The identification of this influence entails the adoption of the fourth and last theory as the only adequate explanation of the papal power. All the facts which have been discussed in the course of this brief study are adequately explained by attributing to Christ the origin of the peculiar status of the Bishop of Rome. The authority thus vested in St. Peter was transferred to his successors in Rome, and the subsequent history of the institution, in common with all Christian doctrines, underwent the normal process of development. Such a theory does justice to all that the Scriptures teach about St. Peter without necessitating any minimization of his position. The apparent regression which followed on St. Peter’s death is explained satisfactorily only by this theory, since alond of all the hypotheses this one takes into account the difference betwee the primary sources of Christian revelation and the subsequent studies of the writers of the early church. The ensuing development in this, as in all doctrines, owes its characteristic rapidity to the fact that it is not merely the human progress in ideas but the gradual appreciation of all that was contained in a body of truths which was already known.
Undoubtedly there are difficulties which this theory must face. The frequent opposition which was so strong might well seem to militate against the alledged institution by Christ himself. This fact could be a serious difficulty, it is true, but it depends almost entirely on the nature, not merely the fact, of the opposition in question. St. Paul had frequently to defend his authority, but no one would suggest that he was an impostor for having had to vindicate his apostleship. Similarly it is necessary to examine the nature of the opposition which faced the popes, to see whether it constituted a valid argument against the rights of their office. Setting aside the question of St. Cyprian, whose attitude is an anomaly in the early church, the first serious opposition to the papacy came from the Eusebian party in the Arian crisis. The reasons which prompted their hostility are not hard to estimate, since they represent a recurring pattern of Eastern affairs. It came as a shock to John Henry Newman to realize that the anti-papalists of the early church were at the same time the Arians, Nestorians, and Monophysites, while the champions of orthodoxy, like Athanasius or Cyril, were also the papalists. It is unlikely, to use no stronger term, that the heretics would have preserved the authentic tradition concerning the papacy any more than they had preserved it in their Trinitarian or Christological theories.
The later opposition arose out of the pretensions of the see of Constantinople. This series of incidents points more clearly than the former to the ultimate source of the difficulty. The claims to pre-eminence advanced on behalf of the see of Constantinople rested solely on the civic importance of the city. Such a principle had never been admitted in the church. Although it resulted in a real obstacle to the authority of the popes, its basis cannot be regarded as valid either in favour of the see of Constantinople or as a legitimate argument against the Roman supremacy.
The root cause of so much difficulty in church government is indicated by the nature of the claim of Constantinople. It was the defective character of the Greek ecclesiology. They did not appreciate the nature of the church as an organization. This failure is to be seen even among the saints of the Eastern episcopate.
Whether it was legally correct for St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John Chrysostom to occupy the see of Constantinople is not altogether certain. If, indeed, they were justified in acquiescing in their respective elections, it is a striking indication of how easily the Eastern church (and its saints) could abandon the provisions of Nicaea, which strictly forbade such translations. Worse still was the failure to appreciate the dependence which the local church owed to the universal, resulting in the secession of large sections of the East in defiance of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. At the root of it all lay their willingness to allow the civil power to administer the affairs of the church. This was the most serious failure of the Eastern church and it was the the ultimate cause of their hostility to the papacy, as well as various other problems.
Caesaropapism, which came upon the church after the conversion of Constantine, was never eradicated from the East, even when orthodoxy had replaced Arianism and the rights of Rome had been re-established. When this Erastian tendency became firmly implanted it was obvious that the papal authority would suffer, since the system ws incompatible with a supra-national authority. In consequence every more recent division of political authority in the East had been followed by a corresponding division of ecclesiastical authority resulting in a sovereign hierarchy in each sovereign state. Under such circumstances it has not been possible for them even to envisage a general council, although they have always acknowledged the authority of those which were held in the past. The Greek schism of the eleventh century was almost inevitable because caesaropapism was never eradicated.
The two phenomena of opposition to the papacy and caesaropapism do not constitute a valid objection against the rights of the Pope, although they presented many obstacles to the exercise of his authority. Since they are explained by defects in the Eastern church, they cannot seriously weaken the authority of Christ’s institution of the papacy.
One further consequence follows, concerning the papal authority, which is frequently overlooked by Anglicans, even though they are prepared to admit a fair degree of legitimacy to the papal prerogatives in the early church. If indeed the papal authority is to be traced back to the institution by Christ of St. Peter’s special status, then it follows that it is of the unchangeable essence of the church. As a result neither the Christian church, nor any part of it, has the right to change this arrangement. In purely human affairs nations may legitimately adopt one form of government in place of some other. If, for instance, it would serve the interests of the nation to be governed by a democracy rather than an oligarchy, then such a transition would be legitimate. God has not pre-determined any specific form of government for civil society. In the church it is otherwise.
In concluding this survey of the early papacy two general principles can be isolated which are of supreme importance in the right understanding of the whole question. The first of these is the role of caesaropapism in the Eastern church. But for this, it is probable that there would have been no schism in the eleventh century. In the West the same peril could have menaced the ecclesiastical authority, but thanks to a better understanding of the nature of the institutional church, the danger was permanently averted. So much for the order of realities. In the comprehension of the early papacy another principle must be invoked – that of development, in the sense which Newman expounded. All the doctrines of the church have undergone this process of development, the papacy more than most. The authority derived from St. Peter is both a doctrine and an institution in whose development the forces of history have played a considerable role. As a result the correct understanding of this doctrine, more, perhaps, than any other, demands that it be studied in the light of the principles governing the development of Christian doctrine.