Jason Engwer: Opening Statement

For centuries, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and other non-Roman-Catholics have argued that the papacy didn't exist during the time of the apostles, but rather gradually arose after the time of the apostles as a result of various doctrinal, social, and political factors. Their argument hasn't changed, but the Roman Catholic argument has. Most Catholic historians today acknowledge that the earliest Christians didn't view Peter or the first Roman bishops as Popes.

Before his recent death, Raymond Brown was one of the foremost Roman Catholic scholars in the world. On the back of his book Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1990), we read the following about Brown's qualifications:

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., born in 1928 and ordained in 1953, has been recognized by universities in the U.S.A. and Europe by some twenty honorary doctoral degrees. He was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, and with church approval he has served for many years on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. Time magazine once described him as 'probably the premier Catholic scripture scholar in the U.S.,' and he is the only person to have served as president of all three of these distinguished societies: the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Society of New Testament Studies.

The book from which the above citation is taken bears the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning that it's supposed to be free of moral and doctrinal error. Brown writes regarding the papacy:

Obviously, first-century Christians would not have thought in terms of jurisdiction or of many other features that have been associated with the papacy over the centuries. Nor would the Christians of Peter's lifetime have so totally associated Peter with Rome, since it was probably only in the last years of his life that he came to Rome. Nor would their respect for the church at Rome have been colored by the martyrdom of Peter and Paul there, or by a later history of the Roman church's preservation of the faith against heresy. (p. 134)

Brown explains that the doctrine of the papacy gradually developed over time, resulting from factors such as Peter's martyrdom in Rome and the Roman church's later faithfulness to apostolic teaching. He suggests elsewhere that Paul was independent of Peter (p. 131), and he writes that it would be anachronistic to view Peter as a bishop of Rome (p.133).

Roman Catholic historian Klaus Schatz writes in Papal Primacy (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996):

There appears at the present time to be increasing consensus among Catholic and non-Catholic exegetes regarding the Petrine office in the New Testament....The further question whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter's lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter's death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably "no". If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter's death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church's rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer. (pp. 1-2)

One finds comments similar to Brown's and Schatz's in the works of other prominent Roman Catholic scholars. As Schatz explains in the citation above, the conclusion that the earliest Christians didn't view Peter or the earliest Roman bishops as Popes is a conclusion shared by the majority of Catholic and non-Catholic historians. Why is this?

The Claims of the Roman Catholic Church

Before addressing the evidence relating to the doctrine of the papacy in the New Testament and the post-apostolic documents, it's important to know just what the Roman Catholic Church claims about the papacy. As I mentioned earlier, Catholic historians admit that the papacy didn't exist early on in church history, but argue that the doctrine is an acceptable development of what the apostles taught anyway. This argument contradicts what the Catholic Church has taught, however.

The wide chasm that separates the arguments of modern Catholic apologists from the teachings of their own denomination is obvious when comparing the two side-by-side. According to the Catholic Church, a papacy with universal jurisdiction has existed and been universally recognized as such since the time of Peter. Compare the following comments from a recent Catholic book on the papacy to what the Catholic Church has taught on this issue.

J. Michael Miller, in his book The Shepherd and the Rock (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995), with the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, writes the following (emphasis in bold mine):

In the first generations, the full meaning, authority, and importance of the Petrine office were not immediately evident. It appears that the church at Rome and the other churches in the koinonia understood little about the import of the ministry of Peter or how it would function. Under God's providence, the passage of time was needed for its seeds to take root and flourish.

While the Petrine ministry originated in Jesus' will, as a historical institution embodying his plan, the papacy developed gradually. This slow unfolding, however, should not surprise us. As the Second Vatican Council teaches: "The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on" (DV 8). To allow for development in the Church's practice and doctrine of the papacy is in keeping with her nature as a historical institution.

The evolution from Peter's original ministry to the pope's full claim to, and exercise of, primacy was slow....

As far as the Petrine ministry is concerned, the pope's role evolved within a set of complex historical factors. It appears that he did not use full primatial authority from the beginning. Without anachronism, we cannot say that the first popes exercised their jurisdiction in the sense solemnly defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870. Only in the process of discharging her mission did the Church recognize the fuller implications of Peter's office. At the outset, the Petrine ministry was at least partially "dormant". To be sure, the function was there, but only as the germ of the form which it later acquired....

The Church grasped gradually what Jesus had intended. His will for Peter's successors was always embedded in human factors of personality, politics, and social and Church life. Very frequently these factors played a significant role in shaping the development of the papacy as an institution....

The East, therefore, widely accepted Peter as the coryphaeus (head) of the apostolic college, the first of the disciples who confessed the true faith on behalf of all. However, as Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff explains, the Orientals "simply did not consider this praise and recognition as relevant in any way to the papal claims." While the Greek Fathers acknowledged Peter's leadership in the early community, they denied that he had a directing role which involved exercising power over the other apostles. By divine institution Peter enjoyed a preeminence and a dignity above the others but no jurisdiction over them. Praised though he was in the East, Peter held only a primacy of honor and preeminence. The Orientals respected Peter for his witness to the apostolic faith rather than for his power of jurisdiction. (pp. 71-72, 116)

Miller explains, correctly, that the papacy gradually developed over time, with many social and political factors being causes of that development. He also acknowledges that the Eastern churches not only didn't support the concept of a papacy, but even denied the concept. Is this view of the papacy consistent with what the Roman Catholic Church has taught? Does the Catholic Church allow for the possibility that the papacy "gradually" and "slowly" developed over time in the West, while being rejected in the East? The First Vatican Council claimed (emphasis mine):

We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord....

At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in his Church, deny that Peter in his single person, preferably to all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction; or of those who assert that the same primacy was not bestowed immediately and directly upon blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through the Church on Peter as her minister....

That which the Prince of Shepherds and great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord, established in the person of the blessed Apostle Peter to secure the perpetual welfare and lasting good of the Church, must, by the same institution, necessarily remain unceasingly in the Church; which, being founded upon the Rock, will stand firm to the end of the world. For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and blessed Peter, the Prince and Chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind, and lives presides and judges, to this day and always, in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood. Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this See, does by the institution of Christ himself obtain the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church....

Wherefore it has at all times been necessary that every particular Church - that is to say, the faithful throughout the world - should agree with the Roman Church, on account of the greater authority of the princedom which this has received...

If, then, any should deny that it is by institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema. (cited in William Webster's Peter and the Rock [Battleground, Washington: Christian Resources Inc., 1996], pp. 249-251)

Obviously, the First Vatican Council doesn't allow for the papacy or its understanding to have developed over time in the way that Miller and other Catholic apologists suggest. According to the First Vatican Council, a papacy with universal jurisdiction existed and was universally recognized as such since the time of Peter. And is this denial of development only a teaching of this one council? No, even the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (834, emphasis mine):

Indeed, "from the incarnate Word's descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior's promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her."

Just what is this authority that the Pope supposedly has? Does he only have this authority on issues of faith and morals? The First Vatican Council explains (emphasis mine):

Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatever right and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchial subordination and true obedience, to submit not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world, so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme pastor through the preservation of unity both of communion and of profession of the same faith with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation. (cited in William Webster's Peter and the Rock [Battleground, Washington: Christian Resources Inc., 1996], pp. 251-252)

Does the Pope have this authority only when speaking ex cathedra? According to the Second Vatican Council (emphasis mine):

This religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. (cited in William Webster’s Peter and the Rock [Battleground, Washington: Christian Resources Inc., 1996], p. 257)

The New Testament and the Papacy

The New Testament covers about the first 100 years of Christian history, from the birth of Christ to near the time of the death of the apostle John. Being apostolic documents, the books of the New Testament are the most important material to be examined in this debate not just because they're the earliest, but also because they're Divinely inspired.

Does the New Testament teach what's been cited above from the First and Second Vatican Councils and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The answer, plainly, is "no." The New Testament never describes Peter as having authority over the other apostles, and never describes Roman bishops as successors of Peter. The New Testament documents never even mention Roman bishops. This in spite of there being so many passages in which mentioning a papacy would have been relevant if the office had existed at the time.

In the dozens of passages of scripture that address church government, including the pastoral epistles, which cover church government at length, a papacy is never mentioned. Paul refers to all sorts of different offices and functions within the church, but never refers to a papacy. When describing the first order in the church, Paul mentions "apostles", not "Peter", "the bishop of Rome", or such (1 Corinthians 12:28).

Paul writes one of his longest epistles to the Roman church, and he never says anything about a papacy, nor does he even mention Peter in association with the church at Rome. Paul's repeated references to visiting the Roman church, preaching the gospel in Rome, etc. suggest that he didn't believe that Peter was already founder and bishop of the Roman church (Romans 1:15, 15:20).

When Peter is nearing death, he tells his readers that he's leaving behind written documents to remind them of what he had taught (2 Peter 1:13-15, 3:1-2). He doesn't say anything about successors, Roman bishops, antipopes, etc.

Because there is no mention of a papacy in the New Testament, Catholic apologists suggest that the office, at least in some seed form, is alluded to in passages such as Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17. But those passages don't say anything about Peter having authority over the other apostles, Peter having successors, those successors being Roman bishops, etc. And everything said about Peter in those passages is also said of other people in other passages. Might Peter be "this rock" in Matthew 16:18? The other apostles are foundation stones as well (Ephesians 2:20, Revelation 21:14). Does Peter have the power to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19)? So do the other disciples (Matthew 18:18). Is Peter a shepherd (John 21:15-17)? So are other church leaders (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2).

A Catholic may respond, though, by arguing that at least the keys of Matthew 16:19 are unique to Peter, even if the other things said about him in these passages are not. But are the keys separate from the power of binding and loosing, which all of the disciples had? Throughout scripture, keys and opening/shutting, binding/loosing are repeatedly associated with one another (Isaiah 22:22, Revelation 3:7). They're all part of the same imagery. If you have a key, it goes without saying that you can open and shut the door. And if you can open and shut the door, it goes without saying that you have the key. In Matthew 23:13, the religious leaders of Israel are condemned for abusing the power of opening and shutting. In Luke 11:52, they're condemned for abusing the power of a key. Rather than the two passages representing two separate criticisms, they're both part of the same imagery. Likewise, when Revelation 1:18 describes Jesus as having keys, but doesn't say anything about opening/shutting, binding/loosing, would anybody conclude that Jesus didn't have such power? Obviously not, since it goes without saying that if Jesus had the keys, He could open and shut and bind and loose. Some passages mention only the opening/shutting, binding/loosing (Matthew 23:13), some mention only a key or keys (Revelation 1:18), and some mention both (Revelation 20:1-3). To separate the keys from the binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19, in an attempt to make Peter appear to have been unique in some way, is contrary to the context of the rest of scripture.

Even if the keys of Matthew 16:19 had been unique to Peter, would that prove that he was a Pope? Obviously not, since uniqueness doesn't prove papal authority. Peter could have uniquely used the keys of Matthew 16:19 in the book of Acts, when he "opened a door of faith" (Acts 14:27) with those keys by preaching to the Jews and Gentiles at Pentecost (Acts 15:7). Even if we assume that the keys were unique to Peter, uniqueness obviously doesn't prove papal authority. John was uniquely called "the beloved disciple" (John 21:20), was uniquely referred to as living until Christ's return (John 21:22), and uniquely called himself "the elder" (2 John 1). Paul was uniquely called a "chosen vessel" who would bear Christ's name before the world (Acts 9:15), uniquely asserted his authority over all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17), and was uniquely the only apostle to publicly rebuke and correct another apostle (Galatians 2:11-14).

Catholic apologists argue that Peter must have been a Pope because he's so unique and so prominent in the New Testament, yet they don't reach papal conclusions when John, Paul, or somebody else is unique and prominent. Peter was obviously the most prominent of the 12 disciples, and unique things were often said or done by or about him. But Peter gradually fades into the background after the conversion of Paul in Acts 9, and when the entire picture of the New Testament is taken into account, Paul is undeniably the most prominent of the apostles. It would be absurd to argue on this basis that Paul was a Pope, however. Just as Paul didn't describe Peter or Roman bishops as the first order in the church, he also didn't describe himself as the first order in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28). Paul asserted his equality with, not his superiority to, the other apostles (1 Corinthians 9:1, 2 Corinthians 12:11, Galatians 1:1, 2:6-8). Paul was not a Pope, nor was Peter or any other apostle. It is the express testimony of Paul that what Peter and other prominent church leaders were meant nothing to him (Galatians 2:6). Paul didn't need their approval or direction in carrying out his ministry. He came to Jerusalem for coordination, not subordination. He sought "the right hand of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9), not the approval of a superior. Paul's authority wasn't from other men, nor was it through other men (Galatians 1:1). The equality and independence of Paul are a contradiction of the doctrine of the papacy.

The question "Does the New Testament support the concept of the papacy?" must be answered "no" by anybody who examines the evidence objectively rather than anachronistically reading assumptions into the text. The chasm between "I will give you the keys" (Matthew 16:19), or "shepherd My sheep" (John 21:16), and the concept of a succession of men in Rome having authority over all Christians on earth is far too massive to bridge with anything Jesus and the apostles taught.

The Post-Apostolic Documents and the Papacy

If I had to choose one passage from the writings of the post-apostolic era that summarizes how the Roman church was viewed in the early centuries after the time of the apostles, I would cite the following from Tertullian:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still preeminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, in which you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; and there too you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority of apostles themselves. How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lord's! where Paul wins his crown in a death like John's [John the Baptist’s] where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! See what she has learned, what taught, what fellowship has had with even our churches in Africa! One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith. (The Prescription Against Heretics, 36)

The Roman church is one apostolic church among others. Its importance is due not to a Divinely appointed papacy, but to practical factors, such as having been the location of the persecution or martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and John. The early Roman church was one of the most prominent of all the churches, sometimes even the most prominent. It was prominent, not papal. And it was the Roman church that was prominent early on more than the Roman bishop. As J.B. Lightfoot wrote in The Apostolic Fathers:

The substitution of the bishop of Rome for the Church of Rome is an all important point. The later Roman theory supposes that the Church of Rome derives all its authority from the bishop of Rome, as the successor of S. Peter. History inverts this relation and shows that, as a matter of fact, the power of the bishop of Rome was built upon the power of the Church of Rome. (cited at http://www.aomin.org/1296CATR.html)

The historical evidence suggests that the earliest Roman churches weren’t even led by one bishop who had authority over the other leaders of that church. Instead, the earliest Roman churches seem to have been led by multiple bishops. This is a conclusion shared not only by non-Catholic scholars, but also by most Catholic scholars. (See, for example, pages 18-29 of Roman Catholic historian Robert Eno’s The Rise of the Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990].)

When one reads the comments made about the Roman church in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, the letter to the Romans written by Dionysius of Corinth, etc., it’s apparent that the Roman church’s prominence is a result of various practical factors, such as the Roman church’s love and generosity, its faithfulness to apostolic teaching, Paul and Peter having been martyred there, etc. Never in these early documents is a Divinely appointed papacy cited as the reason why the Roman church is admired. When Irenaeus is writing against the Gnostics late in the second century, and he’s arguing that all Christians must agree with the Roman church, which was opposed to Gnosticism, he gives a number of reasons why the Roman church is so important. He never mentions a papacy, but instead mentions practical reasons such as those I’ve cited. He refers to Peter and Paul as the greatest of the apostles, not making any distinction between the two, and refers to the two of them appointing Linus as a bishop of Rome while Peter is still alive. Roman Catholic historian Robert Eno summarizes Irenaeus’ argument:

The context of Irenaeus' argument does not claim that the Roman Church is literally unique, the only one of its class; rather, he argues that the Roman Church is the outstanding example of its class, the class in question being apostolic sees. While he chose to speak primarily of Rome for brevity's sake, in fact, before finishing, he also referred to Ephesus and Smyrna. (The Rise of the Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], p. 39)

The martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome and the Roman church’s virtues, such as love and generosity, were factors in the development of the papacy, and there were other factors as well. George Salmon explains in The Infallibility of the Church (London, England: John Murray, 1914) that the city of Rome was “without a rival as the undisputed capital of the world, the place of resort of visitors from every land, the centre both of commerce and of intellectual activity, the wealthiest of cities, the home of the conquering race who had been accustomed to see the world bow down to them” (p. 372). Anybody who doubts that such social and political factors have a role in determining the perceived status of a church need only observe the decline of the church of Jerusalem after that city’s destruction or the rise of the church of Constantinople after that city’s elevation within the Roman Empire.

Peter was the most prominent of the twelve disciples, and the Roman church was one of the most prominent of the early churches, sometimes even the most prominent. This doesn’t make Peter a Pope, nor does it make Roman bishops Popes. It does, however, open the door to revisionism for those who are ignorant of or dishonest about history. Conservative Catholics often make the mistake of failing to distinguish between prominence and papal authority. They also misrepresent the New Testament and the writings of the early post-apostolic Christians in other ways, concerning which I’ll only be able to scratch the surface in these opening remarks.

James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries describes one of the errors conservative Catholic apologists constantly fall into:

‘The Peter Syndrome.' This refers to the propensity on the part of many Roman Catholic apologists to find any statement about Peter in the writings of an early Father and apply this to the Bishop of Rome. There are many exalted statements made about Peter by men such as Cyprian or Chrysostom. However, it does not follow that these statements about Peter have anything at all to do with the bishop of Rome. The Roman apologist must demonstrate that for such statements to be meaningful that the Father under discussion believed that the bishop of Rome alone is the sole, unique successor of Peter, so that any such exalted language about Peter is to be applied in that Father's thinking to the bishop of Rome alone. If such a basis is not provided, references to Peter are irrelevant." (http://www.aomin.org/SBNDDHrep.html)

For example, men such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen believed that Peter was the greatest of the apostles, that Peter is "this rock" in Matthew 16, etc. But they didn't believe in the doctrine of the papacy. Origen, for example, one of the most influential of all church fathers, who authored thousands of works, believed that all Christians are "rocks" like Peter, since they confess the same faith. Like the church fathers before him, Origen repeatedly addresses issues of doctrine and church government, but never mentions a papal office in any of his many writings.

Some of the comments of J. Michael Miller that I quoted earlier, from his book The Shepherd and the Rock, bear repeating in light of White’s comments above:

The East, therefore, widely accepted Peter as the coryphaeus (head) of the apostolic college, the first of the disciples who confessed the true faith on behalf of all. However, as Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff explains, the Orientals "simply did not consider this praise and recognition as relevant in any way to the papal claims." While the Greek Fathers acknowledged Peter's leadership in the early community, they denied that he had a directing role which involved exercising power over the other apostles. By divine institution Peter enjoyed a preeminence and a dignity above the others but no jurisdiction over them. Praised though he was in the East, Peter held only a primacy of honor and preeminence. The Orientals respected Peter for his witness to the apostolic faith rather than for his power of jurisdiction. (p. 116)

Miller explains elsewhere that the Eastern church fathers also held an exalted view of the Roman church, sometimes assigning it a primacy of honor and sometimes appealing to it during controversies. As Miller explains, though, the Eastern churches also parted ways with the Roman church on other occasions, and they emphasized the difference between a primacy of honor and a primacy of jurisdiction. Anybody who fails to distinguish between the bishop of Rome being prominent and the bishop of Rome being a Pope will not understand Eastern Orthodoxy and will not understand church history.

The writings of some of the later church fathers can easily be quoted out of context by Catholic apologists in order to make them appear to have supported something similar to a papacy. From the third century onward, it was popular to view Peter as the greatest of the apostles. However, that doesn’t mean that the church fathers who viewed Peter as the greatest apostle considered him or the bishop of Rome to be a Pope. Cyprian, for example, a church father of the third century, considered Peter the greatest of the apostles, but explained:

Certainly the other Apostles also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship both of honour and power (On the Unity of the Church, 4)

He goes on to explain that Peter was symbolic of unity and of all bishops, however. In other words, in Cyprian's view, Peter had a primacy only in the sense of being the first of the apostles to confess Christ, the first to use the keys of Matthew 16:19, etc. Peter's primacy was thus symbolic and chronological, not jurisdictional. This is made even more evident by the fact that Cyprian parted ways with the bishop of Rome on numerous occasions, on matters of church government and doctrine. Even conservative Catholics have conceded that Cyprian’s view of the bishop of Rome was far from the view advocated by the First Vatican Council. This is seen, for example, in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1960). After misrepresenting Cyprian’s beliefs in order to make him appear to have believed in something similar to a papacy, Ott admits that Cyprian didn’t have “a clear conception of the scope of the [papal] Primacy” (p. 284). Considering that Cyprian repeatedly parted ways with the bishop of Rome on various issues, and that he repeatedly asserted the independence of each bishop and denied the concept of the papacy in other ways, Cyprian’s conception of the papacy was quite “unclear” indeed. He didn’t believe in the doctrine. Nor did the dozens of other bishops from the West and East who sided with Cyprian during the dispute over heretical baptism, in which the bishop of Rome was opposed to Cyprian’s position. Cyprian can be quoted making exalted comments about Peter and about the Roman church and its bishop, but when his comments are taken in context, he undeniably held a view of church government contrary to that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Though it was popular among the church fathers of the third century onward, such as Cyprian, to view Peter as the greatest of the apostles, it was different among earlier writers. As the Protestant historian Terence Smith explains:

there is an astonishing lack of reference to Peter among ecclesiastical authors of the first half of the second century. He is barely mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers, nor by Justin and the other Apologists (cited in Robert Eno’s The Rise of the Papacy, p. 15)

I own a CD version of the compilation of church father documents by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. The CD has a search feature. In searching the post-apostolic documents of the first and second centuries, the name “Paul” occurs considerably more than that of “Peter”, even when “Cephas” and “Simon” are added to “Peter”. The difference isn’t just quantitative. The authority of Paul is cited more than the authority of Peter, and the comments made about Paul are more exalted than those made about Peter. Though it was popular to view Peter as the greatest (singular) of the apostles from the third century onward, earlier writers referred to him as one of the greatest apostles (plural). As I explained earlier, even when it became popular to view Peter as the greatest apostle, men who held that view, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Firmilian, also defined this primacy of Peter in non-papal ways. It’s easy for Catholic apologists to quote exalted comments about Peter out of context, in order to make a church father appear to have believed in the doctrine of the papacy. But is it reasonable to leap from “Peter is the greatest apostle” or “Peter is the rock of Matthew 16” to the concept that a succession of Roman bishops have authority over all Christians on earth?

If a papacy had existed since the time of Peter, one would expect to find the office referred to over and over again in the apostolic and post-apostolic documents. As I explained earlier, the New Testament not only says nothing about a papacy, but even contradicts the concept. Though the Roman church and its bishop are more prominent in the post-apostolic documents than they are in the New Testament, even the post-apostolic documents are irreconcilable with the existence of an early papacy.

A Gradual Development

Contrary to what the First Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and other authoritative Catholic documents have claimed, there was no universally recognized papacy with universal jurisdiction during the time of the apostles. Nor was there such an institution during the earliest post-apostolic centuries. Instead, the doctrine of the papacy gradually arose over time due to the Roman church’s faithfulness to apostolic teaching, the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome, the social and political benefits of being located in the capital of the Roman Empire, and other factors. The Roman church rose in influence and power for various practical reasons, but that authority, once achieved, was attributed to Divine appointment. As Peter de Rosa wrote in Vicars of Christ (New York, New York: Crown Publishing, 1988), "The gospels did not create the papacy; the papacy, once in being, leaned for support on the gospels" (p. 25). To read back into the New Testament Rome's eventual rise in influence and power - a process that took many generations and was resisted along the way not only by people in the East, but even by people in the West - is anachronism.

Jason Engwer


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