Did Pre-Nicene Church Fathers Teach the Papacy?

Roman Catholic apologists teach that their doctrine of the Papacy is an apostolic institution, and that church history demonstrates that. They often point to early Christian writings that they believe support their position, and they argue that these writings show that Peter, and each bishop of Rome after him, had supreme authority over all other churches since the beginning of Christianity.

If it’s true that the Roman church had supreme authority since the beginning of Christianity—if that doctrine is truly apostolic—then of course we should all go be Roman Catholic, because what the apostles taught is authoritative for Christians. In this post, we will examine whether the early church fathers actually did teach that that doctrine was apostolic. I’ll show that the Roman Catholic position is not supported by the evidence. I may do a similar article on later Christian writers to see when the Papacy finally did appear.

Note: This article is specifically for quotes that Roman Catholics use in support of the Papacy. Some of them turn out to deny the Papacy, and all the rest are neutral. For more quotes that provide evidence against the Papacy, see my full refutation of the claims of the Papacy.

The Criteria

For a response to the biblical evidence that Roman Catholic apologists employ to argue for the Papacy, see this article, which responds to all the common claims about the Papacy. In that article, I outline two different views about Peter and the church at Rome: a general Christian view and the Roman Catholic view. Since we need those criteria for the purposes of this examination, here they are. What Anabaptists or any other Christians and Roman Catholics can agree on is in regular font; what only Roman Catholics teach is in bold.

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.

For easier reference, I’ve labeled each Anabaptist (general Christian) point with a letter, and each Roman Catholic additional belief with that letter and a number.

Methodology

Now our task is simple. We just need to go through every quote from the early church fathers that the Roman Catholics present as evidence of the Papacy. We need to see if they support one of the points A1-E1 (the Roman Catholic position), or if they just support A-E (the general Christian position). If a quote supports one of the points A1-E1, rather than just A-E, then that quote provides evidence for the Papacy. If not, then that quote does not provide evidence for the Papacy. If it provides evidence against one of the points A1-E1, then it provides evidence against the Papacy.

Clement of Rome

“Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us, we [the church at Rome] must acknowledge that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you, beloved; and especially that abominable and unholy sedition, alien and foreign to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-willed persons have inflamed to such madness that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be loved by all men, has been greatly defamed. . . . Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret. . . . If anyone disobey the things which have been said by him [God] through us [i.e., that you must reinstate your leaders], let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. . . . You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy” (Letter to the Corinthians 1, 58–59, 63 [A.D. 80]). From this page.

This is intended to support E/E1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position 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,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (E1) “and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.”

Why do I say this? First, the letter is not just from the Roman bishop, but from the entire church leadership at Rome (note that it speaks of us rather than me). So this says nothing about the authority of the Roman bishop specifically. But might it indicate at least the authority of that church?

To an extent. However, it doesn’t show an authority like the Pope’s. 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. However, it doesn’t seem that they consider the Corinthian’s potential disobedience to be transgression because it’s the decision of Rome. Instead, Rome is arguing that they are disobeying God’s teachings in Scripture. There are several reasons to think this. One is the structure of the entire letter. The church at Rome spends most of the letter trying to convince the Corinthians of how Christians should live in general situations, and their recommendation is presented as the way the faith should work out in action. Also, another place where the letter mentions this particular situation, you can see that 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:

You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.1From this website.

If Rome is entreating the Corinthians, rather than flexing its Petrine muscles, this quote could actually provide some limited evidence against E1.

But finally, this nowhere states that all Christians must obey Rome. 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. It could just as easily be that some churches needed to at that time. Thus, this quote certainly doesn’t provide evidence for E1.

Ignatius of Antioch

“Ignatius . . . to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love [more simply translated “preside in love”], named after Christ and named after the Father” (Letter to the Romans 1:1 [A.D. 110]).2From this page.

“You [the church at Rome] have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force” (ibid., 3:1).3From this page.

This is intended to support E/E1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position 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,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (E1) “and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.”

Dionysius of Corinth

“For from the beginning it has been your custom to do good to all the brethren in various ways and to send contributions to all the churches in every city. . . . This custom your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved, but is augmenting, by furnishing an abundance of supplies to the saints and by urging with consoling words, as a loving father his children, the brethren who are journeying” (Letter to Pope Soter in Eusebius, Church History 4:23:9 [A.D. 170]).4From this page.

So far as I can see, this quotation doesn’t support any of the points A-E or A1-E1.

“Today we have observed the Lord’s holy day, in which we have read your letter [Pope Soter]. Whenever we do read it [in church], we shall be able to profit thereby, as also we do when we read the earlier letter written to us by Clement” (ibid., 4:23:11).5From this page.

This is intended to support E/E1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position 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,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (E1) “and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.”

Irenaeus

One Roman Catholic apologist writes,

In A.D. 190, Pope St. Victor I excommunicated an entire region of churches for refusing to celebrate Easter on its proper date. While St. Irenaeus thought this was not prudent, neither he nor anyone else denied that Victor had the authority to do this.6From this page

Because we don’t have a record of anyone saying that Victor didn’t have the authority to excommunicate a region of churches, this apologist argues that everyone believed that he did have that authority. This is an argument from silence, which are good arguments in one situation. That’s when nobody mentions something that you would expect someone mention, if it were true. However, this one isn’t a good argument, because we don’t actually know whether anyone mentioned it or not. That’s because we don’t have Irenaeus’s whole letter, only excerpts quoted by Eusebius. So we don’t know whether or not Irenaeus denied that Victor had such authority. Other Christians might have denied that Victor had such authority, and their writings might simply have been lost.

“The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome] . . . handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus” (Against Heresies 3:3:3 [A.D. 189]).7From this page.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:2).8From this page

This is intended to support C/C1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position C) “Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (C1) “and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.” Note that when Irenaeus speaks of the church’s “superior origin,” he suggests that Peter held a foundational role rather than being the first person to hold an ongoing ministry. This therefore provides evidence against C1.

This is also intended to support D/D1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position D) “This institution was intended to uphold true Christian doctrine,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (D1) “and it made certain that the teachings of the Roman church remain free of doctrinal error.” Note the difference between a church’s having maintained the apostolic tradition up to a point in the past and that church’s remaining forever free of doctrinal error.

This is also intended to support E/E1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position 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,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (E1) “and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.” Note the difference between “Agree with this church, because it is conforming to the truth” and “Agree with this church, because its decisions are infallible and binding.”

Clement of Alexandria

“[T]he blessed Peter, the chosen, the preeminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with himself the Savior paid the tribute [Matt. 17:27], quickly grasped and understood their meaning. And what does he say? ‘Behold, we have left all and have followed you’ [Matt. 19:27; Mark 10:28]” (Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? 21:3–5 [A.D. 200]).9From this page.

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.”

Tertullian

“[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church” (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).10From this page.

“For though you think that heaven is still shut up, remember that the Lord left the keys of it to Peter here, and through him to the Church, which keys everyone will carry with him if he has been questioned and made a confession [of faith]” (Antidote Against the Scorpion 10 [A.D. 211]).11From this page.

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.” Note that Tertullian teaches that everyone who makes the confession of faith that Peter gave holds the keys. This stands against (C1) “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome,” since Tertullian believes that Peter’s keys (which Roman Catholic apologists typically interpret to stand for some part of that role) pass on to all Christians.

The Little Labyrinth

“Victor . . . was the thirteenth bishop of Rome from Peter” (The Little Labyrinth [A.D. 211], in Eusebius, Church History 5:28:3).12From this page.

This is intended to support C/C1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (C1) “and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

Clement to James

“Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the most sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter, the first fruits of our Lord, the first of the apostles; to whom first the Father revealed the Son; whom the Christ, with good reason, blessed” (Letter of Clement to James 2 [A.D. 221]).13From this page.

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.” When the writer of this letter speaks of Peter as “the foundation of the Church,” he suggests that Peter held a foundational role rather than his apostolic office being an ongoing ministry. This therefore provides evidence against C1, “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

Hippolytus

“Peter, the Rock of the faith, whom Christ our Lord called blessed, the teacher of the Church, the first disciple, he who has the keys of the kingdom.” – Hippolytus, Exfabrico. n.9, 225AD.14{

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.” Note that if Peter has the keys of the kingdom 150 years after his death, Hippolytus evidently believes that Peter retained them rather than passing them on to a successor, which suggests that Peter held a foundational role rather than his apostolic office being an ongoing ministry. This therefore provides evidence against C1, “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

Origen

“[I]f we were to attend carefully to the Gospels, we should also find, in relation to those things which seem to be common to Peter . . . a great difference and a preeminence in the things [Jesus] said to Peter, compared with the second class [of apostles]. For it is no small difference that Peter received the keys not of one heaven but of more, and in order that whatsoever things he binds on earth may be bound not in one heaven but in them all, as compared with the many who bind on earth and loose on earth, so that these things are bound and loosed not in [all] the heavens, as in the case of Peter, but in one only; for they do not reach so high a stage with power as Peter to bind and loose in all the heavens” (Commentary on Matthew 13:31 [A.D. 248]).15From this page.

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.” Note that he contrasts “the many” and their individual keys with Peter and his collective keys. No mention is made of successors who hold Peter’s keys, and Peter’s use of his keys is spoken of in the present rather than in the past (as in the quote from Hippolytus). Each of these textual elements suggests that Peter held a foundational role rather than his apostolic office being an ongoing ministry. This therefore provides evidence against C1, “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

Note that Origen says we will discover Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy if we “attend carefully to the Gospels.” Since he thought Christians needed to dig in order to uncover this, this quote suggests that Peter’s role was not widely known or talked about. This is evidence against there being a Pope in his era who wielded the authority of Peter, since it would be surprising if Origen didn’t know about it. This therefore provides further evidence against C1.

Firmilian

“[Pope] Stephen . . . 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 [Matt. 16:18]. . . . Stephen . . . announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter” (collected in Cyprian’s Letters 74[75]:17 [A.D. 253]).16From this page.

Note that “Pope” is in brackets, which means that the article I’m quoting from is adding that to the text. That’s perfectly okay for them to do, but note that it is the Roman Catholics rather than Firmilian who are saying that Stephen was the Pope.

This is intended to support C/C1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (C1) “and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.” Note the difference between holding the same office as bishop of Rome and holding the same role as head of the whole church—besides, the quote doesn’t say that Stephen’s office included having the church’s foundations laid on him. When Firmilian speaks of “the foundations of the Church” being laid on Peter, he suggests that Peter held a foundational role rather than being the first example of an ongoing ministry. This therefore provides evidence against C1, “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

Furthermore, since Stephen must assert this claim himself, and since Firmilian thinks this claim as something that needs to be explained to his hearers, this quote suggests that not a lot of people knew about the Roman bishop’s role as the successor of Peter. If there had been a Pope in his time, Stephen’s assertions and Firmilian’s explanations would be very surprising. This therefore provides further evidence against C1.

This is also intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.”

Cyprian

This is from a popular Roman Catholic source:

Indeed, some Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian of Carthage, criticized the pope’s decisions; but even Cyprian believed the pope could not lead the Church astray. He writes in A.D. 256 of heretics who dare approach “the throne of Peter . . . to whom faithlessness could have no access” (Epistle 54.14), or, as other translations put it, “from whom no error can flow.”17From this site

This is intended to support D1) that “the teachings of the Roman church remain free of doctrinal error.” However, it’s a misquotation. Cyprian actually wrote

the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. (ANF)

This text is more naturally read that the apostle Paul could not be faithless or that his preaching could not be faithless. It can’t possibly be read as saying that “the throne of Peter” could not be faithless, since that noun phrase is in a completely different clause, with multiple other candidate noun phrases between it and “to whom . . .”

It’s true that this quotation could conceivably be read as saying that “the Romans” could not be faithless; however, that’s a linguistic stretch. Besides, not even Roman Catholics teach that “the Romans,” as in Roman Christians, could never be faithless or could never speak error—they don’t even believe that’s always true of the Pope! Thus, this quote gives no support to D1. Below, I’ll give a further response to it with several other similar quotes:

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]). . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).18From this page.

“Cyprian to Antonian, his brother. Greeting . . . You wrote . . . that I should forward a copy of the same letter to our colleague [Pope] Cornelius, so that, laying aside all anxiety, he might at once know that you held communion with him, that is, with the Catholic Church” (ibid., 55[52]:1).19From this page.

“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source” (ibid., 59:14).20From this page.

Note that “catholic” just means “universal,” not “Roman Catholic.” It was a word used to refer to the entirety of the Christian church, which Roman Catholics use of their church because they believe it’s the One True Church.

This is intended to support A/A1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position A) “Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (A1) “in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.” In fact, Cyprian says that the other apostles “were also what Peter was” and that Peter’s primacy makes it clear that the church is one. Thus, he conceives of Peter’s role as a role of unification rather than as the supreme head of the other apostles and the church. This strikes against A1.

This is also intended to support C/C1. Cyprian clearly believes that some part of Peter’s special role passed on to each bishop of Rome. However, C1 is about “Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy.” Cyprian never hints that Cornelius has Peter’s authority to teach infallibly. He does not suggest that Peter’s alleged supreme authority over the whole church belongs to Cornelius (or Peter, for that matter). Thus, this quote provides no support for C1.

This is also intended to support E/E1. This quote may sound a bit like (E1) “the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.” However, note that Cyprian isn’t talking about decisions or authority at all. Instead, Cyprian believes that all Christians must be joined to the church at Rome for the sake of unity, not because he believed that the Roman church had authority in matters of doctrine. So this falls outside the scope of this argument. I do, however, address Cyprian’s belief that all should be joined to Rome in my article on the question “Is There One True Church?

“Cyprian to [Pope] Cornelius, his brother. Greeting. . . . We decided to send and are sending a letter to you from all throughout the province [where I am] so that all our colleagues might give their decided approval and support to you and to your communion, that is, to both the unity and the charity of the Catholic Church” (Letters 48:1, 3 [A.D. 253]).21From this page.

I have a hard time seeing how this quote supports A-E or A1-E1. In fact, it strikes against E1, that “the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions,” since Cyprian and fellow church leaders feel it is necessary for them to show their approval and support for Cornelius. If they were under his authority, why would their approval be valuable? They would have to follow him whether they approved or not. Likely they would have sent news of their “obedience” or “submission” rather than their “approval.”

Furthermore, note that they speak of “your communion” rather than “our communion.” This indicates that they are speaking to Cornelius as fellow bishops who are peers and have their own communions, which they affirm are in agreement with his, so that all their communions collectively make up the catholic church. This quote would therefore be very surprising if Cornelius was the infallible head of the whole church.

If you’re concerned that my interpretation of Cyprian and Firmilian still leaves too much room for the Papacy, just look at several other quotes from them in my article against the Papacy. In those quotes, they emphatically disagree with the claims of the Roman bishop to have authority over other bishops.

Eusebius of Caesarea

“A question of no small importance arose at that time [A.D. 190]. For the parishes of all Asia [Minor], as from an older tradition held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Savior’s Passover. . . . But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world . . . as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast [of Lent] on no other day than on that of the resurrection of the Savior [Sunday]. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only. . . . 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).22From this page.

This is intended to support E1) that “the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.” However, this text doesn’t demonstrate that. Several elements don’t sit well with E1. First, Victor was not trying to decide when Easter was, but simply trying to interpret a previous decision made by a group of bishops, interpreting it as a question of orthodoxy rather than merely of practice. Second, it says that he “attempted,” which indicates that his authority wasn’t sufficient to succeed. Roman Catholics have argued that the last sentence in the quote demonstrates the Papacy, since the bishops didn’t tell him that he had no authority to make the decision, but simply tried to bring about peace. But that sentence could just as easily be taken as an evidence against the Papacy, because the other bishops felt it was their right to influence him to change his mind, rather than to abide by his every decision. Finally, note that the bishops asked Victor to consider “neighborly unity,” indicating that they saw the churches in Asia Minor as Victor’s neighbors, whom he should have peace with, not as his constituents. These textual elements together provide good evidence against E1.

“Paul testifies that Crescens was sent to Gaul [2 Tim. 4:10], but Linus, whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21] as his companion at Rome, was Peter’s successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown. Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies, his co-laborer and fellow-soldier [Phil. 4:3]” (Church History 3:4:9–10 [A.D. 312]).23From this page.

This is intended to support C/C1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position C) Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (C1) “and Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.”

“And when a dissension arose about these said people [the Montanists], the brethren in Gaul once more . . . [sent letters] to the brethren in Asia and Phrygia and, moreover to Eleutherius, who was then [A.D. 175] bishop of the Romans, negotiating for the peace of the churches” (Eusebius, Church History 5:3:4 [A.D. 312])24From this page.

This is intended to support E/E1. This provides good evidence for the general Christian position 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,” but provides no support for the Roman Catholic additional belief (E1) “and the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.”

Summary

These pre-Nicene quotes are the very best that Roman Catholic apologists offer. Yet they do not support A1-E1. In fact, we have some evidence against a number of the claims A1-E1, most notably seven pieces of evidence from the early Christians against C1. This should be enough to show that the Papacy did not enjoy apostolic support. Note that the early Christians held multiple different views about this issue (see how Tertullian and Hippolytus differ on the issue of Peter’s keys), but none of the pre-Nicene Christians held the view that Roman Catholics hold today. The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Papacy is a later development that was not present in the first centuries of the church. In a future post, I may look at later Christian writers to see when the Papacy finally did appear.


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.

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