The Reformation Context (Part 5)

The Protestant Reformation did not spring up out of nowhere. It developed as a response and a response, in particular, to the major doctrinal emphases of the Roman Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages. Two main pillars of Roman Catholic dogma shaped the theological landscape on the eve of the Reformation.

Last week I explored the first of those two pillars: the RCC doctrine of salvation. This week I will explore their view of Papal Authority. The role of the Pope became a central issues in the reformation debates, understanding the doctrinal arguments for and against it will help readers to better understand the reformation movement as a whole. First, however, we should attempt to understanding something of the rise of the papacy itself.

The emergence of papal authority was slow, and its origins are not altogether very clear. The Roman Catholic Church today claims that the line of papal authority is straight, running from Peter up to the present, but the facts simply don’t support that. The lists we have of the various bishops of Rome are diverse and do not all agree. Furthermore, in the early days of the church the real focal point ecclesiological influence and numerical strength was in the Greek-speaking East, not the West. So, the churches of Antioch and Alexandria were far more important than those in Rome. Even in the West, it was North Africa that dominated the scene. It was owing to persecution and politics that Rome became so influential, and as a result the Bishop of Rome so significant.

The Roman Empire had been divided by invasions; there was the empire in the East and a very fragile contingency in the West. Waves of Germanic invaders swept across the western empire, eventually settling there. These invaders disrupted the entire way of life and the relative unity which the Empire had participated in. In time, it would be the church who restored that unity in the West. So, for example, some of the invaders were pagans whom the church converted – leading conquerors to yield to the religion of those they had conquered. Others, like the Goths, were Arian, once again, the church led the way in bringing these invaders under the umbrella of orthodoxy. In addition, the Bishop of Rome, himself, was often involved in negotiating treaties with invading armies, sometimes even keeping Rome from invasion altogether. While the Eastern Empire continued to exist, much in the same way it had, the West was fragile, and it was the church who “became the guardian of what was left of ancient civilization, as well as order and justice” (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 242).

It was Leo “the Great” who first claimed to be Peter’s direct successor. Leo is the first “Pope,” in the modern sense of that word.  His doctrinal developments helped to pave the way for later articulations of papal supremacy. Doctrine, however, was becoming a major issue dividing the churches in the East and in the West. In the Christological heresies of the time, Leo had written a major and influential document that aligned with much of the Eastern church and had come to establish orthodoxy regarding the natures of Christ. His successors, however, were an altogether different story.

Leo’s successors did not adopt his conviction on the two natures of Christ, and many stirred up trouble with Constantinople. As a result Constantinople began to assert increasing authority over Rome, and since the Emperor resided there too, often the heretical popes of Rome were dealt with harshly. They were kidnapped, exiled, and one even had his tongue cut out. There was an increasing desire among church faithful to distance themselves from Constantinople’s control. Their hopes were finally realized in the election of Gregory III.

Gregory did not wish to be pope, but pope he became (799 A.D.). As head of the church in Rome, he also became patriarch of the entire Western Empire. He saw it as his task to protect the church at large. He further developed Leo’s aforementioned arguments on direct succession from Peter. The care of the whole church had been placed into the hands of Peter’s successors at Rome. Distance between Rome and Constantinople continued to expand, and when no aid came from the East to help fight back the invading Lombards, Gregory appealed to the Franks for help. A series of political events led to Gregory declaring Frankish ruler Charles as the new Emperor of the West (800 A.D.), and Charles, in return, gave full support to the Roman Bishop. The church had created an Emperor, and now that Emperor was going to revive the church.

Charles, or Charlemagne, as he was called, viewed his role as something of a guardian and defender of the church. He established monasteries, appointed bishops, and gave control of central Italy over to the church. He restored the power of the church in the West, and united the people under a new kingdom: “The Holy Roman Empire.” The power of the papacy was a force to be reckoned with. We will see next week the impact that this made on the theological landscape.

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