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How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?

Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon

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It is abundantly clear by reading the Catholic apologists that they will not accept any evidence that overturns papal infallibility. No matter how badly a Pope has erred - morally, doctrinally, or otherwise - no charge against papal infallibility will ever stick. It would save us a lot of time if Catholic apologists will simply admit this. In reality, this is nothing short of historical gymnastics and wishful reconstructions at best - and blatant dishonesty at worst. (Evangelical Answers [Atlanta, Georgia: New Testament Restoration Foundation, 1997], p. 34)

John (Handpicked by Jesus) OR Three Popes (“Successors” To The Papacy)
In Matthew 19:28 Jesus said

    And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel

Since Jesus obviously knew that Judas was going to betray Him, this promise could not have included Judas. In fact Jesus’ words were carefully chosen to exclude Him from the promise of "thrones" that the others received. [The subject of who the twelfth man was has been dealt with on another page. See]

However the point here is that Jesus showed absolutely no inclination to place Peter above any of the other apostles that He had personally chosen. He was included among the other eleven with no greater authority or power.

According to the Catholic Church, Peter’s successors to the papacy were Linus (A.D. 67 to 79), Cletus (A.D. 79 to 91) and (from A.D. 91 to 100), all three of whom were pope during the time that the apostle John was still alive. In other words

    “The doctrine of the primacy of Peter means that the first three of the alleged successors of Peter would have exercised authority over the still-living apostle John, who had been handpicked by Christ Himself! The very John whom Jesus placed on one of the twelve thrones would have been under the authority, knowledge, and power of three popes who had not been selected to be among the original Twelve! [Dave Miller, Ph.D. Are There Modern-day Apostles? http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2279]


How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?
Part 1
Brief of Issues

Is there evidence that Jesus Christ established the office of papal authority over His Church?

The Catholic Church claims that Jesus conferred on Peter and his successors supreme power in faith and morals over all the other Apostles and over every Christian in the Church. But is this true?

This doctrine is supposedly based on Matthew 16:18-19 where Jesus says, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth it shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”

But Protestants reject the Roman Catholic interpretation. They point out that in the very passage before Jesus spoke to Peter, He had asked His disciples whom men were saying that He was. Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus agreed with Peter’s statement and used it to teach that He Himself will be the rock, the foundation, upon which the Church will be built. Jesus said, “Thou art Peter”—petros, a small stone—“and upon this petra”—great rock or boulder—I will build my Church.” The petra refers to Peter’s truthful declaration of Christ’s deity—it is upon this truth that Jesus says He will build His Church.

Which of these interpretations best fits the scriptural record? What did Peter mean when he stated in his own epistle that Jesus was the chief cornerstone and all other Christians are living stones? Other questions surrounding the doctrine of the pope are: Why are there no Scripture verses that teach how the office of Pope is to be transmitted by Peter to his successors? Why is it that the Apostle Paul never mentions the office of pope in any of his epistles when he teaches about the offices in the Church? When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, doesn’t Scripture show that Jesus gave the same keys to the other Apostles? Does Scripture teach that the keys are a declaratory authority to announce the terms on which God will grant salvation, or, as Roman Catholics teach, an absolute power to admit or exclude someone from heaven?

Both sides admit that in the first chapters of Acts, Peter exercises the keys to the kingdom by declaring the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, as Jesus said He would. But then, the other Apostles declare the gospel and Peter drops from sight in the scriptural account. When Peter does reappear, at the Council of Jerusalem, why is it that the Apostle James leads the Church and not Peter?

    The New York Catechism says, “The Pope takes the place of Jesus Christ on earth. By divine right, the Pope has supreme and full power in faith and morals over each and every pastor and his flock. He is the true Vicar of Christ, the Head of the entire Church, the father and teacher of all Christians. He is the infallible ruler, the founder of dogmas, the author of and the judge of councils, the universal ruler of truth, the arbiter of the world, the supreme judge of heaven and earth, the judge of all, being judged by no one, God Himself on earth.”

    The Bull of Pope Boniface VIII, Unum Sanctum, says, “We declare, affirm, define and pronounce it necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff”— a decree that Cardinal Manning asserts is “infallible and beyond all doubt, an act ex cathedra.”

This attitude toward the pope seems to rest on that which was stated by Cardinal Gibbons in his book Faith of Our Fathers (p. 95), “The Catholic Church teaches that our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of His whole Church and that the same spiritual supremacy has always resided in the popes or bishops of Rome as being the successors of St. Peter. Consequently, to be true followers of Christ, all Christians, both among the clergy and laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome where Peter rules in the person of his successors.”

The opposite way of saying this would be, “If anyone says that the blessed Apostle Peter was not constituted by Christ our Lord prince of all the apostles and visible head of all the Church militant or that he, Peter, directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of favor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction, let him be anathema.” 2

How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?
Roman Catholicism maintains that the Apostle Peter was the first pope. Yet incredibly, for such a key office involving supreme power over all the Church on earth, the only proof text that can be marshaled is Matthew 16:18-19: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hades shall not overpower it....”

Although for purposes of argument, the Roman Catholic position may be conceded as a possible (although unlikely), interpretation of this verse, it is hardly the most likely interpretation given Roman Catholic papal history. And biblically, it is impossible that this Scripture alone can be logically extended to mean all what Rome teaches it to mean.

For Rome to establish its position, it must prove at least five things: first, that Peter personally was the “rock” that Christ spoke of and that Peter’s office was to constitute the essence of Catholic things: first, that Peter personally was the “rock” that Christ spoke of and that Peter’s office was to constitute the essence of Catholic papalism; second, more specifically, that Peter’s alleged primacy equals infallibility in doctrine and morals; third, that Christ Himself gave reason to believe He conferred similar privileges on Peter’s successors or future Popes and/or bishops; fourth, that Peter was actually the first bishop/pope of Rome; and fifth, that Peter himself and the rest of the Apostles recognized his divine appointment. The first four points will be covered briefly; the fifth point will be examined in depth with occasional comment on other points.

1. Is Peter the “Rock” Christ Spoke Of?
First, does this verse really say anything unique to Peter that must be restricted to him alone? Jesus said, “On this rock, I will build my church.” He did not say Peter would build His Church; He said He would build it. It makes more sense to conclude that the “rock” upon which Christ will build His Church is men’s confession of faith in Christ as the true Messiah—something Peter had just spoken. Personal confessions in so profound a truth as Jesus’ Messiahship—with all its personal and doctrinal implications— may certainly be described as something foundational, or rock (boulder)-like. So, this interpretation not only fits the context of the passage, it fits the facts of history and Scripture as a whole. If so, then verse 19 would also not be restricted to Peter alone, who first used these “keys” to open the “kingdom of heaven” to both Jew and Gentile alike in his preaching of the gospel (Acts 2, 10— something possible for every Christian believer.

InPlainSite.org Note: Catholic Tradition maintains that Jesus in Matthew 16:17-18 said He would build His church on Peter who was ostensibly the first pope. However a closer look at where the incident took place sheds much light on the meaning of the Saviour’s words. See Upon This Rock

Regardless, if indeed Jesus was establishing Peter as the first pope, it is incredible that neither Peter himself, nor Paul, nor any other apostle and not one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament affirms the doctrine of papalism anywhere. Indeed, it is the absence of such a doctrine that is striking.

For example, both Mark and Luke record Peter’s confession of faith in Christ as Messiah, but they do not record Christ’s words about the rock. The Apostle John does not mention the incident at all, something unlikely for one who was so close to Jesus and also a good friend of Peter’s. If the words of Jesus had the significance Rome attaches to them, all this is certainly a strange omission. For Christ to establish Peter as the first Pope and living head of the Church and for three of four biographers of Jesus to remain silent on so crucial an event is unlikely to say the least:

It must involve some very elaborate armchair gymnastics to prove from the Bible that the Lord Jesus appointed Peter to be the first pope, thus establishing the papal throne. If anything, the very fact that the Lord appointed twelve apostles is itself good reason to cast doubts upon the whole idea of one, and only one, pope…. If the Lord Jesus Christ had intended to establish the supreme authority of Peter, and to have that authority perpetuated in the bishops at Rome, then it is only reasonable to assume that He would have distinctly informed His followers. So important an office would surely have been mentioned in the clearest of terms. Other sacred offices are set forth in Holy Scripture, yet strange silence prevails with regard to that which would be the highest of all. There is not one jot or tittle, anywhere from Genesis to Revelation, about any man being a regal-sacerdotal king, who as viceregerent of Christ rules over the visible Church upon the earth.

Further, Peter may have given us his own commentary on Matthew 16:18. He refers to Jesus alone as “the living Stone” and the “precious cornerstone.” If the Stone is Jesus, then men— including Peter—must be something less than the Stone itself. It was Jesus who designated Peter (petros) as a “rock” (petra) and Peter classifies himself and all other believers as one of the lesser “living stones” being built into a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4-6). In essence, if Peter were really the first pope (with all that implies in Roman Catholic teaching), why does not a single New Testament writer ever designate his papal office anywhere?

2. Was Peter Supreme and Infallible?
Nowhere in the New Testament does Peter exercise the majestic functions of the pope concerning authority or infallibility. If Peter had such authority, would Paul have ever rebuked the first pope? Who is it that publicly rebukes a pope today? Yet, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11). It would seem that the Apostle Paul never thought of Peter as unique because he does not say to Peter, “If you, being the head of the Church,” but “If you, though a Jew…” (Gal. 2:11-14).

Peter himself wrote to all Christians (1 Pet. 1:1) and especially to “the elders among you” that “I appeal [to you] as a fellow elder …” (1 Pet. 5:1). If a generation earlier Jesus had commissioned Peter as the first Pope, the one having supreme authority over His Church, why does Peter now, 30 years later, identify himself to the Church merely as a “fellow elder” rather than the one who has all the authority and prerogatives of the supreme pontiff himself?

Further, neither does Peter encourage the Church with Roman Catholic theology concerning the sacraments, or Mary, or assisting in the forgiveness of our sins through Catholic practices or anything else distinctively Catholic. For example, he tells us that “Christ died for sins once for all” (1 Pet. 3:18) and—far from tradition being on par with Scripture, it is God’s power which “has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through our knowledge of him...” (2 Pet. 1:3). If the knowledge of God and Christ given in the Scriptures is sufficient for “everything we need for life and godliness” of what spiritual value is 2,000 years of extra-biblical Catholic tradition for life and godliness”?

3. Did Christ Confer Papal Privileges on Peter’s Successors and/or Bishops?
Whatever Matthew 16:18-19 may or may not say about Peter, it says nothing at all about his successors, real or imagined. Nowhere in the entire Bible do we find any basis for a doctrine of papal succession or bishop infallibility.

4. Was Peter the First Bishop of Rome?
Historically, no one can prove Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Peter may have visited Rome, but to confer on him the position held by Catholicism is, as we will now see, at best an argument from silence and at worst, a complete rejection of the entire thrust of New Testament teaching.

InPlainSite.org Note. Catholic Apologists will say that Eusebius, in his "Church History" relates how Peter went to Rome, established a church there with Paul, and lived and worked there over a twenty year period. Although we may accept it as certain that he did visit Rome, and that he met his death there, it is no less certain that he did not reach there until late in the reign of Nero. See Details

5. Did Peter Himself or the Rest of the Apostles Recognize His Divine Appointment?
In this extended section we will argue the impossibility of the papal office on the basis of New Testament teaching.

But first, let us use this instance to illustrate a key principle for evaluating Roman Catholic doctrines: take any major teaching, study it until you understand it well, then study the Bible by itself. Examine every verse related to the topic, whether it is Mary, justification, Peter, etc. What you find is that the more you study the Bible, the more you see the truth of the Protestant view and the error of the Roman Catholic view.

Now study Roman Catholic tradition on these topics. Here is where you begin to understand where these views developed and how the Bible can be made to seem to teach them. It is not at all that a Catholic has no possible means of seeing the many teachings of Roman Catholic tradition in Scripture. It is that Scripture has been so thoroughly misinterpreted in Roman Catholic tradition and the arguments so detailed and subject to interpreter bias, that a Catholic usually doesn’t even see the error unless he has simply studied the Bible alone.

The subject of Peter will illustrate the principle we have just enunciated. Does the New Testament view of Peter support or oppose the Roman Catholic office of the papacy? This is really the heart of the issue, especially concerning the life of Peter and what Peter himself says about Roman Catholic doctrine in his epistles.

Although we have already discussed Matthew 16, we may observe two more points here. First, even Augustine, considered one of the greatest Church Fathers by both Catholics and Protestants, interpreted this verse as referring not to Peter but to Christ as the Rock that Peter confessed. Second, Peter himself did this. Whether we are considering the preaching of Peter in the book of Acts or his writing in 1 and 2 Peter, Peter always refers to Christ as the one to whom he confessed and not to himself. In Acts 4:8-12 Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit says that the Stone that is rejected by the builders became the chief cornerstone and that there is salva- tion in no one else. Christ is the cornerstone here and this is the teaching we find throughout the New Testament. Nowhere, other than in the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16, do we have even a hint that Peter is the Rock.

In 1 Peter 2:4-8, Peter refers to Jesus as the “living stone rejected by men” and “a choice stone, a precious cornerstone.” Further, “and he who believes in Him shall not be disap- pointed.... But for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very cornerstone.’”

Peter says that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone. Here would be a good point for Peter to mention his own papal office if, in fact, Christ had appointed him the first pope. In fact, from the time that Jesus  allegedly first appointed Peter pope in Matthew 16 until the end of his life Peter consistently does things and says things which deny that he is a pope.  For example, in Matthew 16:16, after Peter’s famous confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus explained to the disciples that He was to suffer, be killed and rise from the dead. What was the response of Peter? He openly confronted Christ and told Him He was wrong: “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ response was, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:23).

The difficulty is this: if Christ had just instituted Peter as the Rock of the Church to head the papal office, how could Peter be completely in the hands of Satan almost the next moment? Nor does Peter improve with time. In Matthew 26, Jesus is telling the disciples that He is going to be crucified and that they will all fall away and be scattered. Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, he will deny Him three times (Matt. 26:31-34). What is Peter’s response? He says that he will never fall away and that he will never deny Jesus—even if it means his own death (Matt. 26:35).

In other words, Peter first tells Christ that he is wrong to go to the cross and wrong about his own fidelity. Then later under pressure he denies Christ three times, even with an oath. In his denial of Christ the third time, he even curses and swears, “Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’” (Matt. 26:74).

This does not seem to give us great confidence in the initiation of the papal office. At the key moment of Jesus’ death, Peter is hardly in a central position of strength and spiritual power; he is cursing and denying his own Lord.

Nor do things improve. When Christ is resurrected from the dead, is Peter the first one to understand, accept it and explain to the Church the significance of what has happened? When both Peter and John saw the empty tomb, the Bible says that only John “saw and believed” (John 20:3-8). Even later when Peter had accepted the truth of the resurrection, Jesus had to ask him three times, “Do you love Me?”

Again, we do not see Peter in a position of supremacy. In fact, “Peter was grieved” when the Lord asked him the third time “Do you love Me?” Peter knew this was somehow connected to his denial of Christ three times.

Later when Peter asked Jesus about the Apostle John, Jesus’ response was to not be concerned about John but to follow Him. Again, we don’t see Peter in any kind of position of papal authority or leadership. Instead, Peter is once again rebuked.

Nor do things improve in Peter’s future. When we get to the book of Acts, we find that significant chapters are oriented around Peter’s ministry. If ever the papal office of Peter were to be confirmed and of Peter’s going to Rome and there founding the papacy to be documented, it would have to be here. But all we find is complete silence.

In Acts 10 Peter does not understand the meaning of the vision God gives him. Given the  importance of this vision, it is unlikely that, if Peter were the pope, he would not comprehend the message.

Neither did the Church recognize Peter as anything special. In Acts 11 he is opposed by others and has to argue his case. Peter’s argument is accepted, but it is a case of one man among equals, not one man in a position of papal supremacy.

In Acts 15 we find the great Jerusalem Council. Again, if anywhere Peter’s papacy should be recognized it is at the first great Christian Council, conceded as such by both Catholics  and Protestants. First, Peter does not act like a pope; rather he and the others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter makes his defense but it is not Peter who has the last word, it is James. Peter gives his argument, but James concludes the matter and then the vote is taken. So if any one has supremacy it is James, the brother of Christ, not Peter. Also note that in Acts 21 when the apostle Paul comes to Jerusalem it is James who receives him, not Peter.

Consider another problem. Catholic tradition holds that Peter went to Rome and founded the papacy. This would mean that Peter should already be in Rome when the Apostle Paul arrives. But in Acts 27, which involves very specific details about Paul’s journey to Rome, not a word is said about Peter. In fact, in Acts 28:30 it says that Paul spent two entire years at Rome in his own quarters, welcoming everyone who came to him. Now if Peter were in Rome partaking of the papal office, is it at all conceivable that Peter would not go and visit the Apostle Paul—at least once? If he did, would Paul fail to mention it—fail to mention that he was visited by the head of the Church? Why is it that Luke, the great historian of the early Church, who set down his record in exacting detail also never mentions even a hint that Peter is in Rome or that he has his papal office?

Why is it also that when the Apostle Paul actually writes to the Roman Church, he does not even mention Peter? Peter is supposed to have been in Rome around 42-67 A.D. If the book of Romans was written in 57 A.D., this means that Peter has already been in Rome for 15 years. Again, is it conceivable that the Apostle Paul would not mention Peter or the great office of papacy that he now occupies? This is impossible if indeed Peter is supposed to occupy the position of the vicar of Christ as the head of the Church. In Romans 16 Paul mentions 27 people by name—but he fails to mention Peter even once.

In Galatians 2 we find additional information that undermines the claims of the Catholic Church. First, the Apostle Paul did not recognize any supremacy in Peter. Peter at the time is in Jerusalem with the other apostles. Paul says of them, “But from those who were of high reputa- tion (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6).

Further, the next two verses state that Peter was entrusted with the Gospel to the circum- cised, i.e., to the Jews, whereas Paul had been entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised, i.e., the Gentiles. Both preached the same message, but to different audiences. So then why would Peter go to Rome, the center of the Gentile world when the agreement of the whole Church had been that his ministry was to the Jews (Gal. 2:9)?

Further, in Galatians 2:11, we find another impossible situation if Peter is the pope, “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” In other words, we do not see Peter in the position of papal strength; we see him rebuked by the Apostle Paul for compromising the very Gospel itself!

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul is writing from Rome in 67 A.D. He says that the time of his death is near (2 Tim. 4:6). Remember that according to Catholic tradition, Peter has already been in Rome for twenty-five years. But nothing that Paul does suggests Peter is even there. If Peter had been killed about 67 A.D., before Paul had written 2 Timothy, how could it be that Paul fails to mention Peter’s death? Why does he mention day-to-day details and instructions for individuals by name but fail to mention the death of the first pope who has ruled in Rome for twenty-five years (Tim. 4:10-14, 19-21)? Paul goes on to say that Demas, loving this present world “has deserted me” and that “only Luke is with me” and that, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them” (2 Tim. 4:16).

If Peter has been in Rome for twenty-five years, why did not Peter ever come to Paul’s de- fense? Is this the exercise of papal authority and leadership?

Finally, if we look at Peter’s own writings, there is not a single verse that substantiates the Roman Catholic claims to papacy. Peter writes as an equal man among all other believers. Peter describes himself as “an apostle” and “an elder”—but not a pope (1 Pet. 1:3; 5:1). Peter also says that all believers constitute “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9); he never speaks of a special priesthood who will mediate between God and the people.

Finally in 2 Peter, like Paul, he emphasizes that his death is near (2 Pet. 1:14). If at any time Peter is going to appoint a papal successor, it must be now. But all Peter does is tell his readers that they must accept the authority of the Holy Scripture as something “more sure” than even eyewitness testimony (2 Pet. 1:14-21). Has Peter just declared that Scripture has superiority over tradition?

Regardless, not only is there not a single Scripture in the entire Bible that supports the Catholic teaching on the papacy, Peter himself denies key Catholic teachings. None of this makes sense if the Roman Catholic position is true.

We have now seen that an examination of the scriptural data fails to confirm the Roman Catholic claims concerning the papacy. So how did the papacy arise? If we look at Church history, we will see.


1 Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), p.8.

2 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 279, citing Vatican I.

3 Henry T. Hudson, Papal Power (Welwyn, Hertforshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1981), pp. 99, 106.

4 Most of this was taken from a lecture by Dr. Francis Schaeffer.


Part 2

The Rise of The Papacy
A number of historical factors explain the rise of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. 1

Perhaps the most important was the church’s failure to abide by scriptural teaching. This topic can be divided into two basic sections, 1) historic factors and internal conditions that permitted the rise of the papacy (these are not given in any particular order of importance); and 2) key figures historically who guided the Church in this direction.

The Evolution and Increase in Ecclesiastical Offices.
From the simplicity of the biblical deacon and presbyter, which are roughly equivalent, the Church added additional offices including sub-deacons, readers, acolytes, and bishops, who became distinguished from presbyters. For example, in 252 A.D. the Roman bishop had 46 presbyters. One Roman bishop, Callistus I, actually said that no presbyter could ever depose a bishop—even if the bishop committed a “mortal” sin. Bishops became subdivided even among themselves. Bishops in the country were held to be inferior to bishops in the city. In capital cities with more than one bishop, one among their number became the head bishop. Thus, in Alexandria, 12 bishops convened to elect one bishop from among their number. In the fourth century the office of Metropolitan was recognized as being superior to the office of bishop. This growing ecclesiastical hierarchy provided justification for the emerging hierarchical system and increasing divisions between clergy and laity. The addition of clerical garb also helped to distinguished clergy from laity.

The historical relationship to Roman Catholicism can be seen as follows:

Roman Catholicism                          Evolving Church

Pope                                                   Patriarch— head over an entire geographical region

Cardinal                                     Metropolitan—head over several bishops

Bishop                                       Bishop (sub-divisions; inferior to Metropolitan

Priest                                         Presbyter (distinguished from bishop)

The people                                 The people


Ironically, the increasing ecclesiastical divisions in the Church under girded the subsequent Romanization of the Church. Even though the goal itself was laudable—desire for greater visible unity—this demanded an increasing centralization of power that was not biblical.

The Emergence of Sacerdotal System
This system was justified from the Old Testament model where the High Priest acted as the mediator between God and the people. In essence, the Old Testament High Priest, altar and sacrificial system became replicated in the Roman Church. The priest mediates or officiates between God and the people, the altar separates them and the elevation-transubstantiation of the host re-sacrifices (or “re-presents”) Christ: Finally the priest officiates between God and the people through the confessional.

The basis of sacerdotalism is laid in the early Church Fathers. For example, Cyprian (200 A.D.) is considered the “father” of the sacerdotal system. He believed the bishops were the special bearers of the Holy Spirit who, through ordination, was passed on from Christ to the apostles to the bishops. An episcopacy or “rule by bishops” slowly developed through the concept that only those who have had hands laid on them by a bishop are qualified to be in the ministry. Cyprian believed that the Church exists in the bishop and the bishop exists in the Church. Therefore whoever is not with the bishop is not with the Church. Along with other factors, this led to the idea that one had to be within the one true visible Church in order to be saved—to be outside the Church meant to be outside of salvation.

Additional Church fathers supported similar ideas, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. For example, the Church was described as being similar to Noah’s ark. To be in the ark (the Church) was to be saved from judgment; to be outside was to perish—thus the Church was the safe haven to which the world must flee for salvation. In the third century the term “priest” was used only for the bishop, not anyone else. But once the idea emerged of a priestly rule—i.e., priests as a special class of people—the biblical teach- ing of every believer as a priest was eventually undermined (1 Pet. 2:9; 2:5, etc.). This had the result of producing further division between clergy and laity. (Something similar occurred with the concept of “saint”; whereas every true believer of every moral or spiritual state is a saint, the term became applied only to certain “special” people the Church recognized for particular reasons.)

The Concept of Unity
In the second century Iranaeus used the term “Catholic” Church. The growing power and influence of the Roman bishop was under girded by a perceived need for visible unity before the world. In other words, the Church believed it should have a united front which led to the acceptance of increasingly centralized power.

If Christ actually ruled over the earth, even though He was now in heaven, and if the bishop was the visible symbol of Christ on earth, then on earth, the bishop can rule in Christ’s place. The Church was also coming to be seen as a visible, rather than invisible, entity. While this idea, along with the episcopacy, or government of the Church by bishops, would under gird Church unity, it would also undermine the fact that the true Church is made up of people who are true believers in Jesus Christ, wherever they are—inside or outside a visible Church or structure. In other words, the “invisible” Church of true believers was ignored in favor of the visible Church as the true Church.

The Prominence of the Roman Church
The Roman Church had the only Patriarch, or Bishop of high rank, in the West. All others were in the East—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, etc. This helped Rome to centralize its spiritual power without competition. Many factors contributed to the prominence of the Roman Church.

1. The city of Rome itself had the prominent position as the capital city, center of trade, etc. It was the most powerful and influential city in the Roman Empire.

2. The Roman Church, quite in error, claimed Peter as supreme among the apostles. Peter allegedly held a superior position because a) Jesus Himself supposedly singled him out (Matt. 16:18); b) Jesus singled out no one besides Peter; and c) the Roman Church believed that Peter’s power and position were transferable to his successors. This is why Roman popes trace their lineage back to the “first” pope, Peter. Just as in the Old Testament the high priest had to be of the tribe of Levi and a descendant of Aaron—just so the pope had to be a “descendant” of Peter spiritually by apostolic succession, laying on of hands, etc.

3. Rome claimed it was the only apostolic, ancient Church (actually the Church of Jerusalem was older). Rome also claimed that both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were directly associated with it. Since two major apostles were related directly to Rome, Rome was allegedly the superior Church. Paul, at least, was related to the Roman Church—he wrote the book of Romans. But Rome was not perfect, e.g., “Rome had a tradition of tolerance for modalist tendencies since the time of Victor [189-198].” 2

But she sided with orthodoxy and as such became increasingly respected and other churches began to acknowledge her “superiority”—even accepting her rebuke and excommunication for minor issues.

4. The Roman Church was a suffering Church which engaged in good works and had a respectable, caring, orthodox leadership. This also granted the Church favor in the eyes of other churches. Many early Fathers agreed that Rome was a superior Church. Irenaeus said Rome was among the greatest of churches. There seemed to be a common consensus that Rome was “first among equals” which, rather quickly, degenerated to simply, “first”. Roman bishops even claimed supremacy in their own districts. While some, like Hippolytus, opposed this claim, it was generally accepted.

The Increasing Doubt That Salvation Was by Grace Through Faith Alone
Human nature being what it is, this is not so surprising. Like the ancient Israelites who forgot God even after their great deliverance through Moses, many of the early Church Fathers quickly forgot that salvation was entirely apart from works. Many came to believe that
baptism remits sins and, in logical progression, good works were soon seen as necessary for salvation. Once the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone was increasingly obscured, the door swung open to views of self-salvation, building brick upon brick, for an entire system of salvation by works.

Again, while this evolution was understandable, it was also regrettable in that it laid the foundation for the later complex system of Roman soteriology. As an illustration consider the concept of the martyrs emerging as a special class of people. The early Church was persecuted so heavily that yearly memorials of those martyrs ballooned into an unbiblical system. These commemorations began as mere graveside services where accounts of their sufferings were read. They soon changed so that martyrdom itself became 1) a greater Christian virtue; 2) a substitute for baptism; 3) a power to cleanse from sin and 4) a guarantee of heaven. Origen even ascribed an atoning value to others from a martyr’s death. In the end, the clothes, bones, etc., of martyrs became objects of veneration, resulting in another division among the body of Christ—special Christians (martyrs) versus less special Christians.

The concept of martyrdom became so important that marginal or heretical groups began teaching that backsliders were not permitted into the Church (the Novatians) or that those who gave up their Scriptures in the persecutions committed an unpardonable sin (the Donatists).

Eventually the very idea of ascribing a special status to the martyr meant that there was a certain act one could do which could earn merit before God—thus justifying in part the concept of penance. This was one of many factors which under girded merit before God on the basis of good works. The veneration of martyrs gave wa y to veneration of “saints” in general, opposing the biblical teaching that every believer is a saint. Eventually this led to an entire cultic substructure.

The Division of Sin
Another factor was the concept of different categories of sin. This apparently began with the legalistic, ascetic, charismatic Montanists. If some sins were held to cause the loss of salvation and were thus “mortal” or deadly, then less serious sins were merely “venial” or of secondary importance. If the Church sacraments could also dispense grace, then the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism could be established in which, e.g., penance was required to forgive mortal sins.

The above constitute some of the factors that permitted the rise of the Roman Church to a position of prominence and laid the foundation for the papacy. Six key figures subsequently built upon that foundation to bring about the concept and reality of the papal office as we find it in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Leo the First (d. 461 A.D.)
Leo was not a pope, but a Roman Bishop who served from 440-461 A.D. During the Robber Council (449)—Eutychian/monophysite controversy, Leo did everything in his ability to increase the power and control of the Roman Bishop in order to more effectively oppose heresy.

Thus, Leo was the one who called the great Council of Chalcedon to refute the Eutychian heresy. The result was one of the classic creeds of Christendom which upheld Nicea and under girded orthodoxy. Leo’s involvement in the council and on the side of orthodoxy increase the power and respect of the Roman Bishop. However, it also raised serious questions about the use of political power within the Church.

Gregory the First (540-604 A.D.)
Also known as Gregory the Great, he served just before and after 600 A.D. (590-604). Gregory may be considered the first pope. In many respects he was a great man who did many good things. He was a good preacher and teacher and used his gifts in the Church widely.

In fact, he sent so many missionaries to England the country was converted to Christianity. He protected Rome militarily from pagan hordes; he also fed the poor by the thousands.

Although the concept of a universal rule of the Church was repugnant to him when it was first mentioned by an Eastern Constantinople bishop (he called it “anti-Christ”), his term and the offices he held greatly under girded the concept of a papacy. In essence, Gregory was the first to be 1) a Bishop of Rome, 2) a Metropolitan (over Roman territory) and 3) a Patriarch (of Italy, for all the West).

The mere fact that one man held all three offices clearly laid the foundation for the papacy while it also greatly increased Roman power. If the Roman Catholic Church begins to emerge anywhere, it is here.

Leo the Third (d. 816 A.D.)
Leo the Third served just before and after 800 A.D. (795-816) As evidence of the increasing secular and political power of the Church, Leo actually crowned Charlemagne Emperor, raising the issue of whether or not any secular ruler or king could be such without the “blessing” of the Church.

Until Hildebrand (Gregory the Seventh) and Henry the Fourth, mutual coronations became the rule, not the exception. Of course, if a king could not be a king without the Church’s ap- proval, the ruler of the Church had more power than the state itself. In this respect, Leo the

Third was a key ingredient in the union of Church and state. In between Leo the Third and Gregory the Seventh are found the “Pseudo-isidorian Decretals.” These were allegedly written around 600 A.D. and under girded the primacy of Rome and its papalism. Unfortunately, they were forgeries used for hundreds of years to strengthen papal power, beginning with Nicholas the First around 865. It was not discovered until much later that they were written in the mid 9th century.

Gregory the Seventh (Hildebrand) (1021-85 A.D.)
Hildebrand was pope from 1073-85. He reformed the papacy by outlawing corruptions such as simony, and by insisting on the celibacy of the clergy. He also strengthened the Church’s power base, which all along had been gathering great influence and wealth from various land holdings, conquests of war, tithings and gifts, etc.

Hildebrand saw the Church as the one visible object with the pope as its head as the “vicar” of Christ. The Church was equivalent to the kingdom of God. To be in the Church was to be saved; to be outside the Church was to be damned. Hildebrand saw the Church as supreme over the state—indeed the Church was the glorious sun while the state was merely the moon, which gets its light only from the sun.

Hildebrand instituted what is known as the “Gregorian Theocracy.” His personal convictions are acted out in his battles with King Henry the Fourth whom he both excommunicated and placed an interdiction on—a censure of spiritual benefits. This meant that Henry could not receive the sacraments and his subjects were no longer duty bound to obey him. In part, this provided justification for subsequent papal political use of excommunication and even the use of an interdict against nations. King Henry did repent—at first. But in 1084 he seized Rome, forcing Gregory to flee, under- scoring the problem of Church-state politics. In between Gregory the Seventh (1025-85) and Innocent the Third (1161-1216), we find the Lateran Council of 1059. This decreed that popes were to be elected by cardinals, from among Roman delegates in Rome. At this point the Church had clearly become the Roman Catholic Church.

Innocent the Third (1161-1216)
Innocent the Third ruled as pope from 1198-1216. He represents the height of medieval papal influence and power—overall, no pope before or after has been more powerful. Innocent believed an interdict could even be placed on nations. He forced King John of England to become his vassal and had Emperor Otto deposed in favor of Frederick II. During his reign we have the Magna Carta battle with King John and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). This council: 1) Began the Inquisition; 2) Forbade monastic orders; 3) Held that membership in the visible Church was necessary for salvation; 4) Declared the transubstantiation dogma; 5) Declared yearly confessions mandatory; and 6) Instituted a crusade against the Turks for the Holy Land.

But the papal office also began degenerating here. The Crusades were ever less popular, indulgences and papal dispensations for money caused endless amounts of corruption and evil, as did the Inquisition. Relatives could be bought out of purgatory, while neighbor turned against neighbor as land could be received as payment for reporting “heretics”. Taxes on bishops and churches also became oppressive: papal authority was destined to decline.

Boniface the Eighth (1235-1303 A.D.)
Boniface the Eighth ruled just before and after the 1300s (1294-1303). He steadfastly asserted papal authority over European leaders and issued the Unum Sanctum which was the highest expression of papal authority, going so far as to claim temporary papal rule over nations.

This led to conflict with Philip IV of France and Boniface’s eventual death. Papal degeneration continued. The rise of separate states, rebellion within the Church lead- ing to sects and “heretical” pre-Reformation groups such as the Waldensians eventually culmi- nated in the Reformation wherein Martin Luther not only nailed his historic Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg University door, he enunciated the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone declaring it to be the central dogma upon which the Christian Church stands or falls. 3

In conclusion, the idea of papal infallibility is one that no Christian can accept, either on historical grounds (because of papal error) or on scriptural grounds (where the doctrine is not explicitly stated and is implicitly rejected). Indeed, to accept this doctrine is to accept all the pronouncements of the Popes which have been wrong or anti-biblical. As Kung confesses, “...no one is infallible except God himself.” 4


1 These and others can be traced in Williston Walker, et al. A History of The Christian Church (N.Y. Schribner’s, 4th ed. 1985), pp. 75-78, 82-83, 98-101, 125,135-36, 151-53, 159-60, 170,167-70, 183-86, 203, 213-17, 235-39, 250, 268, 275-76, 277-79, 290, 368-71.

2 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940), p. 121.

3 Most of this material was excerpted from John Weldon’s 1987 notes in Dr. Harold Lindsell’s class on Church History at Simon Greenleaf University, Anaheim, CA.

4 Hans Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1972), p. 215, and passim.

InPlainSite Footnote Upon the historic truth of Peter's visit to Rome... Although we may accept it as certain that he did visit Rome, and that he met his death there, it is no less certain that he did not reach there until late in the reign of Nero. The tradition that he was for twenty-five years bishop of Rome is first recorded by Jerome (de vir. ill. c. 1), and since his time has been almost universally accepted in the Roman Catholic Church, though in recent years many more candid scholars of that communion acknowledge that so long an episcopate there is a fiction.

The tradition undoubtedly took its rise from the statement of Justin Martyr that Simon Magus came to Rome during the reign of Claudius. Tradition, in the time of Eusebius, commonly connected the Roman visits of Simon and of Peter; and consequently Eusebius, accepting the earlier date for Simon's arrival in Rome, quite naturally assumed also the same date for Peter's arrival there, although Justin does not mention Peter in connection with Simon in the passage which Eusebius quotes. The assumption that Peter took up his residence in Rome during the reign of Claudius contradicts all that we know of Peter's later life from the New Testament and from other early writers. In 44 a.d. he was in Jerusalem (according to Acts xii. 3); in 51 he was again there (according to Acts xv.); and a little later in Antioch (according to Gal. i. 11 sq.). Moreover, at some time during his life he labored in various provinces in Asia Minor, as we learn from his first epistle, and probably wrote that epistle from Babylon on the Euphrates (see chap. 15, note 7). At any rate, he cannot have been in Rome when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans (57 or 58 a.d.), for no mention is made of him among the brethren to whom greetings are sent. Nor can he have been there when Paul wrote from Rome during his captivity (61 or 62 to 63 or 64 a.d.). We have, in fact, no trace of him in Rome, except the extra-Biblical but well-founded tradition (see chap. 25, note 7) that he met his death there. We may assume, then, that he did not reach Rome at any rate until shortly before his death; that is, shortly before the summer of 64 a.d.

Neither Paul nor Peter founded the Roman church in the strict sense, for there was a congregation of believers there even before Paul came to Rome, as his Epistle to the Romans shows, and Peter cannot have reached there until some time after Paul.

According to an ancient tradition, Peter was crucified upon the hill of Janiculum, near the Vatican, where the Church of San Pietro in Montorio now stands, and the hole in which his cross stood is still shown to the trustful visitor. A more probable tradition makes the scene of execution the Vatican hill, where Nero's circus was, and where the persecution took place. Baronius makes the whole ridge on the right bank of the Tiber one hill, and thus reconciles the two traditions. In the fourth century the remains of Peter were transferred from the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (where they are said to have been interred in 258 a.d.) to the Basilica of St. Peter, which occupied the sight of the present basilica on the Vatican. (The Church History of Eusebius. www.ccel.org)



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