(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Consequently we declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. --Pope Boniface, AD 1302.The office of the Pope has enormous power. We can gain an appreciation of the power of the Papacy by examining official Catholic teaching. For example:
The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him. (1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 100)The Papacy, through the Magisterium, reserves for itself the exclusive right to interpret scripture.
From the first Vatican Council, 1870, we read:
We, therefore, for the preservation, safekeeping, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approval of the Sacred Council, do judge it to be necessary to propose to the belief and acceptance of all the faithful, in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church, the doctrine touching the institution, perpetuity and nature of the sacred Apostolic Primacy, in which is found the strength and solidity of the entire Church…We note an important point of this pronouncement, namely that it (the papacy) is said to be in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church.
If anyone, therefore, shall say that the Blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of the Apostles and the visible head of the whole Church militant, or that the same directly and immediately received from the same our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honor only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction; let him be anathema.
If, then, anyone shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that Blessed Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy; let him be anathema.
The Apostolic primacy of Peter is further elaborated in Vatican I:
“And it was upon Simon alone that Jesus, after His resurrection, bestowed the jurisdiction of Chief Pastor and Ruler over all His fold in the words, “Feed My lambs, feed My sheep.” At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture, as it has ever been understood by the Catholic Church, are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church, deny that Peter in his simple person preferably to all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction; or of those who assert that the same primacy was not bestowed immediately and directly upon Blessed Peter himself but upon the Church, and the Church on Peter as her minister.”Once again note that the papacy is declared to be the “clear” doctrine of scripture, as ever understood by the Catholic Church, and those who disagree have perverse opinions. These opinions are reiterated by Vatican II in 1965:
In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He [Christ] placed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship (Cf. Vatican Council I, Session 4, the dogmatic constitution ‘Pastor aeternus’). And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the force and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this sacred Synod again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful.Catholic writer Cardinal Gibbons wrote:
"The Catholic Church teaches that our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of his whole church, and that same spiritual authority has always resided in the popes, or bishops of Rome, as being the successors of St. Peter. Consequently, to be true followers of Christ all Christians, both among the clergy and laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome, where Peter rules in the person of his successor."To summarize, official Catholic teaching is that the office of the Papacy was clearly inaugurated by Christ, and that Peter was given a position of primacy and installed into this office, and that the Church has always taught this. This teaching is part of the infallible teaching of the Magisterium, and so if any of these points falls, the entire structure of the present Catholic Church, in terms of the authority she claims for herself as the sole interpreter of scripture and the office of pope—it all falls with it.
We will begin our investigation of these claims. We will start with Rome’s strongest scripture based argument.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matt 16:13-20)The Catholic Church claims, infallibly, that this passage clearly teaches that Jesus elevated Peter to a position of supremacy among all apostles, effectively installing Peter as the first pope. Furthermore, the Catholic Church makes another infallible claim, namely that this interpretation has always been the teaching of the Church.
The standard Protestant teaching is as follows: the on this rock in verse 18 refers to the confession of Christ that Peter made in verse 16. In other words, that confessing Christ, not Peter, is the rock upon which the church will be built. Furthermore, the standard Protestant view includes the idea that Peter was a spokesman who made his confession on behalf of all the disciples—that is, there is no reason to believe that the other disciples stood in amazement and shock at Peter’s confession.
Thus we have:
Protestant: And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock, (the confession you just made, that I am the Christ) I will build my church.
Catholic: And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock, (you, Peter) I will build my church.
Actually this is too simplistic. It presents a false dichotomy—that it either the standard Protestant view or the Roman claim of Christ’s establishment of the papacy is legitimate. In truth, there are many other possibilities that have been held by various theologians, including that ”this rock” is Christ referring to Himself and, interestingly, some have taught that “this rock” does indeed refer to Peter but the passage—even granting the Catholic claim that “this rock” is Peter, does not institute anything remotely resembling the papacy.
Notice that the Catholic view is that Christ, in verse 19, has given the keys of the kingdom specifically to Peter, saying to Peter I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Notice that this is a promise—Christ will give the keys. We can ask, when was this promise fulfilled, and was it fulfilled for Peter only? It would appear not. Later in Matthew we find the same phrase:
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Matt. 18:18-19)Clearly here it applies to all the apostles.
So at this point (back to Matthew 16), according to Catholic teaching, Jesus has made Peter the chief of the apostles. We would expect, from that point on to see (a) the other apostles acknowledge Peter’s primacy and (b) Peter himself to acknowledge it. Let’s see what the scripture have to say.
On there way into the Garden of Gethsemane, we read:
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. (Luke 22:24)Instead of acknowledging Peter’s privileged position, they are debating who, in fact, is the greatest among them. If Jesus had indeed elevated Peter, it seems that the other apostle’s missed the point, Peter did not invoke it, and Christ didn’t reiterate it.
Nor is there, anywhere else in the New Testament, any indication that any of the apostles (including Peter himself) refer to Peter’s alleged supremacy.
Beginning with Peter himself, we read, in his epistle:
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 21shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (1 Pet. 5:1-2)Far from referring to himself as anything resembling a pope, Peter describes himself as a “fellow elder.” In addition, we see that Peter instructs the elders to shepherd the flock. This is important because of another passage used by Rome in its case fore the papacy, Peter’s restoration after betraying Christ, described in John 21, which ends with:
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:17)Rome teaches that Peter was uniquely charged with tending the sheep, but Peter, in his epistle teaches that the other elders (as he is) should tend the sheep.
Similarly Peter’s second letter offers no evidence that he viewed himself as pope or even as bishop of Rome.
Peter and Paul
Paul wrote to the Roman Church in AD 55-57. It is clear that Peter was not in Rome at the time. What about when Paul was in Rome. Was Peter there? We should hope not, because if he were, then he abandoned Paul in prison, because Paul wrote that at his first trial everyone abandoned him. It is inconceivable that Peter was in Rome at the time and Paul never mentioned him while writing from Rome—or that Peter abandoned Paul during his trial.
The apostle Paul, in all his inspired writings, never acknowledged Peter’s supremacy. In fact, anything he wrote that is relevant to that question would seem to deny the proposition. For example, Paul writes:
I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. (2 Cor 12:11)Paul asserts that he is not inferior to any of other apostles. Paul also wrote:
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. ( 1 Cor 12:28)In mentioning the offices of the church, here and elsewhere (where he mentions elders and deacons), Paul makes no mention of the office of the papacy.
Another clear expression of equality rather than subservience is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here we read:
On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7)This passage clearly expresses a delineation of their respective ministries—not at all a description of Paul on assignment from Peter.
Of course, the final nail in the coffin of any claim that Peter was the supreme leader among the apostles occurs a verses later:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (Gal. 2:11-12)One can hardly fathom a pope being publicly rebuked by one of his cardinals or bishops. It makes the mind reel.
The claim of Peter’s supremacy fares no better in Acts. When it’s reported that the gospel was being preached in Samaria, the church at Jerusalem responds:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John. (Acts 8:14)Notice that there is no indication whatsoever that Peter is in charge—indeed he was sent. Later in the book of Acts we read of Peter being summoned to explain his controversial preaching to the Gentiles:
2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2-3)Once again, we read an account that sounds nothing like we would expect if Peter were in a position of authority over the church. Rather Peter, while behaving correctly and in the right, was nevertheless called in on the carpet.
In Acts 15 we read of the first church council, in Jerusalem. If Peter is in charge of the church, then surely he will be in charge of the proceedings. We read:
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15: 6-7)Here we see that, even in the most favorable light, we see nothing more that Peter reporting to the council. However, even if you find support in this part of the account for Petrine supremacy, you have to deal with the closing statement:
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.It was not Peter who lead the Jerusalem council, it was James, as is seen by the imperative mode of his speech. The letter that is written does not carry the imprimatur of Peter, but of all the apostles.
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:13-14, 19-20).
It should also be noted that these are last recorded words of Peter. There is no account of his time in Rome, and no letter to the Church at Rome for which the Catholic Church teaches was his episcopate.
Now, it should be obvious that not one word written in this lesson is intended to denigrate St. Peter, who, during Christ’s ministry, clearly was the unofficial leader among the apostles, and also just as clearly was on of Jesus’ favorites. He is and was the apostle Peter—a man worthy the highest esteem and respect. We are not in any manner bashing Peter—we are only questioning the Roman doctrine establishing Peter as the first pope.
The early post-apostolic church
The Catholic Church’s claim that scripture clearly teaches that Peter was promoted, by Jesus, as the first pope, was shown to be weak. The passage can be understood to teach that Peter’s confession rather than Peter himself is the “rock” upon which the church will be built. Furthermore, it is beyond refute that nowhere in scripture is there any indication that Peter was in command of the first century church.
However, the Catholic Church, as part of her infallible teaching, claims both of these to be true. Suppose, in terms of the issue of the early church, we don’t go all the way back to the apostles, but back to the post apostolic church fathers. Did they, as Rome claims, teach that Matthew 16 established Peter as the first pope?
To find out what the early church fathers thought about Matthew 16, we turn to the research of a Roman Catholic Scholar, Launoy. He obtained these results:
- Viewed “the rock” as Peter: 17
- Viewed “the rock” as Christ: 16
- Viewed “the rock” as all the apostles: 8
- Viewed “the rock” as the confession: 44
Other Catholics concur. The Jesuit Maldonatus wrote:
"There are among ancient authors some who interpret ‘on this rock,’ that is, ‘on this faith,’ or ‘on this confession of faith in which thou hast called me the Son of the living God,’ as Hilary, and Gregory Nyssen, and Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. St. Augustine going still further away from the true sense interprets ‘on this rock,’ that is, ‘on myself Christ,’ because Christ was the rock. But Origen ‘on this rock,’ on all men who have the same faith."There are some big names in that list of dissenters from Roman dogma, including Agustine, Origen, and Cyril of Alexandria.
Maldonatus mentions Hilary, who was a forth century bishop of Poitiers, a French city and early Christian center. Hilary wrote:
This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven.Hilary unambiguously identifies the faith, not Peter, as the foundation of the church. And what of the great Augustine? He seems to have changed his mind, retracting what he at first believed - the interpretation of the Roman Church that Peter was the Rock. He says.
"I have said somewhere of St. Peter that the Church is built on him as the ‘Rock’; but I have since said that the Word of the Lord. ‘Thou are Peter, and upon this Petra I will build my church,’ must be understood of Him [Jesus] whom Peter confesses to be ‘the Son of the Living God.’ Peter so named after this ‘Rock’ represents the person of the Church, and has received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. It was not said of him, ‘thou art Petra,’ but ‘thou art Petros,’ and the Rock was Christ; through confession of whom Simon received the name Peter. Yet the reader may decide which of the two interpretations is the more probable.So Augustine at first agreed with Rome’s interpretation although, once again, that does not mean he saw anything resembling the papacy. However, he changed his mind, and later decided that Christ was the rock, and that Peter received his name, the rock, by his confession. Just as bad for Rome, Augustine goes on to say that which interpretation you accept is a matter of freedom!
In conclusion, none of Rome’s claims regarding the scriptural support or the evidence for the doctrine of Peter’s supremacy in the early church withstand scrutiny. Nowhere in the epistles of Paul, John, James. Jude, or Peter himself do we have any hint that Peter holds the highest office in the church, or even that such an office exists. Nor is there any mention of anything remotely like the papacy in the book of Acts. Especially damaging to Rome is that these teaching are part of the infallible dogma of the Church.