The Papal Claims Examined
The Revd Frank N. Westcott
It is a sad and most unfortunate fact, yet one which is easily capable of demonstration by any competent historian, that all along the ages, Rome’s interests have been advanced by forgeries and falsification of the Fathers; and that such interpolations are quoted with approval today, in Roman controversial books; and that it is not safe to accept patristic quotations in such books, without verifying them at first hand.
There are plenty of historic facts which are utterly inconsistent with the assumption that the supreme judicial and spiritual authority of the Church, has always been in the hands of the Bishops of Rome. For example: the first difficulty which required judicial action in the Apostolic Church, was settled by a council of the whole Church at Jerusalem, under the presidency, not of St. Peter, but of St. James, who pronounced sentence in his own name, without any regard to St. Peter.
When Victor, Bishop of Rome, AD 196, undertook to excommunicate the Asiatic Churches, because they disagreed with him about the time of the observance of Easter, he was rebuked by the other Bishops, including Irenaeus, and his excommunication was ignored, and had no effect whatever.
In the fourth century, the Council of Sardica allowed a condemned Bishop to appeal to Rome for a new trial, not as a recognized right, but as conferring a privilege. This canon of Sardica, was misquoted by the Bishops of Rome as being a canon of the Council of Nice in a controversy with the African Bishops. But the latter consulted the Eastern Patriarchs, and, so discovering the misquotation, replied to the Patriarch of Rome through his legates, “We find it enacted in no council of the Fathers, that any person may be sent as legates of your holiness . . . . Do not therefore at the request of any, send your clergy as agents for you, lest we seem to introduce into the Church of Christ, the ambitious pride of the world.”
The great Arian heresy which denied the divinity of our Lord, was settled by the Nicene Council, which was called, not by the Pope, but by the Emperor Constantine. Hosius presided, and the heresy was finally refuted, not through the pronouncement of the Pope, but through the argument of Athanasius; while Pope Liberius himself became a heretic.
Then the heresy denying the divinity of the Holy Ghost, was settled at the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed, and the sentences defining doctrine concerning the Holy Ghost added, and the Roman Bishop was not present either in person or through his legates. Meletius of Antioch presided at the council, and was succeeded by Gregory Nazianzen, Patriarch of Constantinople; and so in the settlement of the two greatest heresies, the authority of the Bishop of Rome counted for little or nothing; and it is interesting to note that the Bishops assembled in council at Constantinople in 381, in their Epistle to the Western Bishops assembled at Rome, called the Church of Jerusalem the “Mother of all Churches.”
Of course the most complete refutation of the Roman claim of supremacy has been the historic position of the four patriarchates of the Eastern Church, which have never acknowledged the claims of such universal jurisdiction, and yet were in communion with the patriarch of Rome until the twelfth century.
The claims of supreme and spiritual jurisdiction over the whole Church, on the part of the Bishop of Rome, cannot stand the test of catholicity, and so become articles of faith, unless they have been acknowledged always, everywhere, and by all Catholics; and this we have shown to be historically incredible.
Roman Catholics are very fond of asserting that a visible Church must have a visible head; and that as there is no other Bishop who claims to be the head of the Church but the Pope of Rome, therefore he must be that head. We reply, that in the Holy Scriptures St. Paul asserts that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church; and he nowhere recognizes any other head; though he constantly insists on the visible, organic nature of the Church itself. St. Augustine asserts the same fact, thus: “Since the whole Christ is made up of the head and the body, the head is our Saviour Himself, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who now, after He has risen from the dead, sits at the right hand of God; but His body is the Church; not this Church, or that, but the Church scattered over all the world . . . . For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful, because all the faithful are members of Christ, has its head situate in the heavens which governs this body: though it is separated from their sight, yet it is bound to them by love.” Then again, it must be remembered that the greater part of the Catholic Church is made up of souls in Paradise, and therefore is not visible to us; and Christ is the Head of the Church to them, as well as to us. To them He may be visible.
But supposing the visible Church must have a visible head: we reply, as a practical matter of fact, the universal episcopate assembled in general council was from the first regarded as the head of the Church; the ultimate source and seat of authority, to which the Bishop of Rome himself was always subject: as is proved by the fact, that the universal episcopate settled heresies, defined the Faith, and deposed Popes who were themselves heretics, and excommunicated them. Gregory the Great, as we have seen, expressly repudiated the title of "universal Bishop” which he most certainly would not have done, if he had considered himself the “head of the Church,” in the modern Roman sense.
It makes a neat turn of an argument to say that the visible Church must have a visible head; and then to set forth the Pope as that head; but after all, it is merely a question of historic fact, and history points to the universal Episcopate as the head, and not to the Pope of Rome. If the Pope of Rome is the head of the Church, then when the Pope dies, apparently the Church has no head, and remains a headless monster, perhaps for several months, until another Pope is elected and enthroned. Surely this is a curious condition of things, that the Church should be continually sloughing off its head, and growing another, every generation or so; so that every little while it has no head at all. The collective episcopate does not die; but lives on from age to age, and as the head of the Church, is abiding and permanent.
The whole growth of the papal claims may be summarized by four words: Primacy, Supremacy, Sovereignty, and Infallibility. The Primacy of Rome, Anglicans admit to be lawful; not as of divine appointment, but as a matter of precedence and executive convenience, originating from the prominence of the Imperial city. The Supremacy of Rome, Anglicans reject, as disturbing the original balance of power defined by the general councils and canon law of the Church. The Sovereignty of Rome, Anglicans repudiate, as mere secular Imperialism transferred to the Church, from the State. The Infallibility of the Roman pontiffs, the Anglican Church denies, as an assumption by one man in the Church of a power, or faculty, conferred by our Lord on the Church as a whole.
From what has been said, it seems evident that there is no scriptural evidence that St. Peter was appointed supreme head of the Church by our Lord, and that there is no historical evidence of any sort which proves that St. Peter ever attempted to transfer any authority, peculiar to himself to the Bishops of Rome; and that what the early Church conceded to the Patriarch of Rome, was a primacy of honor among equals, and not a supremacy of authority, by divine appointment.