But she sided with orthodoxy and as such became increasingly respected
and other churches began to acknowledge her "superiority"—even accepting
her rebuke and excommunication for minor issues.
4. The Roman Church was a
suffering Church which engaged in good works and had a respectable,
caring, orthodox leadership. This also granted the Church favor in the
eyes of other churches.
Many early Fathers agreed
that Rome was a superior Church. Irenaeus said Rome was among the
greatest of churches. There seemed to be a common consensus that Rome
was "first among equals" which, rather quickly, degenerated to simply,
"first". Roman bishops even claimed supremacy in their own districts.
While some, like Hippolytus, opposed this claim, it was generally
The Increasing Doubt That
Salvation Was by Grace Through Faith Alone
Human nature being what it
is, this is not so surprising. Like the ancient Israelites who forgot
God even after their great deliverances through Moses, many of the early
Church Fathers quickly forgot that salvation was entirely apart from
works. Many came to believe that baptism remits sins and, in logical
progression, good works were soon seen as necessary for salvation. Once
the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone was increasingly
obscured, the door swung open to views of self-salvation, building brick
upon brick, for an entire system of salvation by works.
Again, while this evolution
was understandable, it was also regrettable in that it laid the
foundation for the later complex system of Roman soteriology. As an
illustration consider the concept of the martyrs emerging as a special
class of people.
The early Church was
persecuted so heavily that yearly memorials of those martyrs ballooned
into an unbiblical system. These commemorations began as mere graveside
services where accounts of their sufferings were read. They soon changed
so that martyrdom itself became 1) a greater Christian virtue; 2) a
substitute for baptism; 3) a power to cleanse from sin and 4) a
guarantee of heaven. Origen even ascribed an atoning value to others
from a martyr’s death. In the end, the clothes, bones, etc., of martyrs
became objects of veneration, resulting in another division among the
body of Christ—special Christians (martyrs) versus less special
The concept of martyrdom
became so important that marginal or heretical groups began teaching
that backsliders were not permitted into the Church (the Novatians) or
that those who gave up their Scriptures in the persecutions committed an
unpardonable sin (the Donatists).
Eventually the very idea of
ascribing a special status to the martyr meant that there was a certain
act one could do which could earn merit before God—thus justifying in
part the concept of penance. This was one of many factors which under
girded merit before God on the basis of good works. The veneration of
martyrs gave way to veneration of "saints" in general, opposing the
biblical teaching that every believer is a saint. Eventually this led to
an entire cultic substructure.
The Division of Sin
Another factor was the
concept of different categories of sin. This apparently began with the
legalistic, ascetic, charismatic Montanists. If some sins were held to
cause the loss of salvation and were thus "mortal" or deadly, then less
serious sins were merely "venial" or of secondary importance. If the
Church sacraments could also dispense grace, then the sacramental system
of Roman Catholicism could be established in which, e.g., penance was
required to forgive mortal sins.
The above constitute some of
the factors that permitted the rise of the Roman Church to a position of
prominence and laid the foundation for the papacy. Six key figures
subsequently built upon that foundation to bring about the concept and
reality of the papal office as we find it in the Roman Catholic Church
Leo the First (d. 461 A.D.)
Leo was not a pope, but a
Roman Bishop who served from 440-461 A.D. During the Robber Council
(449)—Eutychian/monophysite controversy, Leo did everything in his
ability to increase the power and control of the Roman Bishop in order
to more effectively oppose heresy.
Thus, Leo was the one who
called the great Council of Chalcedon to refute the Eutychian heresy.
The result was one of the classic creeds of Christendom which upheld
Nicea and under girded orthodoxy. Leo’s involvement in the council and
on the side of orthodoxy increased the power and respect of the Roman
Bishop. However, it also raised serious questions about the use of
political power within the Church.
Gregory the First (540-604
Also known as Gregory the
Great, he served just before and after 600 A.D. (590-604).
Gregory may be considered the
first pope. In many respects he was a great man who did many good
things. He was a good preacher and teacher and used his gifts in the
Church widely. In fact, he sent so many missionaries to England the
country was converted to Christianity. He protected Rome militarily from
pagan hordes; he also fed the poor by the thousands.
Although the concept of a
universal rule of the Church was repugnant to him when it was first
mentioned by an Eastern Constantinople bishop (he called it
"anti-Christ"), his term and the offices he held greatly under girded
the concept of a papacy. In essence, Gregory was the first to be 1) a
Bishop of Rome, 2) a Metropolitan (over Roman territory) and 3) a
Patriarch (of Italy, for all the West).
The mere fact that one man
held all three offices clearly laid the foundation for the papacy while
it also greatly increased Roman power. If the Roman Catholic Church
begins to emerge anywhere, it is here.
Leo the Third (d. 816 A.D.)
Leo the Third served just
before and after 800 A.D. (795-816) As evidence of the increasing
secular and political power of the Church, Leo actually crowned
Charlemagne Emperor, raising the issue of whether or not any secular
ruler or king could be such without the "blessing" of the Church.
Until Hildebrand (Gregory the
Seventh) and Henry the Fourth, mutual coronations became the rule, not
the exception. Of course, if a king could not be a king without the
Church’s approval, the ruler of the Church had more power than the state
itself. In this respect, Leo the Third was a key ingredient in the union
of Church and state.
In between Leo the Third and
Gregory the Seventh are found the "Pseudo-isidorian Decretals." These
were allegedly written around 600 A.D. and under girded the primacy of
Rome and its papalism. Unfortunately, they were forgeries used for
hundreds of years to strengthen papal power, beginning with Nicholas the
First around 865. It was not discovered until much later that
they were written in the mid 9th century.
Gregory the Seventh
(Hildebrand) (1021-85 A.D.)
Hildebrand was pope from
1073-85. He reformed the papacy by outlawing corruptions such as simony,
and by insisting on the celibacy of the clergy. He also strengthened the
Church’s power base, which all along had been gathering great influence
and wealth from various landholdings, conquests of war, tithings and
Hildebrand saw the Church as
the one visible object with the pope as its head as the "vicar" of
Christ. The Church was equivalent to the kingdom of God. To be in the
Church was to be saved; to be outside the Church was to be damned.
Hildebrand saw the Church as supreme over the state—indeed the Church
was the glorious sun while the state was merely the moon, which gets its
light only from the sun.
Hildebrand instituted what is
known as the "Gregorian Theocracy." His personal convictions are acted
out in his battles with King Henry the Fourth whom he both
excommunicated and placed an interdiction on—a censure of spiritual
benefits. This meant that Henry could not receive the sacraments and his
subjects were no longer duty bound to obey him. In part, this provided
justification for subsequent papal political use of excommunication and
even the use of an interdict against nations.
King Henry did repent—at
first. But in 1084 he seized Rome, forcing Gregory to flee, underscoring
the problem of Church-state politics.
In between Gregory the
Seventh (1025-85) and Innocent the Third (1161-1216), we find the
Lateran Council of 1059. This decreed that popes were to be
elected by cardinals, from among Roman delegates in Rome. At this point
the Church had clearly become the Roman Catholic Church.
Innocent the Third
Innocent the Third ruled as
pope from 1198-1216. He represents the height of medieval papal
influence and power—overall, no pope before or after has been more
powerful. Innocent believed an interdict could even be placed on
nations. He forced King John of England to become his vassal and had
Emperor Otto deposed in favor of Frederick II. During his reign we have
the Magna Carta battle with King John and the Fourth Lateran Council
(1215). This council: 1) Began the Inquisition; 2) Forbade monastic
orders; 3) Held that membership in the visible Church was necessary for
salvation; 4) Declared the transubstantiation dogma; 5) Declared yearly
confessions mandatory; and 6) Instituted a crusade against the Turks for
the Holy Land.
But the papal office also
began degenerating here. The Crusades were ever less popular,
indulgences and papal dispensations for money caused endless amounts of
corruption and evil, as did the Inquisition. Relatives could be bought
out of purgatory, while neighbor turned against neighbor as land could
be received as payment for reporting "heretics". Taxes on bishops and
churches also became oppressive: papal authority was destined to
Boniface the Eighth
Boniface the Eighth ruled
just before and after the 1300s (1294-1303). He steadfastly asserted
papal authority over European leaders and issued the Unum Sanctum
which was the highest expression of papal authority, going so far as to
claim temporary papal rule over nations. This led to conflict with
Philip IV of France and Boniface’s eventual death.
Papal degeneration continued.
The rise of separate states, rebellion within the Church leading to
sects and "heretical" pre-Reformation groups such as the Waldensians
eventually culminated in the Reformation wherein Martin Luther not only
nailed his historic Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg University
door, he enunciated the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith
alone declaring it to be the central dogma upon which the Christian
Church stands or falls.3