There was a dream that was Rome

Book 4 Chapter 7 Section 1-30

In a touching scene in the film Gladiator the aging Marcus Aurelius tries to convince the impressive and loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius to take up his challenge to reform Rome as the new emperor. Marcus Aurelius wistfully reminisces: “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile”. But, Maximus cannot be convinced and the emperor’s hopes of reformation vanish. However, Rome would still dominate the world for the next 300 years, during which time a new power would emerge in Rome from amongst the followers of Christ. 

In this chapter Calvin traces the ancient accounts of how the Rome came to dominate all other churches of the West. Although he has briefly touched on some of the main themes in the previous chapter (see Chapter 6), it is here that Calvin deals in detail with the validity, or not, of the various claims of the Roman Papacy. It is a chapter rich in church history and Calvin demonstrates his strength in navigating these ancient times to understand the reason for the rise of Rome.

In what is quite a complex chapter that covers a great deal of early church history, I would suggest there are four main pillars upon which a case for the supremacy of Rome was built.

1. Claim of apostolic foundation & succession
This is a common theme throughout these chapters on the 16th century Catholic church and was dealt with in more detail a previous chapter. Although there seems to be no textual evidence, either in the New Testament or beyond to support the claim, Calvin admits tradition has it that Peter founded a church in Rome. Upon this uncertain event is weaved a web of dubious biblical interpretation that establishes Peter as the de facto leader of the apostles.

Whether this was the case or not, it certainly does not follow that the church which Peter founded must be superior to any other church founded by the other apostles. Finally, even if it was superior to the other churches in the first century, any invested authority was dependent on the purity and faithfulness of the church – a fact that would have disqualified Rome many years before the Reformation, despite their technical claim to have an unbroken line of succession of bishops from Peter to the Pope.

2. Growing influence in the Councils.
Once Christianity became a legal religion in the 4th century, the early church fathers began meeting at General Councils to defend the orthodox faith from certain heresies. Thus, beginning with the Council of Nice, Calvin observes how Rome came to dominate these General Councils. While initially there were no single leaders, by the time of the Chalcedon Council, the Roman Pontiff holds the first place “not because it is due his See, but because the council was in want of a grave and fit moderator.”

Subsequent councils tended to have the host bishops presiding over affairs, for example Mennas at Constantinople and Aurelius at Carthage. There was even an occasion when a universal council was held in Milan with no Roman bishop present. Indeed, there was a strong feeling amongst the bishops that “none should be called chief of the priests, or first bishop.” So for the first few hundred years of the early church, there was no ruling bishop amongst the patriarchs, despite attempts by Rome to the contrary.

3. Growing ecclesiastical power.
According to “Calvin ecclesiastical power can be reduced to four heads: 1) ordination of bishops, 2) calling of councils, 3) hearing of appeals (jurisdiction), 4) inflicting monitory chastisements or censures”. For ordination it was the practise of Italian bishops to be ordained in Rome, with other countries’ bishops ordained at their choice of location.

Regarding the calling of councils each metropolitan area could call a provincial synod, while only the Emperor could call a universal, general council. Appeals were initially held locally, and chastisements were mutual. If this was the situation for the first few hundred years, gradually the centrifugal force of Rome began to centralise these rights to them alone, or at least they would have the final word on an issue. In many respects this was due to our final factor:

4. Centre of the Roman Empire
With the official acceptance of Christianity as a valid religion in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), the way was set for an international power struggle that would last the next several hundred years. Given its place at the heart of the Roman empire, the Roman church was in a strong position to take supremacy, even without the claims to apostolic authority. Thus it proved. The church at the centre of the most important city in the world, eventually became recognised as being first among equals. What at first was offered voluntarily to Rome by its fellow churches in turbulent time, slowly became enshrined as their duty. 

This eventually led to a bitter power struggle between Rome and Constantinople when this latter city became the new seat of the Empire in 337 AD. For all the undercurrents that had led to the Roman church’s prominence as the head of the church, were now pushing in the other direction, in favour of Constantinople. Thus, with the empire moving on, Rome’s claim to apostolic authority became even more vital.


I have never been to Rome but it is one of the few European cities that I really want to see. Although its glory has faded, movies such as Gladiator are able to bring it vividly to life. Arriving in Rome from the provincial cities must have been a truly overwhelming experience for a 4th century bishop. The crowds, the buildings, the wealth, the glory of the city must have been a site to behold. Despite its fall from its past glory, the tremours of its power are still felt today in our everyday language: “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “all roads lead to Rome”, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and other sayings are repeated today in other contexts.

This chapter has demonstrated to me how strong the traditions of man can become if left unchecked. For the reasons described above Rome managed to solidify practises that were initially put into place partly voluntarily, to a point at which its authority was universal in the western church. To have such power and with so little true biblical authority is a lesson to us all in how quickly men can corrupt organisational structures. While God intended us to have freedom in the form of church governance and practise, our forefathers instead chose the traditions of man. How careful we must be in subscribing too much authority to man-made institutions, for the final day will reveal whether their power was derived from God or from man.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Matthew 23.10

Father, we rightly ascribe to you alone the authority to first place in the church. You alone are our Teacher, Master and Father. No earthly person or institution should come between us and you, for we are your children, the sheep of your pasture. Restore to your church the complete and pure dependance on your will in all things. For your glory, Amen

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