The Reformation and the End of Papal Supremacy

The Correlation of Prophecy and Fulfillment


It is not our purpose to deal with the Refor­mation in detail, but rather to elucidate on the causes that led to the Reformation, and to the final downfall of the Papacy. We shall start with the pontificate of Innocent III. The struggle for supremacy between the Eastern emperors and the popes of Rome had lasted from Constantine to 716 A. D., a period of nearly four hundred years. Among the leading popes who during their occupancy of the papal chair wielded great power were: Leo the Great, Felix III, Gelasius, Symmachus, and Hormisdas. On the side of the emperors we have: Theodosius, Justinian, Constance, and Justinian II. It was an ebb and a flow of power from and to the pope of Rome. Prophecy demanded that the "little horn" of Daniel should rule in the Western Empire, and here we find it.

The conflict for supremacy in the church between the emperors of the Holy Roman Em­pire and the popes of Rome lasted over three hundred years. The culminating point of that struggle was reached during the reign of Innocent III, from 1198 to 1216 A. D. From the time of Leo III, who crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800 A. D., to this very time the kings and emperors in the Holy Roman Em­pire had with but few exceptions taken an oath of loyalty to the papal see. Previous to 716 A. D., the popes in some instances were vassals to the emperors; now some kings and emperors are vassals to the popes. It is no longer the Holy Catholic Church as the em­peror Constantine named it, but it is the Holy Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Roman Empire. Otto IV, 1208-1212, and Frederick II, 1212-1246, were the emperors who occupied the throne of the empire in succession during the pontificate of Innocent III.

Fourth Council of the Lateran, 1215 A. D.

This council was called by Innocent for several reasons, one of which was the sup­pression of heresy. This was the greatest coun­cil ever held in Christendom. It was attended by the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jeru­salem. The patriarchs of Antioch and Alex­andria sent their deputies. Seventy-one arch­bishops, 412 bishops, 860 abbots or priors, be­sides the representatives of temporal lords, were in attendance. It assumed the right to depose a sovereign. Seventy canons were pre­sented, drawn up by the pope himself, and they passed the council. No pope had before, and no pope after Innocent III has wielded greater power in the papal chair.

Yet, on the very eve of papal supremacy, the handwriting appears, as it were, on the wall, "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting." That same year, 1215, the Catholic barons of England compelled King John to submit to Magna Charta—the great charter of liberty. Innocent condemned the charter and excommunicated the barons. The war was on. King John "let loose his ferocious hordes of adventurers from Flanders, Brabant, Poitou, and other countries, like wild beasts upon his unhappy realm; when himself rav­aged in the north, his bastard brother, the Earl of Salisbury, in the south; when the whole land was wasted with fire and sword; when plunder, murder, torture, rape, raged without control; when agriculture and even markets had absolutely ceased, the buyers and sellers met only in churchyards, because they were sanctuaries; when the clergy were treated with the same impartial cruelty as the rest of the people, John was still the ally, the vassal, under the special protection of the Pope."

Again: "Yet from the reign of John dates, if not the first dawn, the first concentrated power of the liberties of England. A memorable ex­ample of the wonderful manner in which divine Providence overrules the worst of men to its noblest and most beneficent designs! From this time, too, the impulses of religious inde­pendence began to stir in the hearts of men." 2 Out of the ashes of that ravished country grew a plant nourished by the blood of martyrs, which eventually spread over all England until the Church of England was emancipated from the power and dominion of Rome. That plant was religious liberty.

We will now turn our attention to the Con­tinent. The first blow against papal suprem­acy was struck in England; the second blow, on the Continent a long time after. With but a few interruptions—such as Pope Innocent IV, who in order to escape the terrible emperor Frederick II, went to Lyons, where he fixed his see for six years or more (1244-1251)—we reach the reign of Boniface VIII, who tried to revive the papal supremacy, but in vain. Immediately after his death, we have the "Babylonian Captivity" of the popes, lasting a little over seventy years, beginning with Clement V (1305) and ending with Gregory XI (1377). During these seventy years the popes, ten in succession, had their court in Avignon in France. The death of Gregory XI was followed by the Great Schism. It began in the year 1378, and lasted till the Council of Constance, 1414 A. D., or a period of thirty-six years. There were six popes residing in Rome from 1378 to 1406,—two in Avignon from 1379 to 1395, and two in Bologna from 1409 to 1410, —each one of these contemporary popes claim­ing to be the true one.

This situation was appalling, and as one writer expresses it, the empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The church was not any better. Chaos reigned supreme in both church and state. The rival popes as­sailed each other with reciprocal excommunica­tions and abuses. There was no emperor to call a general council, so the cardinals called a council which convened in Pisa in 1409. The cardinals had taken an oath that whosoever was elected pope should not dissolve the coun­cil until a thorough reform had been made in the church. The council deposed the rival popes, and elected another one who took the name of Alexander V. But he died shortly after, and was succeeded by the corrupt car­dinal Balthazar Cossa, who ascended the chair and took the name of John XXIII.'

There were now three rival popes, and the situation grew worse instead of better. The emperor Sigismund then convened a council in Constance, 1414 A. D., which deposed John XXIII from the pontificate, and he afterward fled from the council. Gregory XII resigned his pontificate, and Benedict XIII was deposed by a decree of the council. Another pope was elected, who took the name of Martin V.' The Council of Constance declared that it was a general council and legally assembled in the Holy Spirit for the purpose of ending the schism and for the reformation of the church. They also decreed that the general councils were above the popes in power. Here we give a part of that decree:

"And first it declares that this synod, legally assembled—is a—general council, and  represents the Catholic Church militant and has its au­thority directly from Christ; and everybody, of whatever rank or dignity, including also the pope, is bound to obey this council in those things which pertain to the faith, to the end­ing of this schism, and to a general reforma­tion of the church in its head and members."

Due punishments were to be administered to those who disobeyed the council, including the pope. This council demanded a reform in the church. Eighteen propositions were brought before the council, two of which we here mention: The demand was made "that all nations should have an equal representation in the College of Cardinals." "The pope must confirm the election of all bishops, abbots," etc.'

Pope Martin V, elected by the council, con­firmed it, called another council in Basel, which in turn confirmed the Council of Con­stance. The pope died the year of the council (1431), and was succeeded by Eugenius IV, who sent a brief from Rome in November, 1433, in which he confirmed the decrees of Basel and Constance. But a reaction soon set in against these councils. Eugenius began negotiations with the Eastern emperor, and succeeded in calling a general council in Florence, 1439 A. D. At this council the emperor of the East was present. The vicars of the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were there, nineteen archbishops and bishops personally or by their proctors. The great dignitaries of the church in Constantinople were there; the head of the Imperial Monastery and four abbots represented the East. The result was that a union of the East and the West was once more effected. The council published a decree in which the Roman pontiff was proclaimed to hold the primacy of the whole world as the successor of St. Peter. The Greek bishops—except Mark of Ephesus—accepted the primacy of the Roman pontiff. When the Greeks re­turned home, the people and the monks re­pudiated them, hence the union was only ephemeral.' In the struggle for supremacy between the general councils and the popes, the popes came out victorious. In the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church was a large party composed of cardinals, bishops, clergy, and influential laity, who demanded a reform in the church, from the pope down. The decrees of the coun­cils of. Pisa, Constance, and Basel were the expressions of this party, and France began the reformation by calling a national council or synod at Bourges, which was summoned by the king. It was held in the year 1438. The result of that synod was the Pragmatic Sanc­tion which, in the main, upheld the Council of Basel. It limited the decisions of the general councils to the approval of the national synods, thus virtually placing the national synod above the council, which was a death blow in reality to the supremacy of the Papacy, as expressed  in a general council.'

The popes were not slow to see that should the sentiments of the Pragmatic Sanction and the decrees of the general councils become a reality, they would be shorn of autocratic power. hence Pius II issued a bull, named "Ex­ecrabilis," which condemned the appeals to a general council. It reads in part as follows:

"The execrable and hitherto unknown abuse has grown up in our day, that certain persons, imbued with the spirit of rebellion, and not from a desire to secure a better judgment, but to escape the punishment of some offense which they have committed, presume to appeal from the pope to a future council, in spite of the fact that the pope is the vicar of Jesus Christ, and to him, in the person of St. Peter, the following was said: 'Feed My sheep' [John 21:16] and 'Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.' [Matt. 16:18.] Wishing therefore to expel this pestiferous poison from the church of Christ and to care for the sal­vation of the flock entrusted to us, . . we condemn all such appeals and prohibit them as erroneous and detestable."'

This bull was issued in the year 1459 A. n., and was a direct challenge to the authority of the general councils. The controversy lasted for over four hundred years, until the year 1870, when the infallibility decree was passed by the Vatican Council with over five hundred bishops voting for it and two against it. This infallibility decree marked the substitute pro­vision for the general councils which had here­tofore been the authority in the church and empire in the field of religious legislation.

At the issuing of this bull, "Execrabilis," Europe was seething with dissension in the church and the state. The late Hussite War, the burning of Huss, the progress of the Eng­lish reformation, the awakening of the liberty-loving French people, the host of friars ped­dling indulgences throughout the country, the cruel Inquisition, the corrupt court of Rome, the inflexible stand by the popes and the Ro­man Curia that there should be no Catholic reformation,—these were a few of the factors that brought about the Protestant Reforma­tion headed by Martin Luther. Then came the counter reformation and the Council of Trent; then the Thirty Years' War and the Peace of Westphalia, 1648 A. D., whence our modern church history begins; then the evan­gelical church period; then the French Revolu­tion and the end of papal supremacy in Europe in the year 1798, at the close of the 1260-year prophecy of Daniel 7:25.

Washington, D. C.

1 Milman, "Latin Christianity," Vol. V, pp. 55, 56.

2 Id., p. 58.

3 Neander, "Church History," Vol. IX, pp. 120-142.

4 Mcsheim, "Church History," Vol. II, pp. 321, 322, Murdock-Soames-Stubbs edition.

5 Thatcher and McNeal, "A Source Book for Medi­eval History." p. 329.

6 Id., pp. 330, 331.

7Milman, Vol. VIII, pp. 38-52 ; Lagarde, "The Latin Church in the Middle Ages," pp. 514, 515 (In­ternational Theological Library Series). Scribner's, New York, 1915.

8 Milman, Id., pp. 34-36.

9 Thatcher and McNeal, p. 332.

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April 1935

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