Book 4 - Chapter 7 (Parts 1-2)
In the previous chapter, Calvin described how the church in Rome claimed for itself power over the church universal. In this chapter, he examines the process whereby the bishop of Rome claimed the title of Pope, or head of the church. A note: the word “see” refers to a larger church that has authority over other churches. There were five sees in the early church: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria.
Summary: The process of the Bishop of Rome seeing himself as head of the entire church, Calvin argues, was a rather lengthy and convoluted one. As the church first organized there was no differentiation between the bishop of Rome and other bishops. While the Council of Nicaea (325CE), gave the church at Rome the first seat in all future church councils (councils were official church gatherings to decide issues of doctrine), this position was merely one of honor and not power. Calvin makes this clear when he quotes the bishop of Rome referring to other bishops as “’brother’, or ‘fellow bishop’ or ‘colleague’” (pg.1121). This equality among bishops would make sense because “…the Council of Carthage forbade that anyone be called ‘prince of priests’ or ‘first bishop’, but only bishop of the prime see’” (pg. 1121). Jerome echoed this when he wrote, “If a bishop may be at Rome…he is of the same merit and priesthood (as other bishops)” (pg. 1121).
This understanding of the equality of bishops did not, however stop the bishops in Rome from slowly pursuing greater power. It began with bishops such as Leo (440-461CE) interfering in issues which were within the purview of other bishops. He did this by receiving bishops from smaller cities across the Empire who had complaints against their see. There were, as Calvin notes, several occasions when the bishops of Rome overturned rulings of other bishops, but were later forced to back down and accept the will of the other bishops. In addition, while the Roman bishop attempted to insert himself in other matters before the church, such as consecrations of bishops, he was still limited to being present and not presiding (pg.1125).
The rise of the Bishop of Rome as universal Pope accelerated under Gregory I (540-604) as the Roman Empire in the west was falling apart due to invasions by Germanic tribes. “In order that, amid such chaotic political conditions, the faith at least might remain whole, or surely might not utterly perish, all bishops on every side allied themselves more closely to the Roman pontiff. This resulted in the marked increase…of its power” (pg. 1131). Even so, Gregory not only allowed bishops to disagree with his rulings, but rejected other bishops calling him ‘’universal pope’” (pg. 1135). This changed when in 607 CE when the Roman Emperor Phocas declared “…that Rome should be the head of all churches” (pg. 1135). The dominance of the Roman see over the church universal was later reaffirmed by Charlemagne (742-814) in exchange for the Papal blessing on his installation as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Reflections: Every church and every denomination is in transition. While we might like to believe that churches ought not to change, they do. Churches are impacted by social, political and scientific forces. They are also impacted by the narratives that they tell about themselves. One of those narratives for the Roman church was that Peter had established the papacy at Rome and thus the bishop of Rome held sway over the church universal. As Calvin points out, this was not so, and in fact this belief was rejected for the first five-hundred years of the life of the church. Even so, this history helps us understand why the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) rejected the claims of the papacy and felt justified in creating a new and different kind of church.
In the previous chapter, Calvin described how the church in Rome claimed for itself power over the church universal. In this chapter, he examines the process whereby the bishop of Rome claimed the title of Pope, or head of the church. A note: the word “see” refers to a larger church that has authority over other churches. There were five sees in the early church: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Please note that the Roman church of today is not the Roman church Calvin knew.
Summary: Calvin argues that following Charlemagne’s declaration of Rome as the head of the church universal (768CE) the power of the papacy increased for two reasons. The first was that local bishops saw that they could increase their own wealth and power by aligning with Rome. The second was that they were unaware of the history and theology of the early church which had forbidden the rise of a bishop above all other bishops. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who was an influential abbot, believed that the declining morals of the papacy were a symptom of Rome’s increasingly abusive powers, “Abbots are pulled away from their bishops; bishops from their archbishops, etc. strange indeed if this can be excused! By behaving in this way, you have the fullness of power but not of righteousness” (pg. 1137).
This increasing power of the papacy led to a situation that Calvin describes in this way. “But the pontiffs themselves when they speak of their authority…declare that the power to command is in their hands while with others rests the necessity to obey; that all of their pronouncements are to be received as if confirmed by Peter’s divine voice; that provincial synods, because they do not have the pope present, have no force (that)…they leave no jurisdiction on earth to control or restrain their lust if they abuse their boundless power…this is great imperiousness for one man to set himself up as judge of all” (pg. 1138). These beliefs about the papacy were enhanced by documents, supposedly written by early bishops, asserting papal supremacy (all of which turned out to be forged). These led to the assertion, “…that the pope cannot err, that the pope is above councils, the pope is the universal bishop of all churches and the supreme head of the church on earth” (pg. 1140).
As Calvin moves toward the end of his discussion of the papacy he wants to make the argument that the pope cannot be the supreme bishop because he is not actually, by Calvin’s definition, a bishop. He argues that even if everything the Roman church says about Peter establishing the line of popes is true, “…none of these things has any value unless there be a church and a bishop at Rome...the first task of the bishop’s office is to teach the people from God’s word. The second is to administer the sacraments…Let them say, therefore in what way they would have him regarded as a bishop, who does not even in pretense touch any part of his office with his little finger” (pg. 1143). In other words, the pope, who at that time, did not serve as a pastoral bishop but as a ruler, or king, could not be a bishop because he did not serve like a bishop.
Calvin concludes with the following statement. “To bind Christ, the Spirit, and the church to a place, so that whoever may rule there, even if he be the devil, is still considered to be the vicar of Christ, and head of the church because it was once Peter’s see-this is say, is not only impious and insulting to Christ, but…absurd and alien to common sense” (pg. 1147).
Reflections: Power and the desire for it, are universal. Throughout history, men and women of almost all cultures have sought to control others; to dominate those around them. The church, has not been exempt. The medieval Roman church was but one example of this. Within the Protestant church, there have been pastors, assemblies and denominations, that wanted to place themselves above all other Christians; to declare themselves to be the only ones who speak for God. As Presbyterians, we are called to resist such tendencies and to live with humility knowing that only Christ speaks for God.