How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?-Part 1
By: Dr. John Weldon
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004|
|Is there biblical evidence that Peter was appointed Pope by Jesus? Is there biblical or historical information to show that he ever actually help held the position of Pope?|
- 1 Brief of Issues
- 2 How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?
- 3 Notes
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 pro‑nounce 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.”
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.
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.
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 salvation 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 disappointed…. 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 reputation (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 circumcised, 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 (2 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 defense? 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.
- Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), p. 8.
- Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 279, citing Vatican I.
- Henry T. Hudson, Papal Power (Welwyn, Hertforshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1981), pp. 99, 106.
- Most of this was taken from a lecture by Dr. Francis Schaeffer.