Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In the last article we left Innocent III, the greatest of all popes before or since, occupying the papal chair in Rome.

In this article our attention is going to be concentrated on Innocent’s theory of the papacy, his achievements, and his efforts to make the power of the papacy supreme in Europe—efforts in which he was altogether too successful.

It seems to me that any effort to judge Innocent’s role in history is going to have to take into account the fact that he came the closest of any man in the world to defining what the final Antichrist will be like when, at the end of the ages, the man of sin occupies a worldwide throne and exercises universal rule.

Innocent’s View of the Papacy

Innocent III did not invent the theory of the papacy which he promoted and which is still official Roman Catholic policy. The theory was held by his predecessors and practiced by them insofar as they were able to extend their rule. But Innocent did develop the theory and did succeed in putting it into practice.

At the time of his coronation he spoke on the faithful and wise servant who did his lord’s will. These are his words, in which, early in his pontificate, he tipped his hand.

Ye see what manner of servant it is whom the Lord hath set over his people, no other than the vicegerent of Christ, the successor of Peter. He stands in the midst between God and man; below God, above man; less than God, more than man. He judges all and is judged by none.

The arrogance of such statements leaves one breathless. Innocent defines his office as that of mediator between God and man, a position which our Lord Jesus Christ occupies. Does not the very name “antichrist” mean not only “one opposed to Christ,” but also “one who claims to be in Christ’s place”?

But such arrogance was quickly covered by a show of humility. Innocent went on to say:

But he, whom the pre-eminence of dignity exalts, is humbled by his vocation as a servant, that so humility may be exalted and pride be cast down; for God is against the high-minded, and to the lowly He shows mercy; and whoso exalteth himself shall be abased.

In spelling out his views concerning the papacy, Innocent really made himself equal to Christ. He did not hesitate to say that God gave all authority to Christ at the time of His exaltation; but he insisted that Christ conferred that authority on Peter, and, following Peter, on the popes who are Peter’s successors.

In conferring authority on the popes, Christ, in effect, made the popes as great as Himself. All the authority of Christ is given to the popes. This means, as anyone can see, that authority in the church and over the nations is given to the pope.

Innocent put himself on a level with Christ also with respect to Christ’s offices. He claimed not only to be prophet (teacher in the church) as Christ is; he claimed also to be king and priest. Nor did he mean by that merely (though extravagant enough) that he combined in himself the offices of minister, elder, and deacon. He meant that Christ’s office of priest enabled him to exercise sole authority in the church, and Christ’s office of king conferred on him rule over the nations.

In keeping with this role which he claimed for himself, Innocent was the first among the popes to call himself “Vicar of God.” Other popes had, with intolerable pride, called themselves “vicars of Christ.” Innocent went beyond that and, in effect, made himself equal with Christ, by claiming to be God’s vicar.

The Fourth Lateran Council

The council meeting called the Fourth Lateran Council effectively extended Innocent’s rule over the entire church. It was the largest council meeting that had ever been held in the West.

It met on November 11, 20, and 30 in the year 1215 and was totally dominated by Innocent himself. It was controlled so completely by him that not one matter was treated except those introduced by Innocent, and not one decision was made without his consent.

The council was held in the Lateran in Rome (hence its name) and was attended by 412 bishops, 800 abbots and priors, a large number of delegates representing absent prelates, and representatives of emperor Frederick II and emperor Henry of Constantinople. The kings of England, France, Aragon (Spain), Hungary, Jerusalem, and others were also present.

The council did many things.

The council, in various doctrinal pronouncements, set down the orthodox teachings of the church. It established transubstantiation as official church dogma in the universal church of Rome “outside of which there is no possibility of salvation.” It condemned various heresies present in the church, particularly a heresy which was a denial of the Trinity.

But the council did more. It authorized a new crusade, the Fourth. This crusade, though executed by Innocent, accomplished nothing in its efforts to take the Holy Land from the infidel Mohammedans. All it really accomplished was to widen the breach between the Western Church and the Eastern Church when the crusaders decided to sack Constan—tinople on their way to Palestine.

Perhaps the most ominous decision of the council was the establishment of the Inquisition. This institution, under the direction of the pope, was set up to enforce the church’s teachings throughout the whole of Europe. It was an ecclesiastical court in which prelates of various kinds served as police, prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner. Its powers went far beyond anything acceptable in civil law in the present day. It could make use of mere suspicion, torture to extract confession, confiscation of goods, exquisitely painful methods of execution, and indescribable cruelty in its efforts to make every person conform to the teaching of the church.

The inquisition was used to exterminate the Albigensians, a sect mostly in Southern France which diverged from the teaching of the church. It was brought to bear in all its horror against the Waldensians, that group of saints which suffered untold cruelty for the doctrines of Scripture, endured for several hundred years hidden in the Alpine Valleys of France and Italy, and many of whom joined the Reformation when it dawned in the sixteenth century.

Under its bloody work countless people of God suffered torture and death during the time of the Reformation, especially in the Lowlands.

Innocent III was the one who instituted this apparatus, gave it its power, and forever branded the Romish Church as that church which “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry” (Confession of Faith, Art. 29). It thus bears one of the marks of the false church.

Innocent’s Struggle with Europe’s Kings

We are told in the Scriptures that the rule of Antichrist will be a worldwide rule in which all the nations of the earth are united in one political world power. To this political world power will be joined the false church. Revelation 13 depicts this union of church and state, as does chapter 17 of the same book.

No institution comes closer to that description than the papacy, and no single man came closer to realizing that goal than Innocent III.

It happened in Innocent’s struggle with Europe’s kings. It happened in what has become known as the Investiture Controversy.

A brief description of the Investiture Controversy is necessary to understand the issues at stake.

Simply put, the controversy was carried on between Europe’s kings and the pope. It was a controversy of long standing. By the time Innocent put on the papal tiara, the controversy had been going on for at least 400 years. The issue was this. Who has the authority to consecrate to office the clergy in the Romish Church, especially the bishops and archbishops? Does this right belong to the church or to the king?

It appears at first glance to be an easy question to answer. Why, of course, the church. In the Middle Ages, that means the pope. Are not clergy officebearers in the church? Ought they not, therefore, be appointed and consecrated by the church?

It would seem that this is true. But there was one difficulty. Many, especially of the higher clergy (bishops and archbishops), had become owners and rulers of huge tracts of land. This had happened over the years as wealthy men had willed their estates and land to the church in an effort to buy their way out of purgatory. Thus clerics ruled vast domains over which they were sovereign, in which they had absolute authority, from which they organized armies of knights to wage war, and by means of the revenues of which estates they lived like royalty.

In other words, within various kingdoms there were sub-kingdoms ruled by the clergy who, although they may have expressed loyalty to the king, nevertheless owed their first allegiance to the church and fed into the church’s coffers vast amounts of money on which they lived and on which Rome maintained its extravagant life-style.

The pope argued that he had the right to appoint clerics because they held ecclesiastical office. The kings argued they had the right to appoint these clerics because they were political rulers and owed allegiance to the crown.

And, as is usually the case, the bottom line was money. Who is going to get the money? The pope or the king?

It was a problem of no little importance, especially if we consider the fact that at one time the church owned over half of the landed estate of Europe.

Innocent’s solution to the problem was simple. Make the pope the sole ruler in Europe, even over kings. And this he set about doing.

It is useless to go into all that went on in France, Germany, and England during this struggle. It is complicated and not edifying. But the result was that all the kings of Europe were brought to heel, one by one, until only England remained.

England was ruled by the powerful, usually able, but thoroughly corrupt Plantagenet kings, known by every schoolboy who has been taught history. They were sometimes called Angevin kings because they traced their dynasty back to William the Conqueror, the Frenchman from Anjou who conquered England and put England under the rule of this line. Their power was something with which to reckon.

However, the pope was by no means without any power of his own. He could make decrees, issue edicts, and aim directives at Europe’s kings, but he had various tools at his disposal to enforce his will. There were three such tools.

One was the horde of monks who lived in all Europe, were a drain on every country, inhabited the monasteries, but were totally loyal to the pope. He controlled them, manipulated them, and used them as a standing army to enforce his will. In every country they numbered in the thousands.

The second weapon was excommunication, and, along with it, the anathemas which so frightened Europe’s superstitious throngs. It was a decree of the pope which declared a man outside the church, outside of which was no salvation. But excommunication in those days when society was entirely under the control of the church meant ostracism from society itself. An excommunicated person could not get a job. He could not buy or sell. He could not have any kind of intercourse with his fellow men. He was an outcast in the literal sense of the word.

Kings could be and were excommunicated when they defied the pope. Frederick II of Germany must have been excommunicated three or four times at least. But when a king was excommunicated by the pope, that automatically freed the people from submission to that king. Now the people could, of course, give their loyalty to the king in spite of what the pope said or did, but two things often prevented that. One was that army of monks roaming the land to enforce the pope’s edicts. The other was the interdict.

This last tool in the pope’s hand was perhaps the most feared of all. When the pope put a region or a country under the interdict, that region or country could not have any religious exercises or ceremonies performed in it until the interdict was lifted. During the interdict the churches were closed, no sermons were preached, no babies were baptized, no masses were performed, no marriages took place, no deaths were followed by church burial, no consecrated burial grounds could be used.

In medieval Europe this was ecclesiastical suicide. Rome had taught, and the people believed it, that the church alone could give its members the right to heaven. The church determined their salvation. The church regulated and directed their religious life. The church determined their stay in purgatory. The church released them from purgatory so that they might enter heavenly bliss. Without the church’s work the people went to hell.

In any contest, a pope could almost certainly have his way, if he could make an interdict stick.

This is what happened in England. It happened in the days of King John, that monstrously wicked Plantagenet who was guilty of every crime under heaven, and whose arbitrary tyranny was even too much at last for the people. It was this King John who, after the issue of investiture was resolved, was brought to heel by the barons and forced to sign the Magna Charta on the plains of Runnymede.

The controversy was over the ordination of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope wanted him; John did not. The struggle was fierce. The pope excommunicated John; John thumbed his nose at the pope. But then the pope put all England under the interdict, and the people, weary of John’s brutal reign, threatened to take matters into their own hands. The dukes and earls, the powerful nobility of England, all agreed that John had better knuckle under.

And so he did. He gave all England to the pope, and the pope returned it to him, but as a papal fief. That is, John was, from henceforth, a minor lord ruling in the pope’s name. And, most galling of all, he had to pay an enormous sum into the papal treasury, thus depleting his own and curbing sharply his own luxurious life-style.

So all Europe bowed before the papal throne. Innocent had won. Hungary, Bohemia, Sicily, France, England, the Danes, Spain, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, Bulgaria, Sweden—all Europe submitted to the pope and acknowledged him as their head. The only exception to this universal rule was the Eastern Church.

Innocent’s rule was complete. He was sole head of the church and sole ruler of Europe.


Innocent’s tremendous power did not last. Europe’s kings were becoming more and more powerful, and no subsequent popes were as strong as Innocent. Gradually the papal power began to crumble, and by the time the Reformation dawned, though the pope still tried to exert his will, he was stymied by independent rulers who simply refused to do what he said. Frederick the Wise is a case in point, for Luther’s work would have been impossible, from a human point of view, without the defiance of papal edicts by Luther’s ruler and sovereign in Saxony.

Within the context of the work of the Reformation, the true government of the church was restored to the church. It is not our purpose to go into this in detail, but our own time-tested Church Order of Dordt was forged in the fires of the Reformation, especially the Reformation under Calvin.

Central to all biblical church order is the concept of the office of believers, which Rome, in the papal hierarchy of its day, had denied. All God’s people are prophets, priests, and kings in the church of God. We can, I think, scarcely imagine what an ocean of difference lies between that simple concept and Rome’s hierarchy. It was Luther who laid this foundation.

God has established special offices in the church as well, to reflect the threefold office of Christ: ministers (prophets), elders (kings), and deacons (priests). By their work in the congregation Christ is present in the congregation as the true Prophet, Priest, and King.Thus every congregation is autonomous.

Yet the church is called to express its unity in Christ. So broader assemblies are formed and denominations come into being. And denominations of like precious faith throughout the world seek each other to work with them and have fellowship with them.

But the unity of the church is not only the external unity of an institution, as Rome taught. It is the unity of the body of Christ, the unity of one faith, one hope, one calling, one baptism. In short, it is the unity of Christ’s body itself come to visible manifestation in the congregation of believers.

The church had seen what the tyranny of hierarchical Rome could do to the church. God led the Reformers into an understanding of the Scriptures in matters of church polity over against Rome’s corruptions. These truths are precious principles, so important that for them too we ought to fight, and in defense of them be willing to die.

Over against them stands Rome’s claims. Can it be denied that Rome’s claims bear all the resemblances of the claims of Antichrist himself? Whether Antichrist as he finally reveals himself is one who arises out of the political sphere (which Revelation 13 and 17 seem to indicate), or whether he is predominantly a religious figure, makes no difference in the end. He does claim to be Christ, and he sets himself up in the temple of God claiming that he is God.

God’s people acknowledge Christ as their Head and give their unswerving and joyful loyalty to Him.