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.


Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.