"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." - Paul
Was There A Pope In The Early Church?
... Is Roman Catholicism the Essential and True Heart of Christianity?
- Rhett Totten (c) 2013
In regard to this issue, it will be informative to look at what is the largest segment of what is broadly regarded as "Christianity" in the world, and what many consider to be the essential, original and true heart of Christianity, namely: The Roman Catholic Church ("RCC"). The main question will be largely answered by whether or not there were any "Popes" in the early centuries of Christianity. -- So, this being the issue, we need to look at the following key points:
On Leadership Authority
Does the top leader --the "Pope"-- of the Roman Catholic Church stand uniquely in a direct line of God-ordained supreme human leadership which came directly transferred from the original apostles --and Christ-- down through an uninterrupted chain of supreme "universal bishops" (popes) to the popes of today? This is a relevant question, because this is basically what the RCC maintains to be the case. They hold that such God-sanctioned universal bishops have --from the beginning-- had top authority over all other Christian bishops (or pastors/elders), as well as all Christians on earth. If this RC position is historically accurate, then this does go a long way to establish the RCC --and its popes-- as the essence of true Christianity and heart of its leadership. So the question is: has such a virtually continuous chain of universal bishops (popes) actually existed in history --especially in the early history of Christianity?
--Historical events and documents appear to have a clear answer on this.
The Council of Nicea
The "Council of Nicea" occurred in Nicea, Bithinia (in present day Turkey) in the year 325 AD. It was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine. This council was an assembly of the top Christian bishops (or pastors/elders) from all over the Christian world of the day, who gathered to discuss and resolve some of the most crucially important doctrinal issues facing all of Christianity for all time; doctrinal issues such as: the nature and godhood of God the Son (Christ), and his relationship to God the Father. The council hammered out and defined what it believed to be the true and biblically accurate and orthodox teaching of the apostles. The Council of Nicea was 250 years after the apostles, and was so highly important that if there had existed a world-wide and supreme "universal bishop" (now called a "pope") in Rome --or anywhere else-- in authority over all of Christianity, then he (or/and his representative) obviously would have been at the Council of Nicea.
---So, what happened?
The head bishop of Rome was Sylvester ...and he did not even go to the Council of Nicea, nor did he (or anyone else from Rome) play a determinative or top-authoritative role in the council's monumental discussions and/or decisions on what was biblically orthodox doctrine in these massively important areas of Bible teaching. Instead, the main three players at the council were Athanasius, Alexander and Eusebius (and perhaps we might also mention Arius as a "main player," whose heresy was discussed and soundly rejected by the council). No bishop of Rome --nor any universally "supreme" bishop from anywhere-- played a central leadership or top decision-making role. This situation would have been unthinkable had there been such a bishop over all Christianity considered to have universal/supreme authority --considered to be given by God. But none of the main players at the council of Nicea were such a universally supreme leader. No such universal bishop was recognized (nor any representative from such a person), or spoken of, or treated as a universally supreme bishop over all other bishops or over all Christians.
--Thus, clearly, there was no pope-like figure in Christianity 250 years after the apostles.
Even more relevant, and crucial, to the topic of a world-wide supreme bishop (a pope) with authority over all Christian bishops/pastors (and all Christian people), is the fact that the Council of Nicea actually addressed this issue and made a formal statement in regard to just such a concept of having one universally supreme bishop:
In a booklet entitled "Evangelicals and Catholics in Unity," Michael Horton writes that the Council of Nicea composed a formal statement, called "Canon 6," which directly stated that although each church center, area, or city was often ruled over by its own top bishop, there was not to be a universally supreme bishop in authority over all the top bishops from other areas of Christianity. Thus, the Council of Nicea formally and specifically rejected and forbade the idea of having one world-wide, supreme bishop in authority over all Christian bishops (pastors/elders) as well as all Christians in general. Since this declaration came from the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, this stance was basically a universally agreed upon, formal written rejection and prohibition of the idea of even having anything like a "pope" --such as we find the RCC has more recently conceived it.
Therefore, history shows us that there did not exist a world-wide supreme Bishop (like a "pope") over Christianity in the year 325 AD, and in fact, even the concept itself was also formally and universally rejected by virtually all of the top Christian leadership of the day! And according to the tone and forcefulness of the Council of Nicea's statement in Canon 6, they even conveyed the fact that there had never previously been such a universal Bishop or pope. Therefore --according to the Council of Nicea-- neither Peter nor anyone else in all of the early church was considered to have been such a supreme leader. --This same viewpoint is substantiated at other times in early church history. --So, there had never been anything like a pope (nor the Roman Catholic Church) coming from the original apostles and on through to the year 325 AD.
We can also go back about 100 years to the time of the early church father, Cyprian (200 to 260 AD), and we find very much the same attitude and position, as Cyprian says: "Neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience." - - So, in the mid third century of Christianity, Cyprian rejected the idea of a universal supreme bishop over all of Christianity ...in fact, Cyprian seems to find the idea of a supreme bishop to be quite repugnant, and he indicates that neither did any other major Christian leader in his whole generation of leaders have the arrogance to even consider standing in such an exalted position of leadership. What Cyprian describes --and his entire generation of top Christian leaders vehemently rejected-- is just what Roman Catholicism stands for today and has taught for a number of centuries. -- Therefore, obviously, there was nothing like a "pope" in the era of Cyprian, as he describes his whole generation of Christian leaders.
In addition, there is no evidence in the three or four generations of Christians before Cyprian that there was ever a universal Christianity-wide bishop (or "patriarch") who stood supreme over all other bishops (or pastors) and over all of Christianity. Neither Peter nor anyone else. History seems to clearly demonstrate that there was nothing like a pope in the early church... nor following that time, up through the Council of Nicea.
And what do we find concerning this leadership issue in the centuries following Nicea?
Well, 125 years after Nicea, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, we read in "Canon 28" of that council that "Rome's rank was based on its political significance rather than on any spiritual superiority." This statement from the Council indicates that the city of Rome at this point did have some power which was apparent, but the Christian top leaders of the time wanted to make it clear that its power was derived mostly by the political might resident in the political Emperors of Rome, and not because the bishop of Rome was seen as having any particular spiritual authority over the other bishops and Christians from other parts of the world. This declaration from this Council --made up of the top bishops from all over the Christian world at the time-- again rejected anything like a RCC pope as it has been conceived today and over the past several centuries.
And then, going further, we may move forward from Chalcedon about 150 years in time, to about the year 600 AD, and to Gregory the 1st (540 to 604 AD), who was himself the head Bishop of Rome! Despite being the actual "Bishop of Rome" (which is sometimes the designation for the pope), Gregory the 1st --in his "Epistle 18"-- addressed the idea of a "universal bishop" having ultimate authority over all the other bishops of Christianity. And what did he say? ---Gregory said: "None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word," --(that is, the concept of a supreme "universal bishop" --or pope). --Like the entirety of earlier Christianity, this statement from Gregory stands in direct contradiction to the claim of today's RCC concerning a pope. Gregory continues: "For clearly, if one patriarch is called 'universal,' then the name patriarch is taken away from the rest. To consent to this wicked word is nothing less than to destroy the faith. ... But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself "universal bishop," or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation, Antichrist's precursor." -- So, Gregory vehemently rejects the RCC concept of a universally supreme bishop --or pope-- over all of Christianity. Gregory even goes so far as to indicate that such a universally supreme leader neverexisted in Christianity up until his generation. Gregory is clear that neither Peter nor any other early church leader before the year 600 AD was such a supreme, "universal" bishop.
And Mike Horton (in an interview on the Greg Koukl radio-program) notes that Gregory the 1st --the Bishop of Rome-- said, "The other day I was greeted as the universal bishop of the church," and Gregory said, "I have forbidden that proud address. In fact, I go so far as to say, that whoever claims to be the universal bishop of the church, is --in his boastful swaggering-- the precursor of the Antichrist." --This statement amounts to a dramatic and vehement repudiation of today's view of the RCC.
From these statements we can clearly see that up through the time of Gregory, even though a few people might have mentally toyed with the possibility of having a universal supreme bishop over all other top bishops, such an arrangement never occurred. ---We also clearly see that Gregory the Bishop of Rome himself strenuously rejected the notion, even characterizing such a possiblity as a precursor and manifestaton of the Antichrist.
So we see dramatic historical demonstration that for the first 600 years of Christianity, there is no evidence of any such church governmental arrangement employing supreme or "universal bishops" (popes) which Roman Catholics now maintain to have existed in early Christianity. And, whatsmore, for most of the first millennium after Christ, nothing similar to a pope would have been tolerated by those early Christians. Any universal bishop idea was never seen as a scriptural pattern of government handed down from the apostles nor from the Bible.
Finally, we do not find in history any one individual who stepped into such a role of being a world-wide and supreme bishop over all other bishops and all Christians, until the 8th century after Christ. Therefore, today's Roman Catholic conception of top leadership by a supreme bishop of bishops did not happen in history until most of the first millennium after Christ had passed. This sort of leadership was therefore an innovation which was not practiced nor even permitted until so many centuries had transpired since the time of the apostles --indeed it was widely shunned as an arrogant notion up until almost one third of Christian history had transpired.
Thus, the RC Church's claim to such supreme human authority being "handed down" from the apostles to a universally supreme bishop today (the pope), is discredited by the historical documents of all the major church councils throughout the first third of Christian history, as well as by the top bishops of Christianity in general, as well as the top bishops of Rome themselves throughout those early centuries. Such ultimate authority of one universal bishop did not exist down through most of the first millennium. -- The sum of this church history is fatally damaging to RCC view of any "handed down" papal leadership.
Implications, therefore are: The teaching "magisterium" that supposedly comes from that "handed down" supreme papal authority is also discredited and non-existant before the year 800 AD because there was no such ultimate papal leadership transferal process evident from the beginning and up through almost the first half of the Christian church's history. In light of this, it must be recognized that since the main core of Roman Catholicism (its papal authority and teaching magisterium) did not exist before the year 800 AD, we do not have anything even similar to the RCC in the early church nor in almost the first half of Christian history. In addition, as a result, the RCC pope may have spiritual authority over Roman Catholics after that date, but he does not necessarily have any more God-given authority over all Christians in the world than any other Christian pastor (such as Protestant leaders) in the world. The word "catholic" basically means "universal" or world-wide, and thus, as a result of the RC Church not actually having early existence with such broad authority, the term "Catholic" being used for any one segment of Christianity, is actually a misnomer. In fact, whenever the RC pope (or any RC bishop) deviates from (or detracts from or adds to) the teaching of the Word of God (the Bible) then he does not possess any proper authority over any other Christians anywhere.
All Christians have universally agreed from the very beginning that the Bible is from God and is God's own Word revealed to mankind. Paul declares that "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), meaning that the origin of its words is --in effect-- directly from the mouth of God himself, so that it has God's own authority in its wording and teaching. Scripture speaks as God himself, such that it is called "the very words of God" (Rom. 3:2).
In contrast to this, when we look at the leadership situation of the RCC described above in this article, the RCC maintains that their popes (along with all their top bishops) speak directly for Christ/God, and thus the pope's teachings and pronouncements ("magisterium") and church traditions have authority basically equal with the Bible.
However, there is no Biblical or early church historical justification for such a view, in saying that any individual (eg. a pope), or group of church leaders in all of history, have equal authority with the Bible. -- Such a view is not supported scripturally, nor was such a notion ever supported --or even entertained-- from what top Christian leadership universally held for the first half of church history.
Rather, the Bible is clear that it stands above and rules over all human authority. Every Christian and every Christian leader, at any level, stands subject to the authority and teaching of the Scriptures/the Word of God. As a result, the goal and task of all early church councils was not to arrive at a human concensus in their positions and teachings, but rather to determine --and to be subject to-- what the teaching of Scripture was ...because it rules over and above all human opinion. Indeed, this must continue to be the goal and task of all legitimate church authority today and through all history.
Salvation and Justification
In the Bible, when a person ultimately ends up being "saved," it means that they will end up in heaven when they die, and they will have eternal life. --However, the key thing that produces and results in a person being saved, is something called "justification." A person will be saved and have eternal life because they have been justified. But what is that?
By definition (the way the Bible uses the word) Justification is: a permanent and instantaneous legal act of God in which he declares the believer's sins and guilt to be forgiven and cleared, and God thinks of and recons Christ's perfect righteousness as belonging to the believer in Christ. So, justification is basically when a person --who has faith in Christ-- gains a right standing before God's righteous and holy judgment, so that God views and treats them as though they were as righteous as Christ ...so as a result of justification, they have eternal life.
It should be remembered, though, that God justifies the believer despite the fact that he is still struggling with sin off and on, which is why Paul says that God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5). So, the believer who so stumbles, needs to confess his sin and repent and turn from sin to get his fellowship back on track with the Lord... but this does not destroy true justification, which is eternal. --The apostle Paul clearly teaches that God "justifies him who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26), meaning that this is a person who truly trusts and relies on Christ as his Lord and God, and truly trusts in the fact that Jesus died on the cross to pay God's death penalty for their sin (Rom. 3:23).
Very important to the issue here, though, is the fact that the Bible teaches that "a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16), and "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom. 3:28). --It is true that good works of obeying God's commands must and will follow immediately after justification. However, God's act of justification comes as a result of the believer's true trust (faith) in Christ, and this occurs "apart from works" and just prior to the onset of those works of obedience. --In this way, all the glory goes to God for one's justification (& salvation), because no one can claim to be justified as a result of their works (which follow), and even a person's faith (trust in Christ) is a gift from God which does not orginate or come from the person being saved (Eph. 2:8,9).
In contrast to the biblical perspective, the traditional RC view is that justification is where something changes man to become more holy and righteous in his internal character and nature. This growing righteousness and cleansing of man's inner character is "justification" to the RCC, as their Council of Trent taught that justification is "sanctifying and renewing of the inner man" (see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.257). So, the RC position is not that justification occurs "apart from works," but that the righteous works and improvement of a man's inner character are the fabric and the energy which comprises justification. That is why to the RCC no Christian is considered to be fully justified in this present life.
To the RCC, justification results from the eventual improvement of the man being saved, --however, in the Bible, justification comes completely and only from God's action (when a person is born again by faith and trust in Christ), and then it is this completed justification which starts the betterment of the believer's character. Actually, the improvement of a man's character is called "sanctification," and should not be confused with justification. --The reason this matters, is because in the Bible, justification establishes our right standing before God so that we are saved, but in the RC system the improved and righteous man is what gains the right standing (justification) before God. This is backwards, and bases salvation on human works/merit which robs glory from God.
So, the view of the RCC is wrong, because in the Bible we are only justified and saved "by grace through faith" alone, "not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9) --though the good works must follow our justification, as a necessary and required evidence of legitimate and genuine saving faith which must produce good deeds (Jas. 2:26).
Other Roman Catholic Distinctives
Going beyond the authority issue, there are other distinctives of the RCC which we see today, such as the ideas of Purgatory, and of praying to "saints" and to Mary, and the notion of considering Mary to be the "Co-redeemer" (along with Christ). But these ideas also did not occur in the early history of the church, nor in the first half of the church's history. Rather, these are more recent man-made innovations which grew out of corruptions that developed in the middle ages in Europe. Such notions were not found in the ancient witness of the apostles, nor in the Scriptures, nor in the teaching of the early church, but were only later inventions made up by men. And since such innovations are clearly contradicted or not supported by Scripture, we are well advised to ignore or to oppose and repudiate them.
Though we really love our RC friends and admire many things about their lives and devotion, we must conclude that the RCC (and the pope in particular) does not have any ultimate authority over the lives of Christians in general ...in fact, where it goes against Scripture, it has no legitimate authority. And --in fact-- the RCC doesn't have correct teaching in various instances.
Therefore, we must encourage and urge people to judge things by the Bible since it does have supreme and final authority, and we must get our spiritual teaching and counsel from the Bible itself, and then secondarily from those who faithfully hold the Bible to be the ultimate and inerrant authority in all doctrine and Christian living and properly interpret and teach it. These sorts of people are also the types of Christian leaders who deserve the top respect and and a following from Christian believers in Jesus Christ.
So, where is the "essential heart of Christianity?" --It is solidly located in faithfulness to the inerrant Word of God, and in a genuine personal relationship to the one true God through Jesus Christ. That is the essential heart of Christianity.