The Rise of the Papacy

The history of the Papacy cannot be summed up in one single event.  Its formation spanned out over several hundred years.  Although several of the early church fathers spoke of the primacy of the Roman Church and its Pope over all other churches,[1] there were others who rejected this idea.  There is simpy no evidence that Peter was ever the bishop of Rome.  Roman Catholic Scholar H. Burn-Murdoch admitted this fact when he stated, “None of the writings of the first two centuries describe Peter as a bishop of Rome”[2]  The term pope simply means father, and was used to address various bishops during the early church period.[3]  This attempt to explain the Rise of the Papacy will focus on the person of Leo the Great who was the First Pope to claim total authority over the Church.

After Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople in 330 A.D. the Western Empire was no longer the political powerhouse that it had been since the beginning days of Augustus Caesar in 27 B.C.[4]  In the year 410 A.D. Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome and plundered the city temple by temple.  Alaric who supposedly was a Christian himself, though influenced by Arianism, separated the sacred plunder from the rest and brought it to be placed in the churches that were dedicated to Peter and Paul.  The fact that this barbarian king honored the idea that the Roman Church was of vast importance and that he dared not take the holy treasure of the Roman Church indicates that there was awareness that the Roman Church was held with great honor and prestige.[5]

Forty-two years later in 452 A.D. Attila the Hun led his army up the Danube and advanced on Rome.  The Roman army, too weak to face the Huns, caused most of the population to flee.  Leo the Bishop of Rome came out with some of his Church leaders and a large part of the Roman senate to meet Attila who was destroying everything in his path.[6]  Leo being an old man by that time was ready to sacrifice himself entirely for the defense of his flock.  When he met Attila, he said to him, “The senate and the people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now indeed vanquished, come before thee as suppliants. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, thou king of kings, thou couldst have no greater glory than to see suppliant at thy feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. Thou hast subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands, which it was granted to the Romans, victors over all peoples, to conquer. Now we pray that thou, who hast conquered others, should conquer thyself.  The people have felt thy scourge; now as suppliants they would feel thy mercy.”[7]  The result was that Attila withdrew from Italy.  By this act, Leo the Bishop of Rome had assumed a new role and staked a fresh claim on the future of the Papacy.[8]

Three years later in 455 A.D. another king set out to invade Rome.  Gaiseric, King of the Vandals set sail from Carthage with a hundred ships and landed north of the Tiber. [9]  The city was in panic and many fled the city, even the imperial troops.  Emperor Maximus was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards as he tried to flee.  His body was torn to pieces as they dragged him through the streets of Rome.  The government was in disarray, the troops were vastly disorganized and there was no one to take charge and bring about civil order.  On June 2, 455 The Vandals entered Rome and standing at the gate was Bishop Leo.  Leo begged Gaiseric and offered him money not to burn the city and restrain his troops.  Gaiseric, like Attila three years earlier gave into the Bishops request.  As Gaiseric mounted his horse and began to ride away, he turned around and shouted to Leo “Fourteen days’ Looting!”  The Vandals plundered the city palace-by-palace, temple-by-temple until there was nothing left.  Fourteen days later they loaded their ships and left for Carthage.  Leo had successfully saved Rome for a second time and now was given the ancient title of Pontifex Maximus, which was the high priest of religion throughout the empire.  It was Leo, not the emperor who now shouldered the responsibility for the city of Rome. [10]  This marks the beginning of the rise of Roman Papacy.

Leo was one of the first to provide a biblical and theological explanation to the papal claim.[11]  When Leo became the Bishop or Rome on the day of his entrance, he preached a sermon extolling the “glory of the blessed Apostle Peter in which lives on and his authority shines forth.”  Leo the new Bishop claimed supreme authority over all Christendom by quoting Matthew 16:13-19; Luke 22:31-32; and John 21:15-17.  He stated that Christ promised to build his church on Peter, the rock for all ages, and that the Bishops of Rome are his successors in that authority.[12]

Emperor Valentinian III acknowledged Leo’s claim to primacy and in 445 A.D. issued a decree acknowledging the Roman Bishops primacy.[13]  In the decree he stated “Whatever shall be sanctioned by the authority of the Apostolic See shall be law”.  The decree also stated: “so that if one of the bishops be summoned to the judgment of the Roman bishop and shall neglect to appear, he shall be forced by the moderator of his province to present himself. In all respects let the privileges be maintained which our deified predecessors have conferred upon the Roman church.”  Leo held his position as Bishop until 461 AD.[14]  It is evident by the language of this decree that the Bishop of Rome as seen by many as Peter’s successor and had authority over all other leaders in the Catholic Church.  These events laid the groundwork for what would become the Roman Catholic Church, as we know it today.

It was one hundred and twenty-nine years after Leo that we see the next major steps in the development of the papacy when Gregory I became the Bishop of Rome due to the death of Bishop Pelagius.  He reigned for fourteen years and was considered one of the noblest leaders of the Roman Church.  He initially refused the office and fled the city to take refuge in the forest.  They eventually found him and brought him back to Rome crowning him St. Peter’s successor on September 3, 590.[15]  Though Gregory refused to be called Pope.  He thought it was blasphemous and anti-Christian, but rather called himself “the servant of the servants of Christ” yet through his leadership and respect that he received from the people the Roman Church became very wealthy.[16]

It was during Gregory’s reign that the Lombard’s laid siege to Rome.  It was then that the Church stepped in to feed the population and collect taxes.  Gregory became the head of the welfare and tax system.  When the Lombard’s drew closer to Rome Gregory appointed a military leader and entered a peace treaty with two Lombard leaders thus sparing Rome.  After this event, the pope was not only the Christian leader of Rome but also an important political figure called God’s Consul.[17]   When Gregory’s successor came to power in 606 A.D. (Boniface III); he assumed the title of Pope, and it was at this point going forward that all preceding bishops where called by this title.

In 1073 when Gregory VII was elected pope he claimed that the spiritual power of the papacy reigned supreme over all temporal powers of government. [18]   In 1198 Pope Innocent III took it one step further and claimed that “The Successor of Peter is the Vicar of Christ; he has been established as a mediator between God and man, below God but beyond man; less than God but more than man; who shall judge all and be judged by no one.”[19]  In 1294 Boniface VIII became pope and was the founder of the Holy Years who had a flair for pomp and splendor.  He would appear before the people several times a year in imperial robes crying out” I am Caesar. I am Emperor.” His crown contained 48 rubies, 72 sapphires, 45 emeralds, and 66 large pearls.[20]   It would appear that the papacy was at the peak of its existence but very shortly it would experience the first fruits of its decline.  Boniface became engrossed in a battle with the Philip the King of France over taxation of clergy.  Threats and accusations were cast back and forth and Philip claimed, as King, he answered to no one.  Boniface retorted with a decree claiming “submission on the part of every man to the bishop of Rome is altogether necessary for his salvation.”  Philip stormed the papal palace the night before he was to be excommunicated and captured Boniface.  Boniface was eventually released but soon died a broken defeated man. Philip’s victory over Boniface brought an end to the papal power reigning supreme.[21]  This decline continued until the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  Throughout the years, the papacy seemed to represent more of a political dictatorship than it did a representative of Christ. The claims that Peter was the first Pope and that the Roman Church has supremacy over all other churches simply cannot be supported by history.

________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Streeter, Tom “Church and Western Culture: An Introduction to Church History” (AuthorHouse October 11, 2006); 136

[2] H. Burn-Murdoch, The Development of the Papacy, [Faber & Faber, 1954], 130

[3] Gonzalez, Justo “The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day” (Prince Press 1999); 242

[4] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 124

[5] ibid; 124

[6] ibid; 132

[7] Robinson, J. H.  “Readings in European History” (Boston: Ginn, 1905); 49-51

[8] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 133

[9] Wolfram, Herwig “The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples”  (University of California Press; 1 edition November 26, 1997); 172

[10] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 139-140

[11] Streeter, Tom “Church and Western Culture: An Introduction to Church History” (AuthorHouse October 11, 2006); 136

[12] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 137

[13] ibid; 138

[14] Robinson, J.H. “Readings in European History”, (Boston: Ginn, 1905); 72

[15] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 163-164

[16] Streeter, Tom “Church and Western Culture: An Introduction to Church History” (AuthorHouse October 11, 2006); 138

[17] Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994); 166-167

[18] ibid; 181

[19] ibid; 185

[20] ibid; 215

[21] Lindberg, Carter “A Brief History of Christianity” (Wiley-Blackwell November 29, 2005); 98-99

 

 

Bibliography

Streeter, Tom “Church and Western Culture: An Introduction to Church History” (AuthorHouse October 11, 2006)

Gonzalez, Justo “The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day” (Prince Press 1999)

Shelley, Bruce L. “Church History in Plain Language.” (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994)

Robinson, J. H.  “Readings in European History” (Boston: Ginn, 1905)

Wolfram, Herwig “The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples”  (University of California Press; 1 edition November 26, 1997)

Lindberg, Carter “A Brief History of Christianity” (Wiley-Blackwell November 29, 2005)

 

 

One comment

  1. Steve, great introduction to the rise of the papacy. Great research and you summed everything up nicely (something I have alot of trouble doing).

    I would also recommend ‘Ecclesiastical Megalomania’ by John Robbins, ‘Papal Power’ by Henry Hudson, or the 30 or so part booklet series ‘A Protestant View of Church History’ by Ron Cooke. I can get you Cooke’s series if anyone is interested.

    The political power of the papacy has waned but its deceptive spiritual power has not. Great job exposing the Mother of Harlots.

    Like

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