PODCAST: The Papacy, Part 1 (History of Christianity #181 with Daniel Whyte III)

This is Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International, with the History of Christianity Podcast #181, titled, “The Papacy, Part 1.”

When I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow had the false idea that Christianity began when I got saved. I had no concept of the hundreds of years of history that Christianity had gone through since the time of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago. I have found that many believers, young and old, have the same false idea. The purpose of this broadcast is to dispel this notion by sharing with listeners the history of Christianity from the ministry of Jesus Christ all the way up until the present day in an easy-to-understand format. You don’t have to worry: this is not a lecture. This is a look at the basic facts and figures of Christian history that every believer and every person needs to be aware of.

Our Scripture for today is Matthew 16:17-19 which reads: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from St. Ephraim the Syrian. He said: “Those who labor for the vain things in life strive to make those who labor for God’s sake stumble, that they might not be confronted with examples that accuse their conscience; but in so doing they only embellish the crowns of conscientious laborers.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Papacy, Part 1” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The second institution which, jointly with monasticism, gave unity and continuity to the Middle Ages was the papacy. The word pope simply means “father,” and in early times was used to refer to any important and respected bishop. Thus, there are documents referring to Pope Cyprian [SIP-RHEE-UHN] of Carthage [KAR-THAJ], or to Pope Athanasius [ATH-AH-NAY-SHEE-US] of Alexandria. In the West the title was eventually reserved for the bishops of Rome, but in the East it continued to be used with more liberality. In any case, what is important is not the origin of the title of pope, but rather how the bishop of Rome came to enjoy the authority that he had in the Middle Ages, and still has in the Roman Catholic Church.

The origins of episcopacy in Rome are not altogether clear. Most scholars agree that Peter did visit Rome, and that there is at least a very high probability that he died there. But the various lists of the early bishops of Rome, mostly dating from late in the second century, do not agree among themselves. While some claim that Clement was Peter’s successor, others name him as the third bishop after the apostle’s death. This has led some scholars to suggest the possibility that in the beginning Rome did not have a single bishop, but rather a “collegiate episcopacy”–a group of bishops who jointly led the church. While such a theory is open to debate, it is clear that during the early centuries the numerical strength of Christianity was in the Greek-speaking East, and that churches such as Antioch and Alexandria were much more important than the one in Rome. Even in the West, the theological leadership of the church was in North Africa, which produced such figures as Tertullian [TUR-TUL-EE-UHN], Cyprian [SIP-RHEE-UHN], and Augustine.

It was the Germanic invasions that brought about the great upsurge in the pope’s authority. In the East, the empire continued existing for another thousand years. But in the West the church became a guardian of what was left of ancient civilization, as well as of order and justice. Thus, the most prestigious bishop in the West, that of Rome, became the focal point for regaining a unity that had been shattered by the invasions.

A prime example of this is Leo “the Great,” who has been called the first “pope” in the modern sense. Later, we shall see his participation in the theological controversies of the time–most notably the controversy on the relationship between divinity and humanity in Christ. In that participation it is clear that Leo’s opinion was not generally accepted simply because he was the bishop of Rome, and that it took a politically propitious moment for his views to prevail. Since Leo intervened in controversies that took place mostly in the East, many Eastern bishops–as well the most Byzantine emperors–saw this as an unwarranted attempt on the part of the bishop of Rome to expand the range of his authority. It was only when more favorable emperors came to power that Leo’s positions were more generally accepted. This in turn resulted in growing prestige for the papacy.

In the West, however, things were different. In 452 Italy was invaded by Attila and his Huns, pagans from Eastern Europe who had first sought to conquer Constantinople, but whom the Byzantine authorities had diverted toward the West–in part by offering them gold. They took and sacked the city of Aquileia [AH-KWIL-EE-AH]. 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 in 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 Scourge of God.” What was said in that interview is not known. Legend has 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 toward the north, where he died shortly thereafter.

Leo was still Bishop of Rome in 455, when the Vandals sacked the city. At that time, he was unable to stop the invaders. But it was he who led the negotiations with the Vandal leader, Genseric [JEN-SER-IK], and thus avoided the burning of the city.

Needless to say, these episodes–and others like it–gave Leo great authority in the city of Rome. That he was able to do these things was due both to his personal gifts and to the political situation of the time, when the civil authorities proved incapable of performing their duties. But in Leo’s mind there was a deeper reason. He was convinced that Jesus had made Peter and his successors the rock on which the church was built, and that therefore the bishop of Rome, Peter’s direct successor, is the head of the church. Thus, in Leo’s writings one finds all the traditional arguments that would repeatedly be mustered in favor of papal authority.

Next time, we will continue looking at “The Papacy.”

Let’s pray.


Dear friend, simply knowing the facts about Christian history without knowing the One on Whom this faith is based will do you no good. If you do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, may I encourage you to get to know Him today. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can be a part of the church in this life and in the life to come. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will. Romans 10:13 says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Until next time, remember that history is truly His story.