Peter, Rome and the Papacy


From John 21: Jesus asks Peter three times (equal to the number of times Peter denied Christ!) if he loves Him and tells him to tend to His sheep.

I just finished an email correspondence with a Roman Catholic brother about whether Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and whether his universal authority was passed down and resides there in Rome. I was reminded again of the assumptions it takes to argue the authority of the papacy is biblically grounded. I just want to make a few comments on this:

Peter was the preeminent apostle. This is not disputed among theologians. Peter was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” of three, and he was the eldest and the leader of the apostles. He was the first to say of Christ, that he was the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). He was the first to receive the charisma of Christ’s authority (the other apostles received the charisma as well, but Peter was the first) which he was later tasked with handing down. He was the rock on whom Christ would build his church (Mt 16:16-18). He was commissioned to feed Christ’s sheep, which implied a leadership position among the apostles (Jn 21:15-19). He was subsequently tasked with evangelizing the Gentiles as Luke tells us in Acts. It’s clear, Peter had a unique place of authority among the apostles. But that’s really all that is clear from the NT evidence. He was a preeminent apostle who subsequently handed down his charismata to other bishops.

Historically, Peter’s life becomes murky after this. It is generally agreed that Peter was the bishop in Antioch for some time. It is argued by many that Peter, later in his life, traveled to Rome and subsequently died there. But did Peter become the first Bishop of Rome after traveling there? Probably not. There is simply not a lot of evidence to verify this. I realize that a few of the patristic fathers argue for this fact, but it’s very hard to see it verified by the facts.

It is true that historically the Roman Bishop played a huge role in the councils, and even later had such large ecclesial authority, that even before the church began to understand the Bishop of Rome as having universal authority, he oversaw and judged ecclesial disputes. Later on, the Roman Bishop came to be known as the Pope (Papa), and as the Vicar (from vice, meaning “instead of” or “in place of” or “representative”) of Christ on this earth. Mind you, there were innocent and unfortunate political and ecclesial reasons for the assumption of authority on the part of the Bishop of Rome. But there wer also power grabs all throughout the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages. That is an undisputed fact, and an unfortunate one.

But this is beside the point. I simply ask: what does the history of the Roman Bishopric have to do with Peter? I ask this because historically, there is little evidence to confirm that Peter was ever bishop there.

But on an even more fundamental level, why do we fixate on Rome? There’s no biblical warrant for it: from a biblical-theological-narratival perspective, Rome was never a locus of authority nor was it ever a place to which God’s people looked to set up a universal ecclesial hub; it was Jerusalem that was always the ecclesial hub. This was of course the case in the OT, but it’s also true in the NT. Jerusalem was the first place to hold an ecumenical council (and it was James who presided over the council, not Peter). Jerusalem was the place Paul went to seek out the ecclesial authorities (Galatians 1-2). The Jerusalem church took up responsibility to assist impoverished Jewish Christians during the diaspora, and requested help from all the surrounding churches (we see this from Paul’s letters, especially Galatians 2, and 2 Corinthians 8-9). Jerusalem was the ecclesial hub of early Christianity. And this of course makes more sense when considering that Jesus came to create a renewed and restored Israel. Jesus appropriately chose 12 disciples to recreate the 12 tribes of Israel. Christ’s mission was properly to restore Israel so that through the renewed Israel, the world could be blessed. It was from Jerusalem that the church, the renewed Israel, went out to the world to bring the blessing of Abraham to the nations. This is the trajectory of the entire scriptures, is it not? Where then did the focus on Rome come from?

When we ask the question: why the fixation on Rome? Where’s the biblical/historical warrant?, the papacy-prooftexts begin to lose their significance. I mentioned Matthew 16 above. This is the quintessential text that supposedly supports the office of the Pope. In Matthew 16, Christ tells Peter, “You are Cepha (rock), and on this cepha I will build my church”. What is implied of course is that Peter has a special role in building the church. Well, fine; but we must ask: where exactly does Rome come in to this equation? I’m fine with recognizing a primacy of Peter over the other apostles. But, where does Christ say: “On this rock I will build my church. By the way, go to Rome to build my church! You will be the universal authority over all the other bishops and churches“. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question. One must assume a lot to argue Matthew 16 supports the papacy. It doesn’t mention Rome, nor does it say anything about Peter’s authority over the other apostles . And, as Calvin rightly points out in his Institutes, the authority that Christ confers on to Peter, he does later for all the apostles. What this means is that the apostolic authority was a collegiate or shared authority. The bishops work in tandem with one another for the building up of the body of Christ. Peter might have been a natural first among equals, but he shared the same authority as the others.

The Eastern Orthodox and Anglican (some Lutheran as well) have operated off of the assumption for some time that the succession or charismata of the apostles is a gift given to all of the bishops of the church by ordination. I believe in apostolic succession, but in a succession that accepts the authority and charismata of all the apostles!

I deeply love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and appreciate the theological and ecclesial gifts they contribute, but I remain unconvinced of the doctrine of the papacy.


23 thoughts on “Peter, Rome and the Papacy

  1. Obviously the papacy is not “biblically grounded”, if by that term you mean that it’s contained unambiguously in the scriptures in its fully developed, modern form. For that matter, neither is the canon of the scriptures themselves, as we’ve discussed; or the specific forms which the various churches have taken, or their liturgical worship.

    You could not look at my birth and baptismal certificates, and from them tell what kind of a person I would be, or what specific form my life would take. The Church is a living, organic thing and I don’t think it was intended that the scriptures should spell out all that it would ever become.

    As we’ve discussed before, in order not to argue in a circular manner, we can’t begin our argument with the infallibility of the scriptures as our logical starting point. It does however make sense to begin with the scriptures as historical evidence. From the scriptures you can conclude that Jesus lived, founded a Church, died and rose again. The Church being described in the scriptures as unfailing and everlasting, we can conclude that it still exists today. Our next step is to identify which of the churches existing today fits the scriptural description.

    I exclude all churches that lack the Mass, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. This leaves the Orthodox churches which are not in communion with Rome; or the Catholic churches in communion with Rome but not in communion with the Orthodox churches.

    The main difference between them is that the Catholic church claims universal jurisdiction, whereas the Orthodox are all national churches. Other than that, they preach substantially the same Gospel, maintain the same priesthood and administer the same sacraments.

    So it seems we’re talking mainly about jurisdiction — Is there a head bishop of the Church? If so, does he have jurisdiction over the whole world? Or do all bishops have merely local jurisdiction?

    It’s true that the scriptures don’t specify that Peter and his successors would have worldwide jurisdiction. But they also don’t specify that bishops would have local or national jurisdiction, as is held by the Orthodox. Both types of jurisdiction are matters of historical development rather than scriptural mandate, are they not? If local or national jurisdiction is held to be a legitimate development from the Church of the New Testament, why can’t universal jurisdiction also be a legitimate development?

    Regarding Jerusalem being the “ecclesial hub”: Jerusalem was the center of the world, so to speak, because of the Temple. But the Temple was destined to be destroyed — Christ prophesied that it would, and indeed lamented over the fate of Jerusalem itself:

    “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Mt. 23:37-39.)

    This doesn’t sound like a place destined to be the hub of the Christian Church.

    • So yea. The issue is how much authority Rome has, not whether the bishop in Rome has any. This is substantial disagreement between Roman Catholics and other traditions.

      Granted about the scripture, that tradition must be brought in tandem with the scripture in order to bring out it’s fulness. Surely though, scripture mustn’t contradict tradition?

      I guess I bring in Jerusalem to make the point that Rome isn’t even alluded to. I grant that Israel/Jerusalem was judged. But it simply puzzles me how the geographical location of Rome could be interpreted from Matthew 16. I realize we circle back to scripture and how that works in relation to tradition. But again, where does Rome come from?

      • “The issue is how much authority Rome has, not whether the bishop in Rome has any.”

        I don’t think it’s a matter of “how much” authority. It’s a matter of where he has authority. All bishops have authority within their dioceses. What makes the Pope unique is the claim that he has *universal* jurisdiction, authority in all dioceses. It’s not more authority than other bishops, it’s the same authority but over a wider area. Each individual bishop is a “pope” in his diocese. The bishop of Rome is pope over all.

        “Surely though, scripture mustn’t contradict tradition?”

        What tradition are you saying contradicts scripture?

        “But again, where does Rome come from?”

        Where does territorial jurisdiction for bishops come from? Do you see it in the scriptures? You say the bishop of Rome can’t have universal jurisdiction because the scriptures don’t mention him having it. But looking at the other side of the coin, where does it say that any bishop’s authority should be limited to a certain territory? You ask why the Pope has universal jurisdiction, but you could also ask why don’t *all* bishops have universal jurisdiction?

        The Wikipedia article on “Orthodox Church Organization” says this:

        “In the early Middle Ages, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church was ruled by five patriarchs: the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem; these were collectively referred to as the Pentarchy. Each patriarch had jurisdiction over bishops in a specified geographic region. ”

        So apparently before the split between East and West (in 1054), the patriarchs were bishops who had authority over other bishops in both East and West. Not all bishops were equal; some enjoyed wider jurisdiction than others. Thus, the notion of some bishops having authority over other bishops is not opposed to the tradition that was accepted by East and West prior to the schism. Yet none of this is spelled out in the scriptures.

        It doesn’t oppose the scriptures since the scriptures are silent on the matter. The silence of the scriptures on the pope having universal jurisdiction doesn’t contradict the pope having universal jurisdiction, any more than the silence of the scriptures on bishops having geographical jurisdiction contradicts that notion. If you oppose the idea of universal jurisdiction based on the scriptures’ silence on the matter, then shouldn’t you also oppose bishops’ having geographical jurisdiction?

        With regard to Rome itself, I don’t think it’s the geographical location per se which makes it particularly important, it’s the fact that it’s believed to be the See (bishopric) of Peter. Can it be proven beyond a reasonable doubt? No. But given that Rome has for centuries claimed the primacy, and the Orthodox churches prior to 1054 acknowledged that primacy, to me it seems reasonable to conclude that the churches of the East also acknowledged that it was Peter’s see — otherwise why give it any kind of primacy?

      • “Surely though, scripture mustn’t contradict tradition?”
        What tradition are you saying contradicts scripture? // you made it seem like nothing has to be proven by scripture. That’s why I posed the question

        Where does territorial jurisdiction for bishops come from? Do you see it in the scriptures? // the Jerusalem council and the pastoral epistles support the episcopate

        We disagree with the doctrine of the papacy and the supremacy of scripture. Tradition is necessary but subservient to scripture

  2. “the Jerusalem council and the pastoral epistles support the episcopate”

    I agree but they say nothing about geographical limits on episcopal jurisdiction. Why don’t all bishops have universal jurisdiction? Is there a scriptural reason why they don’t?

    “Tradition is necessary but subservient to scripture.”

    This is an issue in itself. I would just point out again that the canon of the scriptures is itself a matter of tradition. At the risk of going off on a tangent, scripture and tradition depend upon each other. Scripture and tradition put together constitutes the teaching of the Church. The Church produced the scriptures and also produced the tradition which establishes the scriptures as authoritative. This doesn’t place any one of these things above or below the others, I’m just contending that they’re an organic whole, and taking one of them apart from the whole, in order to judge the others, is just the wrong way of looking at it.

    • 1) Rome just seems arbitrary to me, at least when you look at the biblical import.

      2) The church did not “produce” the scriptures. The church produced a canon by which to measure what is scripture and what isnt. Inspired scripture is in itself scripture whether one recognizes it or not. The Spirit works in tandem with the will of the author and produces the text whether we assent to that or not. The church created a means of measuring what was a scriptural text of not. And it was a very plain and simple measurement as well.

      But again, oral and written tradition is needed and important; let me repeat: it’s necessary, but it is, for good reason, subordinate to scripture because of what scripture is. Tradition itself attests to the fact that scripture is God’s word. The logical deduction, the “therefore”, is that God’s word takes precidence. It is of course true that it took 400 years for the Bible to be canonized, but it is NOT true that the scriptures were not being used and circulated; in fact before the canonization there was common consensus on most of the apostolic writings, barring some (2 Peter, Revelation etc). But by the time the scriptures were canonized, it is only logical for the Word of God to take a supreme place over tradition; just like Mary is to be honored, but the one she birthed is supreme because of who he is! This doesnt negate tradition, and I’m fine with saying that the tradition itself can be recognized as, in a sense, inspired, sense it is the Spirit that dwells in the church. We can even recognize a common thread of teaching running all the way down church history: hence the sense of faith or faithful. We trust that this sense comes from the Spirit, and thus is in alignment with scripture.

      Anyways, I dont want to get into a heated debate here. I understand your positions, and really, we arent very different here. Tradition is so so important. We NEED tradition in order to interpret the scriptures correctly. No arguments there

      • I will leave it at that since you don’t seem to want to answer my specific question. Thanks for the discussion.

    • Bishops were set over certain cities as churches were planted. I’m not sure there is a precedent biblically for that, but that seems to be the biblical model

  3. In response to my question, “Why don’t all bishops have universal jurisdiction? Is there a scriptural reason why they don’t?”, you said, “Bishops were set over certain cities as churches were planted. I’m not sure there is a precedent biblically for that, but that seems to be the biblical model”.

    I then asked, “How can it be the biblical model if there is no biblical precedent?” And you answered, “The Bible does tons of stuff without giving reason for it.”

    But that answer seems to have no relation to my question. If you say the “biblical model” is for a bishop to reign over a specific geographical area, can you show me where the scriptures say anything which supports that?

    • I did do that…. I told you that the pastoral epistles and Acts supports the bishopric model. As well as the epistles of Peter and John. They were writing to certain areas of churches that they oversaw as bishops.

  4. I didn’t understand that that was your point. Do you think those scriptures show that St. Paul, for example, was the bishop of Corinth and that his authority was limited to the area within Corinth?

    • Man, I guess I dont understand you string of questions or why you’re asking them. You still haven’t really told me what you’re aiming to prove by asking me these pointed questions. I feel like I’m answering in the dark, and I don’t really see where it’s going

  5. I don’t understand your reluctance to answer questions without knowing where they’re going. What are you afraid of? Can’t you just answer them to the best of your understanding and let the chips fall where they may?

    In any event, I think where I’m going should be transparent from what I’ve already said. If you reject universal jurisdiction for one bishop based on there being no mention of it in the scriptures, then you should also reject geographically limited jurisdiction for the same reason. If the latter is acceptable (compatible with the scriptures) then I don’t know why the former isn’t acceptable as well. This doesn’t prove universal jurisdiction, obviously, but it disarms one of the arguments against it (in my opinion).

    • I’m gathering from your logic that from my position of sola scriptura, you understand that any doctrine, if it is to be a Christian doctrine, must be clearly and abundantly proven from scripture. But this is not true. It must be supported by scripture, but not abundantly irreducibly proven; it needs only be argued from or supported by scripture.

      In my estimation, a biblical argument for area-governed bishops is found in Timothy and Titus, and other more unclear texts. The practice is verifiable from these texts. The details aren’t abundantly clear, but that is not necessary, since tradition and history help to inform and fill the gaps, although tradition and history do not trump scripture.

      The point and logic of sola scriptura is that tradition is subordinate, and has a proper context, to the Bible. This does NOT follow that we cannot be informed by tradition at all. This is more properly solo scriptura, which is an anabaptist impulse that I reject.

      But a further reason I reject universal jurisdiction is not simply because of its lack of evidence from scripture, but also because tradition itself is conflicted on the issue. This is abundantly clear from the Eastern Church’s rejection of it.

  6. I submit that the scriptures portray the Apostles as having universal jurisdiction. They had authority over the Church wherever they happened to be, and not only within a specific geographical area. So if anything, the scriptures show both geographically limited jurisdiction, and universal jurisdiction. Neither is explicitly spelled out in the scriptures, but also neither is contrary to the scriptures.

    • I don’t think I’m opposed to the apostles themselves having universal authority. The charismata of the apostles handed down though? Does that mean every bishop has universal authority?

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