by Burk Parsons
In the main hallway of the seminary where I studied hangs a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s masterpiece The Four Apostles. It is indeed a magnificent interpretation of the classic work that was painted by one of the seminary’s professors of New Testament, whose biblical faithfulness is manifested in one small detail of the painting. If one studies the painting closely, he can observe one minor difference between Dürer’s painting and the reproduction. Dürer has the apostle Peter holding the golden key to the gate of heaven, whereas the replica shows Peter with no key at all. Such a deliberate omission is certainly fitting for a Protestant professor of New Testament who in painting The Four Apostles understood that the words of Christ to Peter were not intended to establish Peter as the one and only keeper of the keys of the kingdom.
In the fifth century, the patristic period, the era of the church fathers ended, and the Middle Ages were ushered in. The papacy began to establish its supreme authority over the church of Christ, and Pope Leo the Great established himself comfortably in the chair of Saint Peter, the legs of which stood firmly on the four corners of the earth.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the century, there stood one faithful servant from North Africa who defended the church of Christ against the heresies of the Manicheans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. Augustine of Hippo carefully mounted his doctrinal defenses and demonstrated that the church of Christ cannot be conquered by its enemies. At the center of Augustine’s life and doctrine was a repentant and confessing heart that rested completely in God, whose grace had been manifested in His servant’s biblical insight and doctrinal integrity. Indeed, it was largely due to the ministry of Augustine that the church was sustained during the storms of controversy early in the fifth century, proving the veracity of Christ’s great constitution of the church: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Augustine understood that although the church had great authority, such authority was established by the truth that the church belongs to Jesus Christ alone.
Augustine lived coram Deo, before the face of God, defending the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He died in 430, and every pope, from Pope Leo I in 461 to Pope John Paul II in 2005, has also died, yet He who is the only supreme authority over His church lives and reigns forever.