When Catholic is not Catholic (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Papal Authority and Tradition

Challenges from Gnosticism and Montanism, such as extra-biblical revelations and interpretations, made tradition and important component to the early church. Tradition came to mean “a traditional interpretation of Scripture” or “a traditional presentation of the Christian faith” as reflected in the creeds and public doctrinal pronouncements (McGrath, 29). The early church’s view of tradition was to see it as the continuation of the Apostle’s teaching. As such, tradition was not some sort of “secret knowledge” or “second wave” of revelation like Gnostics beliefs,

The importance of tradition is never seriously weighed, meaning tradition would be key in elevating a person from elder to bishop to pope to the Vicar of Christ.

In the first century, each church functioned independently under the direction of multiple elders. Soon, though, persecution and heresies forced most churches chose one elder to serve as bishop. This “super-elder” guided the elders underneath him.

Ignatius (35–107), first to use the title, “Catholic church” (referring to the invisible “universal” church), promoted this idea of a single bishop to whom Christians in an area gave obedience. His goal was to maintain unity. Interestingly, Bishop Ignatius did not see himself as equal with the Apostles—he wrote, “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were Apostles, I am a convict” (Ign. Rom. 4:3).

Clement of Rome, who speaks of elders who were appointed by the apostles, felt the duty to write against schism and revolt and called on Christians to live a righteous life. He claims no supreme authority.

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200) believed that the regula fidei or “rule of faith” was preserved by the apostolic church and was expressed in the canonical books of Scripture.

In the third century, Cyprian (d. 258) is known for his development of organized Christianity; church leadership in particular. His three famous statements: (1) "He is not a Christian who is not in Christ's church"; (2) "He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother"; and (3) "There is no salvation outside the church" (salus extra ecclesiasm non est). Cyprian believed that the main mark of the true church is apostolic succession. It is in this century the term “pope” is used for bishops in major churches.

Cyprian held to a “federated view of the episcopate,” however, believing each bishop should function in harmony with the others and without a single bishop becoming the head over all. As such, Cyprian did not recognize one bishop who had authority over all.

By the end of the third century, Rome had forty individual congregations that were all led by a single bishop.

In the fourth century, the third canon of the Council of Constantinople (381) ruled that Constantinople was the second Rome, and that its bishop held position of honor second only to the bishop of Rome.

In the fifth century, the council of Council of Chalcedon (451), among other things, elevated the Petrarch of Constantinople to the same level as the Petrarch of Rome. The leader of Rome, however, was referred to as a first among equals.

Leo the Great (c. 390–461) believed the Apostle Peter had authority as the bishop of Rome, and Peter delegated this authority to subsequent bishops of Rome. Not surprisingly, some believe that it is with him we find the first truly Roman Catholic pope. Leo also met with Attila the Hun in 452 in an attempt to sway Attila from invading Italy.

In the sixth-seventh centuries, Gregory the Great (540-604), the first of the medieval popes, increased the authority and power of the papacy, including its political authority. He held that the Roman pope was Peter’s sole successor and was the supreme head over the universal church. He said the clergy must be celibate.


The Epistle of Barnabas (written between 75–135) presents a way of salvation primarily in moralistic terms.

Against the Gnostics, Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200) strongly emphasized the incarnation of Christ which was essential for the salvation of humanity. For Irenaeus, humans are a complex unity of flesh and soul. God is interested in redeeming the whole human person, including the flesh

Tertullian (c. 160–225) held to an extreme form of baptism claiming that there was no remedy for post-baptismal sin except martyrdom.

Origen (c. 185–254) believed every creature would eventually be saved (an idea called apocatastasis). There is some debate as to whether Origen believed that Satan would finally be saved.

Cyprian (d. 258) Cyprian was one of the first fathers to clearly promote baptismal regeneration, the belief that salvation happens at water baptism. Cyprian’s writings also reveal that baptism is only the first step in the salvation process—one must also remain faithful.

Jerome (331–420) wrote against the ideas of Pelagius, rejecting Pelagius’s claim that Christians can live without sin.

Augustine (354–430) was the first theologian to thoroughly address the doctrines of man and salvation. This was largely due to his debates with Pelagius. Augustine believed all people are born with original sin requiring God to predestine those whom will be saved. While the church eventually condemned Pelagius and endorsed Augustine, it is vital to note the church never fully adopted Augustine’s understanding of predestination and original sin.

Instead, thanks to the influence of John Cassian (and afterward, Gregory the Great [540–604]), Rome reverted to a system requiring works, while maintaining that God’s grace is needed for salvation. This mixture of works and grace are, in effect, semi-Pelagian, though Rome would also officially condemn key aspects of semi-Pelagianism as well. Gregory believed that God’s electing grace could be activated by human effort.

(It was Gregory’s version of Augustinian theology that Martin Luther would encounter when he joined an Augustinian monastery. Luther, in this semi-Augustinian/semi-Pelagian environment, tried to earn favor with God through extreme asceticism and effort, leading only to his frustration. It was against Gregory’s form of Augustinianism that he would rebel when Luther discovered that the righteous must live by faith.)

During the seventh and eighth centuries baptism was the primary sacrament and was the key to sacramental theology. Baptism was viewed as a means of grace, and, of course, only the Roman Catholic Church could perform valid baptisms. Baptism was the New Covenant parallel to circumcision of the Old Covenant.

In the ninth century, though, this emphasis would largely shift to the Eucharist, which is discussed below under “Transubstantiation.”


By the consecration of the bread and wine, a conversion (or change) is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.

– The Fourth Lateran Council, 1215

Ignatius (35–107) was the first to call communion the “Eucharist.” His goal was to use it to stress the humanity of Jesus against the Gnostics by using the physical bread and wine to evidence Christ’s physical nature.

Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200) affirmed a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This, too, was a polemical point against the Gnostics.

Radbertus (790-860) maintained the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (this was flesh born of Mary and crucified on the cross). This was in opposition to Augustine’s view of a spiritual presence of Christ.

In the ninth century, serious debate finally occurs concerning the real presence of the body and blood of Christ.

St Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) was important in the development of this doctrine. Aquinas sought to meld Aristotle and Christianity, and Transubstantiation is founded on the Aristotelian distinction between “substance” and “accident.” This view was defined and affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Hopefully, you can see from this short list of items that the Catholic church underwent significant development over the years. It is not wrong that the church sought to grow in its understanding, and we Protestants benefit a great deal from the theological debates of the ages.

What is wrong is for the Roman Catholic Church to claim “This is what we believe and what we have always believed,” especially about such things as papal succession and infallibility. Scripture alone is infallible, and the true “apostolic succession” is found in all those who proclaim its truth and worship according to the dictates of the Bible.

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