An infallible pope as Peter's successor who holds the keys to heaven as vicar of Christ? Once the boast was that papal pomp and powers were inherited from Constantine. Today it is claimed that Christ's statement to Peter quoted on the facing page made him the first pope, the rock on which the "one true Church" was built, and that all who have followed in that office, no matter how violent or fraudulent their acquisition thereof nor how evil their deeds, have been his successors. The pope's authority today and the Catholic religion over which he presides stand or fall upon that assertion.
The pope is the Church. Without him it couldn't function and wouldn't even exist. Hence the importance of pursuing this subject even further. It matters little what Mr. or Mrs. Average Catholic thinks or does. But the doctrines and deeds of the hierarchy and primarily of the popes make or break the Church. That is where our focus must be, not on the opinions of someone's Catholic neighbor who says he doesn't believe half of what his Church teaches. (Then he shouldn't call himself a Catholic. Why trust a Church for one's eternal salvation if it is not trustworthy in lesser matters?)
What about Christ's statement to Peter "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18)? Protestants argue that there is a play on words in the key verse above: In the Greek, "Peter" is petros, a small stone, while "rock" is the Greek petra, a huge rock like Gibraltar. Such a huge petra could only be Christ Himself and the confession that Jesus is the Christ as Peter had just expressed it.
Modern Catholic apologists respond that Christ was likely speaking Aramaic, which eliminates the play on words and leaves Peter the rock upon which the church was built. That position, however, actually denies one of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, the Tridentine profession of faith. It has required all clergy, since the days of Pope Pius IV (1559-65), to vow to interpret Holy Scripture only in accord with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
The Testimony of the Church Fathers
How did the so-called Church Fathers (the leaders up to the time of Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604) interpret this passage? It so happens that in this regard they are unanimously in agreement with the Protestant position. Not one of them interprets this passage as Catholics are taught to understand it today.
To be in agreement with the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers, a Catholic would have to reject the dogma that Peter was the first pope, that he was infallible, and that he passed his authority on to successors. Devout Catholic historian von Dollinger reminds us of the undeniable facts:
Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matthew 16:18; John 21:17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter's successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess-Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas-has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter!
Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church as the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter's confession of faith in Christ; often both together.2
In other words, contrary to what the average Catholic has been told, the so-called Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church stood unanimously against the current Catholic interpretation. And it is a devout Roman Catholic authority on Church history, one who loves his Church, who points out these facts.
Other Catholic historians agree with von Dollinger. Peter de Rosa, also a devout Catholic, just as ably punctures the balloon of papal supremacy and an unbroken line of succession back to Peter:
It may jolt them [Catholics] to hear that the great Fathers of the church saw no connection between it [Mattthew 16:18] and the pope. Not one of them applies "Thou art Peter" to anyone but Peter. One after another they analyse it: Cyprian, Origen, Cyril, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine. They are not exactly Protestants.
Not one of them calls the bishop of Rome a Rock or applies to him specifically the promise of the Keys. This is as staggering to Catholics as if they were to find no mention in the Fathers of the Holy Spirit or the resurrection of the dead....
For the Fathers, it is Peter's faith-or the Lord in whom Peter has faith-which is called the Rock, not Peter. All the Councils of the church from Nicaea in the fourth century to Constance in the fifteenth agree that Christ himself is the only foundation of the church, that is, the Rock on which the church rests.
... not one of the Fathers speaks of a transference of power from Peter to those who succeed him.... There is no hint of an abiding Petrine office.
So the early church did not look on Peter as Bishop of Rome, nor, therefore, did it think that each Bishop of Rome succeeded Peter.... The gospels did not create the papacy; the papacy, once in being, leaned for support on the gospels [though it wasn't there].3
That the popes for centuries relied upon fraudulent documents (The Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals) to justify their pomp and power even after their exposure as deliberate counterfeits betrays how little these "vicars of Christ" cared for truth. It also tells us that in those days the popes didn't rely for justification of their papal authority upon Matthew 16:18 and alleged apostolic succession from Peter, or they would not have needed false documents to authenticate their position. Such an application of "thou art Peter" was invented much later.
Who Is the Rock?
The truth of the matter does not depend upon a disputable interpretation of a few verses but upon the totality of Scripture. God Himself is clearly described as the unfailing "Rock" of our salvation throughout the entire Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:3,4; Psalm 62:1,2; etc.). In fact, the Bible declares that God is the only Rock: "For who is God save [except] the Lord? or who is a rock save [except] our God?" (Psalm 18:31).
The New Testament makes it equally clear that Jesus Christ is the Rock upon which the church is built and that He, being God and one with the Father, is therefore the only Rock. The rock upon which the "wise man built his house" was not Peter but Christ and His teachings (Matthew 7:24-29). Peter himself points out that Christ is the "chief cornerstone" upon which the church is built (1 Peter 2:6-8) and quotes an Old Testament passage to that effect.
Paul likewise calls Christ "the chief cornerstone" of the church and declares that the church is also "built upon the foundation of [all] the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20). That statement clearly denies to Peter any special position in the Church's foundation.
No Unique Promise to Peter
When Christ gave Peter "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19), He explained what that meant: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That same promise was renewed to all of the disciples in Matthew 18:18, as it was in John 20:23, with the special application there to forgiveness of sins.
Clearly the keys of binding and loosing and remitting or retaining sins were Given to all, not just to Peter. Therefore it is unwarranted to claim that Peter had special power and authority over the other apostles. Such a concept cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament and was unknown even in the Roman Catholic Church until centuries later. Peter was given the special privilege of presenting the gospel first to the Jews (Acts 2:14-41) and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-48), but no special authority.
Catholic apologists claim that Christ's words to Peter in John 21:15-17 ("Feed my lambs ... my sheep") gave him unique authority. On the contrary, Peter himself applied that command to all elders (1 Peter 5:2) and so did Paul (Acts 20:28). Again von Dollinger informs us:
None of the ancient confessions of faith, no catechism, none of the patristic writings composed for the instruction of the people, contain a syllable about the Pope, still less any hint that all certainty of faith and doctrine depends on him....
The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as-what is obvious to any one at first sight-they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as any thing peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing....
The power of the keys, or of binding and loosing, was universally held to belong to the other bishops just as much as to the bishop of Rome.4
No Special Power to Peter
The special authority which has been claimed by the Roman Catholic popes as Peter's alleged successors was never exercised by Peter. In his epistles Peter exhorts equals; he does not command subordinates: "The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder" (1 Peter 5:1). He offers as the basis for his writings no official and exalted ecclesiastical position or power. He simply declares himself "a witness of the sufferings of Christ" (1 Peter 5:1) along with all the apostles, who were "eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16). He makes no unique claim for himself, but simply takes his place with the other apostles.
The gathering of "apostles and elders" at Jerusalem around A.D. 45-50 described in Acts 15:4-29 was convened on Paul's initiative, not Peter's. (It was not "the first church council," as some claim. There was no church hierarchy, no delegates from afar, all present being resident in Jerusalem.) Furthermore, it was James and not Peter who seemed to take the leadership. While Peter made an important statement, it was not doctrinal. It was mainly a summation of his experience in first bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. James, however, drew upon the Scriptures and argued from a doctrinal point of view. Moreover, it was James who said, "Wherefore my sentence [judgment] is..." and it was his declaration that became the basis of the official letter sent back to Antioch.
There is no evidence that Peter intimidated others, but James intimidated him. Fear of James and his influence and leadership caused Peter to revert to Jewish traditional separation from Gentiles. As a result, Paul, who wrote far more of the New Testament than Peter and whose ministry was obviously much broader, publicly rebuked Peter for his error (Galatians 2:11-14). Certainly Peter neither acted like a pope nor was so treated by others.
The Apostles' True Successors
Christ told the apostles to make disciples through preaching the gospel. He added that each person who believed the gospel was to be taught to obey everything that He had taught the original twelve: "Teaching them [the disciples you make through the gospel] to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). This statement can't be applied exclusively to a leadership hierarchy. All of those who became Christ's disciples through the preaching of the original disciples were expected to obey everything Christ had commanded the twelve. And in order to do all that the twelve were commanded to do, every ordinary disciple must have the same authority and power from Christ as did the apostles.
Whatever commands and empowerment the apostles received from Christ were passed on to all who believed the gospel (e.g., their own disciples), who in turn passed on this command to their converts, and so on down to the present time. Obviously, then, not some special class of bishops, archbishops, cardinals, popes, or a magisterium, but all Christians are the successors of the apostles.
The history of the early Church given in the New Testament bears out the above. The apostles did what Christ commanded them to do: They made disciples by the thousands and passed on to them all of Christ's commands; and Christ Himself, from heaven, empowered these new
disciples to carry on this great commission. Christians multiplied and churches were established throughout the Roman Empire.
There were no cathedrals. The local church met in homes. Leadership was by a group of godly elders who were older and more mature in the faith and who lived exemplary lives. There was no hierarchy, locally or over a wider territory, which had to be obeyed because of title or office. There was no select class of priests who had special authority to act as intermediaries between God and the people. Such had been the Jewish priesthood, which was a shadow of things to come (Hebrews 7:11-28; 10:1-22) and became terribly corrupted, only to be done away at the cross.
Every believer was encouraged to pray and prophesy in the church gatherings. Paul made that very clear:
When ye come together [as a church], every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course [i.e., one at a time]; and let one interpret....
Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others [those listening] judge. If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace [so the other can speak].
For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be comforted....
Wherefore, brethren, covet [earnestly desire] to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:26-40).
No Elite Class
None of Christ's promises to the apostles were only for them or for some elite class. For example: "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 18:19); "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do" (John 14:13); and yet again, "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you" (John 16:23). All Christians pray in Christ's name, yet this promise was originally given to His inner circle of twelve. All Catholics take the bread and wine at Mass, yet it was to the twelve that Christ said, "This do in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).
It is clear that everything Christ stated to His inner circle of disciples applied to their converts and to all Christians today. Does that mean that if two ordinary Christians agree on something it will be given to them, or whatever an ordinary Christian asks the Father in Christ's name will be given? Yes. Then why isn't every prayer answered? They all are, but for some the answer is "no" and for others "later." Christ's "name" is not a magic formula which, if added to a prayer, assures an automatic answer in the affirmative. To ask in His name means to ask as He would ask, for His goals and glory, not for our own.
On this point the Church has badly deceived sincere Catholics. Every prayer a Catholic priest asks is not automatically answered any more than those of ordinary Catholics or Protestant ministers or laypersons. That is obvious. Yet it is claimed that a member of the Catholic clergy has a special power so that whatever he pronounces in Christ's name-whether binding or loosing,
or forgiving sins-automatically occurs. Not so. It is dishonest to say that loosing from sin (which can't be verified) happens each time a Catholic priest pronounces it, when loosing from disease or a debt (which can be verified) rarely happens when pronounced.
The implication is clear: Whether it is obtaining an answer to prayer from the Father in the name of Christ, or obtaining some blessing that two or more Christians agree upon, or binding and loosing or forgiving sins, it does not occur automatically by the mere expression of a formula but is only done by Christ working through chosen vessels when, where, and as He pleases.
None of these promises worked automatically at the sole discretion of Peter or any of the other apostles. Nor do they attach automatically to a member of the Roman Catholic Church or any other religious hierarchy. Such false dogmas have placed those who believe them under the power of Rome, causing them to look to a priest for that which is the heritage of every true disciple of Christ.
Past Tyranny and the Magisterium Today
The great apostle Paul wrote that, insofar as civil rulers do not command that which is against God's will, every Christian, including the apostles themselves, is to obey those rulers (Romans 13:1-7). We are to pray "for kings and for all that are in authority" (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Every Christian is to be "subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates ...” (Titus 3:1).
Peter wrote to the Christians, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors....” (1 Peter 2:13,14). The popes taught just the opposite: that they were the supreme sovereigns and that only their laws were to be obeyed, even by kings. The total submission that Rome requires has been expressed by many popes, but none said it more clearly than Nicholas I (858-67):
It is evident that the popes can neither be bound nor unbound by any earthly power, nor even by that of the apostle [Peter], if he should return upon the earth; since Constantine the Great has recognized that the pontiffs held the place of God upon earth, the divinity not being able to be judged by any living man. We are, then, infallible, and whatever may be our acts, we are not accountable for them but to ourselves.5
That Nicholas was not expressing merely his own fanaticism but the view of the popes which eventually became Roman Catholic doctrine is clear both from history and from the official Church dogmas which are still in effect. According to Vatican II, no one is allowed even to question the magisterium in matters of faith and morals. Only the hierarchy can interpret the Bible, and the faithful must accept that interpretation as from God. And everyone must obey the pope even when he doesn't speak ex cathedra. Such requirements of blind faith are today's vestiges of the tyrannical rule of the popes down through the centuries.
The Failure of the "First Pope"
If Christ's words to Peter in Matthew 16:18 made him the first infallible pope, then we have another serious problem. The next words out of Peter's mouth denied the very heart of the Christian gospel by declaring that Christ need not go to the cross: "Be it far from thee, Lord; this [death on the cross] shall not be unto thee" (verse 22). The Lord responded immediately, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" (verse 23). Here was Peter's initial ex cathedra declaration to the whole church (it is recorded in the Bible) on faith and morals (it deals with the means of salvation)-and it was not infallible but heresy!
In the next chapter Peter seriously errs again, with another heretical pronouncement. He puts Christ on the same level with Moses and Elias: "Let us make here three tabernacles: one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias" (Matthew 17:4). This time it is God Himself from heaven who rebukes the "new pope": "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him" (verse 5).
Later, fearing for his life, Peter denies "with oaths and curses" that he knew Christ-again a declaration on "faith and morals" to the entire church in denial of Christ Himself. Even if the popes were his successors, Peter could hardly pass on to them an infallibility which he himself obviously did not possess!
A Biblical Basis for Infallibility?
A current leading Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, recently pointed out: "The main proof text cited at Vatican I for papal infallibility, Luke 22:32 (`I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail') was never used even by medieval canonists to document this dogma-and rightly so. In this passage Jesus does not promise Peter freedom from error but the grace to persevere in the faith till the end."6 Von Dollinger was in complete agreement:
Everyone knows the one classical passage of Scripture on which the edifice of Papal Infallibility has been reared: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, confirm thy brethren" [Luke 22:32]. But these words manifestly refer only to Peter personally, to his denial of Christ and his conversion....
It is directly against the sense of the passage ... to find in it a promise of future infallibility to a succession of Popes.... No single writer to the end of the seventh century dreamt of such an interpretation; all without exception-and there are eighteen of them-explain it simply as a prayer of Christ that his Apostle might not wholly succumb and lose his faith entirely in his approaching trial.7
Many other leading Catholic historians and theologians could be cited in the same vein. Peter de Rosa adds his own insight:
According to the [Church] Fathers, Peter as such had no successor. They see all bishops as succeeding to the apostles, not an individual bishop succeeding to an individual apostle, in this case Peter. They, therefore, could not possibly have accepted the claim that "Peter's successor" had to rule the See of Rome.
We have seen, too, that all the great doctrinal statements, especially the creeds, came not from popes but from Councils. In the early centuries, it never occurred to the Bishops of Rome that they could define doctrine for the whole church.8
After promising Christ at the Last Supper that he would die rather than deny Him, Peter does exactly what he said he wouldn't do: "Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man" (Matthew 26:74). Here is a complete denial of Christ Himself and thus of Christianity in its entirety. Peter was a very unstable "rock" for Christ to build His Church upon! His alleged successors, however, were guilty of far worse failings.
We have mentioned a number of these already. Consider one more brief example: Pope Julius II (1503-13), syphilitic, an infamous womanizer, father of a number of bastards. He bribed his way into the papacy. At Lent, when good Catholics were on a strict diet, he gorged himself on the richest fare. Clad in armor, Julius often led his army to conquer cities and territories in the expansion of the Papal States. How could he possibly be the "vicar" of the Christ who said His kingdom was not of this world and therefore His servants didn't fight? To say he was mocks Christ and His teachings.
Successors to the Emperors
Remember that in the early days of the Church, infallibility was not attributed to the Bishop of Rome, but to his superior, the emperor. Pope Leo I (440-61), for example, ascribed to a godless emperor the very infallibility which Pius IX would persuade the members of Vatican I to declare had always been the exclusive power of the popes: "By the Holy Spirit's inspiration the emperor needs no human instruction and is incapable of doctrinal error."9
The following extravagant praise, which sounds like that given to popes today, is from a speech by Eusebius honoring the pagan Emperor Constantine after he had assumed leadership of the Church:
Let then our emperor... be declared alone worthy ... who alone is free ... above the thirst of wealth, superior to sexual desire ... who has gained the victory over those passions which overmaster the rest of men: whose character is formed after the Divine original of the Supreme Sovereign, and whose mind reflects, as in a mirror, the radiance of His virtues. Hence is our emperor perfect in prudence, in goodness, injustice, in courage, in piety, in devotion to God.... 10
That this praise was to the emperor alone placed him above the Bishop of Rome, who was subservient to him. Thus Constantine called himself "Bishop of Bishops." Today's popes, who bear Constantine's titles and wear his regalia, are his successors, not Peter's. Historian Will Durant points out that "throughout his reign he [Constantine] treated the bishops as his political aides; he summoned them, presided over their councils, and agreed to enforce whatever opinion their majority should formulate."11
Doctrine meant nothing to Constantine-only that the bishops should agree for the sake of imperial unity. De Rosa quotes a fourth-century bishop that "the church [at that time] was part of the state." He goes on to explain:
Even the Bishop of Rome-not to be called "the pope" for many centuries-was, in comparison [to Constantine], a non-entity. In civic terms he was vassal of the emperor; in spiritual terms, he was, compared with Constantine, a second-class bishop....
Not the pope but he [Constantine], like Charlemagne later, was the head of the church, its source of unity, before whom the Bishop of Rome had to prostrate himself and pledge his loyalty. All bishops agreed that he [the emperor] was "the inspired oracle, the apostle of Church wisdom."
It was, therefore, Constantine, not the Bishop of Rome, who dictated the time and place of church synods and even how the votes were cast. Without his approval, they could not pass into law; he alone was legislator of the Empire.12
The Papacy's Pagan Heritage
The very idea of a Church Council was invented by Constantine, who, in spite of his professed "conversion" to Christ, remained a pagan. He never renounced his loyalty to the many pagan gods. He abolished neither the pagan Altar of Victory in the Senate nor the Vestal Virgins; and the sun-god, not Christ, continued to be honored on the imperial coins. He was not baptized until just before his death, and that by a heretical Arian priest, Eusebius. Durant reminds us that throughout his "Christian" life Constantine used pagan as well as Christian rites and continued to rely upon "pagan magic formulas to protect crops and heal disease."13
That Constantine murdered those who might have had a claim to his throne (notably his son, Crispus, a nephew and brother-in-law) is further evidence that his "conversion" to Christianity was, as historians have suggested, a clever political maneuver. Historian Philip Hughes, himself a Catholic priest, reminds us, "In his manners he [Constantine] remained, to the end, very much the Pagan of his early life. His furious tempers, the cruelty which, once aroused, spared not the lives even of his wife and son, are ... an unpleasing witness to the imperfection of his conversion."14
The three "Christian" sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans) secured, after their father's death, their separate regions of the empire by a merciless family massacre. They then took the "Christianization" of the empire to new heights. Such (not Peter) were the forerunners of today's popes.
As already mentioned, Constantine convened, set the agenda for, gave the opening address at, and played a dominant part in the first ecumenical council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea, and a number of other councils as well, as would Charlemagne 500 years later. Inasmuch as the emperors called the councils, it is not surprising that no council for the first thousand years acknowledged the Bishop of Rome as head of the Church.
Christ exemplified humility and service to others. He told His disciples: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them.... But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve" (Luke 22:25,26). Forgetting that admonition, the popes emulated the pagan emperors from whom they inherited their position and power.
Christ also condemned the authoritarian position which had been taken by the rabbis in His day. His words to the Jewish religious leaders are quite appropriate for the Roman Catholic hierarchy:
[They] love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven....
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness ... within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matthew 23:6-9,27,28).