The Church Fathers and the Pope

I wasn’t going to blog today; I don’t have time. Nonetheless, I simply can’t let this pass.

I couldn’t believe it when I read this:

This is what stuck in Alex’s mind, and it led him to make a fateful mistake: He started to read the Fathers of the Church. In a short time it was all over for him. He realized that the earliest Christians were, uh, Catholics! Alex saw the continuity between what the writers of the early centuries professed and what the Christians who saw our Lord professed. There was a straight line connecting them. The sacraments, the papacy, authority, Mary and the saints—the whole works. (Restless Pilgrim)

Mary? The papacy? In the church fathers?

If this blog were talking about 5th and 6th century Christians, I could understand that. After virtually the whole Roman empire became "Christians" in the 4th century, all sorts of idolatry come roaring in. The emperor Julian the Apostate commented that Christians were more into hero worship than the pagans, and that was just A.D. 360 or so.

However, this blog specifically mentioned "the Fathers of the Church, those earliest Christian writers who lived in the first, second, and third centuries."

The Pope Before Nicea

In the first, second, and third centuries, there is dead silence on the matter of the pope because there was no pope. Oops, sorry … the bishop of Alexandria was being called "The Papa"—the pope—by the mid-3rd century.

So what made Alex think there was a pope in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century fathers?

  • Was it Clement of Rome’s use of elder and bishop interchangeably to indicate that there was no individual bishop in Rome in A.D. 96?
  • Was it that Ignatius’ letter to Rome is astonishingly silent on the matter of a bishop there, when he praises and extols the bishop of every other church he writes to?
  • Was it the 7th Council of Carthage, where "Saint" Cyprian led 82 bishops in rejecting a decision of Stephen, bishop of Rome in A.D. 250?
  • Was it the comment made by "Saint" Cyprian at that council that no bishop could set himself up as a bishop over other bishops?
  • Was it Irenaeus comment that Rome was a really important church because it was founded by Paul and Peter, but any apostolic church would do for showing that truth was passed down from the apostles to his time (A.D. 185 or so)?
  • Was it Firmilian’s letter to "Saint" Cyprian commenting that it was unconscionable for Stephen to set himself up as the successor of Peter? Or was it perhaps Cyprian’s teaching, On the Unity of the Church, which says that every bishop inherited the authority of Peter?

Mary Before the Council of Nicea

Admittedly, I’m a little uninformed on the fathers from the late 3rd century. In the 2nd century, however, Mary is simply ignored. The same with Tertullian and Origen from the early 3rd centuries. There is simply no indication that she was venerated in any way.

I just did a search on Catholic sources. They have one quote from Justin (A.D. 150) and one from Irenaeus (A.D. 185) saying approximately the same thing. Eve, the virgin, fell by disobedience, and Mary, the virgin, corrected this by her obedience.

Recapitulation is found here and there in the fathers, and it’s an inspiring teaching. Adam sinned through a tree; Jesus obeyed through a tree. Adam sinned in a garden; Jesus gave himself to God in a garden. There’s a lot of other such symbology, which is really awesome to read about.

But none of that gives the slightest indication of Mariology in the early church fathers!

Were the Early Church Fathers Catholic?

I have to suppose that if you are Protestant, and you have major objections to the Lord’s Supper as being more than symbolic, you could react and call the early church fathers Catholic. Ignatius calls the bread and wine the "medicine of immortality." Justin says that Christians received the meal as more than mere bread and wine.

Otherwise, I’m at a loss as to how anyone reading the 2nd century fathers could count them Catholic. There’s not a hint of it.

Even infant baptism isn’t mentioned–at least not specifically. It has to be read into a passing comment by Irenaeus about those who are born again, a list that includes infants. On the other hand, Justin—before Irenaeus—says that the apostles taught that baptism was a new birth since we had no choice in our natural birth, being too young to decide for ourselves. Tertullian—after Irenaeus—says that rushing children before they’re young enough to answer for themselves is a bad idea.

Someone needs to say that the early church fathers were not Catholic.

More importantly, someone needs to say that attending a Roman Catholic congregation will not teach you about God’s ways, will not give you a real family, God’s family, that the new covenant promises (though most Protestant churches won’t, either; a new Gospel, which is nothing but the apostles’ old one, is needed), and will not provide the strength you need to continue as self-forsaking disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our call is that those who obey the Gospel of Jesus—that those who hear would forsake their own lives to follow Jesus Christ together—would quit attending clubs with weekly meetings and would join together into one family, dependent upon the Spirit of God as their guide and teacher, and that we could forget about denominations, which are nothing more than fleshly divisions, and forget about the rule of a pompous prelate in a faraway land.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
This entry was posted in Church, Gospel, History, Roman Catholic & Orthodox, Unity and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Church Fathers and the Pope

  1. John Michael says:

    Then maybe you could lay down all the preconceived ideas that you've been indoctrinated to believe that the fathers said, and read for what the writers were actually trying to say, which is clear, and in keeping with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Why? Because what they taught made the church the "light of the world"' and the RCC's light has become darkness. Isn't it funny that when Jesus is teaching on who belonged to Him, that the people who tried to justify themselves were given the message to depart, that he never knew them, and the ones that were so busy actually taking care of the "the least of these" that they couldn't even remember what they had done, were justified. No mariology. No complex "development of doctrine". Just the real simple people laying down their lives for those around them and confounding the "wise".

  2. Nate says:

    I enjoyed the rigorous yet respectful dialog 🙂
    My only comment is on the one thought about progressive development of doctrine. I think that when relationship with God becomes religion it can only be about doctrine. The carnal mind (even the most highly educated and trained) trying to reason and comprehend and then dictate the ways of God only leads to division, confusion and bitterness. The whole of doctrinal truth that is actually required is summed up by Jesus (the Head of the Church) Himself:
    Matt 22:37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
    What an incredible expression of God would we be to the world and to the lost if we actually practice these truths!

  3. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    No offence taken brother – I like direct and to the point 🙂

    • John Michael says:

      I'm glad to hear that, since Romanism, along with the majority of protestants have spent way too much time straining at gnats and swallowing camels. Rather than come up with theories and try to dig for any remote tidbit that might be used to support it, people who really want God's heart and will need to find the simple message of Jesus Christ that is not to rocket scientists and theologians, but to the childlike at heart. A good way to start might be to humble yourself before God and beg that you won't be counted among the "wise of the world", but those, like the simple cratsmen, fishermen, and housewives of the apostolic age church, that received the message that these "wise" couldn't understand, and whom among salvation took on the visible evidence of righteous lives, people that were the rule, not the exception. Continued…

  4. shammahbn says:

    Also, RP, I guess I was in a hurry and getting right to the point. It wasn't very hospitable of me.

    Thank you for coming over and commenting. I wondered if you'd see the pingback or trackback or whatever that's called.

    I was trying to be short, so I was trying to be straightforward. I hope I wasn't also rude.

  5. shammahbn says:

    I don't know why I called those short responses. They added up to a long response. I have to quit using mitigating phrases.

  6. shammahbn says:

    Ok, here's my short responses:

    1. We don't find even a seed of venerating Mary or of the pope. We find some very specific refutations of the idea of a papacy, even in Cyprian!

    2. No, it doesn't seem the least bit odd that Rome is writing a letter to Corinth. John's area was Asia, not Greece. I'm not sure why that is, but it seems pretty clear that was so.

    3. Rome was a great church and much honored. Peter lived there as an elder, and Paul is credited with teaching in the city as well (during his imprisonment?). Jumping from that to a papacy is beyond a big jump. It's just not there.

    4. Irenaeus also attributes the greatness of Rome to Peter and Paul, not just Peter. It would be strange if there existed a doctrine of succession from Peter–and this was A.D. 185 in a work written by someone who'd visited Rome–and it was not mentioned in the context of A.H. III:3

    5. On the Eucharist, as long as we're not discussing the bread becoming flesh scientifically, we don't have any disputes.

    6. On infant baptism, the 3rd century is late for something that's supposed to be proof that the early fathers were Roman Catholic, especially when there's clear indication it either wasn't there or wasn't widespread in the 2nd century.

    7. The veneration of Mary is idolatry. Suggesting that she's a new Eve or even the clearly incorrect idea that she was perpetually virgin is not nearly the same as what the modern Roman Catholic Church teaches, and it's a far, far cry from the mass idolatry that's actually practiced by Catholics. (I was Catholic, btw, and I and my entire 6th grade class, about 100 kids, were led up to kiss the feet of a statue of Mary. Such idolatry is not rare.)

    8. I think Ignatius was trying to institute an emphasis on the bishop that was new. That's why he had to push it so hard. Nonetheless, I don't have any problem with a bishop having authority in a church. God can work through any church structure, even the Catholic one, if they preach the Gospel.

    The submission that Ignatius requests the church to give to the bishop is given by Protestants to their "bishop"–the head pastor–anyway. The name's different, but the emphasis on one leader is as strong in Protestantism as it is in Roman Catholicism.


  7. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    Hey Paul,

    I think you downplay some things a bit too much here. I'm kinda swamped at the moment, but here are some initial thoughts:

    * We wouldn't necessarily expect to see doctrines in their full flowering this early on, but we would at least expect to see the seeds of them (see John Henry Newman on the Development of Doctrine). In this sense we "find" Mary, the papacy etc. in the early centuries. The Fathers of the later centuries expound these further.

    * Yes, in Clement there does appear to be some blurriness over the terms bishop and elder, but doesn't it seem odd that it's Rome interfering with the church in Corinth? Wouldn't the Apostle John have made more sense?

    * Ignatius had met the ministers of Magnesia, Tralles etc. so personal comments about their bishops is to be expected. I agree with you that Ignatius' greeting to the Roman church is astonishing, but for different reasons. His greeting to the Roman church is much longer and filled with far greater litany of praise ("Worthy of honour…worthy of God…which presides over agape").

    * Irenaeus did indeed say that the succession of bishops could be shown for any church – that's what he was trying to show – that the Gnostics couldn't demonstrate the apostolicity of their doctrine. He wasn't trying to prove anything else. However, the very fact that he picks Rome gives us yet another indication of that church's importance "…for it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority…"

    I wouldn't call any of these "proofs" of the papacy, but it is hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that there's something pretty special about the Church in Rome.

    * It is indeed the third century when you see the Marian themes really come out in the Fathers although the doctrine of her as the New Eve is certainly developed before that by people including Tertullian (and Origen does address the question of her perpetual virginity in his Commentary on Matthew)

    * The writings of the Fathers about the Eucharist are Catholic through and through: "they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes"

    * With regards to infant baptism I'd cite Hippolytus and Origen among others (as well as general covenantal theology).

    Finally, another very Catholic thing about the Fathers is the emphasis on the episcopacy, so I'll end with the words of Ignatius:

    "When you submit to the bishop as representing Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are not living the life of men, but that of Jesus Christ…It is therefore necessary that…you do nothing without your bishop and be subject to the presbytery as representing the Apostles of Jesus Christ"


    This Restless Pilgrim

    • John Michael says:

      The reality is, that we’ve actually been part of the RCC. They spend way more time in “The Development of Doctrine”, and looking like a cross section of fallen humanity, rather than looking like the holy body of Christ. The early church fathers could brag that their churches were superior to the pagans in many things, while the RCC is mostly indistinguishable from paganism (sorry if I insulted any pagans), and their leadership, rather than being the highest examples of godliness, are known for all sorts of shameful acts, that make honest pagans blush. Instead of purging these people, as examples, as Paul would have done, they cover it up. The righteous living of their lives that made the early Christians the light of the world, that allowed the fathers to brag (see… , is to any honest person with actual contact with the RCC a complete contrast to the average worldly RCC parishioner.

    • John Michael says:

      I live with people that delight in our heavenly father and his will. The leaders really hold to a high moral standard, worthy of bragging, meeting the biblical qualifications for overseers. The people are in heart and practice easily distinguished from the world. In love, unity, giving, kindness, joy, faith, hope, devotion, you name it. If, as it is, according to you, that you are the church, and we are not, then the contrast should make you tear your clothes and gnash your teeth. You should be fasting in sackcloth and ashes, crying out to God in anguish for an answer. Don’t expect any converts from those who know it can and should be different, since we live with it all around us every day. If God is not here, but with you, why aren’t you changed into His likeness? (Like the early church whose leaders you like to espouse?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.