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Part III - The Nicene Age: Lesson No. 15 - The Papacy and Monasticism

I. The Growth of Papal Power

The "official" end of the Roman Empire is usually viewed as the deposition of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by the German general, Odoacer, in 476 A.D. However, the process of deterioration in the Empire had begun long before that date. The collapse of the Roman Empire plunged the Western world into a long period of depression and chaos known as the "Dark Ages," but the Roman Church did not share the fate of the Empire. Actually, the collapse of the Empire before the barbarian hordes served the interests of the Roman Church in that it left the Church as the one stable and durable institution in the midst of a political and cultural morass. As men looked more and more to the Roman Church for guidance and stabilizing force the Church began to assume the role left to it by a decaying political system. Thus, the fall of Rome was just another step in a long series of steps toward the primacy of the Roman bishop.

The sons of Constantine had convened the Council of Sardica in 343 in an effort to resolve the controversy gendered by Arianism. In this effort the Council was a failure, but it is noteworthy that the Council did decide that a deposed bishop had the right to appeal his case to the Roman bishop, who could call for a retrial and keep the episcopal seat at issue vacant until a decision was made known by Rome.

The primacy of the Roman bishop was also advanced by a couple of its more ardent advocates who served as bishops of Rome. Innocent I (402-417) claimed that the Roman Church was the custodian of apostolic tradition and that its bishop had universal jurisdiction. Leo I (440-461) taught that Peter had primacy among the apostles and that this primacy was passed on to his successors. Despite these bold assertions, the Council of Chalcedon (451) placed Constantinople on a practical equality with Rome. (Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, which survived the fall of Rome and served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years.) This was just another harbinger of the schism that was developing between the East and West, but the primacy of the Roman bishop was being set forth in theory even though it was not yet fully observed in practice.

Several important observations need to be made about the developing theory of the primacy of the Roman Church and its bishop. (1) The Scriptures do not teach that Peter had primacy among the apostles. As a matter of fact, they teach that he was no more than their equal (Matt. 20:20-28; 23:8-12; Acts 15:1-29; Gal. 2:1-14). (2) The Scriptures make no provision for the perpetuation of the apostolic office. Particularly, they do not provide for any successors to Peter's supposed primacy. A personal, post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to one was essential to his accession to the apostolate (Acts 1:21,22), and Paul said that he was the last one to whom Jesus appeared (I Cor. 15:8). This implies that Paul was the last one even qualified to be an apostle. Again, when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas it was not by any deliberative or voting process among the apostles but rather by means of God's direct intervention in what would otherwise have been a selection by mere chance (Acts 1:21-26). (3) Even if Peter had had primacy among the apostles and others are to succeed him in that primacy, the Scriptures certainly do not teach the successor must always be the bishop of the Church in Rome. The Scriptures do not even say that the Roman church had bishops, much less that Peter was ever one of them. Neither do they teach that the Roman church,, as opposed to, or in addition to, the Scriptures, was to be the reservoir or preserver of apostolic teaching. The papal system requires many Scripturally unfounded assumptions.

II. The Growth of Monasticism

Monasticism is essentially seclusion from the world for religious purposes and usually involves ascetic practices to some degree. The beginning of monasticism in the Church is traced to Anthony (b. 250) in Egypt. In his youth he sold his possessions, and went into solitude, engaging in prayer and the strictest self-denial. A certain Pachomius supposedly improved monasticism by establishing the first monasteries. Thus, two types of monasticism developed: (1) the hermitic, which involved isolation from other individuals, and (2) cenobitic, which involved communal living. In the first half of the Sixth Century the Benedictine order was established with its emphasis upon frequent periods of common worship, manual labor, and study.

There were several reasons why the monastic life appealed to some individuals. (1) The letup in Roman persecutions allowed for a great increase in converts, many of whom were not serious-minded or were outright worldly. Some, therefore, sought higher levels of spirituality by physical separation from the Church at large. (2) A cessation of martyrdoms left monasticism as the greatest sign of the highest level of spirituality to which one could aspire. (3) For some monasticism was a mere flight from the world. (4) The ancients also esteemed more highly the virtue of a contemplative life than that of active service to mankind. (5) Growing formalism in worship led some to seek a more individual approach to God through monasticism.

Of course, there are also a number of Scriptural problems with monasticism. (1) It creates a double standard between the monk and the ordinary Church-member. Why would it be right for the ordinary Church-member to do what would be wrong for the monk? (2) As a corollary to the preceding point, monasticism encourages sub-standard holiness on the part of the ordinary Church-member. (3) Monasticism is not taught in the Scriptures. Quite to the contrary, separation from the world is condemned (Jn. 17:1416; I Cor. 5:9-11). Christians are to go into the world (Mk. 16:15) and be its salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16; 9:10-13). How can they accomplish this task if they shut themselves off from the world? Furthermore, the asceticism of monasticism is condemned as valueless and unholy (Col. 2:23; I Tim. 4:1-5).

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) What were some further steps, including the teachings of Innocent I and Leo I, which continued the elevation of the Roman Church and its bishop?




(2) What are some basic Scriptural errors in the concept of the primacy of the Roman bishop?




(3) What are monasticism and its two basic sub-types?


(4) What led some to seek the monastic life?


(5) What are some basic errors in monasticism?


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