In the days after the Apostles died there was a need to clarify what exactly the church was and who was to lead it. In this essay I will trace the history of the Papacy and those who had an influence upon it as well as it’s dominance over Western Europe. I will also briefly discuss some of the positive and negative things the papacy did.
The rise of the Papacy began in the fourth quarter of the second century and came about through Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna. His belief was that the Apostles had transmitted faithfully and accurately what had been taught to them by Christ and had not, as the heretics asserted, intermingled with them extraneous ideas. He was emphatic that the Apostles had appointed as successor bishops to whom they had committed the churches and in doing so had undoubtedly passed onto them what had been entrusted to the apostolic company by Christ. These bishops had been followed by others in an unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He singles out that the Church of Rome which he holds to have been founded and organized by Peter and Paul.
Eusbius’ writing in the first quarter of the fourth century was the most famous of all the early historians of the Church. He gave lists of the bishops. We need not then enquire whether they are accurate or not because the fact they existed shows the evidence of conviction and their desire to preserve the line of apostolic succession. The succession of bishops assured that the Gospel had been conserved and properly handed down. The Bishop of Rome claimed greater authority than the other bishops which was fitting since Rome held more political and religious sway in the world.
From the fifth to eight century western Europe was swept by a series of invasions that brought chaos to the land, and destroyed a great deal of learning of antiquity. The invaders brought with them two religious challenges that until then could have seemed to be a matter of the past: paganism and Arianism. Eventually both pagans and Arians were converted to the faith of those who they had conquered. This was the Nicene faith, also called “orthodox” or “catholic.” In the process of that conversion, and also in the effort to preserve the wisdom of ancient times, two institutions played a central role and thus were strengthened. These institutions were monasticism and the papacy.
The Papacy began to rise in power during the sixth to ninth centuries. The first pope in the modern sense of the word was Pope Leo the Great. In 452 Italy was invaded by Attila and the Huns, who overtook and sacked the city of Aquileia. The road to Rome was open to them, for there was no army between them and the ancient capital. The western emperor was weak both in character and resources, and the East had given indications that it was unwilling to intervene. It was then that Leo left Rome and marched to meet “The Scoured of God.” What was said in that interview is not known. Legend had it that Attila saw Saints Peter and Paul marching with the Pope, and threatening the Hun. Whatever was said, Attila decided not to attack Rome, and turned towards the north, where he died shortly thereafter. Leo was still Bishop of Rome when the Vandals sacked the city. He was unable to stop the invaders, and it was he who led the negotiations with Genseric the Vandal leader, thus avoiding the burning of the city. These events helped Leo the “Great” to have great authority in the city of Rome. He was convinced that Jesus had made Peter and his successors the rock on which the church was to be built, and that therefore the Bishop of Rome, Peter’s direct successor, is the head of the church.
The consecration of Gregory I as the bishop of Rome constitutes a watershed that divides the ancient period of church history from the medieval period. He was born into a noble family of Rome where he studied law. He would become a monk, and an ambassador representing the Roman bishop at Constantinople. He was also Abbot of Saint Andrew’s Monastery. To Gregory I asceticism was a way to glorify God.
Pope Gregory I would become one of the noblest and ablest leaders of the Roman church. He was noted as a man of humility and a zealous missionary. He was one of the most able administrators of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. His influence was to expand the power of the Roman Bishop. Although he disclaimed the title of Pope, he exercised all the power and prerogatives of the later popes. This he did to assert the spiritual supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. Pope Gregory I was an outstanding theologian. He is ranked with Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine as one of the four great doctors of the Western church. His theology laid the groundwork for the Middle Ages until Thomas Aquinas formulated his Summa. The pontificate of Gregory is indeed a landmark in the transition from ancient to medieval church history. Later successors built on the foundation that he had laid as they created the sacramental hierarchical system of the institutionalized church of the Middle Ages. He systematized doctrine and made the Church a power in politics.
One of the major contributions Pope Gregory I made was in the area of salvation. As a disciple of Augustine, Gregory tried to follow Augustine’s teaching. In doing so however he violated the creative spirit Augustine embodied. Gregory laid aside Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace to focus on the question of how we are to offer satisfaction to God for sins committed. He believed that this was done through penance which consists of contrition, confession and the actual punishment or satisfaction. Those who die in the faith and communion of the church, but without having offered satisfaction for all their sins, will go to purgatory before they attain their final salvation. The living can help the dead out of purgatory by offering masses in their favor. Gregory believed that in the mass or communion Christ was sacrificed anew. This notion of the mass as sacrifice eventually became the standard doctrine of the Western church until it was rejected by Protestants in the sixteenth century.
As Constantinople’s influence began to weaken by the middle of the eighth century, Rome began to look north for help. They developed an alliance between the papacy and the Frankish kingdom that would eventually lead to the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of the West.
Charlemagne, although not an educated man, was a patron of learning. He revived and reformed the schools that already existed and called to his court deacon Alcuin of York, whom he had met in Italy, and who reintroduced among the Franks the knowledge that had been preserved in British monasteries. From Spain, Charlemagne brought Theodulf, whom he made bishop of Orleans, and who ordered that thoughrought his diocese there should be a school in every church, and that these were to open to the poor as well as to the rich. Soon other bishops followed Theodulf’s example and there was a significant revival of learning that was aided by the many scholars who flocked to Charlemagne’s domains.
Charlemagne was a man of war. He engaged in fifty campaigns during his life which expanded his kingdom into Italy where he defeated the Lombards, into Germany, where he conquered the Saxons. He spread Christianity through the use of force and this process spread among his conquered people. In 800 AD he became emperor in the West when the people crowned him Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans). The entire empire was held together by him, so when he died his empire died shortly after him.
As we have seen in this brief sampling of church history during the sixth and ninth centuries there was quite a lot of positive things that Rome did to better the culture of the day. During this time period we have seen Rome establish schools, educate the people, and organized around a pope. We have also seen the negative of the Catholic Church in that they often imposed themselves upon a people through the use of force. We can learn a lot of lessons from this time period of church history. The greatest of these lessons is that the purpose of the Gospel is to change people’s lives. The Gospel does not need to be imposed or forced down people’s throats as it was by Pope. The Gospel needs to be clearly preached and presented. Our need today is the same as it was in the sixth to ninth centuries; is for bold, relevant, empowered preaching that focuses on Christ, not upon power or manipulation.
Earle E. Cairnes, The Christianity Through The Centuries, Third Edition (Michigan: Zondervan, 1996).
Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 33.
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Beginnings to 1500, no. 1 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000).
 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Beginnings to 1500, no. 1 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000), 131.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 238.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 243.
 Earle E. Cairnes, The Christianity Through The Centuries, Third Edition (Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 159.
 Earle E. Cairnes, The Christianity Through The Centuries, Third Edition (Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 161.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 247.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 268.
 Earle E. Cairnes, The Christianity Through The Centuries, Third Edition (Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 180.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to his wife, Sarah. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021), The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022), and Contentment: The Journey of a Lifetime (Theology for Life, 2024). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.