This is a posted to fill supplement a Sunday School class I have been teaching at Christ Presbyterian Church in Richmond IN. The audio and the handouts can be found here. Since the sovereignty of God hindered me of directly delivering this content, I posted a term paper I did in the Fall 2005 dealing this topic. While there are some things I would like to add, it is still a good overview of the topic. Enjoy!
Probably the most familiar doctrine of the Catholic Church today revolves around the office of Pope. They believe that the office has survived through an unbroken line of succession that dates back to the apostle Peter. Catholics follow this bishop of the City of Rome since they believe he has the “keys” to rule the Church politically and spiritually on Christ’s behalf. While history disputes whether or not this connection is completely accurate, it is clear that the office has changed since the death of Christ. William Ernest Beet claims that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was the first to both “in act and influence” live out the office of “Sovereign Pontiff.” If this statement is true and the current role of the Papacy did not develop until the end of the seventh century, then how did the events of the early church changed the original office?
Based on the Biblical record alone, there is not much support for a singular head based out of Rome. The church order that is evident is one where no one person is solely in control. The church was most likely being directed by a local group of male elders (presbuteros) as evident by the numerous references to elders as a ruling body both within a Jewish and Christian context. In Titus 1:5, the elders are referred to as plural and, in this instance, must be from the local they are ministering in. This is backed up by the discussion of the “body of elders” in 1 Timothy 4:14 “ordaining” Timothy, who is probably in Ephesus having this done by the local leaders. The term “overseer” (episkopos) is referring to the function of the elder within the congregation, as seen with the interchangeable use of terms of in Titus 1. The same can be said within Acts 20 when Paul instructs the Ephesian Elders to be overseers. Also, there is no place in the New Testament that gives the Roman church priority over other congregations.
After the death of the apostle John in approximately AD 100, the first significant developments took place in the Papacy’s development. In AD 107, Ignatius of Antioch becomes the first Christian Leader to mention a separation between a bishop and the perhaps a separate council of elders. In his seven letters to specific churches and their “leader,” the soon-to-be martyr expressed a clear idea of a single bishop and a plurality of elders. He writes to the Trallians that
Y[ou] are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ . . . It is therefore necessary that, as y[ou] indeed do, so without the bishop y[ou] should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ. . . .
He also addresses Polycarp in his letter as the “Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans” even though Polycarp sees himself a part of the presbyters. This difference of view shows that church organization was in a state of flux. In regard to the Papacy, this provides a foundation that later Christian build there case of monarchical episcopate based on an early separation of some type of ruling “bishop” over a “college of elders.”
Shortly later, this single bishop idea would be used to fight heresies arising in the church. The Apologist Irenaeus pointed to “apostolic succession” of a single bishop from the first Christians to further enforce his orthodoxy claims. He is reminding the Gnostics of his day (roughly late second century) that his church is preaching the same things as Christ taught since it was “passed” directly to them through the leaders of the Church. Irenaeus implies that the Bishop has the ability to determine what beliefs are acceptable since the “deposit of truth” resides with him. It is because of Irenaeus that episcopal authority is forever linked with this idea of apostolic succession.
This same Irenaeus is one of the first to attribute any importance to the Roman See. He uses the Roman list of succession as example of how the “rule of faith” was passed from both Paul and Peter to the current Bishop. Irenaeus calls Rome the “greatest and best-known” church in the Empire in route to explaining the link between the apostles and the current bishop, Eleutherius. Chances are that Irenaeus used Rome as an example since the Roman Church is a microcosm of what is believed in the entire empire. This is bolstered by the fact that Irenaeus was very upset at Victor (Bishop of Rome) for wanting to enforce his views on some Eastern sees regarding the Easter disagreement in roughly 190 C.E. Victor expanded on the argument the Ireneaus first penned. He believed he could enforce his rightful opinion since he “descended” from two apostolic martyrs. Regardless what Ireneaus’ intentions were, Roman primacy would start to appear more and more as result of this early reference.
A good example of this appears in the next century. In the middle of the third century, Cyprian argues that the Roman bishop is “the focal point of ecclesiastical unity” when addressing the validity of a person giving the sacraments. During the Novatian schism, he also writes that the “keys” Jesus gave Peter marks the power that he alone was given in order to show that the church cannot be divided. Later on however, Bishop Stephen of Rome uses the same idea of the “keys” to denounce Cyprian’s position on a theological issue. Even though he did not agree with Stephen’s interpretation, Cyprian is on record at one point validating the “keys” claim that Stephen expounded to refute him. This is another “historical brick” in the foundation that the Papacy would use to justify their position.
Up until this point, only those in the Church are directly influencing how the office was developing. That is until Constantine converted to Christianity and then became Emperor. The Church becomes a platform for Constantine to promote unity throughout the Empire. The Emperor takes over external management of the church and allows the bishops to tend to internal responsibilities. Eventually, these lines would blur over time. By providing special favors to Rome and organizing Councils to settle controversy, the separation of Church and State is slowly eroded away.
After the walls between government and Church disappeared, the major Patriarchs started to jockey for position as to who was the most powerful. This was particularly true in the East. The Bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople over the next two centuries each accused one another of heresy over Theological minutiae. This chaos in the East prevented any of these sees from having the stability they needed to become a continued force in the Empire’s religious affairs. By contrast, Rome did not experience the same problems. No one in the West is actively challenging their authority. Rome became a voice of reason in a time of theological turmoil.
The best example of this is Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. Two years earlier, Leo wrote a “Tome” to the Council of Ephesus to help settle the Monophysite question. Due to the political dealing of Dioscorus of Alexandria, the Tome was never read since it supported his rival from Constantinople, Flavian. Unfortunately for Dioscorus, the Tome was read in full at Chalcedon after Flavian’s successor reasserted his claim for priority over Alexandria. Leo’s work became the final word on the issue and cemented the Roman claim as the true apostolic see, due largely due to the bickering of the East.
It is also around this time that political unrest started to appear in Italy. After the sack of Rome in AD 410, the capital was moved to Ravenna, leaving a political vacuum in Rome. As more troubles started to appear in Rome, the Bishop was looked to for guidance. For example, when the Huns were threatening to attack the Italian peninsula, it was Leo the Great that went out to meet Attila to help save the defensive people from an attack. It is at this time the Roman Bishop was seen as “first importance in the State” and “the preserver of the social fabric.”
After the fall of Rome, the Bishop of Rome reluctantly took the place of the Ceasars. Gregory the Great is the best example of the “Pope” becoming a head of State as well as the head of the Church. The former City Prefect was elected Pope in AD 590 and started to fill the void of leadership in Rome. He negotiated a peace treaty with the Lombards in AD 592, which was one way he practically demonstrated the temporal authority of the papacy. He also sent envoys to Britain to preach to the Celtic people there. His actions, both politically and spiritually, turned the West from looking towards the Byzantine Empire to the new possibilities in the West.
It is at this point the Papacy as it is known today comes into focus. Through nature evolution to fight heresy and some unforeseen political turmoil, the Papacy is able to emerge as a rock of stability for the people under its care. Though its original intent was to solely govern religious affairs, the events of the day prevented that from happening. Henry Hudson best sums it up when he says,
Call it a historical accident, if there be such a thing, but clearly, in the time-space continuum of historical happenings, responsibilities of a more secular nature were thrust upon the church. These may not have been desired by any of the Bishops of Rome, but the historical turn of events could hardly have been avoided.
William Ernest Beet, The Rise of the Papacy: A.D. 385-461, (London: C. H. Kelly, 1910), 60-1.
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, 2.
Everett Ferguson, Early Christian Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, 3rd ed. (Abilene: ACU Press, 1999), 170.
See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.
W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), 78.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.
Henry Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Church: The Early Church, (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 84.
T. A. Burkill, The Evolution of Christian Thought, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 63.
Henry Hudson, Papal Power: Its Origins and Development, (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1989), 17.