Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Rise of the Papacy


If you are anything like me when you hear the term “Pope” you think of an old guy in a dress with a pointy hat. However, around 1500 years ago when someone heard the term “Pope” they began to think of the Bishop of Rome. Surprisingly Shelley points out that,

“The term pope itself is not crucial in the emergence of the doctrine of papal primacy. The title “papa” originally expressed the fatherly care of any and every bishop of his flock. It only began to be reserved for the bishop of Rome in the sixth century, long after the claim of primacy.”[1]

Even though the definition points out that the root word for pope started with the term papa and was used of every bishop, how did we ever reach a place where one man would claim to have all authority over the church? There are many factors that lead up to the Rome playing an important part in the church and Hill points out,

“The Council of Chalcedon had decreed that there were five dioceses with special authority, the seats of the patriarchs—Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. But apart from Rome, all of these cities were in the eastern half of the empire. So from the fourth century onwards, as the two halves became increasingly politically and culturally distinct, the easterners had four apostolic sees to appeal to, while the westerners had only one. Rome inevitably became more and more theologically important to the West.”[2]

After Constantine moved the capital city out of Rome in the west and into Constantinople, the bishop of Rome began to sense the shift taking place and in effort to stop it exerted his belief of apostolic succession. These three men, Damasus, Leo I, and Gregory I (also known as the Great) all played a pivotal part in shaping the role of the papacy during the Middle Ages.

Damasus (366-384)

Damasus is a very interesting character; he started out as a deacon under Pope Liberius and served under him until his death. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,

“On Liberius’ death (24 Sept. 366), a fierce conflict broke out between the supporters of Damasus and those of his rival, Ursinus (or Ursicinus). Ursinus was elected Pope in the basilica of Julius (S. Maria in Trastevere), while Damasus was chosen by the great majority of the clergy and people of Rome in S. Lorenzo in Lucina.” [3]

It would be Emperor Valentinian who would step in and settle the argument choosing Damasus as the successor of Liberius. After taking his place Damasus would become an excellent ally of St Basil of Caesarea in the fight against Arianism.

Damasus would also go on to make some very significant contributions to the church by commissioning artist to create ornate copies of the scriptures, building larger basilicas, and one of his most important contributions would be to commission his secretary Jerome to copy the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate). He is also given credit for making mass Latin and moving it from the Greek which it had been in until then.[4]

Damasus is also credited as the first to call the see of Rome the “Apostolic See”, in an attempt to show its authority over the other sees. Hall states, “…Damasus was the first to argue that in giving Peter this authority, Jesus also intended it to pass to Peter’s successors.”[5] Several historians also note that Damasus was known to live at a level that almost rivaled that of the emperor. He would dress lavishly and even ride around in fancy carriages like royalty.

Leo I (440-461)

While Damasus was the first to push for the authority of the Roman see it would be Leo I (sometimes called the Great) who would be considered the first true Pope of the Roman church. While the claims of primacy were slowly gaining ground Shelley explains that, “Leo is a major figure in that process because he provides for the first time the biblical and theological bases of the papal claim. That is why it is misleading to speak of the papacy before his time.”[6]

Leo showed his orthodoxy because,

“…he opposed the period’s major heresies, Manicheanism, Pelagianism, Priscillianism, Leo unhesitantly utilized imperial criminal prosecution and banishment. More positively, Leo’s finest achievement was probably the formation and acceptance he gained for orthodox Christological dogma.” [7]

While Leo I knew no Greek or Hebrew he wrote numerous sermons and letters, but one of his greatest contributions to the Christian faith is the Tome of Leo which he defends the dual natures of Christ, and it would be used to help solidify the work of the Council of Chalcedon.

Leo also became powerful in the sense that when Attila and the Huns were threatening to invade Rome, it was Leo I who was able to dissuade him from it. He also encouraged their retreat well past the Danube River. Within three years it would be Leo and not the Emperor who would have to step up and attempt to save the city again, this time it was against the Vandals and Geneseric. Leo I was able to keep the Vandals from destroying the city but they looted the city for fourteen days straight before boarding their boats and leaving. Schaff tells us,

“The first Leo and the first Gregory are the two greatest bishops of Rome in the first six centuries. Between them no important personage appears on the chair of Peter; and in the course of that intervening century the idea and the power of the papacy make no material advance.”[8]

When Leo I was Pope the papacy was on the rise, taking more control over the religious culture and gaining more political power in the empire. It would not be until Gregory I that the papacy started making even larger strides in power.

Gregory I (590-604)

Apart from Leo I, Gregory I (also known as Gregory the Great) is the greatest Pope of the Middle Ages. He would reluctantly take the role thrust upon him, at first he tried to run from the role and live a life of asceticism. The role of bishop of Rome had been left vacant for upwards of six months, and “While Gregory regarded his elevation to the papacy as a punishment, he immediately threw himself into the struggle for order in the midst of chaos.”[9]

Gregory I was a man who enjoyed the life of asceticism, he would be the first bishop to put monasticism in a role of power. He was not one that wanted to use the title of universal bishop,

“In that controversy, Gregory does not allege that he is deprived of a right which belonged to him, but he strongly insists that the appellation is profane, nay, blasphemous, nay the forerunner of Antichrist. “The whole Church falls from its state, if he who is called universal falls” (Greg. Lib. 4 Ep. 76). [10]

While he would deny using the title of universal bishop, he would call himself “the servant of the servants of God”. During Gregory’s rule the church in Rome would be in control of almost 1,800 square miles of land making it the largest land owner in Italy. [11]

Gregory had many good points, but the one thing he introduced and promulgated dealt with sin. His teaching would say that a person would have to make penance for their sins and that the price paid by Christ on the cross was not sufficient. Gregory’s position is that, “Sin might be forgiven on condition of repentance, which involved contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Satisfaction included penance, and the penance was in proportion to the sin.”[12] It would later be these ideas that would cause Luther to write the 95 thesis.


While everyone has an opinion about the Pope and the Catholic Church we can all be grateful in one degree or another for the things of the past. We can all be appreciative of Damasus for commissioning Jerome, or Leo I’s input on the nature of Christ, and even Gregory with his teaching on penance and purgatory. Had the papacy allowed itself to come under scrutiny, and be subject to review it may have been able to stay away from the corruption that would soon take hold, and lead to one of the most spiritually enlightening periods since the time of the Apostles called the Reformation.


Bryer K.J., "Leo I" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christinaity- Volume 1. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Schaff , Philip and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Nelson, 1995.

[1]Bruce L Shelley, Church History in Plain Language. (Nashville: Nelson, 1995) 133.

[2] Jonathan Hill, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) 167.

[3] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 451.

[4] Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) 101.

[5] Hill, Christianity, 168.

[6] Shelley, Histroy, 133.

[7] Bryer K.J., "Leo I" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 419.

[8] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[9] Shelley, History, 166.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[11] Shelley, History, 167.

[12] D.S. Cushman and J.D. Douglas, "Gregory I (The Great)" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 286.