Was Peter the first Pope?

Update:  As you may notice in the comments, this post was included in a Patristic Carnival at another blog.  To those who have found your way here via that link, welcome.

I had some great comments and discussion on the first post about what the Church should look like.  But one of them spurred some serious thinking.  I was discussing this with GregF in that comment thread and he asked a very good question:

The question then is: After the close of the apostolic age, who did have the authority to speak for God in any given city where the Church existed?

By my reading of the available literature, commonly called the writings of the Early Church Fathers, I think the person with that authority is the senior Christian in that city (the bishop).

I answered with a couple of musings in the comments, but this set off a deeper look.  If Peter was indeed given preference by the rest of the Apostles, there are a couple of things that must be dealt with.  Firstly, why was James the one who stated the final solution in Acts 15?  Shouldn’t this have been Peter?  If Peter was in the room and was the ultimate authority(Papal infallibility and ex cathedra are asserted to have always existed as far as I know); he should have been the one to do this.  I have always been taught that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, but that would have made him the leader while Peter was there as well.  I have never thought to ask the question before and haven’t found a ready answer, so I would be willing to hear some other points of view on this one.

The second question comes from Peter’s own attitude of his status.  As you read his epistles, you don’t see any special claim of authority or “primacy” to use the Catholic term.  Quite the contrary.  In 1 Peter 5:1 it says this:

1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

This doesn’t have any hint of authority in it.  Phrases like “a fellow elder” and “share in the glory” don’t lend themselves to a view of being “Prince of the Apostles”.  If Peter was seen as this original papal figure, why did he have to defend his own actions in Acts 11?  There are more questions like this, but no answers that satisfy.  It strikes at the heart of the authority question that was raised in the earlier dialog.  I say that Christ is the authority and no man on earth can usurp His place.

Categories: Apologetics, Christianity, church | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Was Peter the first Pope?

  1. I have to be brief since I’m working on the patristic carnival tonight (and I will include a link to your post in it. should be up tomorrow):

    1. Peter was the one who ruled in Acts 15. That James spoke last doesn’t diminish Peter’s role, in fact James affirms it by his words. Petrine Primacy doesn’t mean that no other apostles would dare speak in his presence. It just means that (in the words of one famous Man from Galilee), the Church would be built on him.

    2. The James in Acts 15 is not the same James as the bishop of Jerusalem. The fathers refer to the bishop of Jerusalem as the “brother of the Lord”, the James in Acts 15 is the brother of John, son of Zebedee.

    3. Peter was in Rome early according to Euesbius about 42 AD. He did not stay though, 49/50AD for the council of Jerusalem would have been a return trip.

    I would recommend reading “Upon This Rock” by Stephen Ray. Anyway, look for the patristic carnival tomorrow you will enjoy it I think.

  2. Tim,
    Thanks for your comments. I have a couple of questions for you as your statements seem to go beyond what the text actually says in Acts 15. Peter’s only statement in the passage is his testimony about God pouring the Holy Spirit out on the Gentiles that he was sent to meet with. How can you say that he is the one who made the ruling? Additionally, there is nothing in the text to distinguish which James is speaking that I can see. How can you be certain which James it is? Wouldn’t it make more sense for this to be the James who is leading the church in Jerusalem? If I am missing some clues in the text it is not on purpose, please let me know.

    The second question comes from Peter’s own statements from 1 Peter. He is writing this epistle to Jewish believers (1 Peter 1:1 refers to the Diaspora), and furthermore calls himself a “fellow elder”. He seems to have taken well the lesson that Jesus gave to His disciples in Matthew 23:8-10

    8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.

    My point in all this is to say that it appears Peter himself didn’t consider his position to be above that of the other apostles. There is no evidence that I have found to suggest otherwise. I appreciate the book recommendation and will try and get to it sometime when I am not buried in schoolbooks.
    Thanks also for the inclusion in the carnival. I looked at your site and it sounds very interesting.

  3. Now that I finished the carnival I have some more time. I don’t intend to convince you that Peter was “the pope” per se or that “the pope” as it exists today looked the same in the first century.

    In reading this passage, I haven’t actually studied any Catholic rebuttals on the charge from James so I’m just speaking out of my own opinions here. But the account in Acts is a tiny summary of what actually took place. What it looks like to me is that there was quite a fuss over the decision and then Peter stood up, and argued persuasively and spoke for the Church “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

    That James formalized the findings of the council does not lessen Peter’s authority. Consider any modern council, does the president normally formalize the findings? Rarely. In fact, I don’t know of any. Why would we expect it to be so different for the disciples?

    But supposing that if Peter had been the one to formalize the findings at the end instead of James, would that be evidence in your mind that Peter was the head of the apostles?

    If not, then what difference does it make?

    But if so, then wouldn’t it also be evidence that James was the head of the apostles?

    As for James, I got my chronology confused. James the brother of John was already dead at this point so I concede that this was probably James the brother of the Lord. And in which case, you’re right, it would make perfect sense for him to formalize the findings even with Peter present.

    I don’t think it argues against Peter’s primacy to state that in this one case a doctrine has been formalized by someone else while he was in the room especially when considering the following:

    1. It referred and appealed to the theology Peter had just argued for
    2. Peter was not the resident bishop of Jerusalem
    3. Peter was the one who originally allowed Gentiles to be baptized etc..
    4. It was to Peter that Gentile inclusion had been divinely revealed

    Now remember, I’m not arguing that Peter was “pope” here, I’m just arguing that the Jerusalem council does not argue against Peter’s primacy, if anything it affirms it. His pride of place among the apostles has never been challenged even by early heretics like Tertullian who denied the Papal primacy.

    What the Jerusalem Council does tell us though, is that the Church was authoritative and visible. She was so visible that you could draw a map to her location (and Paul & Barnabas did just that). They knew where to find the Church, they knew how to know for certain what the Church taught about this issue. They didn’t bury their noses in the Bible and argue, they went to the Church.

    We have several modern options regarding this.

    1. That Church no longer exists.
    2. She exists but became corrupted and needed to be rebuilt
    3. She exists and is still authoritative

    1 & 2 contradict the clear teachings of Christ regarding the Church. If we choose 3 though, we must be able to identify a universal Church with those same characteristics. I.E. we can draw a map to her (we know where she is and how to reach her – she’s not a mystical body in the sky) and she is in communion with the succession of St. Peter and the apostles. There is only one Church that has any legitimate claim to fill this shoes.

  4. Tim,
    Thanks again for your response. I very much appreciate the dialogue and the chance to ask and maybe answer some questions to gain clearer understanding of one another’s beliefs and I am going to check out some of the links in your carnival after I post this reply.
    Actually, I think I might not be communicating this point about authority clearly enough yet. My point in the story from Acts 15 is that no “one” person appears to have authority over any of the others at least between Peter, Paul and Barnabas and James. There is a discussion here between several leaders who all offer their own personal testimony. Peter is the first one recorded speaking the case, but that is not unusual (Peter was almost always the first one to open his mouth in the Gospels too). What we see is Peter giving testimony to what God has done, then Paul and Barnabas giving testimony to what God has done and then James wrapping it up by quoting from Scripture to support the validity of their testimonies and issuing a statement regarding the decision that the Holy Spirit(v.28 ) has helped them to reach. The only authority in this setting is God Himself through His work in their lives and the Word of God and the insight given to them by the Holy Spirit. None of this is lacking in the church at any time in any era of its history. By your statement it would appear that we should be in submission to the church in Jerusalem, since that is where they went (even Peter). In fact the main reason they went to Jerusalem for this meeting is because the Jerusalem church was responsible for the problem that created the issue in the first place(Acts 15:1)

    I believe your options regarding the authority of the Church to be incomplete. You offer three options and quickly discard the first two. I also agree with you that option one and option two are not tenable in view of Scripture. The third option in my opinion is not compatible with Scripture either as the Church is not intended to be God’s Authority on earth. At best, the Church is God’s steward who is able to operate on His behalf, but always according to His direction. In 1 Peter 2, we see a great picture of the scope of this. I don’t want to quote the whole thing here but let me hit the highlights. Starting in verse 4, he builds an analogy of the church as living stones with Christ interestingly enough as the cornerstone(the stone that holds up the building). He even references Christ as the “rock” in verse 8 using the same Greek word that Christ used in Matthew 16:18(which the Catholic Church states is Peter). He further describes the whole Church as God’s people and priests, echoing covenant terminology from the Old Testament and indeed quoting heavily from the OT. He actually mentions the idea of each one of us being “stewards” of God’s grace(1 Peter 4:10). When he does get around to talking about authority, he tells us to submit to human governmental authority, but says nothing of Church authority. In fact in chapter five he talks about church leadership, but makes it clear that it is all done as brothers and calls himself a “fellow-leader” and a “sharer”.

    When the Church in any form attempts to elevate itself as the authority of God over even His Word there will be problems. The best picture of this ironically comes from the US Supreme Court. A group of nine has been given the “authority” to decisively say what a written document, The US Constitution, says. We frequently find them creating “rights” and “laws” where none exist. Just this past week they managed to decide that the plain language of the 2nd Amendment really meant what it says, but we haven’t been so lucky in the past.

    In light of this let me propose another possible option for the Church. The Church exists wherever God is allowed to rule and lead His people that He has called and chosen. A people who follow Christ and are led by the Holy Spirit into all truth(2 Timothy 2:24-26). Christ is the Head of the Church and He alone has all authority over it.

  5. I think we are too far away from each other theologically and ecclesiologically for this discussion to go anywhere. It takes some common ground to move forward I think and I’m afraid we just don’t have enough (on this topic) at this point in time.

    I think these are good questions though and all worth pondering and I anticipate that we’ll have more interaction in the future!

  6. Tim,
    While you are probably right about the distance between us on this issue, I have a question for you. I see from reading that you were PCA before converting. Did you also believe that the PCA church had/has authority to speak for Scripture? I am genuinely curious, since I am not sure how they view this.

  7. Well, that’s a complicated question. Most reformed Christians would say yes, it is the Church’s prerogative to interpret Scripture not the individual. But it is rather circular since the definition of “Church” itself depends on the individual’s opinion.

    When I was a Protestant in the PCA, I started realizing that modern Christianity made a lot of serious extra-biblical claims. The canon itself for example, how on earth could a group of ordinary men decide which books are Scripture and which aren’t? If mere men could decide which books, can I, as a man, not disagree? To borrow from Cardinal Newman, assuredness is nothing if its based on a guess. Whereas R. C. Sproul calls the canon “a fallible collection of infallible books”, Newman mocks this attitude by saying “I’m sure because I suppose so”.

    Or closer to home, what were the findings of the Jerusalem council? Gentiles don’t have to be Jews but they still have to keep the Kosher laws on abstaining from blood.

    Now you and I don’t follow those laws. You and I reject the council here (I am assuming that you don’t have your meat prepared by a kosher butcher… ) Why do we do that? On what authority can we say we are allowed to do that?

    It was when I started asking these questions that I realized the PCA was unable to answer them. And as much as I hated it at first, I came to realize that for 2,000 years, the Catholic Church had the answers to these questions and to many others I had yet to ask.

  8. Oops, that wasn’t supposed to be a wink. I just inadvertently violated my own law of proper internet communication!

  9. Tim,
    Have no worries about the “wink”. WordPress does odd things sometimes and the emoticons can be annoying. I had to fix a comment last night of my own because it ended up with a guy in sunglasses. I went in and fixed yours so it would disappear as well. I hope you don’t mind me doing that.
    Thanks for your answer. It is interesting to see what another person’s thought processes are in different areas. I had some questions that arose regarding canon as well back when I was studying church history for college. My conclusion was that God has within His sovereign power the means to insure that His Word is set forth the way He wants it to be. I figured that through the Holy Spirit, these ordinary men were able to arrive at the correct decision. My confidence in the Word of God as it has been canonized is based on my faith in the providence of God Himself. I am sure that yours is as well, it is just that you see the Church as His instrument to bring this about.
    One other comment about the kosher question from Acts 15. The decision made by that council was to harmonize relations between believing Gentiles and Jews. I don’t worry about kosher meat as a rule because of Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 and such and I don’t spend a lot of time with Jewish people. If I were to find myself in a situation with a Messianic Jewish congregation then I would indeed abide by the decision they reached so as not to offend my brothers and sisters. I have actually been doing a lot of study in the Hebraic roots movement in Christianity and have a lot of new found love and affection for them.

  10. Well I don’t mean kosher meats in general, I just mean blood. That’s what the council said we couldn’t eat.

    You’re right about my belief of the Church being used as God’s instrument in defining the canon but if your opinion is right, why did God’s providence not prevail for the first 1500 years of Christianity? You know until Martin Luther, the Church always had the 7 deutero-canonical books and the last chapter of Daniel in the canon. So how do you know that the majority of Christian martyrs and saints were operating under a false bible and that Luther alone was used as God’s primary instrument in forming the canon?

    If Christianity is a religion of the book as Protestants insist, why did God let Christianity go on for so long (most of her existence) without actually having the canon correct?

    And this all goes back to Newman’s statement. You are trusting that God used these men to form the Bible (and you might be right) but we have little to no assuredness of this (if they were just a group of ordinary men). So we couldn’t really have full faith in the canon. We’d be “sure” because we “supposed so”.

    If, on the other hand, the ones at the council of Rome & Carthage and subsequently Trent were not just ordinary men like you and I but represented an institution in direct succession from apostles appointed by Christ as His Church (His Body), then we can indeed be sure of this canon (that is, the 73 books of the Bible not the 66 books of Luther’s canon). But I can think of no reason whatsoever to trust Luther or the Westminster Confession of Faith with that same level of trust. This is pretty big stuff here, which body of men can we trust here?

    Or rather, which body of men is God working through? Well what did Christ say about the Church? Remember He only mentioned it twice. Once, he said it would be built on Peter and the other time He spoke of it as being a visible, authoritative body.

    The body which chose the 73 books was in communion with Peter’s successor, neither Luther or the WCF were. Furthermore, the Catholic Church which held the councils of Rome, Carthage and Trent were all part of a continuous, visible, authoritative Church that dates back to Pentecost. Luther’s ecclesial community and its traditions started with him.

    These are some of the big reasons I decided to trust the Catholic Church. I cannot put my trust in ordinary men which is sort of ironic. Many people accuse the Catholics of trusting in ordinary men; I became Catholic precisely because I couldn’t do that. But when we put our trust in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, we’re not putting our trust in “the Scriptures” or in God. We’re trusting in the ordinary men who came up with that list. In fact, we’re trusting them to have infallibly chosen the books. So, Protestants already have infallible trust for certain men on certain occasion but they mock the Catholic doctrine of infallibility of the papal teachings. We have reason to believe that the pope would not be allowed to lead the Church astray doctrinally (it might be wrong but we at least have reasons) but we don’t have any reason to believe the same for those who chose the 66 books of the Protestant bible.

    I know this is probably more than you asked for in the reply! Once I get going I find it hard to shutup. Anyway, it boils down to this. We have to put our trust in one group of men. Either the reformers or the Catholic Church. The reformers have no link to the apostles but the Catholic Church has an unbroken one.

  11. Tim,
    Thanks again for the excellent response. I appreciate the questions and the thinking that they require.
    Firstly as a last word about the blood thing. Interestingly enough, this abstention from blood reiterates the Noahic covenant with God from Genesis. And I like my steaks medium well or well done with no pink.

    I think regarding the canon however that you may have missed my meaning. I have no faith whatsoever in the men who made the decision. I have total faith in the God who directed them through the Holy Spirit. Let me also point out to you the Jerome had initially rejected the 7 books you mention in the 400’s when he was working on the Vulgate. You may not have been aware of this fact, but it is true. He had good reasons for rejecting them, mainly because they didn’t exist in the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. So it would be incorrect to say that the church always used these books. Jerome actually didn’t believe them to be scripture either:

    “As the Church reads the books of Judith and Tobit and Maccabees but does not receive them among the canonical Scriptures, so also it reads Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus for the edification of the people, not for the authoritative confirmation of doctrine.”

    You ask two other questions that deserve a good answer, and I will attempt to do so as best I can.

    If Christianity is a religion of the book as Protestants insist, why did God let Christianity go on for so long (most of her existence) without actually having the canon correct?

    From the Bible it is apparent that God is far more gracious and forgiving than we ever give Him credit for. He is committed to working through imperfect people in imperfect ways as every turn it seems. He uses a lying, thieving, scoundrel as the father of the twelve tribes of His chosen people. He uses a stuttering, cowardly guy who wouldn’t take the job until God said his brother could help him to liberate His people from Egypt. He used a donkey to rebuke a prophet who should have known better. He used another coward hiding in a winepress to defeat an army with a handful of men. He used a swaggering womanizer, who never met a vow he couldn’t break. The list goes on. When we come to the New Testament it is the same story. He picks some of the loudest and most obnoxious guys as disciples. He even picks one who He knows will betray Him, because that’s how He said it had to be. He essentially let the apostles “throw dice” to pick the replacement apostle. And he picked up a murderer to act as His apostle to the Gentiles. (Which raises an interesting question, did the apostles jump the gun on God when they picked a replacement this way? ) Even if someone is using 73 books instead of 66 or the other way around God is still able to speak to them. It isn’t as though we are talking about two completely different Scriptures that don’t say the same thing. My point in all of this is simply to say that God has always been able to accomplish His plan with “ordinary” men no matter what they do or understand. They have never been perfect or infallible and frankly God is big enough to handle that and make it work.

    Or rather, which body of men is God working through? Well what did Christ say about the Church? Remember He only mentioned it twice. Once, he said it would be built on Peter and the other time He spoke of it as being a visible, authoritative body.

    This statement confuses me a bit. I don’t remember God only mentioning the Church twice. Revelation alone contains addresses to several churches, but I will get to that in a minute. I want to address this idea of the church being built on Peter. In 1 Peter 2, Peter talks about the church being composed of living stones, which is an interesting analogy to use for him. He quotes several Old Testament verses about Christ that teach that Christ is the cornerstone. The cornerstone is of course the stone that the building depends on as a reference. All stones are laid based upon this stone. Peter here is saying that Christ is that cornerstone and I am sure you will agree that He is the foundation of the Church. But Peter does something very interesting in verse 8 of chapter 2. He quotes another verse about Christ and refers to Christ as a “rock” using the very same Greek word that Christ used in Matthew. It is hard from reading Scripture, especially Peter’s own words to get any sense that he saw himself in this same “foundational” sense that the Catholic Church portrays him in today. The Church must be built on Christ as its only foundation( 1 Corinthians 3:11 and 1 Peter 2:6 ).
    I don’t know what you are referencing when you talk about the mention of visible authority. Is it Matthew 18 by chance? Can you supply me with the Scripture you are referring to?
    I also wanted to point out that God addresses His church in seven different cities in Revelation. Since I believe these were actually written to real churches, it is interesting to note two things. First, Christ addresses the churches directly as their Head. Secondly, He is the one that will deal with the churches if they are disobedient. There is no mention here of corrective actions from an authoritative church leader, simply the authority of the One who gave His life for the Church and loves it more than anyone ( Ephesians 5:25 )
    I hope you can see from my responses. I don’t put my trust in any man. Men are ultimately untrustworthy, including myself. I instead wish to point men to God and to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2 ), rather than any institution, no matter how great its history or present.
    And lastly, don’t think you are the only one that can ramble. This thing is so long I probably should have made it into a regular post. I might even do that anyway. I for one appreciate the passion and the discussion. I consider you my brother in the Lord (1 John 5) and love you as such. Thanks for finding me here and taking the time to share your thoughts. I enjoy the discussion very much.

  12. I should have been clearer. I meant Jesus only mentioned the Church twice in the gospels. Matthew 16 & 18.

    I’m aware of St. Jerome’s initial opinion on the matter but Jerome isn’t the magisterium. In fact, he submitted himself and his opinion to the authority of the Church which is what Luther did not do. That’s why Jerome was a Catholic. Before Jerome there were lots of different canons. LOTS of them. Almost every saint had their own opinion of what it was. Most of them included the Deutero Canonical books, some didn’t. Most of them questioned the authority of several NT books we now accept. Some didn’t. The point is there was a huge variety of opinions on this matter. Only the Catholic Church could authoritatively decide the canon.

    Christ is the head of the Church of course. But then why do we have pastors of individual parishes? Does your community have a pastor? If a small group of Christians needs a pastor, why doesn’t the whole Church need one? If small groups can’t function without leadership, how on earth can large groups do so?

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on a few points. But thanks for the civil discussion and I’m glad we could have it without any animosity.

    God bless.

  13. Tim,
    I always understood the messages in Revelation 2 and 3 to be directly from Jesus to those churches. In the red letter editions I have seen those passages are usually in red letters if memory serves. That doesn’t make it so necessarily, but I think there is good reason to include those as Jesus speaking about the church as well.

    Matthew 18 is interesting(I assume you are referring to verses 15-19) because while the situation mentions the church, it begins with two people who should be able to work it out themselves. Then a couple of more people are to get involved. After that it is the “community of believers” the church or ekklesia (literally an assembly) who are then to take action as a unified group of people. There is no hint in this passage of a singular church “head” taking this action. This is a progression of dealing with a situation that happens in real life. I say this with great conviction, since I lived this very process the last two days. Stage one (verse 15 )didn’t work and stage two (verse 16 ) is yet to come. Stage three (verse 17 )will be interesting if it comes to that because it involves someone who attends the church but isn’t a “member”. The word used for church in verse 17 is never used in a sense of a “singular”. It is by its very definition a group of people united together acting as a “group”.

    One other word about the Deutero Canonical books. All seven of the books in dispute in this case are books that are properly classified with the Old Testament, but none of them are included by the Jewish Authorities in their Scriptures. Now Jesus said that the Jewish Authorities actually did have authority given to them by God through Moses (Matthew 23:1-3) If God’s earlier authority did not include them in Scripture, why would He contradict that? If it is a question of who made the error, then we have an interesting problem. The section of the canon that we are discussing was under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin. They didn’t include those books. If the Catholic Church’s claim to be God’s authority for the New Testament is valid, why is it allowed to overrule God’s earlier decision regarding the Tanakh, or Hebrew Scriptures that we know as the Old Testament? I don’t know if you have ever thought about it this way. I certainly hadn’t until this discussion. But this goes to the heart of the Catholic Church’s claims. God doesn’t change. His Word doesn’t change. How can this be reconciled? I am genuinely curious. If you know someone who has addressed this issue, please let me know. I am not naive enough to think that I am the first person to ask the question. And I appreciate the help and discussion. I too appreciate the opportunity to discuss our differences in a civil way and learn more about each others views and thoughts.

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