Blog 185: 4.7.11 - 4.7.17

Rick Phillips

In contesting Rome's claim to universal authority over the entire Christian Church, Calvin pits the sober record of history against the fraudulent records of the papacy.  It had long been the besetting sin of Rome, Calvin asserts, to desire hegemony over all bishops, and while this is reflected in genuine writings of many Roman pontiffs, as well as in many forged documents, this was vigorously contested by all in the ancient church.

So how did Rome succeed in gaining jurisdiction over the other churches?  Calvin plots out this progression beginning with Leo the Great, pope from 440-461.  The presenting issue was the status of the patriarchy of Constantinople which, as Constantine's new imperial city, did not have pride of place as one of the original church centers.  The Church had over the years adopted the practical solution of having the ecclesial map mirror the political map of the Roman Empire, and under this approach the capitol city of Constantinople demanded a prestigious patriarchal see.  In fact, the motion was made to make Constantinople only second to Rome.  Leo opposed this, Calvin said, because he foresaw that as Constantinople grew in power and Rome waned, the eastern capitol would overtake Rome as the chief bishopric.

It was finally during the time of Gregory the Great, pope from 590-604, that Rome consolidated power in the West, and then finally under Boniface III that Rome gained acceptance as head over the other churches, in 607.  Interestingly, though Gregory was a key figure in this transition, he was himself a committed moderate.  Calvin makes much of the attitude of this most influential pope and his disinclination to assume supremacy.  During this time, the empire was "convulsed and torn", with France and Spain suffering and Northern Africa reeling.  It was natural that the weak would turn to the support of the strong, so that bishoprics that formerly resisted Roman control now were willing to compromise. Still, Gregory sought to uphold them as equals as much as possible.  As Calvin previously noted, Gregory bitterly opposed the attempt of John of Constantinople to assume headship over the whole church and heaped the most bitter vitriol against the notion of a single supreme pontiff. 
Ultimately, it was influence peddling that earned Rome the chief position among all the churches.  In 607, the emperor Phocas, who came to the imperial throne by murder, appointed Rome the chief metropolitan in return for political support.  In later generations, this same pattern would consolidate Roman power over the church, as the pope allied himself with Pepin (714-768) in his domination of France and also as the pope threw his support behind Pepin's son Charlemagne (742-814) in the forming of the new Holy Roman Empire.

As so often has been the lamentable case, historical circumstances proved to dominate the affairs of the Church more forcefully than biblical reflection.  It took nine centuries - from Boniface III to the Luther - for the Church to await biblical reform against papal supremacy.  Surely one of the lessons is for church leaders to earnestly resist historical pressures in determining the message and model for the church, since it may often require long years before a more wholesome and biblical restoration can be restored.


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