In order to be a good Protestant, you must be a good anti-Catholic. I am not Catholic. I am Protestant. There are many doctrines of the Roman Catholic church that I am against, but there are many things that I appreciate about them.

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have our lineage in the catholic church. Yes, I just said that. I am catholic, but not Roman Catholic. I’ve got some info for you: If you are a Christian, you are catholic too. This differentiation between catholic and Roman Catholic is part of a solid Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism. It normally drives Roman Catholic apologists crazy, since it undermines their belief that they are the one true church. But it is true; Protestants are catholic Christians, but not Roman Catholic Christians. The word “catholic” was used very early to describe the church. It simply meant “universal,” describing the church’s universality. The church is not exclusive to Gentiles, Jews, Greeks, Romans, those in the East, or those in the West. The church that Christ built is universal, or “catholic.”

However, there was an institutional arm of the catholic church that eventually became known as the Roman Catholic church, complete with its own hierarchy, doctrines, and liturgical distinctives. The type of institutionalization that eventually characterized the Roman Catholic church is one of the major issues the Protestants battled against, believing that it had corrupted the catholic church to the core, even obscuring the Gospel itself. We now call it the Roman Catholic church due to its identification with the “seat of Rome.” This seat, according to the Roman Catholics, is the perpetual seat of ultimate authority that Peter passed on. It is known today as the papacy, which is the office of the Pope. The Pope sits in the seat of Rome, having the infallible authority to guide and direct the church in matters of faith and practice. He, along with the magisterium, form the institution and can, through “ordinary” or “extraordinary” means, intervene in church life and doctrine in a binding way. If a heresy arises in the church, the institution can condemn it, thus securing the faith of the church. Intervention rarely takes place (though this is debated), but this infallible safeguard  can theoretically step in at any time and protect the church from corruption.

How did this come into being? Protestants are right to point out that this institution is not biblical. If this is the truth, and this system is not biblical, how did such an institution come into being?

The answer is very complex, but let me attempt to give you a bird’s eye view by means of some charts!

Apostolic Succession

First, let’s get introduced to a concept called “apostolic succession.” This is not simply a Roman Catholic concept. As we will see, in its uncorrupted and ideal state, apostolic succession is very important for the church, Roman Catholic or not. Notice the chart. It starts with Jesus. Jesus handed his teaching over to twelve Apostles. The Apostles were authorities in the early church. When they spoke, people listened. Why? Because they were trained by Christ. They were witnesses of his death, burial, and resurrection. They carried unique authority in the establishment of the church.

So far, so good? Protestants and Catholics agree to this point. The next step is that the Apostles passed on their faith to others. Easy enough. The Apostles commissioned others to be leaders and authorities in the church. They handed over the faith to followers, like Timothy, who were approved in both their life and teaching. This created a succession of faith and teaching. They would often call this “laying on of hands.” With this “system” in place, the church maintained a safeguard against rogue expressions of the Christian faith. This is why Paul warned about commissioning people too hastily (1 Tim. 5:22).

Again, to this point both Protestants and Catholics agree. We need to pass on the faith. We need to commission others that have been approved. There needs to be accountability. However, the departure comes when we begin to define not only what this succession of authority is, but what it does. Again, we agree that it is the duty of the church to pass on the faith once for all handed to the saints (Jude 3). We agree that the church is the “pillar of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We also agree that all in this succession are saints and a part of the church. However, Catholics believe that in order for this succession to be valid, it has to be seen as primarily a succession in person. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that the primary issue involved it is a succession in teaching, doctrine, and practice. Therefore, Roman Catholics focus on the one to whom the succession is given, while Protestants focus on the teaching and doctrine itself, believing that the person who receives the succession is instrumental, not integral.

Therefore, in essence, for the Roman Catholic, the persons in succession define the Gospel and make up the institutional church which presides over the Gospel. Hence, Catholics have the Pope and the magisterium of bishops (as represented by the fellows in the graph that follow the apostles). For the Protestant, on the other hand, it is the other way around. Only to the degree that the person is in succession with right teaching are they in apostolic succession. A hasty “laying on of hands” is possible, and can damage both the doctrine and reputation of the church.

This is why Protestants are continually going back to the source – the Bible – for final authority (sola Scriptura) and why Roman Catholics are continually going to the institution for final authority.

But there is one more way in which the chasm is further widened between Roman Catholics and Protestants with regard to the issue of apostolic succession. For the Roman Catholic, in order for this institution to have ultimate authority, it must possess the gift of infallibility. For the Protestant, the person upon whom the hands are laid (along with the institution, which is made up of a bunch of fellas upon whom hands have been laid) is fallible. Only the Apostles’ teaching is not. For the Protestant, apostolic succession is a safeguard to the Gospel, but it must be continually tested by the Scriptures.

So both believe in “Apostolic succession” and have some similarities in their understanding and rationale for Apostolic succession.

Regula Fide

The next component which characterizes both Roman Catholics and Protestants is the idea of the regula fide (though it is much more central for Roman Catholicism). This literally means “rule of faith.” In essence, the rule of faith was the unwritten tradition which summarized the orthodox understanding which is found both in the Scriptures and the apostolic succession of the church. This is expressed through the creeds, confessions, and traditions that are passed from generation to generation. Because Scripture is the final authority, individual interpretation is not the final authority. We interpret the Bible in and with the church. When doctrine is established, it is not established with an individual, his Bible, and the Holy Spirit, but with an individual, his Bible, and the Holy Spirit who is at work both through the individual and the historic body of Christ represented through apostolic succession.

The idea of the regula fide is organic, but was articulated through events and controversy in history. When someone in the church would propose an interpretation of the Bible, his or her interpretation was tested against the Scripture itself and against how Christians have always interpreted Scripture. So, for instance, if someone came to the church and began to teach that Christ was created, not eternal, this doctrine would be tested first according to the Scripture. Then it would be tested according to the regula fide by asking the question, “What has the church always taught about Christ?” So, not only does the Bible deny that Christ is a created being, but the church, having its teachings handed down since the time of the Apostles, has always interpreted the Bible as teaching that Christ is eternal as the Father is eternal. We find evidence of this through the early church fathers and the great Creeds of the church.

Again, so far so good. Roman Catholics and Protestants agree. Where we part ways is when we begin to define the authority of this unwritten tradition called the regula fide. The Roman Catholic church believes that this tradition is infallible. Protestants believe that it is only infallible to the degree that it rightly represents the Scriptures. Therefore, the regula fide, while serving as a safeguard for doctrine, needs a safeguard itself.

Both of these ideas, apostolic succession and the regula fide, have the same goal for both Protestants and Roman Catholics: to protect the faith once for all handed to the saints. However, the Roman Catholic church, having all the right intentions, believes that these safeguards must be infallible in order to be effective.

The Rise of Rome

This is where history takes an interesting and definitive turn. It is not unlike our desire to protect our children. There are two extremes. One extreme locks the children up in the house and thows away the key in order to protect them from all harm (like I am tempted to do!). Nothing wrong with the intentions here. The other extreme lets their children run wild, believing they have to learn the ways of the world in order to learn to protect themselves. Again, intentions good. As the church began to face more and more dangers, as doctrine was continually manipulated, as teachings that did not fall in line with Scripture or the church’s historic interpretation of Scripture were put forth, the church began to institutionalize itself. In other words, we brought all the children in the house and locked the door. This is what it looked like:

Now we have a shut door. Behind that shut door is both the Bible and the regula fide (unwritten tradition). Guarding the door is a representative of the now-institutionalized church. This representative is a successor of the Apostles. In the Roman Catholic system, the ultimate guard is the Pope (the successor of Peter). He holds the keys to the door. The Scripture is infallible. The regula fide is infallible. And, now, the representative guard is infallible. The people on the outside must go through him (the institution) in order to access the doctrines of the church.

But notice (and this is important), while the institution of the church was protecting both the Bible and the regula fide (unwritten tradition), the regula fide was also protecting the Bible. So there were two layers of authority standing between the people and the Bible.

While we Protestants would begin to protest here, we still understand why this situation arose. Who of us does not understand and sympathize with the mentality to bring all the kids in the house and lock the door? Yes, it may be wrong. Yes, it may be extreme. Yes, it may lack faith in God. But it makes sense.

Where things really go wrong is when infallibility is invoked upon the guardian. To say that he is right is one thing. To say that he is infallibly right, in order to curtail any rebellion, is another.

Once the church is institutionalized in such a way, understandable or not, corruption of its most fundamental beliefs becomes a serious danger. And this is the turn the church took in the later middle ages. Here is another chart (!):

The regula fide, because it is unwritten, is easy to abuse. The Scripture is not. And this is what happened in church history. The institution of the church (now quickly on its way to becoming the Roman Catholic church) began to expand on the regula fide, moving it from a summary of the essentials to requirements of non-essentials (notice the chart). Everything from liturgy to doctrine were added. What started as a small confession of Christian doctrine, as represented by the likes of the Nicene Creed (325) and the Statement of Chalcedon (451), became full catechisms, with infallible requirements of doctrines and practices that fell well outside of the regula fide and far outside the bounds of Scripture itself.  Now included in this unwritten tradition were non-essential doctrines concerning the mother of Jesus, celibacy in the priesthood, how one is to break the bread in the Lord’s supper, and a thousand other things. The unwritten traditions that were meant to preserve the essence of the Christian faith had developed to such a degree that one could not even see the Christian faith. The essence, which was important before, took on a secondary status to the authority of the institution. In the midst of this, the Gospel began to be obscured to such a degree that a major reformation was needed.


I think that we can all understand and empathize with the rise of Rome. While I seriously disagree with the “lock the doors, don’t let the kids out, and mom and dad are infallible” approach, I know why it happened. In fact, being a chapter in the history of the catholic church, it is a part of my history. However, in the Reformation, the door was unlocked, the regula fide was minimized (not abandoned), and apostolic succession became no longer a guarantee of infallibility, but a responsibility that must continually be submitted to the Scripture.

That is it. The rise of Rome in a nutshell.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    67 replies to "The Rise of Rome in a Nutshell"

    • Constantine

      To TDC, (cont’d.)

      Your next point, in summary: a.) I prove too much, b.) because Paul’s writings were not contained in the Tanakh. Of course, the canon wasn’t closed as Paul was writing. And his writings were determined to be Scripture during his lifetime (2 Peter 3:15). So, we need and received Apostolic teaching in the form of the letter he continued to write. Again, taking all of Scripture as our guide, we see that this argument does not prove too much.

      Peace to you.

    • Constantine

      Hi Alfredo,

      I don’t think Protestants “make up” history. In fact, some of the greatest historians of the church have been Protestants. When Vatican I forces you, under pain of anathema, to believe things are certifiably untrue, I think it is rather the other way around.

      And thank you for mentioning Clement. He was the first adherent of the doctrine of sola fide:

      “And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever.” First Epistle to the Corinthians, Ch. XXXII,


    • Constantine

      Hi Ana,

      Thank you for your thoughtful interaction and I apologize for my tardiness.

      As to your comments about Paul referring to extant Scripture please see my response to TDC above.

      As to 1 Corinthians 11, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”, how did Paul pass these things on? Yes, both orally and in writing. But he is now dead and there is no one since the death of John who fulfills the requirements of an apostle. Therefore, what Paul passed on to the Corinthians and the others we have only in writing.


    • Constantine

      To Ana, cont’d.

      Secondly, a closer look at 1 Cor 4 shows that it is the culmination of an extensive treatise from Paul about important issues to the church. In the prev. 3 chapters: the headings are “a church divided”, “Christ is God’s Power”, “God’s Wisdom revealed by the Spirit”, “the Church and its leaders”. Paul’s admonition comes under the head of “True apostleship.” So he is making his case for how to resolve the serious issue of a divided church in a very systematic way. 1 Cor 11:2 is followed, conversely by less weighty matters – a woman’s head covering, a man’s lack of, etc.

      And again, we are obligated to follow the Apostle’s teaching – whether it is delivered orally or in writing. We cannot hear him orally so we are left with the infallible Scriptures.


    • Ana

      Thanks for the response Constantine:

      You said: “And again, we are obligated to follow the Apostle’s teaching – whether it is delivered orally or in writing. We cannot hear him orally so we are left with the infallible Scriptures.”

      (emphasis mine)

      What I submit is that though the Apostles are dead, it does not follow that therefore oral apostolic tradition (itself sourced in the divine — Jesus Christ) is dead, and that we have only the Scriptures left. The recipients of apostolic teaching, had themselves the duty of passing it on. This would ensure a living apostolic tradition.

    • Ana


      Paul to Timothy:

      2 Tim 1:13 “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” ….

      2 Tim 2: 1-2 “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.

    • Alfredo

      Hi Constantine. I don’t want to derail too much, since, as far as it goes, to bring up justification is simply changing the topic, and not dealing with the issues at hand.

      But don’t forget, Clement also says, “Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, *being justified by our works*, and not our words.” (

      Also, “And thus He forewarns us: “Behold, the Lord cometh, and His reward is before His face, *to render to every man according to his work.*” (

      And more, “Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; *that so through love our sins may be forgiven us.*” (

      Clement believes in justification by works. Catholics agree that no *initial* justification by works is possible. Blessings.

    • Michael Snow

      Very helpful article. There are some misleading comments [both in the article and in comments here] and omissions.

      Your comment about “the infallible authority” is anachronistic as you apply it. This did not become doctrine in the RC church until the 19th Century and it only applies under stict conditions. See

      And most of us in the Protestant churches have no clue that the Roman Catholic church as a seperate denominational entity did not exixt before the Great Schism of AD 1054. You can speak about the church of Rome before then but you are not refering to the intitutioonal Roman Chatholic church as it exists today.

    • Don Kaspersen

      The problem with oral tradition is that it is easily mutated with time, translation and local tradition. All men and language groups view through their own lenses.

      Two things seem obvious: that the three branches have strong Graeco, Italic and Celto-Teutonic influence and lack any obvious Semitic component, whether looking to the scripture or modern Jewry (at least for one who was raised in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in NYC).Peter would be a fish out of water in any of them.

      One might well ask how our traditions color scriptural interpretation rather than imagining that they are an aid to understanding. No one gains as much clarity by challenging others assumptions as one does challenging ones own and those of the ones closest to one. (No one becomes a fanatic by challenging himself).

      In an age of mass illiteracy one can see how those who were in authority in the church would say, in effect, “We’ll do the thinking for you,” but they too were subject to their own…

    • Don Kaspersen

      …but they were subject to their own limitations.

    • PeaceByJesus

      While 1Cor. 4:6 does not specify Scripture, given that Paul’s manner was to reason out of Scripture, and to prove truth claims by them, (Acts 13:17-41; 17:2; 28:23) along with miracles, (Rm. 15:19) and his unique affirmation of Scripture as wholly inspired of God (2Tim. 3:16) – this being the only transcendent material source that is thus affirmed – it is reasonable that not thinking of men “above” what it written refers to not esteeming men over what Scripture says about men (as many commentators also hold).

      Which consistently shows then as fallible creatures, whom the Lord did not have faith in. (Jn. 2:24) And to which Christ is set in contrast as the custom of the Holy Spirit is to make notable exceptions evident.

      In contrast to this is treating popes as exalted demi-gods, and attributing to Mary uniquely Divinely attributes that parallel Christ,

      And while Rome holds that it is by an act of grace that men are infallible, etc., its formulaic infallibility is above Holy…

    • Robin

      Can I first point out that the church today is a mere reflection of what I think Christ intended it to be- altho I have no idea what exactly he intended- it is going through an enriching process. for 400 years non RC christians were considered ‘lost’ and only since vatical II has there been a slight change- we are now ‘separated’ but they realise there may be some validity to non RC -Christianity. Despite what is said in public their hope is that we shall return to ‘their’ church Vatican documents and papers prove this. I can therefore disagree with your opening statement- The ReformationS (note the S) were to get Christianity back on track- I see it simply as dividing in order to grow and survive. We are now reuniting in an ecumenical way to grow and survive. Building on tradition and error the RCC is now separated and has been picking bits off the Ecumenical and the Pentecostal movements- having dug a hole they now need to find a way out of it-

    • Robin

      Sorry – just to try to clarify my use of S in Reformations. I accept and indeed use the regular term Reformation- I see there as bein a ‘reformation’ in the 7th century altho this was small and half hearted. A second occured in the 11th century when the church became superior to the state. ‘The Reformation’ which we talk of involved smaller ones- French, German,Swiss, English, Scottish etc with respective leaders- Calvin, Luther Knox et al and of course the ‘Counter-Reformation’. I am surprised (altho I am open to correction) that the post 1550 splits (Baptists- Methodists, Quakers etc) generally group themselves under the Protestant umbrella altho not the Reformation umbrella- suggesting that the Reformation did indeed come to an end with Trent and Vatican I…..

    • david carlson

      Ana (and other RC apologists)

      If your going to hold up the RC Magisterium as some type of direct connection to the apostles, and to accord the Pope some type of religous super powers, you will have to address the fact that “The popes who achieved greatness, however, were outnumbered by the corrupt, the inept, the venal, the lecherous, the ruthless, the mediocre and those who didn’t last long enough to make a mark.” to qoute the NYT. I am simply no longer willing to listen to tendacious scripture twisting while ignoring historical facts of the RC church

    • PeaceByJesus

      Such would not even Scripturally qualify to be church members, (1Cor. 5:11-15) much less successors to Peter.

      Nor does the N.T. establish that there was to be a perpetuated Petrine papacy, as the replacement for Judas was apparently to maintain the original number of foundational (Eph. 2:20) apostles, (Act 1:15-26; Rv. 21:14) with a qualification being that one have direct personal discipleship by Him, (Acts 1:21) as Paul seems to claim. (1Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:12-17)

      Yet when the apostle James died, (Act 12:1) no successor is inferred or evident, nor plans for one for Peter.

      Moreover, apostolic authority as established by Scripturally corroboration, with its means of supernatural attestation to such. (Jn. 5:36,39; Mt. 22; Lk 24:44; Rm. 15:19; 2Cor. 12:12)

      Finally, the method for men choosing one was by the O.T. method of casting lots, which insured immediate replacement, versus up to a 3 year absence in Rome’s line and precluded politics, and making being Italian seem…

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