Studies On the Early Papacy – A Must Read for Church History Geeks

Jan 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Blog Posts

For many Reformed believers, the authority of the papacy throughout Church history offers the most salient and visible reminder of separation. Whereas many of the theological issues separating Catholic and Reformed Christians concern different understandings of similar doctrines, the question of the papacy can only be answered with a bold rejection or acceptance. The rejection of papal authority by Reformed believers, however, requires taking a critical position toward some of the greatest theologians in Church History (such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome). It requires believing that these great saints and Doctors of the Church were fundamentally wrong about God’s provision for ensuring the preservation of the true apostolic faith.

Around the turn of the 20th century some Anglican scholars began a revived effort to demonstrate that in the early Church the Roman See never possessed the authority that Rome would later claim for itself. It was to these claims that Fr. Dom John Chapman, himself a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, penned his work Studies on the Early Papacy. Chapman divides the book into eight large chapters that are all true to their names; The Growth of the Patriarchates, St. Cyprian on the Church, St. Athanasius and Pope Julius I, St. Chrysostom on St. Peter, St. Jerome and Rome, The Condemnation of Pelagianism, Apiarius, and The Age of Justinian. A large percentage of the word count in each chapter comes from direct and extensive quotations from the major participants in the controversies Chapman discusses. For this reason Chapman includes many passages that are not easily found in translation elsewhere. For some Reformed readers, these passages may be shocking. Especially in seminary circles where professors are unlikely to expose their students to extensive passages where men like St. Augustine affirm the authority of the papacy, these texts may be a bit unnerving.

For Reformed readers, Chapman’s chapter entitled “The Condemnation of Pelagianism” may be of particular interest as some Reformed scholars view Augustine’s leadership in the condemnation of Pelagianism as a precursor to concepts of salvific grace embraced within Reformed theology. Having studied the Pelagian controversy myself as a seminary student I still did not realize until reading Chapman that Augustine relied heavily on the authority of the Pope during his theological battles. In fact, Augustine felt so indebted to the Pope as the controversy subsided that he went on to dedicate the four books Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum to Pope Boniface. In the following excerpt, provided by Chapman, Augustine’s recognition and love for the pope’s authority is undeniable:

I knew, by the voice of fame, and frequent and trustworthy messengers had brought me word, blessed and venerable Pope Boniface, how full you are of the grace of God… Since the heretics do not cease to rage against the fold of the Lord’s flock, and search all around for entrance, that they may tear to pieces the sheep bought at so great a price, and since the pastoral watchtower is common to all of us who fill the episcopal office (in which you, however, are lifted on a loftier pinnacle)… I have decided to send to your holiness, not that you may learn from it, but that you may examine it, and, whosesoever anything may chance to displease you, correct it.

As a former Reformed seminary student myself, I think Studies on the Early Papacy would be an especially excellent read for Protestant seminary students. In my experience, many Reformed seminarians tend not to read required course texts outside their own Protestant tradition even while studying distinctly Catholic dogma. This is an odd phenomenon. Consider an analogy; could someone get an accurate understanding of global climate change while only reading from a handful of authors who all reject the idea of global climate change? In the same way, investigating the truth about the role of the papacy in preserving the orthodoxy of the Church requires reading from some of the best Church historians who actually believe in the divinely established authority of the Pope. For students of Church history willing to take an honest look at the papacy in the ancient Church, this work by Dom John Chapman is an excellent place to start.

If you are interested in ordering the book click on the following link.

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  1. Chapman’s book seems to cover similar ground with similar intent as Adrian Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451.” Is one superior to the other? Both equally useful?

  2. […] I found this through the valu­able Called to Com­mu­nion site.  An extra­or­di­nar­ily rea­son­able price for a new copy. Dom John Chap­man has done exten­sive research and included quo­ta­tions from sources not read­ily found. I note with inter­est, too, that I used to free­lance edit for the book’s pub­lisher.  It would have been won­der­ful to have had the oppor­tu­nity to work on this one.  Alas, one pur­sues other things.  But the book, which affirms the author­ity of the papacy in the early Church, will soon be wing­ing its way to a mail­box near me. Jeremy Tate’s review can be found here. […]

  3. Dan: Fortescue’s book is more like a primer on the topic while Chapman’s book does more of a thorough job in making the case for the early papacy. I highly suggest this book along with the first two volumes of Carroll’s Christendom series in making the case for the early papacy.

  4. Thanks Tyler,

    Hey Dan, I haven’t read Fortescue’s book myself, but I’ve heard good things. I’d guess 60% of Chapman’s book comes from extended quotes from the saints of the Church who were involved in fighting heresy. It assumes the reader is already well read in the controversies and I’m not sure if Fortescue’s book makes the same assumption.

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  5. Thanks Jeremy for the recommendation. I’ve got some historical and dogmatic books on my immediate reading list, and this will fit right in with them.

  6. I’m wondering if anyone has also read Klaus Schatz’ book ‘Papal Primacy’ and how the two compare?

  7. Thank you for this post Jeremy. The following is a link to a large portion of Chapman’s book online.

  8. Layman’s opinion: Of the books on the papacy I read when coming into the Church in 2010, the 3 best were Steve Rays ‘Upon this Rock’, Chapman’s, and Fortescue’s. But Chapman’s is the more scholarly one and had me re-reading and scratching my head at times… as all scholarly books do. He does assume you know the material somewhat and that you know latin. But it was worthwhile nevertheless. I got my copy cheap on Abebooks. Steve Ray’s book is huge with lots of footnotes and also is partly devoted to evidence from scripture. For the layman Ray’s should be at the top of the list imo. Then Fortescue (it is small) then Chapman.

  9. Jeremy Tate, You said:

    The rejection of papal authority…requires taking a critical position toward some of the greatest theologians in Church History (such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome). It requires believing that these great saints and Doctors of the Church were fundamentally wrong about God’s provision for ensuring the preservation of the true apostolic faith.

    That may be, but it’s not as though these fellows were apostles.

  10. Reading the quote from St. Augustine being used as a prooftext for papal supremacy is a little unnerving. Not in the sense that the wording is shocking, but rather that the understanding of the wording is taken any differently than any other episcopal letter. I am eager to read this text, having most if not all of the sources of the Fathers used as reference. If this follows the trend of most of these type of works, the conclusions drawn are typically a little weak with a very limited scope.

    Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the veneration of the chains of St. Peter. The text from Vespers and Orthros give a good definition and understanding of St. Peter’s role/authority handed down by Christ. While some Fathers may deny the rock comment being attributed to the faith of Peter, or Peter himself, the Church’s conciliar text is clear. The Church is clear that the keys were also handed specifically and purposefully to Peter.

    Does this have anything to do with Papal Supremacy? Hardly. Apostolic Authority? Definitely. Be careful of drawing conclusions in a revisionist manner, and always broaden the scope to compare how other ecclesiastical letters were written in this time. It would also be wise to take a look at the Ecumenical Councils, and the Papal involvement.

  11. Hi Mike,

    The apostles themselves taught apostolic succession. “[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). In this passage Paul refers to the first three generations of apostolic succession—his own generation, Timothy’s generation, and the generation Timothy will teach. This “entrusting” does not mean “take a risk with some men and see how it goes, maybe they will keep pure doctrine by their own faithfulness”. Instead, this refers to the preservation of the true apostolic faith which God preserves. What do you understand as God’s provision for preserving the true apostolic faith?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy


  12. Jeremy: But Eastern Orthodox respect Sts. Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome as much as Catholics do (while taking exception to a lot of what the second personage proposed), and yet the former still deny the Vatican I papacy to which the latter adhere.

    Why should we assume that (1) the East isn’t being faithful to Tradition on this issue, although both parties agree that it has done a good job doing so, and (2) the West is correctly interpreting the relevant data, when both parties have had access to the history and writings but are far from agreement on this issue?


  13. Hi, Tim V!

    I’ve only seen a little of what Schatz has written, and only is as it relates to Augustine. The customer review for Chapman’s book over on Amazon also mentions Schatz and I totally agree ( I’ve read the volume from Augustine on Pelagianism that’s included in the 38-volume series as well as most of the relevant epistolary correspondence, and Chapman is right on the money. I’m referring specifically to the Chapman material found at these two links:

    But Schatz’s presentation of what happened between Africa and Rome with regards to Pelagianism and beyond, and the conclusions that he draws, just don’t seem to match with what you find when you read the primary sources taken together as a whole. Here are some more specific thoughts that I’ve shared:

    At the end of those comments I took a friendly jab at the Jesuits. But this was before I realized that a Jesuit (Roland Teske) is part of the translation team providing us with The Works of Saint Augustine—A Translation for the 21st Century. I recant!!! Ha, ha.

    I do have to make a correction to a quotation I made in this comment:

    The Latin text of Augustine’s Letter 209 does not explicitly mention “the chair of Peter.” I wasn’t aware of this at the time that I made the original posting on Catholic Answers Forums. I am supposing that the translator added “of Peter” because it is implied by illa Sede and by Augustine’s subsequent appeal to Peter as the one who sets the example for Pope Celestine.

    With love in Christ,

  14. I have a couple of questions that are similar and both are about authority. I am Catholic and returned from being Protestant in 2008 after 10 years away from the Catholic Church. Here are my questions.

    1. If the early Church and councils accepted papal authority, why did some people get so hostile to it, like the people we now refer to as Eastern Orthodox? I mean, if the papacy is something that is part of Christ’s teaching and holy Tradition, why did the Orthodox reject it? The same can be asked of people who took issue with the words of popes, like St. Cyprian’s issue with Pope Stephen regarding rebaptism of heretics. Why get hostile if he knew the pope had the authority to decide the matter? The same can be asked of the Arian heretics or any other? If they knew the pope had this authority, why reject his decisions?

    2. If the Early Church rejected sola scriptura, why didn’t the heretics know this was not part of holy Tradition?What I am referring to is why the heretics like the Arians tried to appeal to Scripture and didn’t understand that Scripture alone is insufficient? That being said, I don’t understand what is meant that the Early Church had an organic understanding of things like the Trinity? What does this mean? If you only had an organic understanding of the Trinity before the councils got specific, how did the councils determine the definition of what the Trinity is and is not and the heretics did not deduce the same definitions but instead taught things like Arianism?

  15. As to your first question, a newly-published book on Amazon, S. Scott Herbert’s “The Eastern Churches and the Papacy,” would appear to hold the answer. The author, in brief, argues that the East (sometimes grudgingly) acknowledged the authority of the Pope and that, while some Easterners ignored that authority when it didn’t suit them to listen, the first systematic *refusal* of that authority did not come until the patriarch Photius in the ninth century. I highly recommend the volume!

  16. Hi Gerald,
    A self-published book on a complex issue like the Orthodox interaction with the papacy sends alarm bells. If the scholarship was all that great then an academic publisher would have published it, or a Catholic publisher like Liturgical Press or Ignatius Press.

    Can I remind you that Saint Photius died in communion with Rome without revoking anything he said. Also, Patriarch Ignatius who was the cause of the initial trouble totally ignored papal demands over Bulgaria when he resumed power.

    An issue I have is that the Iconoclastic Church of Constantinople (730s to 787 and again in the 9th century to 843) is often equated with the Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics go around saying that the Orthodox rejected the papacy at this time when it was the iconoclasts. The Orthodox in the Byzantine Empire were a persecuted minority at this time.

    The Orthodox Church commemorates numerous popes before the schism as wise and holy teachers. There was rivalry between many of the important sees, including Rome, that was unchristian at times. The Popes were consistent in their defence of Orthodoxy. It’s a pity that the Gregorian Reform Papacy of the 11th century changed the office to something it wasn’t before.

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