Reflections on the Past VI: The Papacy at Its Height

This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – Lesson 6: The Papacy at Its Height.

Let us now study how did the Pope become powerful. Gregory VII (Hildebrand) aimed to extend the power of the popes over secular as well as the ecclesiastical sphere of life. It was shared by his successors, of whom the most eminent was Alexander III (1159-1181) and Innocent III (1198-1216). Under them, the power of the papacy was at its height. During their time, the Pope’s power was defined.

the power hunger popes

Last time, we saw how Pope Gregory VII humiliated Henry IV. Here, we have Frederic of Barbarosa, who, though initially refused, was compelled to hold Pope Adrian IV’s stirrup since he was a threat to remove his imperial crown. This is an imposed gesture to display the Pope’s authority over kings and emperors. Frederick also had a dispute with Pope Alexander III for twenty years. That’s twenty years!

This is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures that say, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down in your anger… (Ephesians 4:26), and If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18). Twenty years of dispute is unimaginable for a supposed servant of the Prince of Peace!

Sometime after Frederick was compelled to hold the pope’s stirrup, Pope Adrian IV wished to take supreme control in Rome, in matters of civil as well as ecclesiastical. We see that power hunger was real! In response, Frederick says, “Since by the appointment of God I both am called and am Roman Emperor, in nothing but name shall I appear to be ruler if the controls of the city of Rome be wrested in my hands.” Frederick understood the clear separation between church and state but the Pope didn’t.

In 1159, after the death of Adrian IV, Frederick proposed to call a General Council of the Church to appoint Adrian’s successor. But it failed! The next would be the 20 agonizing years of dispute between Frederick and Pope Alexander III. To bring the two together, Mastropiero Orio, the Doge of Venice offered to act as mediator. Imagine a layman mediating between the Most Holy Roman Emperor and the self-proclaimed vicar of Christ!

According to tradition, in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice would be the place where, on 24 July 1177, the German emperor Frederick I knelt in front of Pope Alexander III, as a sign of submission after a long war that had seen the pope allied with the municipalities of northern Italy against the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It is said that Barbarossa, to diminish his defeat, told the pope ‘I do not kneel before Pope Alexander but Peter’s successor ‘ and he would instead have responded to him: ‘I am Peter’, digging the heel of the shoe in the neck of his enemy (Bryce 168).

But this is not what the Lord Jesus Christ did even the apostles! Another contest between the Emperors and the Popes was during the reign of Henry II in England. It was the struggle between the King and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, that also illustrates the power of the Roman Catholic religion. Sadly, this ended in the death of Thomas Becket. The country regarded him as a martyr, and the King thought it needful to do abject penance for what had happened. Becket’s death strengthened the Church and weakened the power of the State.

Nearly half a century after Becket’s death Pope Innocent III won a victory over King John of England. It followed the death of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1205, an event which caused John to exclaim, “Now for the first time I am King of England.” John also decided that he himself would make sure that the monks of Canterbury elected as the new archbishop the man whom he would himself name, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich. When news of this matter reached the ears of Pope Innocent III, he let John know that the new appointment must go, not to de Gray, but to Stephen Langton, a Cardinal of English birth. John was furious; he refused to let the monks elect Langton, and entered into a long contest with the Pope.

Innocent III promptly excommunicated John, placed the entire realm of England under interdict, and told the king of France that he was free to take the English crown to himself. Here, the Pope instead of promoting peace, as He claimed to be a vicar of the Prince of Peace, stimulated conflict between the two kings!

As the Pope enjoyed his power, he called for the Fourth Lateran Council (November 11, 1215). It was attended by 412 bishops, 800 abbots, and delegates from patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch Patriarch of Constantinople.

During this council, the Pope highlighted that the Lord had given to Peter, not only the headship of the Church on earth, but also dominion over the whole world, and as every knee must bow before Christ, so must all render obedience to Peter and his papal successors. No prince has the right to rule unless he serves Peter (and so the papacy) with reverence and full submission. He also forwarded the doctrine of Transubstantiation which lies at the very center of the service called “the mass,” and which asserts that, by the words of the priest, the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper cease to be bread and wine, and literally and actually become the body and blood of Christ.

Hence, the elements are to be worshipped! The Council accepted the doctrine and thereby legislated idolatry. Under Innocent III the papacy was at the height of its power and its supposed glory. The Church and the world were at its feet. Kings fell down before it, rendering homage. Most of Europe was subject to its sway. But the Lord’s authority is never given to a power-hungry ruler! He is presently reigning over His church!

The Honey-flowing teacher: Bernard of Clairvaux

But not all men were caught in its mighty current. Christ had his 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. There was even an Elijah in those days, a real servant of the Lord whose name was Bernard of Clairvaux. Though he erred in some doctrines, e.g. the doctrine of Mary, history attested that in his heart, God’s grace was evident. He testified to the truth! He saw Rome’s apostasy!

He once said to a pope, “Remember that you are a successor of him who said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ Gold and silk and pearls and soldiers you have not received of Christ, but they came to you from Constantine. Never strive after these things. Would to God that before I die I might see the Church as it was in olden times when the apostles cast their nets, not to catch gold and silver but the souls of men.”

On Assurance of salvation, he said, “There are three things on which I base my hopes for eternity: the love of God for his children, the certainty of his promises, and the power by which he will make these promises come true. Such hope does not rest on quicksand but on the Rock of Ages!

Martin Luther said on Bernard, “If there ever has been a pious, God-fearing monk, then it was Bernard, whom I esteem much higher than all other monks and priests through the globe. I never heard or read of his equal.”

Calvin also quotes Bernard in setting forth the doctrine of a forensic alien righteousness, or as it is commonly called imputed righteousness. Bernard himself writes,  For what could man, the slave of sin, fast bound by the devil, do of him self to recover that righteousness which he had formerly lost? Therefore he who lacked righteousness had another’s imputed to him, and in this way: The prince of this world came and found nothing in the Saviour.

Bernard was called The Honey-flowing teacher as his sermons seemed to drip with the love of Christ. In doctrinal matters, he was a disciple of Augustine (Needham, 195).

In a hymn that he wrote which was added to the Trinity Baptist Hymnal #178, he writes,

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered
was all for sinners’ gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
’Tis I deserve thy place.
Look on me with thy favor,
and grant to me thy grace.

Bernard of Clairvaux, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Christianity in the Middle Ages

During the middle ages, Christianity as dominated by the papacy was really in the dark ages.

  • The condition of Christianity in the Middle Ages was pitiful
  • The masses of people had a blind faith in the doctrines and traditions of the Roman Catholic religion and never inquired whether they were in harmony with the Scriptures. Few could read; books were scarce; it was a rare thing to have any real acquaintance with the Word of God. Superstition increased alarmingly.
  • The doctrine of indulgences gained general acceptance. The Roman Catholic religion taught that forgiveness of sins might be obtained by the rendering of service to the “Church”, and in the 13th century, indulgences were even sold for money.
  • The Roman Catholic religion taught the doctrine of purgatory, being a place which all Christians entered after death so that they might be purged of, or cleansed from, the sin rendered them unfit for heaven.
  • On earth also, sin made necessary the performance of penance, but indulgences, whether bought or earned, enabled a man to escape penance or at least a part of it. Thus, were men deluded in regard to salvation.

Were there efforts to introduce reform?

Occasionally, feeble attempts were made to introduce reform, but such movements were soon checked. In the 13th century, bishops were required by the Council of Toulouse, where the bible was put on the index of the forbidden book, to employ men whose sole duty was to hunt out heretics. They were to hand those heretics over to specially convened tribunals to be punished. Whoever shielded a heretic was to lose his property. At this period, William Tyndale translated the Bible into common language, who was burned at stake. This was the origin of what came to be known as The Inquisition.

Though there was a demand for drastic reformation, all failed, mainly because it proceeded from a wrong principle: External abuses were to be corrected, but the corrupt doctrine was to remain untouched. There was no appeal to the Word of God, no turning to the old paths, no repentance from dead works, and no belief in the basic doctrine of justification by faith.

Dark was the night, and more than human power was needed to drive away the thick clouds. But, as we shall see, in God’s time, dawn came.



Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

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