Friday, March 27, 2009

The Early Church Fathers on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church

"For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." -- Augustine of Hippo, Saint and Early Church Father

Aside from the Biblical origin of the papacy, we have also the testimony of the Early Christian Fathers. These earliest and most prominent writers of the Christian Church are called the Fathers of the Church and are recognized as such by Catholics, 'Orthodox' and Protestants alike. The very earliest of these Fathers of the Church are called the Apostolic Fathers because of their close connection to the Apostles. Among the Apostolic Fathers, St. Ignatius holds a prominent place. He lived from approximately AD 50-117. He was third bishop of Antioch and was taught by the Apostle St. John. He also died heroically as a martyr. The epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch are a staple in every collection of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. He repeatedly speaks of the authority and the role of bishops in the Church. This shows us that from the very earliest ages, that there is no doubt the Church of Christ had a hierarchy. St. Ignatius is also the first recorded writer to use the term "Catholic Church".

Letter to the Smyrneans, 8, 2 (AD 107): "Wherever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

In Greek the word Catholic (katholikos) means universal. The Catholic Church is the universal Christian, the one universal Church of Christ that was established upon St. Peter. It is interesting that the first recorded author to use the term Catholic Church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. Acts 11:26 Also tells us that the term Christians was also first used at Antioch. Catholics and Christians are one and the same thing because the Catholic Church is the Christian Church.

St. Ignatius also had something interesting to say about St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome.

Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans written approximately AD 110: "I do not order you as did Peter and Paul,"

We'll come back to St. Ignatius, but here are some other citations from the Fathers of the Church which show that St. Peter, the head of the Christian Church, died in Rome as its first bishop.

Tertullian, The Prescription against the heretics: "Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lord's!"

Origen, Third Commentary on Genesis,(A.D. 232): "Peter... at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer this way."


St. Cyprian, the famous bishop of Carthage wrote concerning the Bishop of Rome Fabian (Ep. lv, 24): "by the judgment of God and of Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the vote of the people then present, by the consent of aged priests and of good men, at a time when no one had been made before him, when the place of Fabian, that is the place of Peter, and the step of the sacerdotal chair were vacant".

St. Optatus, who was the chief opponent of the Donatist heresy in the fourth century and the Bishop of Milevis wrote in the schism of the Donatists 22, in AD 367: "You cannot deny that you know that in the city of Rome upon Peter first the chair of the bishop was conferred, in which sat the head of all the Apostles, Peter, whence also he was called Cephas, in which one chair unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles should each stand up for his own chair, so that now he should be a schismatic and a sinner who should against this one chair set up another. Therefore in the one chair, which is the first of the dotes Peter first sat, to whom succeeded Linus."

Lactantius, early Church writer, The Deaths of the Persecutors, 2, 5 AD 320: "And while Nero reigned, the Apostle Peter came to Rome, and, through the power of God committed unto him, wrought certain miracles, and, by turning many to the true religion, built up a faithful and stedfast temple unto the Lord."

The Early Church recognized the primacy of the Church of Rome and the bishop of Rome.

We must first look at the rebellion at the Church of Corinth in the first century. In approximately AD 90-100, The Church of Corinth consulted the bishop of Rome about serious disputes which were occurring in its Church. Pope Clement was the third bishop of Rome after St. Peter, he was the fourth Pope. The Church of Corinth wrote to Clement and asked him to intercede with their problem. Even though the Apostle St. John was still alive at the time and much closer to them in Ephesus.

The fact that the Church of Corinth went to far away Rome about their internal problem shows us that Papal primacy was recognized in the very first century. In response to their appeal, Pope Clement wrote his response to the Corinthians, the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians AD 90-100. This epistle is one of the most famous documents in the history of Christianity. In this epistles, which dates from AD 90-100, the Pope clearly uses authoritative language to command the Corinthian Christians to be subject to their local pastors.

Here are some quotes from his famous Epistle:
Clement I to the Corinthians, Chapter 1: "We feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning to the points respecting which you consulted us, especially to that shameful and detestable sedition."

Clement I to the Corinthians, Chapter 57: "Ye therefore who laid the foundations of this sedition, submit yourselves to the Presbyters and receive correction, so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts, learn to be subject aside the proud and arrogant self confidence of your tongue."

Clement I to the Corinthians, Chapter 47: "Your schism has subverted many, has discouraged many and has given rise to doubt in many."

Notice the authoritative language which Pope Clement uses in rebuking those who caused the internal rebellion at the Church of Corinth. This shows us that in the very earliest years, in the very first century, the Church of Rome was recognized as the one with superior authority. It was recognized in this way precisely because its bishop was the successor to St. Peter and his keys.

In the following very interesting quote, we will hear from Eastern Orthodox scholar Nicholas Afanasiev. He was a professor of Church history and Canon Law at the Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. As an Eastern Orthodox theologian, he was not a Catholic and did not accept Catholic teaching on the Papacy or the bishop of Rome. But in an essay found in the Primacy of Peter, edited by John Meyendorff pages 124-126, here is what this Eastern Orthodox scholar admitted about the epsitle of Clement to the Corinthians:

"Let us turn to the facts, we know that the Church of Rome took over the position of Church with priority at the end of the first century. That was about the time at which her star ascended into the firmament of history in its brightest splendour. Even as early as the epsitle to the Romans, Rome seems to have stood out among the Churches as very important. Paul bears witness that the faith of the Romans was proclaimed throughout the whole world (Rom 1-8).

We have a document which gives us our earliest reliable evidence that the Church of Rome stood in an exceptional position of authority in this period. This is the epistle of Clement of Rome. We know that Clement was president of the Roman Church. The epistle clearly shows that the Church of Rome was aware of the decisive weight in the Church of Corinth's eyes that must attach to its witness about the events in Corinth so the Church of Rome at the of the first century exhibits a marked sense of its own priority. Note also that the Church of Rome did not feel obliged to make a case to justify its authoritative pronouncement on what we should now call the internal concerns of other Churches. There is nothing said about the grounds of this priority. Apparently Rome had no doubt that its priority would be accepts without argument."

So as we hear in this quote even the Eastern Orthodox admit that the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians clearly shows that Rome clearly held the place of priority in the first century. And this undeniable priority of the Church of Rome is nothing other than the primacy that belongs to it as a result of its bishop being the successor of St. Peter.

The next example we will look at brings us back to St. Ignatius of Antioch.

St. Ignatius of Antioch on the primacy of the Church of Rome. St. Ignatius of Antioch is acknowledged for the profound significance his letters hold among the most ancient Christian documents. In his famous epistle to the Romans number 1, dated AD 11, St. Ignatius of Antioch writes about the primacy of the Church of Rome among the Churches.

"Ignatius which is called Theophorus, to the Church which presides in the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy credit, worthy of being deemed holy and which presides over love."

St. Ignatius says twice that the Church of Rome presides. St. Ignatius' letters are among the most ancient expressions of Christianity that we have outside of the Bible, and in them we just happen to see that the famous bishop of Antioch ascribes to the bishop of Rome a primacy, a presidency among the Churches. Is it just a coincidence that in AD 110 we find a primacy ascribed to the Church of Rome, where as we already saw the Fathers tell us St. Peter established a temple to God and was martyred.

Finally, St. Augustine, a luminary of the Early Church who is quoted frequently even by non-Catholics, wrote concerning the succession of of bishops of the Church of Rome:

Augustine's Letter to Generosis, AD 400: "For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! Matthew 16:18 The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these..."

Clearly the Early Church was subject to the bishops the Roman Church. The Early Church Fathers were Catholic, because they knew that there is no salvation outside of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

If you are not Catholic, you must humble yourself, learn this Faith and convert to it, or you cannot attain salvation.



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