Who Was the First Pope?

Roman Catholicism claims that Peter was the first Pope, and that there is an unbroken line of succession from Peter to the current Pope. As such Rome blasphemously asserts papal supremacy, that the Pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” That he “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” [1] 

We have already seen in previous posts how their arguments for this are spurious. Peter was not the first Pope and the Papacy is not an institution of Christ, but is rather a satanic perversion of the divine right of church government. For a detailed refutation of the Roman Catholic arguments, see The Equality of Peter Among the Apostles by James Bannerman, and The Pope: Neither the Head of the Church, nor the Successor of Peter by Wilhelmus à Brakel.

Having seen that Christ did not institute a papacy in the church, and that Peter was not a pope or universal bishop, one may ask when and how the papacy came to exist and how it became what it is today.

If Not Peter, Then Who?

First, the papacy did not appear immediately at one time, rather it developed over a long period of time. Attempting to identify the first pope is akin to asking: When does food become rotten? It is not easy to pinpoint at one specific time because it is a gradual process. Francis Turretin observes that “this supreme power of the Romish hierarchy (or rather the tyranny and primacy of the pope) was established not at once, but gradually and successively through the course of centuries, Satan working this mystery of iniquity [2 Thes. 2:7] slowly and imperceptibly” (IET XVIII.xx.2). Yet, we can still identify clear stages of its development over time.

Stages of the Development of the Papacy.

Johann H. Heidegger outlines seven periods of the rise and development of the papacy (Historia Papatus). [2] John Calvin treats this subject under five heads (Institutes 4.7). We have previously shared J.A. Wylie’s seven sections on the History of the Papacy. Jonathan Edwards gives a pithy summary of the progressive development of the papacy:

“The rise of Antichrist was gradual. The Christian church corrupted itself in many things soon after Constantine’s time, growing more and more superstitious in its worship, and by degrees bringing in many ceremonies into the worship of God, until at length they brought in the worship of saints, and set up images in their churches. The clergy in general, and especially the bishop of Rome, assumed more and more authority to himself.

“In the primitive times, he was only a minister of a congregation, then a standing moderator of a presbytery, then a diocesan bishop, then a metropolitan, which is equivalent to an archbishop, then a patriarch. Afterwards he claimed the power of universal bishop over the whole Christian church, wherein he was opposed for a while, but afterwards was confirmed in it by the civil power of the emperor in the year 606. After that he claimed the power of a temporal prince, and so was wont to carry two swords, to signify that both the temporal and spiritual sword was his. He claimed more and more authority, till at length, as Christ’s vicegerent on earth, he claimed the very same power that Christ would have done, if he was present on earth reigning on his throne; or the same power that belongs to God, and was used to be called God on earth; to be submitted to by all the princes of Christendom.” (A History of the Work of Redemption, p. 325).

Francis Turretin gives four stages in the history of the papacy: the beginning; its increase; its flower and standing age; its decline and decrease. [3] In this post, we will summarize Turretin’s schema. In this summary, Turretin’s sections are denoted by the § symbol and the number in parentheses; supplemental sources are footnoted.

1) The first signs of the papacy began around the fourth century after the Edict of Milan, and when Rome began to vie for domination in church government at the council of Nicaea.

2) Roman primacy and doctrinal corruption increased from the fourth to the sixth century when the bishop “first arrogated to himself the title of Universal Bishop and obtained domination in spiritual matters through the favor of Phocas and degenerated in many ways in doctrine and rites from the pristine simplicity.” It continued to increase from there to the tenth century as Boniface III, Benedict IX, and Gregory VII “usurped both spiritual and temporal monarchy.

3) The height and dominion of papal primacy was from the tenth century until the beginning of the sixteenth. During that time, the pope “exercised both [ecclesiastical and civil] dominations flagitiously, the purer doctrine having been destroyed from Gregory VII.

4) Lastly, the decay and decline of the Roman primacy began at the Reformation and continues until now, when eventually it will be utterly destroyed by the Spirit of Christ’s mouth (2 Thes. 2:8), the gospel. (§ 2).

1. The Seed of the Papacy.

Even in the time of the apostles, the seed of antichrist was already being planted. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thes. 2:7). James and John’s mother desired that her two sons would be given predominance in Christ’s kingdom (Mat. 20:21). Some in the church already began to take their eyes off of Christ by dividing into factions and fighting over preeminence, “every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas…For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?” (1 Cor. 1:12, 3:3-4). Diotrephes is condemned by John for desiring “to have the preeminence among them” (3 John 9). The epistles of Jude and Galatians strongly warn of innovative doctrine and practice creeping into the church. Yet, this lust for power and doctrinal impurity was not widespread nor yet capable of erupting for several centuries, and no local or regional church usurped control or dominion over any other.

Before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the regional church there organically became considered prominent in status and purity because the new covenant church began there and expanded outward (Acts 1:8; Isa. 2:2). But after the death of the apostles and the destruction of the city, the prominence of churches became less and less grounded on the apostolic faith and rather became connected with the glory and dignity of the metropolitan cities of the empire in which they resided. The principal cities of the Roman Empire at that time were Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. And this seemingly innocent prominence of status began to slowly shift into preeminence in ecclesiastical authority for the metropolitan regions; power became centralized into diocesan jurisdictions as the foundation of influence shifted from the church community and body of presbyters to the person of the bishop. [4] But at that time there was not yet any assumption of ecumenical power of one region over others (§ 3).

Even the best institutions of men degenerate over time, and this also happened in these diocesan jurisdictions where the metropolitan bishops began to arrogate more power to themselves over the other congregations in their regions. Early church fathers often complained about this, even specifically of Rome. Socrates (380-439) wrote that the Roman bishops gradually degenerated so much “as to proceed beyond the limits of the priesthood to domination.” [5] Basil (330-379) openly attacked Rome’s “Western pride.” [6] Even Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607), writing of this period, confesses: “I hate the pride of that church.” [7] And Pius II (1405-1464) admits, “Before the Nicene Council each lived for himself, and little respect was shown to the Roman church.” [8] Victor I (d. 199) and Stephen I (d. 257) are examples of the ambition for power in this era. The former, although opposed by Irenaeus, for excommunicating churches over petty disagreements in the Quartodeciman Controversy, and the latter for allying with scandalous bishops and seeking to establish Rome as an appellate authority over Spain, despite Cyprian’s protests. [9] In sum, “whatever may have been the attempts of the Roman bishops to obtain the primacy over the remaining churches, still it is certain that up to this time they had no right or power above the others.” (§ 4).

Council of Nicaea (325).

Romanists attempt to confirm papal primacy in the sixth canon of the Nicene Council, but the canon itself says no such thing. It does not ascribe any prerogative of the bishop of Rome over the other patriarchs, rather it confirms a custom of the metropolitan bishop having jurisdictional primacy over the suburban provinces in proximity to the urban center. [10] Due to the dignity of the city, Rome grew to have the primacy of honor and order among the metropolitan bishops. But this primacy of honor and order was not a primacy of authority and jurisdiction over all metropolitans. The bishops of Alexandria and Antioch were equal to the Roman bishop, not subordinate to him. Roman archbishop and church historian Pierre de Marca (1594-1662) even acknowledges this. [11] (§ 7). Calvin says, “we deny not that [the bishop of Rome] was one of the principal bishops, though we are unwilling to admit what the Romanists now contend for—viz. that he had power over all.” [12]

2. The Development of the Papacy.

Another reason the church of Rome attained a primacy of honor and order was due to its relative tranquility compared with the dissentions and turmoil in the oriental and eastern churches at the time, and the political instability during the fall of the Western Roman Empire. One notable example is of Athanasius’ struggle against Arianism and its strongholds in the east, leading him to find allies with Rome. In the time following Nicaea, Rome was appealed to for resolving disputes. “The Roman bishops” says Turretin, “entertained these appeals more eagerly than they ought, catching at every occasion of extending their power; as was seen in Eutyches against Flavian.” (§ 9). Roman meddling was particularly strong in the African churches, such that the Council of Carthage sought to remedy it in several ways:

“St. Augustine and bishop Aurelius in this council condemned Pope Zosimus for interfering with the African church’s jurisdiction by falsifying the text of canon 5 of the First Council of Nicaea. They further warned Pope Zosimus, and later Pope Celestine, not to “introduce the empty pride of the world into the Church of Christ” and to keep their Roman noses out of African affairs (canon 138). The council ruled that no bishop may call himself “Prince of Bishops” or “Supreme Bishop” or any other title which suggests supremacy (canon 39). It also ruled that if any of the African clergy dared to appeal to Rome, the same was ipso facto cast out of the clergy (canon 34).” [13]

The seat of the Roman empire moved to Constantinople and, for many reasons, western civil power began to fracture and decline. Power vacuums arose, which the Roman bishops capitalized upon, seeking authority for themselves and creating a semblance of stability. God’s providential means of restraining the rise of “that Wicked” gradually began to “be taken out of the way” (2 Thes. 2:7-8). [14]

In due time, two patriarchates were added to the former three, creating the Pentarchy of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In 381, Constantinople was considered the second place of honor and order after Rome because it had become the seat of the empire and was, so to speak, a “new Rome” (canon 3, Council of Constantinople). Then the Council of Chalcedon (451) ascribed the same rank of honor to Constantinople as to Rome (canon 28). “Pope” Leo fully approved the canons of this council, and the council itself simply addressed him as “Archbishop Leo.” [15] But this equality between all the patriarchs fluctuated over time as many bickered and strove for domination in honor, influence, and government.

Universal Bishop

John IV of Constantinople (d. 595) assumed the title of Ecumenical or Universal Bishop from the Emperor. Gregory the Great (540-604) strongly condemned this title as anti-Christian, “I confidently say, that whoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Bishop, runs before Antichrist in his pride; because by his haughtiness he places himself before others.” [16] However, Gregory’s successor, Boniface III also arrogated the title of Universal Bishop to himself in 607. Emperor Phocas flattered Boniface with this title to gain support from the West because his usurpation of the throne and murder of the previous emperor left him highly disfavored in Constantinople.

This marked a significant change in the government of the church, and effectively exhibits the “birth and revelation of the Antichrist.” [17] Instead of five patriarchs with equal power, the Roman pontiff now claimed to be the one Universal Bishop over them all. Previously, the term “pope” (from papa or pater) simply meant “father” and was used indiscriminately for all ministers and bishops, but then it became a proper name for the alleged Universal Bishop of Rome. Prior to Boniface III, there was one universal catholic church under the sole headship of Christ. But then the church began more and more to move under the headship of this Universal Bishop or Pope, “and they who were not subject to him and did not acknowledge him as the supreme head were considered schismatics.” Turretin continues, 

“Before, the election of any bishop made by the people and clergy (confirmed by the metropolitan) was considered ratified without consulting the Roman pontiff. But Boniface, in the synod held at Rome, determined that the election of a bishop made by the people and clergy and approved by the chief of the city was only valid if the Roman pontiff had interposed.” (§ 12).

Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, greatly unifying western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire a few centuries prior, and allowing the West to emerge from the shadow of, and compete for sovereignty with, the Byzantine Empire. The Great Schism (1054) between the East and West was fomented in large part by the growing papal desire for power. This ecclesiastical tyranny in government, doctrine, and worship continued to grow for centuries until the papacy began to treacherously lust for domination even beyond the church and spiritual matters.

3. The Height and Dominion of the Papacy.

While with Boniface III, the papacy seized ecclesiastical primacy, which the succeeding popes only confirmed and increased, the last step towards its climax was still lacking, namely civil power. This temporal monarchy was added to the already extant spiritual monarchy by Hildebrand, or Gregory VII. He seized the papacy in 1073 and “raised it to a climax of tyranny,” not just in the church, but now, also in the political realm, “even the majesty of emperors being trampled underfoot.

“To such a height of audacity did he proceed that in a Roman council convoked in the year 1076, he did not blush to excommunicate the emperor himself, to lay waste the kingdoms of Germany and Italy and to free the chiefs and people from the oath of allegiance to him. And thus at length he obtained both powers, spiritual as well as temporal monarchy, which the popes had for a long time desired.” (§ 14).

Hildebrand compiled the Dictatus Papae, a list of 27 principles in which he ascribes unlimited and almost infinite power over all things ecclesiastical and civil to the papacy. Notable examples are:

“That the Roman pontiff alone can use the imperial insignia; that all princes should kiss his feet only; that his name alone should be recited in councils. It is lawful for him to depose emperors. His sentence is not to be reviewed by anyone, while he alone can review the sentences of all others. The pope can absolve subjects from their allegiance to unrighteous sovereigns. The Roman pontiff alone is justly styled universal.”

His successors likewise increased their power and “brought emperors under their yoke and held them as their vassals.” Renaissance historian Johannes Aventinus (1477-1534) wrote that Hildebrand,

“first established the empire of the popes, which his successors for four hundred and fifty successive years, the world being unwilling, emperors being unwilling, so carried out, as to reduce to slavery inferiors and superiors and place them under the yoke. And they terrify all with their strokes… Now the Roman emperor is nothing any more, it is an appellation only with a body, without a form.” [18]

Before this, the popes were under the emperors. But Hildebrand was the first to not only excommunicate, “but even to deprive of his kingdom and empire, Caesar himself.” (§ 15). Not letting a good crisis go to waste, the rising Islamic threat gave the popes more opportunity to seize influence and power by uniting Europe, under the pope, against a common enemy, the promise of peace and security, offering indulgences and spoils of holy relics to Crusaders, etc. [19]

As the papacy reached its height with Hildebrand by both a spiritual and a political monarchy, so it was confirmed and expanded more and more by the impious efforts of the succeeding popes up to Boniface VIII (1230-1303)—whose reign was classically described thus: “He came in like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog.” Boniface would not allow the Roman emperor to be elected without his consent, and in his power struggle with Philip the Fair, king of France, wielded indulgences and other pontifical favors to manipulate people, eventually absolving the people of France from obeying their own king. (§ 16). He was so tyrannical that Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote a treatise against papal usurpation of civil power, and later eulogized the pope as being cast into the eighth circle” of Hell.

Turretin then emphasizes that it cannot be overstated how much forgeries, such as the Donation of Constantine and the Pseudo–Isidorian False Decretals, “promoted and strengthened the pontifical power, both temporal and spiritual.” The Liber Pontificalis, or Book of the Popes, was also a propaganda piece full of apocryphal stories and anachronisms glorifying the papacy. He lists many Protestant and even Romanist authors who came to expose these forgeries. But the damage was already done and people were deceived in to accepting papal supremacy by these fake documents and apocryphal stories. James Ussher wrote that he does not know “whether anything similar ever was produced which contributed more to strengthen the pontifical cause.” (§ 17). Former Catholic, William Webster goes through these and many other forged documents and apocryphal stories in his “Forgeries and the Papacy: The Historical Influence and Use of Forgeries in Promotion of the Doctrine of the Papacy.”

4. The Decline and Eventual Destruction of the Papacy.

Despite valiant opposition from various emperors, princes, and peoples, the succeeding popes “did not cease to establish and promote their monarchy whenever the opportunity was afforded; in spiritual as well as in temporal matters.” Turretin continues, summarizing how the power and deception of the Papacy was severely diminished by the Protestant Reformation, and will continue to be strongly opposed:

“At length, God accomplishing the great work of the Reformation, the height was passed and a decrease succeeded in the beginning of the sixteenth century under Leo X, in whose time that tyrannical and Antichristian power suffered a most serious defeat by the secession of many kings, principalities and republics from the Roman church. The Council of Trent [1545-63] resisted it in vain. As a “mere gathering of profane men, and the laughing stock of Christianity,” the Council rather strengthened and increased than corrected and reformed the errors and papal tyranny. Influenced by the most weighty reasons, the Protestants deservedly rejected and by it (as a hedge and partition wall) separated themselves from the papacy and remained separated and will remain for ever, until Rome shall have reformed her impious errors and idolatries and her Antichristian tyranny.” (§ 18).

After the Reformation, the influence and power of the Papacy has shifted away from the European civil powers, and the true church “will remain a standing and opposing party,” as witnesses of the gospel, such that the Papacy will no longer dominate Her to the same extent it did prior to the Reformation. [20] But in terms of authoritative claims, the number of souls in subjection, and secular posturing and popularity, the Papacy remains a significant threat and will continue deceiving and working against Christ and his Kingdom. Since Turretin’s time, Rome has become even more resolute in its errors. It formally established Papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1869-70), and Vatican II (1962-65) “set in motion strategies to reassert itself as the central head of a syncretistic one world religion. There are more Roman Catholics (not to mention Roman affiliate communions) today than ever. The Pope travels to more countries and receives more praise and worship than at any other time in history. The modern popes have been regarded as the world’s diplomat, brokering relations between heads of state and world religions.” [21]

But we are promised by the Word of God that one day the Papacy will eventually be destroyed once and for all, that Man of Sin “whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming” (2 Thes. 2:8). “With the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall [Christ] slay the wicked.” (Isa. 11:4). “They that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness…by the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed.” (Job 4:9). “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Rev. 2:16).

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God…And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.” (Rev. 19:15, 20-21).

[1] Paragraphs 880-882, & 937 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997).

[2] “A Polemic on the Seven Periods of the Roman Church” from Historia Papatus, translated by Charles Johnson:

I. The history of the Roman Church, purer in doctrine and government, from the beginning of the Church until the time of Constantine the Great, or A.D. 314.

II. [The history of] it retaining purer doctrine as to principal matters, but striving for domination in government. From Constantine the Great, or A.D. 314, to Phocas & Boniface III, or A.D. 607.

III. [The history of] it attaining domination in spiritual matters by the indulgence of Phocas, and degenerating in doctrine and rites. From Boniface III, or A.D. 607, until Gregory VII, or A.D. 1073.

IV. [The history of] it striving for domination even in temporal things and inclining worse day by day in doctrine and rites. From Gregory VII, or A.D. 1073, until Boniface VIII, or A.D. 1294.

V. [The history of] it attaining domination in temporal things, and therefore even Cesaro-Papacy, and it shamefully mending all purer doctrine with profligate doctrine. From Boniface VIII, or A.D. 1294 until Leo X, or A.D. 1517.

VI. [The history of] it suffering devastation in its domination in spiritual and temporal things through the Reformation, or the separation of the faithful. From Leo X, or A.D. 1517, until the end of Council of Trent, or A.D. 1563.

VII. [The history of] it, strengthened in its error through the decrees of a false faith, and the Tridentine doctrinal anathemas, contending with the true Church of Christ by fraud and force. From the time of the conclusion of the Council of Trent, or A.D. 1563, until our times.

[3] Institutes of Elenctic Theology XVIII.xx, vol. 3, pp. 189-199.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, p. 353.

[5] pera tēs hierōsynēs epi dynasteian, Ecclesiastical History 7.11 [NPNF2, 2:158; PG 67.757].

[6] tēn dytikēn ophryn, Letter 239, “To Eusebius, bishop of Samosata” [NPNF2, 8:281; PG 32.893].

[7] Annales Ecclesiastici, Annus 372.32 [1866], 5:335.

[8] Letter 288, “To Martino Mayer,” Aeneae Sylvii … Opera [1551/1967], p. 802.

[9] Cyprian, Letter 67, “To the Clergy and People of Spain” [ANF 5:369–72].

[10] cf. the section on Nicaea in Facts of History Which Refute and Contradict Roman Catholic Claims for the Papacy by William Webster

[11] Dissertationum de Concordia Sacerdotii et Imperii 1.3 [1763], pp. 5-6.

[12] John Calvin, Instititues of the Christian Religion 4.7.8.

[13] Philip Schwerin, How the Bishop of Rome Assumed the Title of Vicar of Christ, pp. 4-5.

[14] cf. Turretin’s 7th Disputation, “Whether it can be Proven the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist,” sect. 11 & 14.

[15] Schwerin, ibid., p. 5.

[16] Letter 33, “Ad Mauricium Augustum” [PL 77.891]. Gregory “confirms this in many letters from which it is invincibly evident that at that time the Roman bishop had not as yet obtained a spiritual monarchy or a universal episcopate” (cf. Book 5, Letter 39, “Gregorius Constantinae Augustae” [CCSL 140.315]; epist. 36, 38).

[17] Turretin’s 7th Disputation, sect. 15.

[18] Annalium Boiorum 5 [1627], p. 350

[19] The Reform Papacy and the Origin of the Crusades by H.E.J. Cowdrey

[20] Wilhelmus à Brakel, Commentary on Revelation (13:3), p. 212.

[21] Jason Schuiling, personal communication (Aug. 8, 2020). As an example of this syncretism:

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.” (Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, sect. 16)


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