Suppose you are reading through the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and you hear him say that either the apostle Peter or the bishop of Rome is "entrusted with the chief rule over the people, in other words, the charge of the whole world." Would you think that he was affirming the universal jurisdiction and primacy of the Roman see? I think a lot of folks who have joined the Roman communion would think that way.
Likewise, if you are reading through Athanasius and see him talking about the bishop of Rome in these terms, "he is the pride of the Church, fighting for the truth, and instructing those who have need, they should not resist such an one, but rather accept his good conscience," many of my readers of the Roman communion would draw a similar inference that Athanasius is affirming Roman primacy.
Moreover, imagine you are reading through Basil's works and you come across him describing Rome this way, "No one knows better than you do, that, like all wise physicians, you ought to begin your treatment in the most vital parts, and what part is more vital to the Churches throughout the world than [her]? Only let [her] be restored to harmony, and nothing will stand in the way of her supplying, as a healthy head, soundness to all the body." I am sure that my friends and relatives in the Roman communion will tell me that this means that Basil viewed Rome as the head of the whole church.
The more suspicious of you will be asking, Why did he use "[her]" there? What did it actually say?
Well, that's the rub: none of these quotations is about Rome or the bishop of Rome. The last is about Antioch (that's the "her"). The middle is about Basil. The first is about Athanasius.
We all know that Gregory of Nazianzus didn't think that Athansius was the pope (in a Roman sense) of the church. We all know that Athanasius didn't think that about Basil. And we all know (well most of us do) that Basil didn't think that the bishop of Antioch had universal jurisdiction and primacy.
We know that because the same Gregory wrote this about another bishop: "After that he is a pastor; indeed, the greatest and most respected of pastors. He does not preside merely over the church [of his city or of the city and surrounding area] which, thanks to him and his efforts, is famous to this day, but also over the entire western region and in effect even over the east itself, and the south, and the north, everywhere that he came to be admired." And no that's not about the Roman bishop, but about the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian (the full quotation is below).
Yet if those statements had been made about the Roman bishop, you can bet they would be plastered as seemingly irrefutable proof of their belief in the papacy. And if we suggested that they were just hyperbolic, we'd be told we were twisting the words of the fathers and so forth.
The real culprit here, however, is the informal fallacy of anachronism. The fallacy is simply assuming the papacy back into the early church. Positive comments in passing that support the person's preconceived ideas are taken as confirming it, despite the fact that a reasonably alternative interpretation is present.
My dear Roman-communion readers: challenge your Rome colored glasses. Set aside your anachronistic reading of the fathers, and discover that while they were not Reformed Baptists or Presbyterians in their ecclesiology, they were also not papal in their ecclesiology. Rome's historical claims, therefore, are false. The papacy was unknown to the early church fathers.
We're not suggesting that the fathers were right, nor that they should be made the standard. Like they did, we are saying that the Scriptures are the rule. Yet we are saying that Rome's historical claims - her claims that the fathers confirm her authority - are false.
More importantly, when you have seen that Rome's historical claims are false, turn to the Scriptures and read them without imposing your church's theology upon them. When you do so, you'll see that there is no papal ecclesiology, the distinctive doctrines of Rome are not taught, and there is almost no emphasis on Mary. You'll see the Word of God in a whole new light.
As promised, here are the full quotations:
Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389): Thus brought up and trained, as even now those should be who are to preside over the people, and take the direction of the mighty body of Christ, according to the will and foreknowledge of God, which lays long before the foundations of great deeds, he was invested with this important ministry, and made one of those who draw near to the God Who draws near to us, and deemed worthy of the holy office and rank, and, after passing through the entire series of orders, he was (to make my story short) entrusted with the chief rule over the people, in other words, the charge of the whole world (τὴν τοῦ λαοῦ προεδρίαν πιστεύεται, ταυτὸν δὲ εἰπεῖν, τῆς οἰκουμένης πάσης ἐπιστασίαν, PG 35:1088): nor can I say whether he received the priesthood as the reward of virtue, or to be the fountain and life of the Church. For she, like Ishmael, fainting from her thirst for the truth, needed to be given to drink, or, like Elijah, to be refreshed from the brook, when the land was parched by drought; and, when but faintly breathing, to be restored to life and left as a seed to Israel, that we might not become like Sodom and Gomorrah, whose destruction by the rain of fire and brimstone is only more notorious than their wickedness. Therefore, when we were cast down, a horn of salvation was raised up for us, and a chief corner stone, knitting us to itself and to one another, was laid in due season, or a fire to purify our base and evil matter, or a farmer's fan to winnow the light from the weighty in doctrine, or a sword to cut out the roots of wickedness; and so the Word finds him as his own ally, and the Spirit takes possession of one who will breathe on His behalf.
NPNF2: Vol. VII, Oration 21, On the Great Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, §7.
Athanasius (297-373) to the presbyter (πρεσβυτέρῳ) Palladius: As you have told me about the monks at Caesarea, which I also learnt from our beloved Dianius, that they were grieving and resisting our beloved Basil the Bishop, I thank you for the information: but I have pointed out the fitting course to them, to be obedient, as children to their father, and not to resist what he approves. For, if he were suspected of not holding the truth, they would do well to resist him: but if they feel confident, as we all feel, that he is the pride of the Church, fighting for the truth, and instructing those who have need, they should not resist such an one, but rather accept his good conscience. For, from what the beloved Dianius told me, they seem grieved without reason. For he himself, as I am sure, becomes weak to the weak that he may gain the weak; but let our friends, looking at the end his truth has in view, and the discretion he uses, glorify the Lord, who has given to Cappadocia such a Bishop as every country wishes to have.
Translation from Thomas William Allies, The Church of England Cleared from the Charge of Schism (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1848), pp. 32-33.
Basil of Caesarea (Ad 329-379) to Athanasius: No one, I feel sure, is more distressed at the present condition, or, rather to speak more truly, ill condition of the Churches than your excellency; for you compare the present with the past, and take into account how great a change has come about. You are well aware that if no check is put to the swift deterioration which we are witnessing, there will soon be nothing to prevent the complete transformation of the Churches. And if the decay of the Churches seems so pitiful to me, what must--so I have often in my lonely musings reflected--be the feelings of one who has known, by experience, the old tranquillity of the Churches of the Lord, and their one mind about the faith? But as your excellency feels most deeply this distress, it seems to me only becoming that your wisdom should be more strongly moved to interest itself in the Church's behalf. I for my part have long been aware, so far as my moderate intelligence has been able to judge of current events, that the one way of safety for the Churches of the East lies in their having the sympathy of the bishops of the West. For if only those bishops liked to show the same energy on behalf of the Christians sojourning in our part of the world which they have shewn in the case of one or two of the men convicted of breaches of orthodoxy in the West, our common interests would probably reap no small benefit, our sovereigns treating the authority of the people with respect, and the laity in all quarters unhesitatingly following them. But, to carry out these objects, who has more capacity than yourself, with your intelligence and prudence? Who is keener to see the needful course to be taken? Who has more practical experience in working a profitable policy? Who feels more deeply the troubles of the brethren? What through all the West is more honoured than your venerable gray hairs? O most honoured father, leave behind you some memorial worthy of your life and character. By this one act crown your innumerable efforts on behalf of true religion. Despatch from the holy Church placed under your care men of ability in sound doctrine to the bishops in the West. Recount to them the troubles whereby we are beset. Suggest some mode of relief. Be a Samuel to the Churches. Share the grief of the beleaguered people. Offer prayers for peace. Ask favour from the Lord, that He will send some memorial of peace to the Churches. I know how weak letters are to move men in matters of such importance; but you yourself no more need exhortation from others than the noblest athletes need the children's cheers. It is not as though I were instructing one in ignorance; I am only giving a new impulse to one whose energies are already roused. For the rest of the affairs of the East perhaps you may need the aid of more, and we must wait for the Westerns. But plainly the discipline of the Church of Antioch depends upon your reverence's being able to control some, to reduce others to silence, and to restore strength to the Church by concord. No one knows better than you do, that, like all wise physicians, you ought to begin your treatment in the most vital parts, and what part is more vital to the Churches throughout the world than Antioch? Only let Antioch be restored to harmony, and nothing will stand in the way of her supplying, as a healthy head, soundness to all the body. Truly the diseases of that city, which has not only been cut asunder by heretics, but is torn in pieces by men who say that they are of one mind with one another, stand in need of your wisdom and evangelic sympathy. To unite the sundered parts again, and bring about the harmony of one body, belongs to Him alone Who by His ineffable power grants even to the dry bones to come back again to sinews and flesh. But the Lord always works His mighty works by means of them that are worthy of Him. Once again, in this case too, we trust that the ministry of matters so important may beseem your excellency, with the result that you will lay the tempest of the people, do away with the party superiorities, and subject all to one another in love, and give back to the Church her ancient strength.
NPNF2: Vol. VIII, Letters, Letter 66 – To Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, §1.
Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389): For a long time his change of heart is considered suspect, and he is turned away because it seemed a thing in the realm of the odd and incredible that Cyprian of all people should ever be counted a Christian. Yet transfer it he does and the proof of his conversion is clear to see: he takes his books of magic and exposes them to public display; he stands triumphantly over his evil and pathetic store; he preaches against the foolishness they contain, he makes a flame leap up brightly from them, he destroys in the fire their vast deceit that had been powerless to support a single spark of carnal desire; he parts company with the demons, he assimilates himself to God. How mighty is the power of grace that it can reveal God through a base passion and spirit! He becomes a holy sheep in a holy flock and even, as I have heard, a church menial, much given to prayer that he might rid himself of his former brazenness and school himself to humility. After that he is a pastor; indeed, the greatest and most respected of pastors. He does not preside merely over the church of the Carthaginians and of Africa which, thanks to him and his efforts, is famous to this day, but also over the entire western region and in effect even over the east itself, and the south, and the north, everywhere that he came to be admired. So does Cyprian become ours.
Fathers of the Church, Vol. 107, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations, Oration 24.12 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), p. 149-150.