With the fall of the Western Roman Empire to pagans, Rome was left to defend itself and its faith against outside forces. By the administration of the office of the Bishop of Rome, this great city and the Church continued to grow in power and influence regardless of the crumbling empire around them. This paper will seek to give a brief review of the history of the papacy as it grew in power during the period of medieval Christianity. Setting the stage for the future papacy, there were four Bishops of Rome who would assist with the rise of the papacy prior to its increase in power under the reign of Gregory the Great in the sixth century.
The first of these individuals is Damasus I, Bishop of Rome from AD 366-384. Damasus developed a papal theology which established the idea of papal authority as coming directly from Christ to Peter as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. With this idea, the office of the Bishop of Rome included an understanding of papal succession as well. This passage, in chapter 16 verses 18 and 19, states the following:
“18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom
of heaven , and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and
whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Protestants understand Christ’s play on words here between petros (Peter/a small stone) and petra (a large boulder), as well as the context of this passage, as MacArthur points out, “Since the NT makes it abundantly clear that Christ is both the foundation (Acts 4:11,12; 1Co 3:11) and the head (Eph 5:23) of the church, it is a mistake to think that here He is giving either of those roles to Peter.” In spite of this helpful clarification reestablished after the Reformation, Damasus is known as the individual “who made the theory about Peter an essential part of papal doctrine. He was the first pope to refer consistently to the church of Rome as the ‘apostolic see’ and to address bishops of other churches as ‘sons’ rather than as ‘brothers’.” Damasus was also endorsed by the eastern emperor Theodosius I who issued a famous decree in AD 380 requiring “all peoples to adhere to ‘the religion that is followed by Pope Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria’.” We should be familiar with the influence of Damasus as he is the Pope who commissioned Jerome to complete the translation used by the Roman Catholic Church to this very day: The Latin Vulgate.
The second of these individuals is Siricius, successor of Damasus I. Siricius (AD 384-399), following in the influence of his predecessor, was the first Bishop of Rome to apply the term “pope” specifically to himself. This term meant “father” and had originally applied to the bishops of any of the great apostolic sees (Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch).1 Siricius further demonstrated his authority by the first papal use of the ‘decretal’. This was “a letter of instruction modeled on the Emperor’s decree sent to provincial governors. In using this kind of letter the pope was claiming the same kind of binding authority for himself in the church as the Emperor had in secular affairs.”4
The third of these individuals is Leo I, who reigned as pope from AD 440-461. Leo’s leadership was desperately needed during a period of barbarian attacks on the empire. With the edict of Valentinian III in AD 445 compelling the attendance of all bishops who otherwise refused to attend the papal court, an emperor’s edict had turned the pope’s claim into law. As Leo combined both a spiritual and political role of leadership in Rome, he also made clear “the concept that the papacy was Peter’s own office, not only as founder but also as present ruler of the church through his servant, the pope.”6 Leo is also famous for demonstrating imperial power as he negotiated peace for Rome with Attila the Hun in AD 452. His arguments persuaded Attila to “retire beyond the Danube, on condition of receiving Honoria with a rich dowry as his wife.”
The last of these four individuals is Gelasius I. During his reign as Bishop of Rome, an important synod held at Rome in AD 495 was the first known to hail the pope as “the Vicar of Christ.”1 Gelasius clearly announced the principle that from the decisions of the chair of Peter there is no appeal. In his own words, “Nobody at any time and for whatever human pretext may haughtily set himself above the office of the pope who by Christ’s order was set above all and everyone and whom the universal church has always recognized as its head.”
Looking at the foundation built by these four bishops of Rome, the path had been prepared for the rise of the papacy influencing the transition between the ancient world and medieval Christianity with Gregory the Great in AD 590. Gregory began life in a rich noble family and even served as prefect of Rome in AD 573. After this, he gave up his wealth and estates to become a monk, founding seven monasteries. During this time, Gregory was chosen abbot and later became secretary to Pope Pelagius. After the death of Pelagius, despite Gregory’s efforts to the contrary, “the nobles, the clergy, and the people of Rome all agreed in choosing Gregory to succeed him.” Although Gregory accomplished much in service to the Roman Catholic Church in general and the papacy specifically, as he took charge of Rome’s finances, food and water supply, policing, and was an accomplished diplomat and great helper of the poor1, it seems that he is most famous for two things: His relationship with the Lombards to achieve peace and his ordering of missionaries to pagan Britain.
The last Germanic tribe to enter the Roman Empire was the Lombards, arriving in Italy in AD 568. Because the governor at Ravenna was incompetent to quell this invasion, the work was given to the papacy to help in the matter. Gregory attempted to accomplish the conversion of the invaders to catholic Christianity as one possible solution. He supported Theodelinda, a catholic Christian and Lombard Queen, which helped to eventually turn the Lombards away from Arianism toward Catholicism.
A famous story is recounted where Gregory, as a monk prior to becoming pope, saw some attractive young children with light skin and hair in the slave market. Gregory learned these pagan youth were Angli from England. “He replied that these young lads were not ‘Angles’ but ‘Angels’!” This particular interaction is famed to have led to his future missionary zeal to England, as pope, although he was never able to participate in these missions himself.
Having established the preparation for the rise of he papacy by Damasus, Siricius, Leo, and Gelasius, as well as the far-reaching power and character of Gregory, there is one last subject to mention which helped to move the consolidated power of the papacy beyond the borders of the ancient Roman empire. This subject is missions and one great individual is Boniface (Wynfrith of Crediton), an English missionary who was converted as a result of the earlier missionary efforts of Gregory. Boniface became the bishop of the German church under papal authority and began evangelizing the Hessians of Bavaria and Thuringia, later becoming Archbishop of Mainz. “He is justly known as the ‘Apostle to the Germans’. He brought Germany into Christian Europe under papal leadership.” Boniface was also a personal emissary of Pope Gregory III, playing a key role at an AD 742 council in Francia which ruled priests were subject to their bishops and not allowed to fight in war or hunt, as well as the standardization of monasticism. With the establishment of the papacy through the influence of the individuals mentioned, as well as the furthering of Roman Catholic Christianity throughout Europe by means of missions, the papacy had grown greatly in power and influence as it continued to exist during the period of medieval Christianity.
Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Zondervan: Grand
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles: Wheaton, 2001.
MacArthur, John F. The MacArthur Study Bible. Thomas Nelson: La Habra, 2006.
Dowley, Tim, ed. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene
Christianity, Fifth edition, revised. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2008.
Schaff, Philip. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian
Church, Second Series, Volume XII (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand
Robertson, J.C. Sketches of Church History. The Tract Committee: London, 1904.
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