The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 10 Bishop of Rome

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

X. The Early Church and the Bishop of Rome

St. Peter in Rome

The final residence of St. Peter in Rome has been questioned, but on inadequate grounds. Babylon, as used in 1 Peter 5:13, is regarded by the early Church and the majority of biblical scholars as a code name (in light of the political situation) for Rome itself, from which this epistle was almost certainly written. Some have also thought that Romans 15:20-22 indicates the presence of another Apostle in Rome before St. Paul wrote to that church.

The Apostolic writing 1 Clement (5), written around 96 A.D. by St. Clement of Rome, implied that St. Peter, like St. Paul, was executed in the Neronian persecution in Rome. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in writing to the Romans around 110 A.D., states, “I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul . . .” (Letter to the Romans, 4,3), and St. Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies (c.199 – 3:1:2, 3:3:1), expressly affirms that these two Apostles founded the Roman church and commenced its apostolic succession.

Finally, the existence and location of the actual tomb of St. Peter and his bones – under the present St. Peter’s cathedral in the Vatican – have been strongly confirmed by archaeological excavation. (253)

St. Peter as Bishop of Rome and First Pope

It would seem to follow as a matter of course that St. Peter was the first bishop of Rome, but this particular is not as well attested in ancient documents as the fact that he was simply there, hence it is not as widely acknowledged by Protestants. Nevertheless, we possess fairly early and quite reliable evidence of Peter’s bishopric at Rome, from St. Irenaeus (already cited), St. Cyprian, c.252, who calls Rome “the Chair of Peter” (Letter to Pope Cornelius, 55), and the first Church historian, Eusebius, c.315, who writes in his History (4:1) that “Linus was the first after Peter that obtained the Episcopate of the Church of the Romans.”

Moreover, the very fact of the later strong traditions of apostolic succession and the papacy arising out of Rome, and the early cultus of veneration of Peter and Paul there, provide further quite strong proofs of what is now the Catholic position, held as dogma. For historical traditions, as a rule, do not arise out of sheer myths or hearsay, but as a result of actual historical events, considered unassailable by the early proponents (for example, Moses receiving the Commandments and Jesus’ Resurrection).

Given the accepted fact that Peter was in Rome, and granting his general extraordinary preeminence in the early Church, it does not require too great of a leap to deduce Peter’s bishopric in Rome (that is, a primitive papacy which later developed with his successors). So certain was the early Church on this score that no one denied Peter’s Episcopate in Rome until the heretical Waldenses in the fourteenth century (a strong proof in and of itself). None of the Eastern Orthodox churches or various heretical groups such as the Nestorians and Monophysites, which seceded from Rome up through the eleventh century ever denied it (doing so would have provided a feasible theological justification for their separation, but they knew it was an impossible argument to carry off).

The General Notion of the Primacy of the Church of Rome

Rome almost immediately acquired a leading position among the first churches at the dawn of Christianity, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 A.D. It was the only western church to receive a letter from an Apostle (St. Paul), and both Peter and Paul were martyred there, thus bringing about shrines and pilgrimages, and the perception of Rome as “holy ground.” Most of the earliest prominent Christians went there (Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, etc.).

Christians everywhere soon came to believe that the apostolic tradition preserved at Rome was particularly trustworthy, and could not be disagreed with by conflicting traditions. Rome had far and away the best record of avoiding the numerous heresies which constantly arose (especially with hindsight), and eventually it came to be widely acknowledged that Rome’s singular orthodoxy was the result of a divine protection accorded the pope and his see, as derived from Jesus’ commission to St. Peter. (254) It was also probably the largest Christian congregation by the year 100, and was renowned for its generosity (see Romans 1:8). It soon became customary to refer to Rome as the “apostolic see.”

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), the theologically liberal Church historian and theologian, regarded by some as the most outstanding authority of his generation on the Church Fathers and early Christian literature (255), wrote in his famous treatise History of Dogma, concerning the first letter of St. Clement, bishop of Rome, written to the Corinthians, that it:

. . . proves that, by the end of the first century, the Roman Church had already drawn up fixed rules for her own guidance, that she watched with motherly care over outlying communities, and that she then knew how to use language that was at once an expression of duty, love, and authority. (256)

St. Francis de Sales, who was vigorously engaged in an effort to win back the Calvinists and other Protestants to the Catholic faith at the end of the 16th century, summarized the evidences for the primacy of the pope and Rome in early Christianity:

St. Peter died Bishop of Rome – therefore the diocese of Rome was the last seat of the head of the Church: therefore the Bishop of Rome who came after the death of St. Peter, succeeded to the head of the Church, and consequently was head of the Church. Some one might say that he succeeded the head of the Church as to the bishopric of Rome, but not as to the kingship of the world. But such a one must show that St. Peter had two sees, of which one was for Rome, the other for the universe, which was not the case . . . Hence, the Bishop of Rome remained general lieutenant in the Church, and successor of St. Peter . . .At the Council of Nicea, at those of Constantinople and Chalcedon, it is not seen that any bishop usurps the primacy for himself: it is attributed, according to ancient custom, to the Pope; no other is named in equal degree. In short, never was it said, either certainly or doubtfully, of any bishop in the first five hundred years that he was head or superior over the rest, except of the Bishop of Rome; about him indeed it was never doubted, but was held as settled that he was such. On what ground, then, after fifteen hundred years passed, would one cast doubt on this ancient tradition? I should never end were I to try to catalogue all the assurances and repetitions of this truth which we have in the Ancients’ writings. (257)

Finally, James Cardinal Gibbons catalogues the impressive and undeniably preeminent record of Rome and the popes in the early centuries of the Catholic Church:

The Popes have always, from the days of the Apostles, continued to exercise supreme jurisdiction not only in the Western Church till the Reformation, but also throughout the Eastern Church till the great schism of the ninth century.First – Take the question of appeals. An appeal is never made from a superior to an inferior court . . . Now, if we find the See of Rome from the foundation of Christianity entertaining and deciding cases of appeal from the Oriental churches; if we find that her decision was final and irrevocable, we must conclude that the supremacy of Rome over all the churches is an undeniable fact.

Let me give you a few illustrations: . . .

About the year 190 the question regarding the proper day for celebrating Easter was agitated in the East, and referred to Pope St. Victor I . . . St. Victor directs the Eastern churches, for the sake of uniformity, to conform to the practice of the West, and his instructions are universally followed . . .

Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, about the middle of the third century, having heard that the Patriarch of Alexandria erred on some points of faith, demands an explanation of the suspected Prelate, who, in obedience to his superior, promptly vindicates his own orthodoxy.

St. Athanasius, the great patriarch of Alexandria, appeals in the fourth century to Pope Julius I, from an unjust decision rendered against him by the Oriental Bishops, and the Pope reverses the sentence of the Eastern Council.

St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea, in the same century has recourse in his afflictions to the protection of Pope Damasus.

St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, appeals in the beginning of the fifth century to Pope Innocent I for a redress of grievances inflicted on him by several Eastern Prelates, and by the Empress Eudoxia of Constantinople.

St. Cyril appeals to Pope Celestine against Nestorius; Nestorius, also, appeals to the same Pontiff, who takes the side of Cyril . . .

We see Prelates most eminent for their sanctity and learning occupying the highest position in the Eastern Church, and consequently far removed from the local influences of Rome, appealing in every period of the early Church from the decisions of their own Bishops and their Councils to the supreme arbitration of the Holy See. If this does not constitute superior jurisdiction, I have yet to learn what superior authority means . . .

[Finally] I shall refer to one more historical point in support of the Pope’s jurisdiction over the whole Church. It is a most remarkable fact that every nation hitherto converted from Paganism to Christianity since the days of the Apostles, has received the light of faith from missionaries who were either especially commissioned by the See of Rome, or sent by Bishops in open communion with that See. This historical fact admits of no exception. Let me particularize.

Ireland’s Apostle is St. Patrick. Who commissioned him? Pope St. Celestine, in the fifth century.

St. Palladius is the Apostle of Scotland. Who sent him? The same Pontiff, Celestine.

The Anglo-Saxons received the faith from St. Augustine, a Benedictine monk, as all historians, Catholic and non-Catholic, testify. Who empowered Augustine to preach? Pope Gregory I, at the end of the sixth century.

St. Remigius established the faith in France, at the close of the fifth century. He was in active communion with the See of Peter.

Flanders received the Gospel in the seventh century from St. Eligius, who acknowledged the supremacy of the reigning Pope.

Germany and Bavaria venerate as their Apostle St. Boniface, who is popularly known in his native England by his baptismal name of Winfrid. He was commissioned by Pope Gregory II, in the beginning of the eighth century, and was consecrated Bishop by the same Pontiff.

In the ninth century two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, evangelized Russia, Sclavonia, Moravia and other parts of Northern Europe. They recognized the supreme authority of Pope Nicholas I and of his successors, Adrian II and John VIII.

All the other nations of Europe, having been converted before the Reformation, received likewise the light of faith from Roman Catholic Missionaries , because Europe then recognized only one Christian Chief . . . (258)

Western Church Fathers (Generally Latin-Speaking) and the PapacySt. Clement of Rome, in his Letter to the Corinthians, dated at about 80 A.D.,
makes a remarkably “authoritative” statement:

We have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you . . . If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. (259)

Max Lackmann, a Lutheran, comments on this letter of St. Clement:

Clement, as the spokesman of the whole People of God . . . admonishes the Church of Corinth in serious, authoritative and brotherly tones to correct the internal abuses of their ecclesiastical community. He censures, exhorts, cautions, entreats . . .The use of the expression send back in the statement: Send back speedily unto us our messengers (1 Clement 65,1), is not merely a special kind of biblical phrase but also a form of Roman imperial command. The Roman judge in a province of the empire sent back a messenger or a packet of documents to the imperial capital or to the court of the emperor (Acts 25:21). Clement of Rome doubtless also knew this administrative terminology of the imperial government and used it effectively. (260)

St. Irenaeus, writing between 180 and 199, makes a very influential and well-known proclamation:

. . . Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church . . . the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.The blessed Apostles, having founded and built up the Church, they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy [2 Timothy 4:21]. To him succeeded Anencletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate . . .

In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. (261)

St. Cyprian, writing in the middle of the third century, strongly affirms the papacy and Roman primacy:

It is on one man that He builds the Church . . . In order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authority a source for that unity, which takes its beginning from one man alone. Indeed, the other Apostles were that also which Peter was, being endowed with an equal portion of dignity and power; but the origin is grounded in unity, so that it may be made clear that there is but one Church of Christ. (262)With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy [that is, faithlessness] to have entrance. (263)

In the fourth century, still up to a hundred years before many Protestants contend that the papacy even existed, Pope St. Julius I and Pope St. Damasus I express themselves in the following eminently “papal” terms:

If, then, any such suspicion rested upon the bishop there [that is, St. Athanasius, in Alexandria], notice of it ought to have been written to the Church here. But now, after they have done as they pleased, they want to obtain our concurrence, although we never condemned him. Not thus are the constitutions of Paul, not thus the traditions of the Fathers. This is another form of procedure, and a novel practice. I beseech you, bear with me willingly: what I write about this is for the common good. For what we have received from the blessed Apostle Peter, these things I signify to you. (264)The holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church . . . (265)

In the same century, St. Optatus of Milevis testifies:

You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head . . . of all the Apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. (266)

St. Ambrose likewise approves of this state of affairs:

We recognized in the letter of your holiness the vigilance of the good shepherd. You faithfully watch over the gate entrusted to you, and with pious solicitude you guard Christ’s sheepfold, you that are worthy to have the Lord’s sheep hear and follow you. Since you know the sheep of Christ you will easily catch the wolves and confront them like a wary shepherd. (267)Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal. (268)

St. Jerome, the greatest biblical scholar of his time, concurs also:

The Church depends equally on all [the Apostles] . . . but one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division. (269)Since the East tears into pieces the Lord’s coat . . . therefore by me is the chair of Peter to be consulted, and that faith which is praised by the Apostle’s mouth . . . From the Priest I ask the salvation of the victim, from the Shepherd the protection of the sheep . . . I court not the Roman height: I speak with the succesor of the Fisherman and the disciple of the Cross. I, who follow none as my chief but Christ, am associated in communion with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. On that rock the Church is built, I know. (270)

If any be joined to Peter’s chair he is mine. (271)

St. Augustine, generally regarded by Catholics and Protestants alike as the greatest Church Father, writing in the late fourth and early fifth century, leaves no doubt as to his position on this matter:

If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it. Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement, Clement by Anacletus, Anacletus by Evaristus . . . (272)[On this matter of the Pelagians] two Councils have already been sent to the Apostolic See [Rome]; and from there rescripts too have come. The matter is at an end; would that the error too might sometime be at an end. (273)

The succession of priests, from the very see of the Apostle Peter, to whom our Lord, after His resurrection, gave the charge of feeding His sheep, up to the present episcopate, keeps me here [in the Catholic Church]. And at last, the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called Catholic, when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house. (274)

In the fifth century, Pope St. Innocent I decrees:

Following the examples of ancient tradition, . . . you have acknowledged that judgment is to be referred to us, and have shown that you know what is owed to the Apostolic See . . .The Fathers . . . did not regard anything as finished, even though it was the concern of distant and remote provinces, until it had come to the notice of this See, so that what was a just pronouncement might be confirmed by the total authority of this See, and thence other Churches – just as all waters proceed from their own natal source and . . . remain pure liquids of an incorrupted head – might take up what they ought to teach. (275)

Pope St. Celestine I, writing in 431 to his legates (representatives or ambassadors) at the ecumenical Council of Ephesus held that year, commands them:

We enjoin upon you the necessary task of guarding the authority of the Apostolic See. And if the instructions handed you have to mention this and if you have to be present in the assembly, if it comes to controversy, it is not yours to join the fight, but to judge of their opinions. (276)

In his Third Letter to Illyrian Bishops, he declares:

We have special anxiety about all persons because on us, in the holy apostle Peter, Christ conferred the necessity of making all men our care, when he gave him the keys of opening and shutting. (277)

Finally, Pope St. Leo the Great, who reigned from 440 to 461, considered by many Protestant and secular historians as the first pope, spoke perhaps more clearly than anyone up to that time concerning Roman primacy and papal duties, prerogatives, and supremacy, yet – as we have seen – his views were merely the culmination and more advanced development of what had been the essential beliefs of the universal (that is, Catholic) Church from the beginning:

The Lord . . . wanted His gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as if from the head, in such a way that anyone who had dared to separate himself from the solidarity of Peter would realize that he was himself no longer a sharer in the divine mystery . . .The Apostolic See . . . has on countless occasions been reported to in consultation by bishops . . . And through the appeal of various cases to this see, decisions already made have been either revoked or confirmed, as dictated by longstanding custom. (278)

Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed Apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others . . .

The care of the universal Church would converge one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head. (279)

From the whole world only one, Peter, is chosen to preside over the calling of all nations, and over all the other Apostles, and over the Fathers of the Church . . . Peter . . . rules them all, of whom, too, it is Christ who is their chief ruler. (280)

Eastern Church Fathers (Generally Greek-Speaking) and the PapacySt. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Roman church around 110 A.D., asserts:

You have envied no one; but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force. (281)

Origen, writing in the first half of the third century, also acknowledges the preeminence of St. Peter:

Peter, upon whom is built the Church of Christ . . . (282)Look at the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church! (283)

In the fourth century, St. Ephraim exclaims:

Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples . . . I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures! (284)Kephas . . . the head of the Apostles who received the power of the keys and is taken for the shepherd of the flock . . . (285)

St. Basil the Great, one of the most revered Fathers in the east among the Eastern Orthodox, asked Pope Damasus I (reigned 366-384) to arbitrate between the churches in present-day Turkey (Asia Minor), and decide which side would be in communion with the pope:

We are in no wise asking anything new, but what was customary with blessed and religious men of former times, and especially with yourself. For we know, by tradition of our fathers . . . that Dionysius [a pope who reigned from 259-269], that most blessed Bishop, while he was eminent among you for orthodoxy and other virtues, sent letters of visitation to our Church at Caesarea, and of consolation to our fathers, with ransomers of our brethren from captivity. (286)

St. Gregory Nazianzen affirms:

The faith [of Rome] was of old, and still is now, right, binding the whole West by the saving word: as is just in her who presides over all, reverencing the whole harmony of God. (287)

St. Epiphanius has full confidence in the primacy of St. Peter and the popes:

[It is my] prayer to unite myself to you [the pope] and to embrace the divine dogmas that had been handed down by tradition from the blessed and holy disciples and apostles of God, especially from Peter the chief of the apostles, to your holy see. (288)

In 342 and 343, the Council of Sardica (Sofia, Bulgaria) was held in order to solve disputes between east and west, such as that concerning St. Athanasius. About 90 western bishops and 80 eastern bishops were present. In its Canons 3, 4, and 5, it expressly sanctioned the right to appeal to Rome and the pope for judgment. Canon 4 reads in part:

If some bishop be deposed by the judgment of the bishops sitting in the neighborhood, and if he declare that he will seek further redress, another should not be appointed to his see until the bishop of Rome can be acquainted with the case and render a judgment. (289)

St. John Chrysostom (c.344-407) was not only the greatest preacher in the history of eastern Christianity, and perhaps revered above any other Church Father by the Eastern Orthodox, who utilize exclusively his liturgy in their worship, but also the most eloquent and vociferous witness in the east for the divinely-ordained papacy. He called St. Peter the “mouth of the apostles,” the “conductor of the apostolic choir,” and the “ruler of the entire world.” St. Peter was designated by Christ to preside over “the see of the world because he entrusted him with the care of the whole world.” Peter was to “receive the government of the world.” As to why Jesus questioned Peter three times whether he loved Him, and commanded him to feed and tend His sheep (John 21:15-17), Chrysostom states:

The master asked those questions so that he might teach us how much at heart he has the headship over these sheep. (290)

In the fifth century, Socrates, a Greek Church historian from Constantinople, gives the following telling testimony in his Church History:

The ecclesiastical canon forbids the churches to make ordinances against the mind of the bishop of Rome. (291)

Likewise, fellow eastern Church historian Sozomen , who was from Palestine and later settled in Constantinople, wrote about Pope Julius I, that “. . .he has the solicitude for all because of the dignity of his see,” and cites “a priestly law, annulling whatever is done against the mind of the bishop of Rome.” (292)

Theodoret of Cyrrhus confesses:

For that holy see has precedence of all churches in the world for many reasons; and above all for this, that it is free of all taint of heresy, and that no bishop of false opinions has ever sat upon its throne, but it has kept the grace of the apostles undefiled. (293)

In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662), arguably the greatest mystical and ascetic theologian of the eastern Christian tradition (and venerated as such by the Orthodox), echoes the same beliefs about papal and Roman supremacy:

All in every part . . . who purely and rightly confess the Lord, look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and its confession and faith, as it were to a sun of unfailing light, awaiting from it the bright radiance of our fathers . . . For from the coming down of the Incarnate Word among us, all the churches in every part of the world have possessed that greatest church alone as their base and foundation, seeing that, according to the promise of Christ Our Savior, the gates of hell do never prevail against it, that it possesses the Keys of right confession and faith in Him, that it opens the true and only religion to such as approach with piety, and shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks injustice against the Most High. (294)

St. Theodore of Studios (759-826), one of the most influential and highly-regarded monastic reformers in the east, entirely concurs with St. Maximus:

I witness before God and men that the iconoclasts departed from the body of Christ and from the supreme heavenward throne in which Christ placed the keys of the faith, against which the gates of hell, that is, the mouths of heretics, have not so far prevailed and shall not prevail because the promise was made by the One who does not deceive. Let therefore the most blessed and apostolic [Pope] Paschal, worthy of his name, rejoice because he had fulfilled the function of the office of Peter. (295)

Despite all of this overwhelming, compelling evidence of the Fathers’ and the Christian Church’s views on the nature and function of the papacy (east and west alike), Eastern Orthodoxy continues to maintain that the pope possesses only a “primacy of honor,” as opposed to supremacy and headship over the Church universal (not to mention infallibility). (296) And, of course, Protestantism, with few exceptions, denies even papal primacy. That this was not the view of the early Church (nor of the Bible itself) has been amply demonstrated. Therefore, it must be respectfully maintained that Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism – not Catholicism – have departed from ancient, apostolic Tradition in this matter.

Yet more corroboration of Catholic papal claims is to be found in the record of the ecumenical Councils of the Church, the first seven of which are fully accepted by the Eastern Orthodox as authoritative, indeed “infallible.” (297) Many Protestants (especially Anglicans and Lutherans) acknowledge at least the first four as having some sort of authority or importance for the development of Christian theology. It is to these Councils which we now turn in our historical survey:

Ecumenical Councils and the Papacy

James Cardinal Gibbons and the eminent British Church historian Philip Hughes summarize the relationship of popes to ecumenical Councils:

Ecumenical Councils afford another eloquent vindication of Papal supremacy. An Ecumenical or General Council is an assemblage of Prelates representing the whole Catholic Church . . .I shall speak briefly of the important influence which the Holy See exercised in the eight Oriental Councils [that is, the first eight] . . .

The Bishops of Rome convoked these assemblages, or at least consented to their convocation; they presided by their legates over all of them, except the first and second Councils of Constantinople, and they confirmed all these eight by their authority. Before becoming a law the Acts of the Councils required the Pope’s signature . . .

Is not this a striking illustration of the Primacy? The Pope convenes, rules and sanctions the Synods, not by courtesy, but by right. A dignitary who calls an assembly together, who presides over its deliberations, whose signature is essential for confirming its Acts has surely a higher authority than the other members. (298)

In no council has it been moved that the bishop of X be promoted to the place of the Bishop of Rome, or that the Bishop of Rome’s views be disregarded, and held of no more account than those of the bishop of any other major see . . . The mist of antiquity, at times, no doubt obscures our view, but through the mist at its worst the general shape is ever discernible of a Roman Primacy universally recognised, and submitted to, albeit (at times) unwillingly – recognised and submitted to because, so the bishops believed, it was set up by God Himself . . .

The suggestion that an emperor has, or ever had, a role to play is incredible, save to the ecclesiastical archaeologist. But the pope was always all-important in the General Council, from the beginning. From the time of the first council whose history is at all really known to us in detail – Ephesus – although the emperor may call the council, and the pope assent to and support his initiative, it is the pope who, before the council meets, decides the point of belief, who directs the bishops of the council that this is the truth, and that it is not to be called into question: Celestine I in 431, Leo I in 451, Agatho in 680. (299)

Council of Nicaea (325)

Canon Six of this Council suggests a papal primacy, since Roman “custom” appears to be regarded as normative for the Church as a whole:

Let the ancient custom which is followed in Egypt and Libya and the Pentapolis remain in force, by which the Bishop of Alexandria has the supervision of all those places, since this is also the custom of the Bishop of Rome. (300)

Council of Constantinople (381)

This Council was neither originally planned as, nor regarded as, an ecumenical Council, since it consisted of 150 eastern bishops and no Latin bishops, and was intended to straighten out problems in the east. In its Canon 4, the Council proclaimed: “The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because his city is New Rome.” (301) Pope Leo the Great later rejected this Canon (after it was confirmed illegitimately by eastern Fathers at the Council of Chalcedon in 451) on grounds that it was contrary to the “principle of apostolicity” (as Constantinople had no apostolic background whatsoever), and was compromised by the “principle of accommodation” (whereby political happenstance and expedience were placed in an inordinately lofty position vis-a-vis the Church – a tendency often known as “caesaropapism,” under the spell of which eastern Christianity has constantly fallen prey). Constantinople was the seat of the Byzantine Emperor, but this, reasoned Leo and the Catholic Church, had little to do with apostolic or ecclesiastical preeminence. Nevertheless, at least this all-eastern Council still acknowledged the “primacy” of the pope. It was later acknowledged as an ecumenical Council by Pope Gregory the Great (who reigned from 590-604), although the Canons continued to be rejected by Rome.

Council of Ephesus (431)

St. Cyril of Alexandria, as noted in the Council records, was “taking the place of Celestine, the most holy and most reverend chief-bishop of the church of the Romans.” (302) The other bishops are merely mentioned by name and see (Celestine / Cyril was at the head of the list). Cyril had already consulted the pope for his verdict on the Nestorian heresy. Pope Celestine’s legates declared at the Council without opposition:

There is no doubt, it has been known to all centuries, that the holy and blessed Apostle Peter, the prince and head and pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ . . . He [Peter] lives even to this time, and always in his successors gives judgment. (303)

The Council of Ephesus, in its sentence of deposition against the heresiarch Nestorius, declares:

Whereas . . . we being necessarily compelled by the sacred canons and by the letter of our most holy Father and colleague, Bishop Celestine, Bishop of the Roman Church, with many tears, have arrived at this sad sentence against him. (304)

The Council Fathers then proclaimed:

Celestine is the new Paul. Cyril is the new Paul. Celestine is the guardian of the faith. Celestine agrees with the council. There is one Celestine, one Cyril, one faith of the council, one faith of the world-wide church. (305)

Council of Chalcedon (451)

In this Council, it has been said that the east gave its greatest recognition ever to papal supremacy, for Pope Leo the Great was acknowledged by all parties as the “pillar of orthodoxy” and upholder of the true Christian faith. John Henry Cardinal Newman gives an overview of its proceedings:

The Council . . . was attended by the largest number of Bishops of any Council before or since; some say as many as six hundred and thirty. Of these, only four came from the West, two Roman Legates and two Africans.Its proceedings were opened by the Pope’s Legates, who said that they had it in charge from the Bishop of Rome, which is the head of all the Churches, to demand that Dioscorus should not sit, on the ground that he had presumed to hold a Council without the authority of the Apostolic See, which had never been done nor was lawful to do. This was immediately allowed them.

The next act of the Council was to give admission to Theodoret, who had been deposed at the Latrocinium. The Imperial officers present urged his admission, on the ground that the most holy Archbishop Leo hath restored him to the Episcopal office, and the most pious Emperor hath ordered that he should assist at the holy Council . . .

In the second Session . . . the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople was read; then some of the Epistles of St. Cyril; lastly, St. Leo’s Tome . . . At length the Bishops cried out, This is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Apostles: we all believe thus; the orthodox believe thus; anathema to him who does not believe thus. Peter has spoken through Leo; the Apostles taught thus. . .

Dioscorus was tried and condemned; sentence was pronounced against him by the Pope’s Legates, and ran thus: The most holy Archbishop of Rome, Leo, through us and this present Council, with the Apostle St. Peter, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church and of the orthodox faith, deprives him of the Episcopal dignity and every sacerdotal ministry . . .

The Council, after its termination, addressed a letter to St. Leo; in it the Fathers acknowledge him as constituted interpreter of the voice of Blessed Peter, (with an allusion to St. Peter’s Confession in Matthew 16) and speak of him as the very one commissioned with the guardianship of the Vine by the Saviour. (306)

After the Council had completed its work, Pope Leo received two extraordinary letters: The Letter of the Patriarchs to Pope Leo the Great reads in part:

You have indeed preserved the faith, which has come down to us like a golden stream flowing at the command of our divine Teacher . . . You have poured forth upon the universe the blessings he [Peter] elicited by his faith. Hence we have looked to you as to the leader of our religion to our great advantage. You indeed, as the head among the members, presided here in the person of your representatives, who led the way by their correct counsel. (307)

Likewise, the Letter of Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople, to Leo:

This decree the holy synod and we have referred to your Holiness in order to obtain from you approval and confirmation . . . For the throne of Constantinople has your apostolic throne as its father. (308)

Third Council of Constantinople (680-681)

Historian Philip Hughes describes the proceedings of this Council:

It was the [papal] legates who opened the proceedings. Beginning with a reference to the dissensions of the last forty-six years [the Monothelite heresy] . . ., all these, they said, had been due to the acts of various patriarchs of Constantinople [Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter; also Cyrus of Alexandria] . . .At . . . the fourth session [November 15, 680] the patriarch of Constantinople asked that the letter of Pope Agatho to the emperor be read, and the profession of faith which the 125 bishops had signed. This was assented to, these bulky treatises were read out, and Agatho’s authoritative statement of the traditional faith, modelled on the Tome of St. Leo, was greeted with shouts that recall the triumphs of 451: It is Peter who is speaking through Agatho . . .

[In the] eighth session, March 7 [681], The emperor put the question point-blank to the patriarch of Constantinople, whether the doctrine of the passages, as actually found in the Fathers and in the General Councils [concerning the wills of Christ], tallied with the letter of Agatho and the profession of faith of the western bishops. The patriarch answered that all this mass of testimony did indeed bear out that what Agatho taught was the truth of the matter, and so I profess and believe, he said. And all the bishops present, save a handful, assented likewise . . . The schism of recent years . . . was ended. (309)

In a letter to Emperor Constantine IV afterwards, the bishops described Pope Agatho in many ways which suggest that they believed in his supremacy, using terms like “our most blessed father, and most high pope, the Prince of the Apostles . . . his imitator and the successor to his chair.” They concluded that “through Agatho it was Peter who was speaking.” (310) They also wrote to the pope himself, addressing him as occupying “the first see of the universal Church,” and “the chiefest head of the Apostles.” (311) The emperor, in his edict to the people, declared that the true faith had “been preserved untainted by Peter, the rock of the faith, the head of the Apostles; in this faith we live and reign.” (312) Lastly, the emperor wrote to Pope Leo II, Agatho’s sucessor:

With the eyes of our understanding we saw it as if it were the very ruler of the Apostolic choir, the first chair, Peter himself, declaring the mystery of the whole dispensation, and addressing Christ by this letter . . . for his holy letter described in word for us the whole Christ. We all received it willingly and sincerely, and embraced it, as though the letter were Peter himself . . . Glory be to God, who does wondrous things, Who has kept safe the faith among you unharmed. For how should He not do so [with regard to] that rock on which He founded His church, and prophesied that the gates of hell, all the ambushes of heretics, should not prevail against it? From it, as from the vault of heaven, the word of the true confession flashed forth, and . . . brought warmth to frozen orthodoxy . . . (313)

Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-70)

This Council adopted, almost verbatim, the Formula of Pope Hormisdas, a statement which had been signed by some 250 Eastern bishops in 519, thus putting to an end the Acacian schism (484-519). The Formula states, among other things:

Since we cannot pass over the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who says, Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, what was said is confirmed by facts, because in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved immaculate, and holy doctrine has been proclaimed. Not wishing, then, to be separated from this faith and doctrine, we hope to merit to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See preaches, in which See is the full and true solidity of the Christian religion. (314)

Thoughts on the Myth of Mass Patristic “Apostasy”The virtual universality of patristic views on doctrines like infused justification, regenerative baptism and an “ultra-realistic” or literal Eucharist would suggest, I think, that perhaps the so-called “Catholic”-type views were present in kernel or explicitly in the apostolic deposit itself, so that there would then not be a scenario of “throwing biblical / apostolic doctrines out the window.”

The Protestant habitually assumes (oftentimes without having examined both sides of a debate) that certain things are “not biblical”; therefore not “apostolic” – which supposedly “proves” that they were much later additions (corruptions). So when they see “Catholic” notions held en masse by Fathers, they immediately conclude, based on their erroneous premise, that the Fathers committed mass (albeit mysterious and inexplicable) apostasy from the original pure apostolic teaching. Hence the existence of “mass apostasy myths” in groups such as the anti-Catholic wings of the Reformed and Anglicanism, Church of Christ, Landmark Baptists, 7th-Day Adventists, etc. (as well as in cults like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses).

The Catholic response is development, development, and development, in that order. Some things are present implicitly in Scripture only, but they are there, and we don’t totally know all the oral parts of the Tradition which were passed down. But we know there was a lot, based on biblical verses such as Mark 6:34 (where the “many things” Jesus taught were not recorded), John 16:12, John 20:30, and 21:25.

In just one day, the amount of teaching one could have heard from Jesus or Paul would have been enormous, sometimes perhaps more lengthy in number of words than the entire New Testament. I think of, e.g., Jesus’ talk with the disciples on the road to Emmaus – see esp. Luke 24:27 – oh, to have been there! So there could have been much teaching of that sort which was part of the apostolic deposit, which could later be developed along with everything else in Christianity, and could easily account for “Catholic stuff” appearing seemingly full-blown in the early Fathers, while not so explicit in Holy Scripture.

Those who believe in the Big Apostasy either right after the Bible or in 313 or with Leo the Great in 440 (or whatever arbitrary date they choose) have to come up with some scenario to explain how the Fathers thought and viewed things and became so rapidly “unbiblical” and “unProtestant” (Protestantism being identical to “biblical,” of course). None of these scenarios are very plausible at all.

FOOTNOTES (The Papacy)

253. See Walsh, John Evangelist, The Bones of St. Peter, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1985.
254. Jaroslav Pelikan, a prominent Lutheran historian of Christian doctrine, calls Rome’s record of orthodoxy “spotless (or nearly spotless)” (in The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974, 148).
255. Cross, F.L. & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODC), Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 620.
256. von Harnack, Adolf, History of Dogma, tr. N. Buchanan, London: Williams & Norgate, 1896, 2nd ed., vol.2, 1556.
257. St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy, tr. Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1989 (orig. 1596), 279,284.
258. Gibbons, James Cardinal, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, 90-91,93-95.
259. Letter to Corinthians, 1,1; 59,1. From: Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 7,12.
260. In Asmussen, Hans, et al, The Unfinished Reformation, tr. Robert J. Olsen, Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers Assoc., 1961, 84-85.
261. Against Heresies, 3,1,1; 3,3,2-3; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 89-90.
262. The Unity of the Catholic Church, 4; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 220-221.
263. Letter to Pope Cornelius, 59 (55), 14; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 232.
264. Letter to Eusebian Bishops of Antioch, 22; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 346.
265. Decree of Damasus, (From Council of Rome in 382), 3; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 406.
266. The Schism of the Donatists, 2,2; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 140.
267. Synodal Letter of Ambrose, Sabinus, Bassian & Others to Pope Siricius, 42,1; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 148.
268. Commentaries on Twelve of David’s Psalms, 40,30; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 150.
269. Against Jovinian, 1,26; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 199.
270. Epistle 15 (writing to Pope Damasus); cited from Newman, John Henry, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845; rev. 1878), Part 2, ch. 6, sec. 3, no. 8.
271. Epistle 16; Newman, ibid.
272. Letter to Generosus, 53,1,2 (c.400); Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 2.
273. Sermon 131,10; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 28 (emphasis added). The two Councils were held at Carthage and Milevis. The rescripts came from Pope Innocent I.
274. Against the Letter of Mani Called The Foundation, 4,5 (written in 397); Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 51.
275. Letter to the Council of Carthage, 29,1; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 181-182.
276. Letter to the Papal Legates, 17; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 184.
277. Third Letter to Illyrian Bishops, in Migne, Latin Fathers, 50:428; cited in Jaki, Stanley, The Keys of the Kingdom, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986, 190.
278. Letter to the Bishops of Vienne, 10,1-2; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 269.
279. Letter to Bishop Anastasius of Thessalonica, 14,11; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 270.
280. Sermons, 4,2; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 275.
281. Letter to the Romans, 3,1; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 21.
282. Commentaries on John, 5,3; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 202.
283. Homilies on Exodus, 5,4; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 205.
284. Homilies, 4,1; Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 311.
285. Against Heresies, Sermo 56; in Jaki, ibid., 85.
286. Cited in Newman, ibid., Part 1, ch. 4, sec. 3, no. 12.
287. Carmen de vita sua, 568-72; cited in Benson, Robert Hugh, The Religion of the Plain Man, Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press, 1906, 113.
288. Avellan Collection, 195,3; cited in Pelikan, ibid., Vol. 2 of 5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, [Lutheran], 150.
289. In Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 308.
290. All Chrysostom quotes and information from: Chapman, Dom John, Studies
on the Early Papacy, London: Sheed & Ward, 1928, ch. 4: “St. Chrysostom on St. Peter.”
291. Socrates’ Church History, from Migne, Greek Fathers, 67:196. Socrates was describing the Synod of Antioch in 341, and noted that it had no representatives of the Roman see. Cited in Empie, Paul C. & T. Austin Murphy, Papal Primacy & the Universal Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1974, 236. This book is the result of a joint official project of Lutheran and Catholic scholars.
292. Sozomen’s Church History (3,10); from Empie, ibid., 236.
293. Epistle 116 of Theodoret, from Migne, Greek Fathers, 83:1324-5; cited in Empie, Paul C., T. Austin Murphy & Joseph A. Burgess, Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1980, 349 (another of the series of fruitful Lutheran-Catholic dialogues).
294. Cited by James Likoudis in Baram, Robert, Spiritual Journeys, Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, rev. ed., 1988, 206-207; primary source from Migne, Greek Fathers, 91,137 ff.
295. Letter to Naveratius (Ep. 63), from Migne, Greek Fathers, 98:1281; cited in Jaki, ibid., 171.
296. See, e.g., Ware, Timothy (Archbishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, rev. ed., 1980, 35-36,55,57. Perhaps the best Orthodox treatment of St. Peter and the papacy is The Primacy of Peter, ed. John Meyendorff, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, rev. ed., 1992. Yet the historical data here outlined is scarcely taken into account in this book.
297. Ware, ibid., 43, 210.
298. Gibbons, ibid., 93-94.
299. Hughes, Philip, The Church ln Crisis: A History of the General Councils: 325-1870 (HGC), Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961, 16-17, 154.
300. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 283.
301. Ibid., 400.
302. Hughes, HGC, 70.
303. In Most, William G., Catholic Apologetics Today, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1986, 92.
304. Cited in Benson, ibid. , 116; from Mansi, 4, 1212.
305. Hughes, HGC, 71.
306. Newman, ibid., Part 2, ch. 6, sec. 3, nos. 11-12,14.
307. In Englert, Clement C., Catholics and Orthodox: Can They Unite?, NY: Paulist Press, 1961, 99.
308. Works of St. Leo, Ep.101,5; cited in Benson, ibid., 117.
309. Hughes, HGC, 148-150.
310. Ibid., 154-155.
311. Ibid., 155.
312. Ibid., 156.
313. Ibid., 156.
314. In Gibbons, ibid., 104.



About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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