From Peter to Francis: A Biblically misguided route?

The good folks over at The Gospel Coalition have what I think is a rather misguided post regarding the papacy, by a Mr. Augustus Lopes. The article follows, along with my comments (which are in no way exhaustive).

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to replace him brings up, once again, the Roman Catholic claim that the pope is the successor of the apostle Peter as the head of the church of Jesus Christ here on earth. To the Catholic, Francis now sits on Peter’s throne. The first question to be determined, of course, is: Did Peter have a throne? If he really was the early church’s proto-pope, then it’s reasonable to assume he had a throne—or at least something like it. 

Really? I don’t know anyone who regularly refers to the Pope’s “throne”. Rather, it’s called the “seat” or cathedra, something which every bishop, as a successor to the Apostles, has, whence the term “cathedral,” as the church where the bishop resides, or exercises his office.

But since they seem set on this idea- “To the Catholic, Francis now sits on Peter’s throne”- let’s see what the Church actually has to say on the topic of thrones. Cue the Catechism:

331 Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels: “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him.” They belong to him because they were created through and for him: “for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” They belong to him still more because he has made them messengers of his saving plan: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?”

So this one is just a reference to one of the types of angels.

1137 The book of Revelation of St. John, read in the Church’s liturgy, first reveals to us, “A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne”: “the Lord God.” It then shows the Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain”: Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one “who offers and is offered, who gives and is given.” Finally it presents “the river of the water of life . . . flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” one of most beautiful symbols of the Holy Spirit.

These are quotes from Revelation, which all refer to God as the one seated on the throne.

2642 The Revelation of “what must soon take place,” the Apocalypse, is borne along by the songs of the heavenly liturgy but also by the intercession of the “witnesses” (martyrs). The prophets and the saints, all those who were slain on earth for their witness to Jesus, the vast throng of those who, having come through the great tribulation, have gone before us into the Kingdom, all sing the praise and glory of him who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb. In communion with them, the Church on earth also sings these songs with faith in the midst of trial. By means of petition and intercession, faith hopes against all hope and gives thanks to the “Father of lights,” from whom “every perfect gift” comes down. Thus faith is pure praise. 

Again, God is the one on the throne.

And now, what of Scripture? Or, more specifically, what says Christ?

  • Mt. 19:28 ” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
  • Similarly, Lk. 22:30 “that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
  • Rev. 3:21 “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
  • Rev. 4:4 ” Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.”
  • Along with many other mentions of thrones, most of which are in reference to God’s Kingship, or to some earthly king.
What do we see here? God does not keep His glory to Himself. He generously shares all He has with those who love Him. But in particular, He promises His twelve Apostles each a throne in Heaven, seemingly fulfilled in Revelation, upon which they will judge with Him.

Obviously, these heavenly “thrones” may be interpreted in a manner other than physical thrones. But they nevertheless carry clear connotations of honour and authority. So it would seem that Peter does, in fact, have a throne. Now some may object that all the Apostles are said to have these thrones, so there is nothing unique about Peter, but bear with me. I’ll get to that.

And if he left a successor, who in turn left a successor and so on, then I suppose it’s reasonable to say Francis is now the throne’s rightful owner. This is the first question to consider since the mere fact of the office’s existence deserves to be examined in light of the Word of God. After all, Catholics and Protestants take Scripture to be authoritative and infallible. [I’m glad he recognises this!] A concept with such incredible import, then, must have some kind of biblical foundation. But does it? 

To be fair, it’s true the Lord Jesus distinguished Peter from the other disciples on several occasions. He was among the first to be called (Matt. 4:18) and his name always appears first on lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:2, Mark 3:16). Jesus includes him among his closest disciples (Matt. 17:1). It was to Peter that Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), and it was to Peter that he spoke the famous words: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:18-19).

Not many are willing to admit this, so kudos to Mr. Lopes for doing so!

However, it’s not apparent in Scripture or church history that Peter had pre-eminence over his colleagues or other Christians. 

Ah, but good sir, I beg to differ. 

Firstly, I don’t think it makes much sense to say that Jesus clearly gave Peter a clear leading role among the Apostles, but then simultaneously say that he didn’t have pre-eminence. That’s what leadership means- to be in a position of guidance, which requires authority of some kind. The same concept is employed in the appointment of leaders/ elders/ priests/ pastors/ whatever you’d like to call them found in just about all Christian churches. They cannot function in their role as shepherds if the congregation do not look to them for guidance, to make decisions, and expect people to listen and even, at time, obey. Why is such a role so acceptable in a small, local church, but so unthinkable for the Church as a whole?

Now, as to whether Scripture more explicitly connects this leadership with a unique role, consider the following:

  • Lk. 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” 
    • what’s interesting about this is that the first you is plural in the Greek, while the others are singular. What does this mean? It means that Jesus is saying that although Satan wants to overcome all of Jesus’ Apostles, Jesus prayed especially for Peter, so that Peter might be the means that Jesus uses to strengthen the rest. 
  • Mr Lopes cites the famous Mt. 16:18-19. There is much I could say about this, but for now I will settle with pointing out one small thing, and suggesting Steve Ray’s EXCELLENT book Upon this Rock.
    • whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”- this phrase is found also in Mt. 18:18, this time addressed to all of the Apostles, rather than only Peter. What is conspicuously missing, however, is the giving of the keys. As Ray argues rather excellently in his book, along with Scott Hahn (here and, in more detail, here), is that this giving of the keys signified Peter as the Steward of the new Davidic King (obviously Jesus), such that an office of primacy was established among the Apostles, an office intimately tied to the stability of the Church (“upon this rock I will build my Church”, punning on Peter’s new name, Cephas). 

It’s also not apparent that his fellow apostles, other local churches, or even Peter himself recognized his role in the church as exclusive in its representation of Jesus Christ. Certainly he was respected and revered as a leader, but these readily admitted realities do nothing to bolster Rome’s contention that the pope functions as an infallible mouthpiece of God.

The Bible is clear on this point. The apostle Paul felt perfectly comfortable confronting and scolding Peter publicly when he acted improperly toward Gentile believers in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Moreover, it was the apostle James—not Peter—who served as the leader at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and when a decision was made it was sent on behalf of the “apostles and elders.” Clearly, first-century Christians didn’t esteem Peter in a separate category.

Here is the classic failure to distinguish between infallibility and impeccability. The Church teaches only that the Pope is infallible, not impeccable, which means that She believes only that when he speaks on matters of faith and morals, in quite specific circumstances, deliberately exercising his full authority, then the Holy Spirit will preserve him from teaching error. This is quite a different thing to all the Church’s disciplines being completely prudent, or even to the Pope’s behaviour being perfect (impeccibility). If the Pope was to become impeccable, he’d become sinless, which doesn’t really help the Church’s mission all that much, practically speaking. 

Anyway, the point is, that the Catholic understanding of the Papacy is no way inconsistent with the example cited, namely Paul’s criticism of Peter’s behaviour. But consider also, what did Paul do after his profound conversion experience? He didn’t begin preaching immediately. He first went away to Arabia and Damascus, presumably to reflect on what on earth had just happened to him and process it all, then who does he go and see? Not just any of the Apostles: he goes to see Cephas, and remains with him for 15 days. The only other Apostle he sees is James, but it sounds as though that is incidental, and the one he really went to see was Peter. (Gal. 1:18) Only after this did he begin to preach.

What of the Council of Jerusalem? I would draw your attention to several things: 

  • We are told that the Apostles and elders gathered. This sounds just like one of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. The role of Peter is not to do away with his brethren, but to unify and strengthen them. The Church, to this day, operates in this way, as the College of Bishops still exists, along with their leader, the Bishop of Rome.
  • “after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said… all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” When Peter spoke, everyone else shut up, and only after he had spoken, did they listen to the experiences of Barnabus and Paul, as evidence backing up Peter’s pronouncement.
  • In the letter they say ” it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord.” How did they come to one accord? After Peter spoke, there was no more argument (none recorded, at any rate). This is not how it generally works in practice, but the point is clear: Peter spoke with serious authority, and the Church was brought into unity of mind. (I have written on the necessity of the Pope for unity before).
  • In summary, if one looks at how the Church really functions today, and has always functioned, there is no conflict, and in fact great harmony, with the Council of Jerusalem.

Matthew’s Gospel corroborates this point, such that Jesus’ promises to Peter were never understood as an exclusive delegation to Peter alone. In fact, just a few chapters later Matthew applies the same responsibility to the entire congregation:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt. 18:15-18)

I have dealt with the difference between Mt. 16 and Mt. 18 above already.

It’s instructive to note how Paul viewed Peter. Along with Apollos and himself, Paul views Peter as a mere instrument through which God accomplishes his work (1 Cor. 3:22). [I’m pretty sure that’s what the Pope is, just like any of us. We are all brushes in the hand of the Great Artist.] He certainly recognizes Peter as a leader in the Jerusalem church—but among other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19). He mentions they were pillars of the church, but then proceeds to narrate the episode in which he openly confronted Peter (Gal. 2:11). Quite revealing is what Paul writes about his own calling: “For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:8). According to Paul, then, the same Spirit enables these two apostles; no apostolic hierarchy exists. [Just because it is the same Spirit working in the two Apostles, in no way implies that there is no hierarchy. Paul makes quite plain in 1 Corinthians that the Body of Christ has many parts, corresponding to different individuals with different roles, and different gifts in accordance with those roles.]

Indeed, not even Peter saw himself as a primus inter pares. When he entered Cornelius’s house to preach the gospel, the Roman centurion knelt before him in devotion. Peter, however, eschews the response: “Arise, I also am a man” (Acts 10:26). [Devotion or reverence and worship are quite different things. The centurion is engaging in the latter when he kneels (this is said explicitly in Acts 10:25), and it for this reason that Peter tells him to rise. Somehow the man made it clear that he was treating him as though he were God, and it is this that Peter objected to, not merely kneeling in itself.] It seems no one in the first century—not even Peter himself—assumed Jesus intended him to be the unique intermediary on which the Christian church through all time would be built. 

How Did God Preserve the Gospel?

This introduces a second question: Is there such a thing as legitimate Petrine succession? Here, it’s apt to quote Peter’s own words. In 2 Peter 1, aware of his impending death, he exhorts Christians to guard the memory of the gospel that the apostles had preached to them. And how does he do this? Not by pointing to a supreme successor, but by recording truth in the sacred pages of Scripture.

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:19-21)

I’m not sure how this relates to preserving the Gospel. Firstly, I’m not convinced that Peter could have possibly been referring to Scripture as the author understands it, because it simply didn’t exist at the time. The New Testament wasn’t even completed! Secondly, he says this in the context of being wary of false teachers. Who are false teachers? Those who preach their “own interpretation,” contrary to what the Apostles meant in their preaching or writing. The essence of Protestantism is individual interpretation, which has led to a multitude of contradictory positions on all possible aspects of the gospel, precisely the thing that Peter wanted to warn against, I think. Thirdly, here’s a question: was Peter infallible when he wrote these letters? If so (as were all the other sacred authors, no doubt), why is the concept of God preserving men from error in teaching such an inconceivable idea?

So how did God design the preservation of his gospel? The answer isn’t through a pope or person, but through a book written over centuries by persons “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” [Actually I think he refers more to the spoken word than the written word in v.21.] God’s trustworthy revelation in the gospel is preserved via the infallible, authoritative Word. It’s clear Peter desires to leave a legacy, which these letters are sufficient to do as they keep Christians aware of all God desired them—and us—to know. There’s no notion here of an eventual replacement, of someone taking his place to pass on to other successors the treasure of the Christian faith. [It may not be here, but why is this the only place it could be found?]

Put simply, I don’t question Francis as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor do I question him as the legitimate papal successor to Benedict XVI. What I do question is any understanding of Christianity that puts forward Francis, Peter, or any other man as the exclusive, infallible head of the church—Christ’s vicar with unique status before God.

A final point:
Peter died around 67 AD. John died sometime in the 90s. That’s a solid twenty years. Where are the condemnations one would expect from John, or any other Apostles still around, regarding those who apparently claimed to be Peter’s successors? And why was the early Church fine with all this? Because, I think, that the notion of succession has clear roots in the Old Testament, and was clearly established by Jesus Himself, and by His Apostles. Such a claim requires more evidence than I have time to provide right now, but some of it is above.

I would like to conclude by thanking Mr. Lopes for his article, it’s great to see people engaging with this important Catholic doctrine.



One thought on “From Peter to Francis: A Biblically misguided route?

  1. […] On Carpe Veritatem, Monica covers a wide range of topics and has some fantastic links. Some of my personal faves have been her posts on re-arranging all the mysteries of the Rosary, the errors of compartmentalisation in education, and a particularly comprehensive take-down of The Gospel’s Coalition article on the papacy. […]

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