Papal Power

In vindicating the Reformers right to protest against the claims of the Papacy, French Reformer Jean Claude writes:

What could our fathers say to that divine power that the flatterers of the Popes attributed to them? As the Glossary of the Decretals, which remarks, “That everyone said of the Pope that he had all divine power- caeleste arbitrium ; that by reason he could change the nature of things, applying the essential properties of one thing to another; that he could make something of nothing; that a proposition which was nothing he could make to be something; that in all things that he should please to do, his will might serve for a reason; that there is none who could say to him, Why dost thou do that?  that he could dispense with whatsoever was right, and make injustice to become justice, by changing and altering that which was right; and, in fine, that he had a plentitude, a fulness of power.”

~ A Defense of the Reformation trans. T.B-M.A. 1815, pg. 21

These are amazing claims, and we too often forget that they were actually made and actually believed by many.  They were binding upon the consciouses of the faithful, and indeed, one has a difficult time seeing how they do not seek to take the place of God.  This is just one reason why the Reformers responded to the papacy in the manner that they did.

This entry was posted in church history, papacy by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

5 thoughts on “Papal Power

  1. Nobody can really doubt that these things have been impressed upon the consciousness of many. But in my own personal dealings with Roman Catholics, there is always this plausible deniability that enters the room, like a fat greasy mobster holding a baseball bat, whenever the conversation gets dicey. “The church never actually said that,” or “we never said infallibility extended into that area,” or something like that. It’s so frustratingly slippery.

    So how does one demonstrate the historical legitimacy of your representation of pre-reformation Rome?

  2. Claude is quoting an extant book from the time, so that ought to be enough.

    Was it “ex cathedra”? Well probably not. This is most likely because the “ex cathedra” formulation didn’t exist yet!

    At some point though you have to ask about real life and real churches. Does the average Roman Catholic only believe what has been said ex cathedra? Does he even know how long that list is? Does he care?

    No. That’s not the point, nor the soul of the RC system. The point is submitting to the guy wearing the hat.

    These modern questions are so very Protestant aren’t they? The very methodology smells of America. Of course the Pope can do these things! That’s what Popes are for. Mind your business.

  3. I’m not sure I’d say such blustery remarks were binding on the consciences of the faithful. Whatever the popes might say about their own power, there was almost always a significant counter-voice of limited power coming from within the tradition, from bishops, theologians, and laypeople. I have explored these questions at length in many entries and essays on my own blog. Part of the problem with our dealings with Roman Catholics today is that we believe the story they tell about how pre-Reformation history. We really shouldn’t. They’re leaving out some of the best stuff.

  4. My point really wasn’t a legal point, as if these were constitutional documents. And sure there were dissenters. But that’s just proof of the Proto-Protestant ethos.

    My point is a realistic one.

    When a man claims to be God on earth, he is including the demand that you believe him in the claim. Nobody says, “I hold your very being in my hands, but you don’t have to believe me. It is just my opinion.”

    And this guy is the head of your church. He can kick you out of the kingdom. I think you’d better go with what he says.

  5. Sure, Steven. I’m not so much disagreeing with your basic point as expanding on it. The popes and their creatures said a lot of exaggerated things about the divine status of the pope and his power, but the point is those things were recognized as exaggerated by many, and over a number of centuries the resistance to the exaggerations mounted and grew more sophisticated in its own appeals to tradition. In other words, the popes didn’t just get away with claiming to be God on earth.

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