Reflections on the Past II: The Church Fathers & Papacy

This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – Lesson 2: The Rise of the Papacy.

In this blog, we will see how the church fathers stood up during their time for the Lord Jesus Christ, and how the church leader’s hunger for power led to spiritual decline which also marked the rise of papacy.

The Church Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers were eminent men who were taught the Christian faith by the apostles themselves. The Church Fathers were eminent men who came after the Apostolic father. While the Apostolic Fathers had to fight against an enemy that destroyed limb and life, an enemy threatening the body of Christ, His Church, from without, the Church Fathers fought against destructive and heretical doctrines, for the enemy from within tried to destroy the Church by leading it into gross error.

Athanasius known as ‘The Black Dwarf’ fought against the ancient heresy called “Arianism”. Arianism came from Arius who openly disputed the divinity of Christ, asserting that Christ was a created being. Even if Athanasius were the sole upholder of the truth (Athanasius Contra Mundum), he would be prepared to defend it against all its opponents. Arianism was denounced in the Council of Nicea! The council, attended by 300 bishops, most of which came from the East while seven only came from the West, is a landmark in the long history of the Church, and shows the vast importance of ‘the doctrine of Christ.’

That’s why the Nicene creed has this statement, We believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Ambrose of MilanAurelius Ambrosius“. Though reluctant at first when he was hailed as the bishop of Milan with the famous phrase “Ambrose for Bishop“, yet he displayed his firmness against an Emperor. Although gentle by nature, Ambrose had a character that remained firm in the face of the fiercest opposition. For one event in particular he is always remembered. It concerned Emperor Theodosius who, though a professed Christian and a member of the Church, had massacred 30,000 of the city of Thessalonica, as punishment for a rebellion in which Roman officers had been killed.

Ambrose said against the Emperor, “How will you lift up in prayer the hands still dripping with the blood of the murdered? How will you, with such hands, receive and bring to your mouth the body and blood of the Lord? Get out of here, and do not dare to add another crime to the one you have already committed!

Soon afterwards the Emperor came to worship at Milan and intended to present himself at the Lord’s table. But the bishop, unwilling to receive him at the table, met him at the entrance to the church building, and said:

In the outcome the Roman emperor made a public confession of his sin and sought forgiveness. Eight months passed before he was received at the Lord’s Table. In token of his submission he also issued a law that henceforth the death sentence against a man should never be carried into effect until thirty days after it was pronounced.

Augustine of Hippo. He is considered the greatest of all Church Fathers and known as the Doctor of the Church. Born in 354 in Numidia, North Africa. The Lord honored the prayer of her mother, Monica. Yet in spite of her prayers her son went to Italy. She feared the worst, but God meant it for the best. After a time spent in Rome, Augustine went to Milan where he met Ambrose. He began to study Scripture and, by the light of the Holy Spirit, to understand the nature of sin and grace.

At the age of thirty-one Augustine was in the garden in Milan, weeping and calling to God for deliverance from sin. He despaired of himself. Suddenly he heard the voice of a boy or girl from a neighboring house repeating in a kind of chant, Tolle Lege which means “Take and read; take and read.” Without delay he took up the New Testament, and read Romans 13:13-14, the first words on which his eyes fell. Almost at once every shadow of doubt melted away. There and then Augustine passed from death to life. There he wrote his famous book entitled “Confessions“.

Augustine’s influence was especially felt in the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius, a British monk, was a dangerous man, for he taught false doctrines. He denied original sin and asserted that Adam’s sin did not affect the entire human race. Pelagius really denied the necessity for a “birth from above,” for the inward work of the Holy Spirit, and for the intervention of the unmerited grace of God. Salvation is “not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9) but Pelagius’ teachings were virtually a denial of this great truth. Augustine was his most powerful opponent and his writing on these themes have been influential in nearly every period of Church history since that time. While Pelagius believes that responsibility always implies ability, Augustine always believes in the grace of God when He says, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.”

Jerome. He lived during the same period as Augustine and his greatest work was to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. It is known as the Vulgate (that is, the Bible in “common use”) and was the version used throughout the Middle Ages in the Roman Catholic religion.

Jerome also opposed the Pelagian heresy with much vigour. He died in or about the year 420.

Hunger for power

Then came the rise of the Papacy. Many church officers wished to be regarded as great men, and finally the office of pope was recognized, the pope being the leader of leaders, the supreme ‘father’ in the Church. The word “pope” is but another form of the Latin “papa”, father. Some bishops thought that they stood much higher in work and dignity than the other elders who, in their view, were an inferior class. Early Bishops proclaimed themselves PATRIARCHS (Ruling Fathers).

Thus the Church went down the path of decline with the astounding rapidity. Soon the bishops in large cities, who had charge of influential congregations, exalted themselves above those in the less important churches, and began to dictate them. The bishops of Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth and Constantinople considered themselves as possessors of the highest authority. They called themselves Patriarchs (ruling fathers), and exercised a supreme power over other churches.

It was only natural that among these patriarchs, a struggle for pre-eminence arose. But this is contrary to the one great law of the kingdom of God is that he is the greatest who serves best. (Luke 22:6)

The Church of Rome

In the beginning, the church in Rome was just one church among many in the Roman empire but natural events conspired to change this. Jerusalem had been the original “home base” of the faith, but in a.d. 70, the army of Titus destroyed it and that left Christianity without its center. For years there was a bitter contest, culminating in the strife between the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople for the highest position in the Church at large.

Constantine the Great, for a variety of reasons, had transferred the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, a narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia, and had renamed it after himself. After this no emperor resided in Italy, and as years passed, the bishops of Rome seized the opportunity to amass power to themselves.

There is no evidence that Peter was ever bishop of Rome, or that he was in that city for any length of time, although it is probable that he died there. But Rome prevailed over Constantinople, at least in the West. The patriarch of Rome claimed the highest authority in the whole Church, and declared himself the successor of Peter. The name “patriarch” was changed to “pope” early in the sixth century.

Here is the Romish Claim: the apostle Peter had lived and labored at Rome for 25 years. The New Testament knows NOTHING of this!

BISHOP INNOCENT 1 made it a rule that no important decisions must be taken by churches in the West without the knowledge and approval of the Bishop of Rome. Then BISHOP ZOSIMUS went a step further and said that no one had the right to question a decision taken by the Church of Rome.

Then came BISHOP GREGORY 1 (the Great) 590-604 who became the first bishop of Rome to handle both the temporal and spiritual matters. When the Lombards pressed into Italy from the North, it was Gregory who took chief responsibility for defending Italy against the enemy; so that in matters temporal, as well as in matters spiritual, he became very important. It was he, too, who appointed provincial bishops as his deputies or vicars, and as a mark of their authority he presented them with the pall or pallium, a coveted article of dress. Gregory also reformed church music so thoroughly that almost all the music of the Middle Ages was called by his name.

Too much forgeries1

There are two forged documents that assisted the growth and power of the Papacy. First is the Donation of Constantine. It claimed that the Emperor of that name, when he went to live at Byzantium, had granted the bishops of Rome very extensive rights in Italy, including the privilege of wearing a golden crown.

In this document, the 4th-century emperor Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. Composed probably in the 8th century, it was used, especially in the 13th century, in support of claims of political authority by the papacy.

Another are the Decretals (Pseudo–Isidorian Decretals and Liber Pontificalis), professing to be letters and decrees of bishops of Rome going back to apostolic days, exalted the powers of the Church in general, and assisted the bishops of Rome to establish their authority in both Church and State.

Rome’s claim of universal authority has never passed unchallenged. Those in the east, whose center was in Constantinople, resented universal claims like this, and, in fact, this difference of opinion was never settled. In 1054, after a series of disputes, the Great Schism between the eastern and western churches began. Eastern Orthodoxy began to go its own way, separated from Roman jurisdiction, and this remains a breach that has been mostly unhealed.

The claim for Apostolic Succession

“‘You are Peter …’” are not a charter for the papacy but, in fact, applied to all bishops. The Roman bishop should not attempt to be a “bishop of bishops” and exercise “tyrannical” powers.

Cyprian, Council of Carthage

The pope’s emergence to a position of great power and authority was, then, long in the making. As an institution, the papacy was something that developed over time.

In his book, Upon This Rock, Steve Ray, a Roman Catholic apologist represents this position. He uses the metaphor of the acorn and the oak.

In critiquing William Webster’s book, The Matthew 16 Controversy, Peter and the Rock, Ray implicitly admitted to the fact that the papacy was not there from the very beginning when he says:

Webster’s section on St. Cyprian also demonstrates his unwillingness to represent fairly the process and necessity of doctrinal development within the Church. As we have demonstrated earlier in this book: the oak tree has grown and looks perceptibly different from the fragile sprout that cracked the original acorn, yet the organic essence and identity remain the same. Do the words of the very first Christians contain the full-blown understanding of the Papacy as expressed in Vatican I? No, they do not, as Webster correctly observes (Steven Ray, Upon This Rock (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999, p. 184).2

However, First Vatican Council goes against Steven Ray when the Council reaffirmed the decree of the Council of Trent on the Unanimous Consent of the Fathers which has to do specifically with the interpretation of Scripture:

For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and Blessed Peter, the Prince and Chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, and lives, presides, and judges, to this day and always, in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by him, and consecrated by his blood. (Vatican 1, Chapter 2, On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of Blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs)

But Peter is not supreme! Christ alone is the head of the church. Let us not rob Him of His exclusive title.

An American Theologian writes that there was, A fraudulent claim… that the Roman Catholic Church produced the Bible and that we received it from her. Some of her spokesmen attempt to say that the canon of the Bible was established in the fourth century, by the pope and council of Carthage, in 397 A. D. But that statement is erroneous on two counts. In the first place, there was no pope as such in 397 A. D. It was not until the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, that the bishop of Rome was designated pope, and the authority of the bishop of Rome never has been acknowledged by the Eastern churches. Previous to that time all priests and bishops were called popes (Latin, papa), and in the Eastern churches that title is applied to ordinary priests even to the present day. The Council of Chalcedon attempted to restrict the title exclusively to the bishop of Rome, who at that time was Leo I, and conferred it posthumously on all previous bishops of Rome in order to make it appear that an unbroken succession of popes had proceeded from Peter. (Lorraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism, chapter IV, section 10)

All of these teach us that hunger for power leads to spiritual decline. The Lord never taught us to crave for power but to be a servant as He was on earth.


*You can get a copy of Augustine’s Confessions here.

*Get a PDF copy of this blog here.

*The Reader is also encouraged to watch The Great Debate III, where James White debates Roman Catholic Priest Mitchell Pacwa S.J. on the Biblical and Historical merits of the Papacy

1 Read more on Forgeries and the Papacy By William Webster

2 Read William Webster’s A Refutation of the Misrepresentations of the Writings of
William Webster and of the Church Fathers by Roman Catholic, Stephen Ray, in His Book Upon This Rock

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Past II: The Church Fathers & Papacy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: