Scripture & Church Fathers Don’t Support the Papacy

The one major difference between the Roman Catholic Church and all other Christian groups is the Pope. Roman Catholics believe that the bishop of Rome is in charge of the entire Christian church, and that he can never lead the church into doctrinal error. Because of the special grace given to the Pope, the church in Rome is infallibly correct in all that it teaches, and the Papacy keeps the entire Roman Catholic Church safe from error.

In this article, I’m going to evaluate the Scriptural and patristic evidence for the Papacy. My findings suggest that the very foundations of this doctrine are flawed, and that the Roman Catholic Church has left the historic faith.

It’s All About Peter

The roots of the Papacy arguments begin in the Roman Catholics’ unique claims concerning Peter and the church at Rome. Roman Catholics believe that Jesus named Peter the head of the Christian church on earth, and that whoever is the current bishop of Rome has the same authority that Peter did. Peter, in their view, was therefore the first Pope and head of the church.

Now, I think it’s true that Peter had a special role. In Acts, he seems to be the spokesperson of the apostles. In the Gospels, Christ singled him out for special charges several times, such as telling him, “Feed my sheep.” Though these charges were also for the other apostles, it seems that Peter was to embody them in a special way.

It’s also true that the church at Rome was well-respected for years after the apostles had died. They were known for remaining true to what the apostles had taught, and in many cases, the leadership in Rome helped to settle disputes in other churches.

Thus, before I get into the Roman Catholic claims about the Papacy, I’d like to present an Anabaptist view of Peter’s role and the early church at Rome. The purpose of doing so is to show that there are viable alternatives to the Roman Catholics’ outsized claims about the Papacy.

A General Christian View of Peter

Below are five points that some Anabaptists, including me, accept. Not all might agree, but I think the Scriptural and historical evidence is pretty strongly in their favor.

  • A) Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them.
  • B) Peter and the other apostles founded Jesus’ church such that it would never cease to exist.
  • C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone.
  • D) This institution was intended to uphold true Christian doctrine.
  • E) Historically, the church at Rome for many years aided in the leadership of other churches and lead out in the defense of the apostolic faith.

Note: In the rest of the article, I’ll call this “the Anabaptist position.” By that, I do not mean that it’s the only position that Anabaptists hold. Instead, I simply mean that it’s the Anabaptist position that I’m arguing for in this post. I’ll also call it the general Christian position.

The Roman Catholic View of Peter

So, we’ve looked at a view that Anabaptists can hold with regard to Peter. What do Roman Catholics teach?

  • A) Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them (A1) in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.
  • B) Peter and the other apostles founded Jesus’ church such that it would never cease to exist (B1) as a singular institutional church.
  • C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone, (C1) and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.
  • D) This institution was intended to uphold true Christian doctrine (D1) and it made certain that the teachings of the Roman church remain free of doctrinal error.
  • E) Historically, the church at Rome for many years aided in the leadership of other churches and lead out in the defense of the apostolic faith, (E1) and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.

You can see some of the relevant parts of the Roman Catholic Church’s official teaching by expanding this footnote.1We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord. . . .

[I]f anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. . . .

Indeed, their [the Popes’] apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error . . .

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

(From this website.)

Comparing the Two Views

You can see that Roman Catholics agree with all of the points that I offered. However, they add specificities to each point. For points A and B, they define their terms more narrowly. For points C through E, they believe additional facts to be true.

So in other words, Roman Catholics agree that the Anabaptist position as I described it is correct. All that we have taught so far is true. However, they also believe several additional things. In this article, I’ll examine those additional claims (A1–E1) and whether there is good evidence to believe that they are true.

A Note About My Methodology

Why did I approach the subject this way? This is intended to make the actual issue clearer. One of the biggest confusions surrounding the topic of the papacy is what these four points entail. When Roman Catholics argue for points A–E, showing them to be scriptural, it can seem like they are proving that the Papacy is a Christian doctrine. But as you can see here, points A–E don’t say anything about the Papacy. They are just general points about Peter that Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, and other Christians can agree with.

Instead, what Roman Catholics need to do is to argue for the extra clarifications that they make to these points. They need to argue for points A1–E1 and convince us that there is Scriptural and historical evidence for these points.

In this article, I will address arguments from Scripture and church history that are specific to each point A1–E1. Then I will offer a number of quotes from early Christian writers that provide evidence against the Papacy.

Did Peter have supreme authority? (A1)

In this section, I’ll evaluate whether or not the Roman Catholic addition to point A is correct. Remember that A and A1, as I’ve worded them, state

A) Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them (A1) in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.

Peter the Rock

To argue that Peter had supreme authority over the whole church, Roman Catholics most often point to Matthew 16.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. 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.” (Matt 16:13–19 ESV)

In my opinion, this passage is a good support for the general Christian position (A). Does it support the Roman Catholic additions (A1)? Let’s see.

When Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus called him “Peter,” or “rock,” and said that he would build the church “on this rock.” Roman Catholics believe that this means that Jesus would build the church on Peter, thus making Peter the head of the whole church.

The Roman Catholics may be right that Jesus was referring to Peter as the rock on which he would build his church. That is one interpretation that some early Christians had of this passage. Others, however, argued that it was not specifically about Peter, but about anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ, as Peter had done. In my opinion, either one of them fits the text. I’ll just assume Jesus is speaking about Peter, for the sake of the argument. I’ll revisit that issue later.

To get hung up on this question would be a mistake. What is a rock, when you build on it? A foundation. Jesus is saying that, in some sense, Peter will be a foundation of the church. In Revelation, we are told that Peter and the other apostles are the foundations of the city of God.2And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21:14) The apostles played a founding role in building the church, and those of us who spend our lives for the church today are only building on the work that they did. So this part of the passage doesn’t show Peter and his successors to be the head of the church. In fact, it suggests that later bishops would not fill Peter’s special role, since you only lay a foundation once, and after that, you are building on it.

Note that Jesus also said in this passage that the church’s enemies would not overpower the church. This is connected in some way to Peter being the rock. I’ll consider the implications of that in my analysis of D1.

Now, recall that Jesus said,

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.

In Matthew 18, the authority to bind and loose are also given to all the apostles. So that authority doesn’t mean that Peter had supreme authority over the whole church. But what about the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”?

Roman Catholic apologists often make a lot from this particular statement, because it’s not ever said of another apostle or another person. Doesn’t it then mean that A is true, and that Peter had a special role?

Interestingly enough, their own church is not in full agreement with them. The Roman Catholic Church has dogmatically taught that the “keys” were also not just given to Peter. The Fourth Lateran Council speaks of priests as being “properly ordained according to the church’s keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors.”3(from here) Also see this statement: “as Pope Innocent III repeated later, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, ‘Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.’” (from here) I don’t know enough about canon law to know whether it carries any weight as a Roman Catholic teaching, especially since another Pope says that the keys were given to Peter alone here. However, in my opinion, the apologists are right to suggest that this passage indicates that A is true—Peter was given authority over the church, and a special role.

But this is all beside the point, because to prove A simply proves the Anabaptist position, not the Roman Catholic claim A1) that Peter had supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles. The text of Matthew 16 makes clear that Peter has authority (A), but it is virtually silent on the extent of Peter’s authority. Thus, the passage does not demonstrate A1.

Strengthen Your Brethren

Another passage often used to argue that Peter had supreme authority over the whole church is Luke 22:31–32, where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial of him:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31–32 ESV)

Roman Catholics argue that Jesus gave Peter a special authority over the other apostles—to be the one to strengthen his brothers (the other apostles). All of the disciples betrayed Jesus by not following him to his death, and Peter was to be the one who, though he actually denied Jesus, would repent and help the other disciples to stay strong in their faith to Jesus.

This is a great passage in support of A, since Jesus is giving Peter a special role. However it’s not clear that Peter’s task carried into the church age, or whether Jesus just intended it for the time when the other disciples were unfaithful. However, it clearly says nothing about A1, since it doesn’t specify what kinds of authority Peter had.

Feed My Sheep

The other passage in the Gospels that Roman Catholics use in order to characterize Peter’s authority is John 21.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 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 21:15–17)

According to one apologist, this passage shows that “Christ made Peter alone the shepherd over his whole flock.”4From this site. That’s really strange to me, because Jesus said nothing in this passage about what the other apostles did or didn’t do. In fact, when Peter asked what the role of another apostle would be, Jesus refused to tell him (v. 22).

So what can we know about this passage? Clearly Jesus meant Peter to tend his sheep, the people who would come to believe in Jesus. But was Peter to tend “his whole flock”? Was he alone made shepherd? The passage doesn’t specify.5Note that Roman Catholics (as do I) object when Protestants insert the word “alone” into Romans 3:28. To add that word changes the meaning of a sentence and adds a specificity that the original sentence didn’t have.

Again, I think that this passage, taken with the other passages about Peter, is good evidence for A. Peter had a special role. However, it does not specify Peter’s role with regard to the other apostles, so it doesn’t support A1.

Leadership in Acts

One argument by Roman Catholics that has always seemed strange to me is the argument from the Jerusalem Council. In a Facebook comment on a question I asked, a Roman Catholic said, “Peter led the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and announced the first dogmatic decision to the Church (Acts 15:7–11).” An apologist says “[T]he book of Acts describes Peter’s unparalleled leadership in the early Church. This includes his authority to make a binding, dogmatic declaration at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).6From this site

So at the Jerusalem Council, Peter was supposedly the leader, and he was the one who either made or announced the decision. Do our sources agree?

Here are the relevant parts of the record of the council, where the early church met to consider whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised and otherwise follow the Law of Moses:

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 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. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter (Acts 15:6–23 ESV)

So what happened in the story? I’ll summarize (be sure to check my summary against the text to make sure I’m representing it correctly).

  • The apostles and elders debated the issue considerably.
  • Peter stood up, talked about a relevant story that had happened to him, and chided the pro-circumcision people.
  • The apostles and elders stopped talking.
  • Paul and Barnabas talked about relevant stories that had happened to them.
  • They stopped talking.
  • James said that he agreed with Peter (Simeon), and so did the Old Testament prophets. Because of this, James judged that the assembly should decide against the pro-circumcision party.
  • The apostles, elders, and the whole church accepted James’s conclusion, and took action according to the lines that James proposed.

So now, let’s examine the Roman Catholic claims. 1) Did Peter lead the council? 2) Did he exercise “unparalleled leadership”? 3) Did he “make a binding, dogmatic declaration”? 4) Was he the one who “announced the first dogmatic decision to the Church”?

  1. We are not told whether Peter led the council or not. From the events of the account in Acts, there seems no indication that he did.
  2. The account doesn’t describe anything particularly unparalleled by Peter. Peter told a story, but Paul and Barnabas also told stories. Peter chided the pro-circumcision people, but then, Paul actually records that he (probably publicly) chided Peter’s actions on this very issue.7Gal 2:11
  3. Peter doesn’t appear to have made a decision in this text. It appears that James (bishop of Jerusalem) made the preliminary decision and that the whole assembly made the final decision.
  4. There is no evidence that Peter announced the council’s decision. The evidence only shows that he spoke in favor of it before it was actually decided.

So this passage doesn’t even seem to lend support for A, that Peter was foremost among the apostles. That’s just fine, because there are other good reasons to believe A. But this passage certainly doesn’t lend support to A1, since it doesn’t portray Peter as having supreme authority. The person who appears to have the most authority in this account is James.

I conclude that the New Testament offers some support for A) the general Christian position. However, we have no New Testament evidence in favor of A1) the Roman Catholic additional belief.

Old Testament Parallels

One popular argument among Roman Catholics is the claim that the Old Testament contains a type or antecedent for the Papacy. Roman Catholic apologists argue that, when Jesus conferred a role on Peter in Matthew 16, he was alluding to Isaiah 22, which uses similar language to talk about the steward of the house of David. Unfortunately, the exegesis used to make this argument is rather strained; I responded to one popular article about this interesting claim here.

To see the issues present in this argument, let’s look at the text of Isaiah, where God foretells the stewardship of Eliakim:

In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isa 22:20–22 ESV)

Let’s compare two statements by Christ to see who he might say is the fulfilment of Eliakim:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one [Jesus Christ], the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. ‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’” (Rev 3:7–8 ESV)

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. 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.” (Matt 16:18–19)

I think the answer is pretty obvious. Christ’s speech to Peter certainly bears some similarities to Isaiah 22. It’s even possible that Jesus had that passage in mind as he put words to Peter’s role. But Christ’s description of himself in Revelation clearly shows that he considers himself, rather than Peter, to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus, not Peter, is the new Eliakim.

Might the similarities between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 close enough that Peter could be a secondary fulfilment of Eliakim’s type? I don’t think Jesus is attempting to draw that parallel in Matthew 16. He gave Peter a role in the kingdom, rather than making him steward of the house. He gave Peter the (plural) keys of the kingdom, not the (singular) key of the house. While Eliakim was said to be a father to the people of Jerusalem and the house of Judah (David’s tribe), Jesus never calls Peter a father and he gave Peter a role in the church (which does not correspond to Judah, but to the twelve tribes of Israel). There is no reason to believe that Jesus meant to equate the two roles.

When we consider that Christ applies Isaiah 22 to himself, I think we should hesitate before we speculate about other people whom we would prefer to be the fulfilment of that prophecy. There aren’t many prophecies in the Old Testament fulfilled in people other than Jesus in the New Testament. Are we to believe that this one, even though Jesus is the fulfilment, also applies to Peter? To say that, we would need a much closer parallel.

But maybe this is just my conclusion. What did the church fathers say about this issue? Did they consider Peter to be the fulfilment of Isaiah 22?

This part of Isaiah 22 was rarely mentioned in the church fathers. However, no church father who is known to have mentioned it considered Eliakim to be a type of Peter. Instead, one early Christian writer agrees with my assessment—that Eliakim was a type of Christ. Another one considers Eliakim to be a foreshadowing of the work of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture. You can click on this footnote to see the relevant passages.8Here are the relevant quotes:

“These things, moreover, as I judge, he [Origen] gives forth only and truly by participation in the Divine Spirit: for there is need of the same power for those who prophesy and for those who hear the prophets; and no one can rightly hear a prophet, unless the same Spirit who prophesies bestows on him the capacity of apprehending His words. And this principle is expressed indeed in the Holy Scriptures themselves, when it is said that only He who shutteth openeth, and no other one whatever; and what is shut is opened when the word of inspiration explains mysteries. Now that greatest gift this man has received from God, and that noblest of all endowments he has had bestowed upon him from heaven, that he should be an interpreter of the oracles of God to men” (Gregory Taumaturgus 15 ANF)

I.e., the Holy Spirit gave Origen the ability to understand prophecies and to expound them to his fellow Christians.

“In fact the book was seen by John, ‘written within and without, and sealed; and no one could open it to read it, and to loose the seals thereof, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, who has the key of David, he that openeth and none shall shut, and that shutteth and none shall open.’ For the book here spoken of means the whole of Scripture; and it is written within (lit. in front), on account of the meaning which is obvious, and on the back, on account of its remoter and spiritual sense. Observe, in addition to this, if a proof that the sacred writings are one book, and those of an opposite character many, may not be found in the fact that there is one book of the living from which those who have proved unworthy to be in it are blotted out, as it is written: ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of the living,’ . . . The passage in Isaiah, too, I read in the same way. It is not peculiar to his prophecy that the words of the book should be sealed, and should neither be read by him who does not know letters, because he is ignorant of letters, nor by him who is learned, because the book is sealed. This is true of every writing, for every written work needs the reason (Logos) which closed it to open it.  ‘He shall shut, and none shall open,’ and when He opens no one can cast doubt on the interpretation He brings.” (Apostolic Constitutions 3.4 ANF)

I.e., Christ is the one who opens the Scriptures to us, because he is the reason, or Logos, for the Scriptures and thus in some sense has “closed” it.

And here are two post-Nicene quotes, for good measure:

‘Eliakim means “God rising again,” or “resurrection of God.” Therefore, that God rising again, who is the son of Hilkiah, that is, “of the Lord’s portion,” will take your [the Jewish law’s] place, and will be clothed with your robe, and will be strengthened by your sash, so that what you had in the letter, he possesses in the Spirit; and he will be father of those who inhabit Jerusalem, that is, the “vision of peace,” which means the church, and the house of Judah, where there is the true “confession” of faith. This is why he says to the apostles, “Little children, I am with you a little longer” [John 13:33]; and to another, “Son, your sins are forgiven” [Matt 9:2]; and to another, “Daughter, your faith has saved you” [Luke 7:50]. Also, I will give to him, he says, the key of the house of David, “who opens, and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens” [Rev 3:7]. And this very key will be upon his shoulder, that is, during the passion. This accords with what is written in another passage: “Whose sovereignty is on his shoulder” [Isa 9:6]. For that which he will have opened up by his passion cannot be closed, and what he will have enclosed in Jewish ceremonies, no other will open….

‘This is also why in the Gospel it is written, “All the people were hanging from him [like hanging from the peg in Isaiah 22:24]” [Luke 19:48]. Indeed, this happened not merely at that time, but it is fulfilled up to the present day, that they hang various kinds of vessels from him, as if from the word of God, wisdom, justice, and all things by which Christ is designated….I think that the cups [in Isaiah 22:24] are the apostles, filled with the life-giving waters, of which it is said, “Bless the Lord from the fountains of Israel” [Ps 68:26].’ (Thomas Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Commentary On Isaiah [Mahwah, New Jersey: The Newman Press, 2015], p. 376, section 7:41 in the commentary), retrieved from this post.

Jerome clearly sees Eliakim as a type of Christ. Apostles are not the new Eliakim, but those who are “hanging from” the new Eliakim (Eliakim is compared to a peg).

“Then Mary received her firstborn and went forth. He was outwardly wrapped in swaddling clothes, but secretly He was clothed with prophecy and priesthood. Whatsoever then was handed down from Moses, was received from Simeon [an Old Testament priest], but continued and was possessed by the Lord of both. So then the steward first, and the treasurer lastly, handed over the keys of priesthood and prophecy to Him who has authority over the treasurer of them both. Therefore, His Father gave him the spirit not by measure, John 3:34 because all measures of the spirit are under his hand. And that our Lord might show that He received the keys from the former stewards, He said to Simeon [Peter]: To you I will give the keys of the doors. Matthew 16:19 But how should He have given them to another, had He not received them from another? So, then, the keys which He had received from Simeon the priest, them He gave to another Simeon the Apostle; that even though the People had not hearkened to the former Simeon, the Gentiles might hearken to the latter Simeon” (Ephraim the Syrian, found in this video. Homily on Our Lord, Section 52, H/T Kevin Rice)

This may or may not be a reference to Isaiah 22. However, it says that Jesus was given the keys of “the former stewards” and that he gave them to Peter to show that he, Jesus, possessed them.

Note: In this video two apologists try to find places where Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 are listed together by church fathers. It’s clear that they consider their argument to be a success if a church father merely thinks that Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 have a connection (for example, as examples of “keys” in Scripture). The apologists do find a few late church fathers who mention the two passages in tandem. However, they find no church father who considers Peter to be a fulfilment of Eliakim. But that’s what we need, if we are to take facts about Eliakim to the facts about Peter.

Why is that? Because the reason apologists bring up Eliakim is so that they can take facts about Eliakim’s role to be facts about Peter’s role. So what they need is evidence that Eliakim plays the same role as Peter does. But instead, Scripture (and at least one early Christian writer) connects Eliakim with Christ.

The key that God gave to Eliakim could even be one of the very keys that Christ gave to Peter. That doesn’t matter.9Consider that if I give several keys, including the key to a house my father built, to a friend, that fact alone doesn’t indicate that my friend suddenly has the role that my father, who held that same key, had. If you want the characteristics of Eliakim to apply to Peter, then you need to establish that Eliakim is the type of Peter, rather than the type of Christ. Yet Roman Catholics have not been able to do this.

So this argument fails on multiple levels, and both Scripture and tradition disagree with the interpretation that Roman Catholic apologists try to draw out of the passage. Isaiah 22 just doesn’t apply to Peter, so it doesn’t even support A, much less A1.

Summary

In this section, we saw some Scriptural support for the Anabaptist view (A) that Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them. However, we saw no evidence so far of the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) that Peter had supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles. Furthermore, in a previous post, I show that the early church fathers did not teach A1 either.

If A1 is not true, then the Papacy is not true. However, let’s keep looking into the Roman Catholic position to see if any of their other points has good evidential support.

Is Christ’s church a single institution? (B1)

In this section, I’ll offer a short answer to the Roman Catholic addition to point B. For your reference, here are B and the Roman Catholic addition, B1:

B) Peter and the other apostles founded Jesus’ church such that it would never cease to exist (B1) as a singular institutional church.

Roman Catholic apologists like to ask the question, “Which church did Jesus found?” This question presupposes that the church is fundamentally an organization or an institution, and that our primary job in discovering the true church is to find out which institution has continued since Jesus’ day. However, the question is misleading, because Protestants and Anabaptists typically believe that Christ’s church is not fundamentally an organization or institution. The question therefore frontloads Roman Catholic ecclesiology (their view of the church) into the discussion, thus giving them an edge in the argument.

So which view of the church is actually true, then? In my post, “What Is the Church? Is There One True Church?” I look into what Christ’s church is, and whether there is one institution that can claim to be Christ’s One True Church.

That post shows that the apostolic writings indicate that Christ’s church is fundamentally composed of local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ. In other words, the church is made up of individuals who assemble. The Scriptural evidence doesn’t indicate that the church is primarily an organization, nor that it is defined by its hierarchical government, nor that it is necessarily ruled by centers of authority located in particular cities. So the New Testament doesn’t support the Roman Catholic view, though it doesn’t give strong evidence against it either.

Even though the early Christians believed that there was only one institutional church, that post also points out that they ultimately used the One True Church argument as a means to an end. Their end goal was to conserve the faith that the apostles had taught. The early Christians wanted to preserve the apostolic faith, and in those days, the institutional church was the group that was teaching that faith.

So even if there is still One True Apostolic Church, we can check whether any church is that church just by comparing their teachings with the apostolic faith. And the question at hand is just that—is the Roman Catholic teaching on the Papacy apostolic?

Consider this. We can’t just assume Roman Catholic ecclesiology and move from there to prove that the Roman Catholic teachings are true. The Roman Catholic Church’s claims are exactly what we’re not convinced of yet! That’s why I’m writing this post—to see whether the Roman Catholic teachings on the Papacy have apostolic support.

Summary of the Issue

Roman Catholic apologists argue that Matthew 16 proves that the church would never cease to exist, since Jesus said, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” However, Jesus’ statement is only a support for B—that the church would never cease to exist. It does not support B1, that the institutional church would never cease to exist—because we have not yet answered the question of whether the church is fundamentally a hierarchical organization or (what the New Testament gives much more support for) simply local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ. This passage doesn’t clarify which view is correct, so it’s not support for B1.

I conclude that, so far, we don’t have New Testament support for B1, and the early Christian support for B1 is dependent on whether that “singular institutional church” remains apostolic. And that’s the exact question that non–Roman Catholic Christians have not yet answered to their satisfaction. Catholics cannot simply assume B1 to be true—frontloading their questions with that assumption—instead, they need to present us with apostolic evidence for their view.

Finally, if the Roman Catholics lean too heavily on the early Christians to prove that there is one true church, then they will need to accept the other beliefs the early Christians taught, which the Roman Catholics might not be too keen on. (Such as the early Christian view of icons and their nonviolence.) So this may not be an argument that the Roman Catholics should put too much weight on. We will look into this specific issue when we address D1.

Did monarchical bishops in Rome inherit Peter’s role? (C1)

This next point is probably the key issue of disagreement between Roman Catholics and all other Christians. Here is the Anabaptist view and the Roman Catholic addition:

C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone, (C1) and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.

The claim C1, as far as I can see, rests on several additional beliefs:

  1. Apostolic succession of ordination is true (i.e., bishops gain special authority like the apostles when they are properly ordained within the Roman Catholic Church)
  2. Additionally, the role of a specific apostle can be passed down through the people who succeed him in the leadership role he was occupying when he died.
  3. There was always a single, monarchical bishop in Rome, who succeeded Peter to the leadership of the church at Rome.

Roman Catholics, of course, believe that all these are true and that they resulted in Peter’s special role being passed on to the bishop of Rome.

Note that even if C1 were true, the Papacy is not entailed, unless the other four points are true. For example, if we are given no more evidence than I have looked at so far for A1 (that Peter’s special role included supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles), there is still not enough evidence to establish the Papacy as true.

If any one of the individual subpoints of C1 is false, then C1 is false. So let’s look at the individual subpoints of C1 to see if all of them are true.

Is Apostolic Succession True? (C1.1)

Do bishops gain special authority like the apostles when they are properly ordained? In my article on apostolic succession, I show why the answer is no. There is no evidence from Scripture or the earliest Christians that ordination gives special authority like the apostles. Furthermore, Scripture and the early Christian writers show that no one since them has the role of infallibly teaching doctrine, as this post shows. Thus, to be a true successor of the apostles, one must follow the doctrines that they taught. Since C1.1 is not true, C1 is also therefore not true. But I’ll also look at the other two points to see what evidence there is for them.

Do Individual Apostles Have Successors? (C1.2)

Can the role of a specific apostle be passed down through the people who succeed him in the leadership role he was occupying when he died? I’m not aware of any evidence from the first three centuries of Christianity that this belief was widely held, other than the among the Roman bishops, beginning with Stephen in about AD 250. Matthias was indeed ordained to fill Judas’s role, but his ordination doesn’t show us anything about bishop ordinations, as the aforementioned article on apostolic succession shows. If you know of any other early evidence, please let me know.

Did the Roman Bishops Succeed Peter? (C1.3)

Was there always a single, monarchical bishop in Rome, who succeeded Peter to the leadership of the church at Rome? This is possibly true, but more probably false. From history, it does seem very likely that Peter died in Rome. However, did one or multiple bishops take his place in leadership? In my post on apostolic succession, I give some reasons to believe that there were no single, monarchical bishops until the very end of the apostolic era.

Furthermore, one early source indicates that Rome specifically didn’t have a single bishop, but was lead by a group of elders. That’s the Shepherd of Hermas, which was probably written in Rome, and mentions Clement, who was a bishop or elder at Rome. You can expand this footnote to see some of the relevant quotes.10“Thou shalt therefore say unto the elders of the Church, that they direct their paths in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with abundant glory.”

“And afterwards I saw a vision in my house. The aged woman came, and asked me, if I had already given the book to the elders. I said that I had not given it. ‘Thou hast done well,’ she said, ‘for I have words to add. When then I shall have finished all the words, it shall be made known by thy means to all the elect. Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.'”

Lightfoot translation.

Answering a Roman Catholic Response

Roman Catholic apologists sometimes try to get Papal succession out of the New Testament passages about Peter. For example, one article claims,

The non-Catholic protests, “There is no evidence that Peter’s ministry will be successive.” However, the whole context and meaning of the imagery from the beginning to the end show it to be a ministry that must be successive. First of all, the image of the rock is, by its very nature, a timeless and everlasting image. That’s why the image of the rock was chosen. That’s how rocks are. They’re there to stay. Then in Matthew 16 Jesus himself says that the steward’s ministry will have an eternal dimension. He holds the keys to the Kingdom of God and the gates of hell will never prevail against it. Finally, the image of the shepherd, as we have seen, is an eternal one because God himself is the ultimate Good Shepherd. If the rock, the steward, and the shepherd are eternal ministries, then for it to last that long, the ministry must be successive. How could this eternal ministry have died out with Peter himself and still have been eternal?

From this article.

This argument has a number of issues.

  • First, the image of a rock may be a “timeless and everlasting image,” but this is the wrong thing to appeal to, since rocks don’t have successors. Furthermore, Jesus clearly means the rock to be a foundation, and a foundation is not a role that admits successors. Thus, it’s more likely that Jesus meant that the role Peter played in the church would be foundational.
  • Second, just because a fortress is never conquered doesn’t mean that only one person and his successors in office ever hold the keys to that fortress. The two ideas are just not the same.
  • Third, a shepherd is not an eternal image. Shepherds die. Just because an image is used of God doesn’t mean that when it is applied to someone else, it will be eternal. God is called a lot of other things; are all of them suddenly eternal images too?
  • Finally, the author asks how an eternal ministry could have died out with Peter. First, when a person plays a foundational role, his work doesn’t just die out when he does—nor does anyone take it up. The work that he has done is eternal, whether or not someone is eternally doing it. Second, a simple answer to this question would be that the ministry could be handed on to multiple people, just as Jesus handed his ministry on to the twelve apostles. We don’t need to assume that there must forever be one person filling this role. Third, Christians believe that Peter is still alive, with Christ, and awaiting the resurrection. Roman Catholics even believe that we can pray to Peter—so their own theology presents a way that Peter could still fulfil a role in the church without any successors. I don’t believe in prayers to saints, but to anyone who does, this question holds no force.

Summary

I conclude that C1 is also not supported by Scripture or the church fathers. Roman bishops do not inherit Peter’s role of infallibility and supremacy. In my post on the early church fathers and the Papacy, I look at the pre-Nicene quotes that Roman Catholic apologists put forward in support of the Papacy. However, I show that none of them support C1, and a significant number of the quotes actually provide evidence against C1. Thus, the linchpin of the Papacy argument was not taught by the apostolic church.

Has the Roman church remained free from error? (D1)

The Roman Catholic Church claims that anything it has officially taught is without error. It claims to have the ability to further develop Christian doctrines, and these new developments are infallible and without error. That is, the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings have the same authority as Scripture.

Let’s see whether this belief has any support. For reference, here is the Anabaptist belief D and the Roman Catholic addition D1:

D) This institution (the apostolic church leadership structure) was intended to uphold true Christian doctrine (D1) and it made certain that the teachings of the Roman church remain free of doctrinal error.

The office of bishop, or elder, was created in order to keep the church in sound teaching, as the qualifications for this office found in Paul’s letters show. One of the main roles of church leaders is to uphold true doctrine, thus D is true.

However, Roman Catholics also believe that they have not departed from the apostolic deposit of faith—the doctrines that the apostles taught in the beginning. However, their church claims to be able to specify what the apostles meant when they said or wrote Christian doctrine. Many, like me, find the idea very attractive. There is a church that has stayed true to what was taught in the beginning? There is an authority structure that can continue to speak infallibly to the needs of today? That sounds like just what we need.

And, indeed, that’s one of the Roman Catholic arguments for their church. Apologists ask, “Doesn’t it seem like God would leave behind an infallible source of teaching to keep his church from straying into error? Doesn’t that make more sense than just sending apostles to deliver some teachings and then leaving succeeding generations to figure out what’s true?”

But the question is not, “What do we think God would do?” The question is, “What does the evidence show?”

In previous articles, I showed that the Roman Catholic Church has fallen into error by embracing violence and by venerating icons, two practices that the early Christians did not accept. But might these be legitimate developments of doctrine? Unfortunately, the apostles and the early Christians taught that the Christian faith was handed down complete and entire. Only centuries later did the institutional church begin to teach that they could make further infallible declarations on the faith.

Thus, we are left in a quandary—the Roman Catholic Church teaches that its new teachings are infallible. However, this very teaching is itself new (post-dating the apostles by centuries). Since they have no apostolic support for this teaching, the only authority for this new teaching is itself—the teaching that its new teachings are infallible. It should not be surprising that Protestants and Anabaptists don’t accept the Roman Catholic belief.

Still, a few Scriptures are used to argue for their belief, such as Matthew 16. When Jesus said that the church’s enemies would not overpower the church, Roman Catholic apologists often take this to mean that institution of the Papacy would prevent the church from ever being led into error.

However, it should be pretty clear that promising that the church would never be overcome is not the same as promising that its leaders would never teach error. And we have clear evidence that this particular church’s leaders have gone into error.

Yet even with the failure of the Roman church to continue in true doctrine, there still remain many Christians among Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and Anabaptists who serve Jesus as their King. I would say that that’s pretty good evidence that the church’s enemies have not yet overcome it—nor will they ever do so.

Furthermore, in the post where I cite all the early Christian writers who are cited in support of the Papacy, virtually none of them are put forward to support D1, and none of those citations supports D1.

I conclude that the evidence shows the Roman Catholic additional belief D1, that their church is without error, to be incorrect.

Did the Roman bishop have supreme power in the early church? (E1)

The final element of the Roman Catholic argument for the Papacy is an argument from the authority that the Roman church has had throughout church history. Here are the two positions I laid out before:

E) Historically, the church at Rome for many years aided in the leadership of other churches and lead out in the defense of the apostolic faith, (E1) and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.

Roman Catholics use several historical events to try to show that the Roman bishop was head of the church in the early days. I’ll look at all the relevant events that I know of in this section, to see if they really show that the Roman bishop held supremacy over all other churches. In some cases, I’ll be drawing from the textual analysis that I did in an earlier post about the early church fathers and the Papacy.

Note: As I’ve noted elsewhere, my training isn’t in history, so take any history I give you with a grain of salt. My training is in reading a text and understanding what is communicated through that text. So I typically try to stick to evaluating Scripture and early Christian texts. Fortunately, much of history, if not all of it, is based on reading ancient texts.

Clement of Rome

Clement was an early leader of the church at Rome, and his name is attached to a letter that the leadership of the Roman church wrote to the church at Corinth. It’s quite possible that he was the one who penned the letter for the Roman church leaders. Roman Catholics believe that Clement was a Pope, and they point to several things about this letter and other writings that they believe indicate that Clement was the visible head of the entire church. Some of the most common claims are found in this quote:

The third successor to Peter, Pope St. Clement, exercised his supreme authority to settle a dispute at Corinth during the first century after Christ’s death. The letters he wrote to Corinth from Rome were so revered that the great James Cardinal Gibbons notes that it was “customary to have them publicly read in their churches” a century later (Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, TAN, 134). Why else would the Christians at Corinth appeal to the bishop of Rome unless he had jurisdiction over matters of faith?11From this article.

Does this show that the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions? Unfortunately, no.

First, what really happened with the dispute at Corinth? The Corinthian church deposed their leadership, apparently for no good reason. The leaders at Rome wrote a letter to them, probably penned by Clement, and counselled them to reinstate their leaders. You can see the relevant parts of the letter in my earlier post. As I point out there, there are several reasons why the text doesn’t show that Clement had supreme authority:

  • First, the letter is not just from the Roman bishop, but from the entire church leadership at Rome. So this says nothing about the authority of the Roman bishop specifically.
  • If the church at Rome argued that the Corinthians should do as they asked because Rome said so, then that would sound a lot like the Papacy at work. Instead, Rome argued that they were disobeying God’s teachings in Scripture. The writers’ argument looks a lot more like an entreaty to act like New Testament Christians rather than a command to obey the Roman church’s decision.
  • Even if the letter were in fact an authoritative decision for the Corinthians, there are no indications that all other churches would have to listen to Rome. At the very most, this just shows that some churches needed to listen to Rome at that time. Which is point E, that “the church at Rome for many years aided in the leadership of other churches and lead out in the defense of the apostolic faith,” not (E1) that “the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.”

But, if the letters of Roman bishops were important enough to be read in churches, shouldn’t that provide evidence for the Papacy? It certainly is good evidence for E. But does it follow that all churches everywhere had to abide by the Roman bishops’ decisions?

Finally, the Roman Catholic article I referenced asks, “Why else would the Christians at Corinth appeal to the bishop of Rome unless he had jurisdiction over matters of faith?” Note that Clement’s letter doesn’t say that they appealed to the bishop in particular. But passing over that inaccuracy—is E1 the only possible reason why someone would appeal to a church? If E were true, and there were churches that leaned on the church at Rome for leadership assistance, then it would make perfect sense that churches would appeal to the Roman church. To explain the actions of Corinth, we don’t need to further assume that all churches everywhere had to abide by the bishop of Rome’s decisions. After all, when I want advice, I don’t appeal solely to the people in authority over me! Thus, this quote is great evidence for E, but certainly doesn’t provide evidence for E1.

Other Roman Catholics have pointed out another very early source, the Shepherd of Hermas, that mentions Clement as someone who has the duty to send letters to churches in other cities:

Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.12Lightfoot translation

But just because there was a church leader in Rome whose duty was to send letters to other churches doesn’t mean that he had authority over all churches. That would be a very strained interpretation of this quote.

Victor

Roman Catholics also have argued that the Easter controversy of the second century demonstrates the Roman bishop’s supreme authority. Victor, the bishop of Rome, excommunicated a whole region of churches for celebrating Easter on a different day than when the rest of the church celebrated it. Multiple bishops criticized this move, and Victor backed down. However, the Roman Catholic argument is that Victor had the right to excommunicate these churches, even though he rescinded his decision when he was convinced that he had exercised his right unwisely.

But does the evidence show that Victor had the right to excommunicate those churches? Let’s look at the relevant quotes. (Note: there are very few early writers who document this controversy, and the documents that survive are not complete. So beware when you see people making sweeping statements about this event.)

Eusebius describes the situation as follows:

“Thereupon [Pope] Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the community the parishes of all Asia [Minor], with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox. And he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops, and they besought him to consider the things of peace and of neighborly unity and love” (Church History 5:23:1–24:11).13From this page.

[St. Irenaeus of Lyons] fittingly admonished Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God that observed the tradition of an ancient custom [Church History 5:23:1–5:24:11 (c. A.D. 312)].

Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating on behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches [ibid., 5:24:18].14Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.

Do these quotes support the Roman Catholic premise that Victor had the right to excommunicate any church, or do they support its negation? Nearly all of the statements found in these quotes are completely silent on this point. None supports that premise over its negation. However, there are actually several indications that Victor did not actually have jurisdiction over the churches he excommunicated:

  • He “attempted to cut off” those churches, suggesting that those churches were not excommunicated, even though he “declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.” Therefore, his declaration of excommunication did not have the power to excommunicate other churches. Furthermore “attempted” suggests that he was not able to, even though he intended to.
  • Other bishops stressed “neighborly unity,” suggesting that the bishops Victor tried to excommunicate were his peers, not his subordinates.

Another bishop, Polycrates, lists multiple illustrious church fathers who calculated Easter differently from the way Victor did, saying,

These all kept the passover on the fourteenth. day of the month, in accordance with the Gospel, without ever deviating from it, but keeping to the rule of faith.

Moreover I also, Polycrates, who am the least of you all, in accordance with the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have succeeded—seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth, and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven—I myself, brethren, I say, who am sixty-five years old in the Lord, and have fallen in with the brethren in all parts of the world, and have read through all Holy Scripture, am not frightened at the things which are said to terrify us. For those who are greater than I have said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”15From this site.

It is clear that Polycrates didn’t believe that Victor could change the date of Easter from the way they had traditionally practiced it. Rather, he expresses indifference as to any threats that Victor made.

Finally, ask yourself this question: Doesn’t it seem odd that Roman Catholic apologists have to resort to cases where a Roman bishop did not succeed in exercising authority in order to prove that the bishop had a right to? Don’t you think that if he actually had that right, we would have enough examples of times he did succeed that the Roman Catholics wouldn’t have to use this account in making their case?

Dionysius of Rome

Another argument Roman Catholics have given goes as follows:

When the patriarch of Alexandria erred on matters of doctrine in the third century, Pope St. Dionysius demanded clarification. The patriarch asserted his own orthodoxy in obedience to the pope of Rome.16From this site.

Note the loaded terms that are used in this quote: “erred,” “demanded,” “obedience.” Are these words justified?

As far as I can tell, no. The patriarch of Alexandria (also named Dionysius) did not err; his words in a letter against one heresy were twisted to sound like he was promoting a different heresy. Secondly, I was unable to find Dionysius of Rome’s request for clarification, so I don’t know whether it reads like a demand from a superior or a request from a peer (let me know if you find Pope Dionysius’s letter; I’d be glad to see it). And finally, just read the extent fragments of Dionysius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Dionysius. There are no indications within it that he was somehow “in obedience to the pope of Rome.” He merely clarified what he believed.

When you strip away the rhetoric in this quote, it’s clear that no argument for papal supremacy can be made from this event.

Summary

In my aforementioned post, I go through a number of other supposed examples of the Roman church’s authority. Suffice it to say that they provide great evidence for E, but none for E1.

But must E1 have been in effect from the beginning? Could it be a development and still be authoritative? The answer is no, for the following reasons:

  • Nothing essential to Christianity can be changed from what the apostles taught, as I show in my article on doctrinal authority.
  • If that doctrine stands, it must stand on the infallibility of the Roman church, which I’ve shown to be in error.
  • Furthermore, this doctrine undercuts itself by its own “infallible” claims, when Vatican I wrongly claims that the Papacy was understood from the beginning of Christianity. I’ve shown that that’s not true; thus the claim contradicts its own claim to infallibility.
  • And lastly, how is it that later Popes have more authority than earlier Popes had? Since Peter, we can all agree, is more special than any Pope, we would assume that he didn’t have less authority than current Popes have. Yet if he had as much authority as the current Popes, why didn’t he hand it on to the people closest to him—next several hundred years of Popes? We see a consistent trajectory of Popes gaining power throughout history, which seems silly if their power is just based on Peter.

One Last Argument for the Papacy

My guess is that the response to this will be something like this: But Lynn, if Peter had a special office, and you admit that A–E are true, why do you stop there? Wouldn’t it be surprising if Peter’s special office just disappeared, or if the most prominent church among the early Christians went off on a tangent?

First, the reason I accept points A–E is that there is evidence for those claims. The reason I don’t accept A1–E1 is that there is not sufficient evidence for them. There is nothing arbitrary about my argument. A1–E1, as you can see when they are shown side-by-side with A–E, are actually very extensive claims. Roman Catholic apologists should be very clear with their audience that A–E and A1–E1 are significantly different from each other, and that A–E do not entail A1–E1. Instead, in typical Roman Catholic arguments, we see a mushing of the two sets of claims until they are cheerfully assumed to be the exact same thing.

Second, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peter’s special office disappeared, for two reasons. First, we have no evidence that his special office continued in the first few hundred years. Second, any special elements of Peter’s office that are peculiar to him are rooted in his role as a foundation (the rock). Any ongoing elements of his office are not peculiar to him, but were are for all the apostles and all church leaders until today (the shepherd).

On the other hand, it is rarely surprising when the most prominent group or individual among a larger group gets an oversized view of its own importance and goes off on a tangent (besides, we have solid evidence that they did exactly that). So the truth of A-E doesn’t enhance the probability of A1-E1.

Early Christian Arguments Against the Papacy

It should be pretty clear by now that the Papacy is not adequately evidenced in Scripture or in church history. In most of this post, I’ve shown why the Roman Catholic arguments don’t work. In several places, however, I’ve offered evidence that actually argues against the Papacy—mostly from the very sources Roman Catholics like to quote!

In this section I will continue by offering some further positive evidence against the Papacy from the early church fathers.

Papal Supremacy Contradicted

Two of the church fathers who might have been the most pro-Rome are Cyprian and Firmilian. They believed that the Novatianists should return to being in communion with the established church at Rome. Since they believed that one should be in unity with the Roman church, rather than be schismatic, Roman Catholic apologists often use them, especially Cyprian, to support Roman primacy. However, when the Roman bishop made outlandish claims about himself and was himself causing schisms, these fathers are perhaps the most outspoken against the claims of Rome.

Cyprian, in the Seventh Council of Carthage, said

For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there.17From CCEL.

Similarly, Cyprian wrote to Stephen, bishop of Rome, reiterating that Christian leaders may continue their churches’ practices, rather than needing to be accountable to another church:

“But we know that some . . . retain certain things peculiar to themselves, which have once been adopted among them. In which behalf we neither do violence to, nor impose a law upon, any one, since each prelate has in the administration of the Church the exercise of his will free, as he shall give an account of his conduct to the Lord.” (Letter 71 ANF)

Firmilian, in a letter to Cyprian, is very straightforward in his condemnation of Stephen, bishop of Rome. He says, for example,

But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles; any one may know (Cyprian Letter 74:6)

In this last quote, Firmilian says that those at Rome “vainly pretend” to have special authority. Later, because Stephen considered the baptism of heretics to be valid, Firmilian wrote,

And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority. (Cyprian Letter 74:17)

Stephen’s claim to be Peter’s successor was something Rome was arguing for; clearly it was not accepted by all, and it certainly wasn’t accepted by Firmilian, who is perfectly comfortable disregarding Stephen. Later in the letter, he says the following, and, continuing, applies it to the actions of Stephen, who had created schisms between himself and many other churches:

Moreover, how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesiastical unity. For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all (Cyprian Letter 74:24-25 ANF)

In other words, Firmilian is just as much against Rome’s schism from other churches as he is against other churches’ schism from Rome. By excommunicating other churches, Firmilian says, Rome had excommunicated themselves.

Papal Supremacy Not Modeled

The resolution of a conflict says a lot about who has authority and who doesn’t. There are cases in the first centuries of the church where their methods of conflict resolution suggest that the bishop of Rome didn’t have supremacy. For example, Irenaeus writes of a conflict between Polycarp of Smyrna and Anicetus of Rome:

For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not. (Fragment from Irenaeus 3 ANF)

In this quote, the two bishops relate to each other as peers, not as those who have a relationship of authority with each other.

Conspicuous Silences

In some cases, the supremacy of the bishop of Rome is not mentioned, even in cases where we would expect it to be mentioned. This suggests that Rome didn’t have supremacy.

Ignatius writes to the church at Rome:

I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free, as the servants of God; while I am, even until now, a servant. (Romans 4 ANF)

Ignatius mentioned that Peter and Paul issued commands to the Romans, and says that he won’t. But if their bishop had the authority to make infallible commands, shouldn’t he be listed with Peter and Paul? And why would they even expect that Polycarp could issue commands to them if their bishop had authority over Polycarp?

The long version of Ignatius’s letter to Smyrna contains frequent interpolations from a later writer. One such interpolation says,

Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father. (Ignatius to Smyrna 9 ANF)

Note that even this later writer, adding to Ignatius, does not include the bishop of Rome in this chain of authority, even though the authority of the bishop of Rome tended to become clearer as time went on.

Irenaeus, when giving a scattered list of churches in many areas of the world, names both major and minor Christian centers all around the Mediterranean, but doesn’t mention Rome or even Italy specifically:

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. . . . For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. (Against Heresies 1.10.2 ANF)

This isn’t a strong piece of evidence by itself, but suggests that

  • Irenaeus didn’t put as much weight on churches in certain cities as though they had specific authority, like Rome.
  • Rome didn’t automatically come to mind as a major orthodox Christian influence to Irenaeus, though he was undoubtedly familiar with Roman bishops. Roman Christians were probably included as one of those groups in “the central regions of the world” which also probably included Greece and Asia Minor.

Objections

In this section, I deal with some objections to this argument.

Why Limit The Evidence to Pre-Nicene Christianity?

In my articles, I have overwhelmingly made my case from Scripture and evidence from the Pre-Nicene church. Is that too arbitrary? Should I include evidence from after the Council of Nicaea? Here are several reasons why not.

First, we know that the Papacy existed in the early middle ages, though in a less developed form. What we want to know is if this office is apostolic. Did the apostles actually lay this down as part of the faith? In my articles on doctrinal authority and the historic faith, I lay out methods for finding out what they taught. To find it out, we don’t need the post-Nicene church.

Second, the pre-Nicene era comprises nearly three hundred years of church history. Considering the amount of sources we have from that era, that is plenty of time for the Papacy to be attested to, if there was one. Consider that the Constitutional U.S. was founded less than three hundred years ago, and yet how long ago that seems to us.

Third, we have very good evidence that, though the faith did not change significantly before Nicaea, it did after Nicaea, which we might expect. Consider that such things as taking part in public office, using violence, and venerating icons were considered unacceptable before Nicaea, yet they were accepted not long after Nicaea. If things considered so foreign to Christianity were so quickly changed, why couldn’t a Papal office develop where there wasn’t one before?

Consider that it’s not hard to imagine how the Papacy could develop:

  • With Rome taking an interest in Christianity, the politics of power come into play.
    • Positions in the church now held political influence.
    • The church teamed up with the government on things like persecuting heretics.
  • Once people were interested in pomp and power, it became important who were the top dogs in Christianity.
    • Obviously, these would be bishops in influential cities, who became patriarchs.
    • The largest and one of the most influential cities politically and religiously was Rome, so that bishop would get first place.
    • Note that an early reason given for Roman primacy was their political location, not so much their connection to Peter.
  • Since it was the only major patriarchate in the West, it got used to wielding authority. As they gained authority in the West and since they had primacy over the churches in the East, it wasn’t hard for them to feel they had authority over the churches in the East as well.

Is This an Argument From Silence?

Arguments against a proposition from silence can carry quite a lot of weight, or they can carry very little weight at all, depending on how much we should expect to hear evidence for that proposition, given the circumstances. Even if we framed the argument against the Papacy as an argument from silence, I think it would still have considerable weight. That’s because we have plenty of relevant evidence, and yet no hints of support for A1-E1 for the first nearly three hundred years of Christianity.

Though it’s not hard to imagine how the Papacy could develop as I showed above, it is certainly difficult to imagine how the Papacy could have existed without leaving a mark on a document for the first three hundred years of the faith.

But this doesn’t need to be framed as an argument from silence, if you prefer. The Papacy isn’t found for three hundred years, and in that three hundred years, it is contradicted, often by the very quotes that Roman Catholics use in support of it. I have also offered some positive evidence against the Papacy, and I’ll continue to update this article with further evidence as I find it through my study of the pre-Nicene church.

Further Objections

  • Since the church was persecuted before Nicaea, the writers avoided mentioning people in charge in their writings, in case they would be sought out. I’m not aware of any evidence for this affecting the case. It’s possible that people would have refrained from mentioning the actual names of particular individuals, but why hide things like practices and offices? In any case, possible reticence doesn’t affect the evidence I’m citing, as can be seen from looking at the individual evidence and the context.

Conclusion

In this article, I have looked at the claims of Roman Catholic apologists regarding the Papacy. I compared an Anabaptist view with the Roman Catholic view, and showed that there is no evidence for the Roman Catholic view from either Scripture or church history. On the other hand, a number of quotations that I offered give positive evidence against the Papacy.

If the early church did not recognize an office like the Papacy from the very beginning, then that office doesn’t have apostolic authority. Yet the early church did not recognize the supremacy of the bishop of Rome; in fact, there may not have been a bishop of Rome for the first hundred years of the church.

The Roman Catholic Church has based its claim to authority on their doctrine of the Papacy. Since there is no apostolic foundation for the authority of the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church does not have the authority that it claims for itself.


Recommended reading: A Protestant (Calvinist) blog also gives various good arguments against the Papacy.


Note: “ANF” in the footnotes indicates the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, by Schaff, Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. From a digital copy scanned from a printing in 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Numbers in references are chapter numbers as found in the ANF set.

  • 1
    We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord. . . .

    [I]f anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. . . .

    Indeed, their [the Popes’] apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error . . .

    This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

    (From this website.)
  • 2
    And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21:14)
  • 3
    (from here) Also see this statement: “as Pope Innocent III repeated later, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, ‘Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.’” (from here) I don’t know enough about canon law to know whether it carries any weight as a Roman Catholic teaching, especially since another Pope says that the keys were given to Peter alone here.
  • 4
    From this site.
  • 5
    Note that Roman Catholics (as do I) object when Protestants insert the word “alone” into Romans 3:28. To add that word changes the meaning of a sentence and adds a specificity that the original sentence didn’t have.
  • 6
  • 7
    Gal 2:11
  • 8
    Here are the relevant quotes:

    “These things, moreover, as I judge, he [Origen] gives forth only and truly by participation in the Divine Spirit: for there is need of the same power for those who prophesy and for those who hear the prophets; and no one can rightly hear a prophet, unless the same Spirit who prophesies bestows on him the capacity of apprehending His words. And this principle is expressed indeed in the Holy Scriptures themselves, when it is said that only He who shutteth openeth, and no other one whatever; and what is shut is opened when the word of inspiration explains mysteries. Now that greatest gift this man has received from God, and that noblest of all endowments he has had bestowed upon him from heaven, that he should be an interpreter of the oracles of God to men” (Gregory Taumaturgus 15 ANF)

    I.e., the Holy Spirit gave Origen the ability to understand prophecies and to expound them to his fellow Christians.

    “In fact the book was seen by John, ‘written within and without, and sealed; and no one could open it to read it, and to loose the seals thereof, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, who has the key of David, he that openeth and none shall shut, and that shutteth and none shall open.’ For the book here spoken of means the whole of Scripture; and it is written within (lit. in front), on account of the meaning which is obvious, and on the back, on account of its remoter and spiritual sense. Observe, in addition to this, if a proof that the sacred writings are one book, and those of an opposite character many, may not be found in the fact that there is one book of the living from which those who have proved unworthy to be in it are blotted out, as it is written: ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of the living,’ . . . The passage in Isaiah, too, I read in the same way. It is not peculiar to his prophecy that the words of the book should be sealed, and should neither be read by him who does not know letters, because he is ignorant of letters, nor by him who is learned, because the book is sealed. This is true of every writing, for every written work needs the reason (Logos) which closed it to open it.  ‘He shall shut, and none shall open,’ and when He opens no one can cast doubt on the interpretation He brings.” (Apostolic Constitutions 3.4 ANF)

    I.e., Christ is the one who opens the Scriptures to us, because he is the reason, or Logos, for the Scriptures and thus in some sense has “closed” it.

    And here are two post-Nicene quotes, for good measure:

    ‘Eliakim means “God rising again,” or “resurrection of God.” Therefore, that God rising again, who is the son of Hilkiah, that is, “of the Lord’s portion,” will take your [the Jewish law’s] place, and will be clothed with your robe, and will be strengthened by your sash, so that what you had in the letter, he possesses in the Spirit; and he will be father of those who inhabit Jerusalem, that is, the “vision of peace,” which means the church, and the house of Judah, where there is the true “confession” of faith. This is why he says to the apostles, “Little children, I am with you a little longer” [John 13:33]; and to another, “Son, your sins are forgiven” [Matt 9:2]; and to another, “Daughter, your faith has saved you” [Luke 7:50]. Also, I will give to him, he says, the key of the house of David, “who opens, and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens” [Rev 3:7]. And this very key will be upon his shoulder, that is, during the passion. This accords with what is written in another passage: “Whose sovereignty is on his shoulder” [Isa 9:6]. For that which he will have opened up by his passion cannot be closed, and what he will have enclosed in Jewish ceremonies, no other will open….

    ‘This is also why in the Gospel it is written, “All the people were hanging from him [like hanging from the peg in Isaiah 22:24]” [Luke 19:48]. Indeed, this happened not merely at that time, but it is fulfilled up to the present day, that they hang various kinds of vessels from him, as if from the word of God, wisdom, justice, and all things by which Christ is designated….I think that the cups [in Isaiah 22:24] are the apostles, filled with the life-giving waters, of which it is said, “Bless the Lord from the fountains of Israel” [Ps 68:26].’ (Thomas Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Commentary On Isaiah [Mahwah, New Jersey: The Newman Press, 2015], p. 376, section 7:41 in the commentary), retrieved from this post.

    Jerome clearly sees Eliakim as a type of Christ. Apostles are not the new Eliakim, but those who are “hanging from” the new Eliakim (Eliakim is compared to a peg).

    “Then Mary received her firstborn and went forth. He was outwardly wrapped in swaddling clothes, but secretly He was clothed with prophecy and priesthood. Whatsoever then was handed down from Moses, was received from Simeon [an Old Testament priest], but continued and was possessed by the Lord of both. So then the steward first, and the treasurer lastly, handed over the keys of priesthood and prophecy to Him who has authority over the treasurer of them both. Therefore, His Father gave him the spirit not by measure, John 3:34 because all measures of the spirit are under his hand. And that our Lord might show that He received the keys from the former stewards, He said to Simeon [Peter]: To you I will give the keys of the doors. Matthew 16:19 But how should He have given them to another, had He not received them from another? So, then, the keys which He had received from Simeon the priest, them He gave to another Simeon the Apostle; that even though the People had not hearkened to the former Simeon, the Gentiles might hearken to the latter Simeon” (Ephraim the Syrian, found in this video. Homily on Our Lord, Section 52, H/T Kevin Rice)

    This may or may not be a reference to Isaiah 22. However, it says that Jesus was given the keys of “the former stewards” and that he gave them to Peter to show that he, Jesus, possessed them.
  • 9
    Consider that if I give several keys, including the key to a house my father built, to a friend, that fact alone doesn’t indicate that my friend suddenly has the role that my father, who held that same key, had.
  • 10
    “Thou shalt therefore say unto the elders of the Church, that they direct their paths in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with abundant glory.”

    “And afterwards I saw a vision in my house. The aged woman came, and asked me, if I had already given the book to the elders. I said that I had not given it. ‘Thou hast done well,’ she said, ‘for I have words to add. When then I shall have finished all the words, it shall be made known by thy means to all the elect. Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.'”

    Lightfoot translation.
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
    From this page.
  • 14
    Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.
  • 15
    From this site.
  • 16
    From this site.
  • 17
    From CCEL.

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