Why do Roman Catholics have a Pope and Protestants do not?

Luther Bible, 1534

Luther Bible, 1534 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Pope Benedict’s sudden resignation the world’s attention is focused on the gathering of the Cardinals and the large crowd soon to amass waiting for a puff of white smoke to emerge from atop one of the buildings in Vatican City. I have lived through one Papel transition and this will be my second. I thought it might be helpful to describe how the office of Pope arose in Roman Catholicism and why  we as Protestants have no such office.

The Early Church’s Response to Controversy 

The Church began on the day of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s sermon that day was mightily used to add 3,000 to the church in one day. From there, just as Jesus had taught the church spread through Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, then to the uttermost parts of the earth. The Gospel ultimately spread throughout the Roman Empire due to the work of great Missionaries like Paul and Barnabas. When controversy arose within the Church as to the proper use of the Mosaic Law church leaders turned to the Church at Jerusalem. At the helm of the Jerusalem Church was James, the half brother of Jesus. It was the church at Jerusalem that rendered the ultimate verdict as to the appropriate use of the Mosaic law in relation to the Gospel.

The Death of the Original Church Leaders and the onslaught of heresy

Within a few decades the original leaders of the Jerusalem church as well as the original Apostolic authorities died, most through martyrdom and some through natural causes. Once the first group of recognized leaders died off the scene, heresies began to flourish. At times to get a following a heretic would disguise his writings as that of a deceased apostle. It became very important to identify which writings were authentic, thus authoritative, and which were not.

The Heretic Marcion began to espouse a teaching that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God taught by Jesus and Paul. To support his claim he formed a canon (authoritative list of documents) which contained Luke and a few of Paul’s letters. Marcion conveniently removed any reference to Old Testament verses from his canon. Despite his deceptive editorial work, Marcion’s heresy began to develop a following.

The Formation of the New Testament Canon

Well known Pastor’s like Irenaeus (175AD-195AD) began to call for the formation of a genuine canon of scripture. He suggested that the primary guidelines for such a canon should include:

  • The document must have been written by an apostle or an individual under apostolic authority.
  • The document must already be recognized and accepted as authoritative by the vast majority of legitimate congregations.

Irenaeus wrote out a list of letters that he deemed credible according to those standards. While there were minor details yet to be resolved through church counsels, the list that he proposed is basically what we consider the New Testament today. By the early 200’s we have a completed New Testament that was agreed upon by the majority of Christendom.

With the death of the Apostles and the completion of the New Testament Canon, the power base of the church was no longer a city, nor a person, but a book, a Bible. It was then that the church officially held to SOLA SCRIPTURA.

The Christianization of the Roman Empire and Growth of the Roman Church

Soon after the completion of the New Testament Canon, something remarkable took place. On Oct. 28, 312 at the Battle of the Mivian Bridge, the Roman Emperor Constantine was battling to become the soul ruler of the Roman Empire. According to historians, at a decisive point in the battle, Constantine looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the words “by this, win!”, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol, and thereafter they were victorious. At the Edict of Milan, Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Later at the Edict of Thessalonica Christianity became the official state religion.

Meanwhile, there was already a significant church growing in Rome. The Senior Pastor’s name was Miltades. Upon his return to Rome, Constantine gave Miltades the Lateran Palace in 313 in recognition of the military victory. Over time, the power of the Roman Church grew and the Pastor of the Roman Church tended to exercise power over all of the churches in the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century the title Pope was commonly used for any Senior Pastor or Bishop. Over time it referred only to the Bishop of the Church at Rome.

But do you see what is happening? The Authority of the Scriptures were growing, the Authority of the Roman Pope is growing. Over the course of the next 1000 years, the church spreads into various areas, languages. However the language of the Church was Latin, although fewer and fewer people could actually read Latin. As a result the membership of the Church became ignorant of what the Bible actually said. Thus, the only authority that remained was that of the Roman Bishop. As you might expect the Gospel was distorted, the truth was perverted, much went wrong.

The Birth of the Protestant Reformation

Simultaneously, in the 1,400’s a way of teaching called, “renaissance humanism” began to sweep through the Universities. As a side note, be carful to differentiate between Renaissance humanism and Modern secular humanism. Renaissance Humanism taught that knowledge shouldn’t be limited to the Academic Elite, but should be given to the masses. They believed scholars should have access to original documents, rather than trusting the word of professors.

This return to the authority of the original began to influence the thinking of the church. Monks who could read the original began to look more closely at the canon of scripture. They studied the context, the original Greek, the oldest writings of the church. As a result new interpretations began to emerge that were closer to the oldest interpretations. One such Monk was Martin Luther. Luther’s 95 Thesis is commonly considered the launch point of the Protestant Reformation – it was an attempt to return the church to what it was before the Roman Church developed power. Protestant Reformation was launched, maintained and energized by FIVE latin slogans.

  • (Sola Scriptura)
  • (Sola Fide)
  • (Solus Christus)
  • (Sola Gratia)
  • (Soli Deo Gloria)

The first an most important was Sola Scriptura. I say this is the most important because without it we wouldn’t have the other four. Sola Scriptura returns authority in the church not to a Body of Men, or to Majority Rule, or to some foreign Bishop, but to the Bible which is the mind of Christ.

The Word of the Lord is eternal. The Church was born through the preaching of the Word. The Church did not sanction the Word, nor ordain the Word, it simply recognized the Word for what it was – the authoritative, innerrant, infallible, sufficient, inspired Word of the Living God. Through the Word we have the knowledge of God and knowledge of redemption through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
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