians of truth and followers of right." Over time, the Western Church gradually identified with the "Catholic" label, and people of Western Europe gradually associated the "Orthodox" label with the Eastern Church (in some languages the "Catholic" label is not necessarily identified with the Western Church). This was in note of the fact that both Catholic and Orthodox were in use as ecclesiastical adjectives as early as the 2nd and 4th centuries respectively.


The English word Catholic ultimately derives from the Greek adjective καθολικός, meaning "universal". (source)

The earliest known application of the term Catholic to the church is by Ignatius of Antioch in his epistle to the church of Smyrna, written approx. AD 107:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is[administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans ch. 8)

In this primitive usage, "Catholic" describes the church of Jesus as something which, when operated under His authority (note Ignatius' frequent reference here and elsewhere to needful officers of the church), the true Gospel is there, and the church is guarded against the divisions & heresies Ignatius was describing in the previous chapter.

The term would in later generations be used to describe believers, but in its earliest known usage, "Catholic" is a descriptor of the church, not of specific people.

Who are called Catholics at this time? Nobody. Ignatius refers to believers as "Christians", a term which had been in circulation for 6-7 decades and indeed was first used in Ignatius' hometown of Antioch (see Acts 11:26). Acts defines "Christians" simply as disciples (of Jesus Christ), but not by an additional set of doctrines.

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