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Refuting Papal Myths – “The Papacy is Unbiblical and Unhistorical”

Trent Horn

As Pope Francis travels through the United States during his visit to the World Congress of Families in Pennsylvania, expect critics of all stripes to be denouncing him and his office. That’s why this week we will be publishing a series of posts that refute these pernicious myths about the office of the Papacy as well as those who have held that office.

Myth #1 – The papacy is not found in the Bible.

It’s true the word papacy is not in the Bible, but neither are the words Trinity or Bible found there. This argument assumes that all Christian doctrine is explicitly described in the Bible, even though this teaching itself is not found in Scripture. Catholics believe, on the other hand, that divine revelation comes from God’s word given to us in written form (Sacred Scripture) and oral form (Sacred Tradition), both of which testify to the existence of the papacy.

According to Scripture, Christ founded a visible Church that would never go out of existence and had authority to teach and discipline believers (see Matt. 16:18-19, 18:17). St. Paul tells us this Church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and it was built on “the foundation of the apostles” (Eph. 2:20). Paul also tells us the Church would have a hierarchy composed of deacons (1 Tim. 2:8-13); presbyters, from where we get the English word priest (1 Tim. 5:17); and bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

Paul even instructed one of these bishops, Titus, to appoint priests on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). In A.D. 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch told his readers,

“Follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8)

Unlike the apostles, Christ’s Church would exist for all ages, so the apostle’s passed on to their successors the authority to bind and loose doctrine (see Matt. 18:18), forgive sins (see John 20:23), and speak on behalf of Christ (see Luke 10:16). Acts 1:20, for example, records how after Judas’s death Peter proclaimed that Judas’s office (or, in Greek, his bishoporic) would be transferred to a worthy successor. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul warned Timothy to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” when he appointed new leaders in the church.

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome, who according to ancient tradition was ordained by Peter himself, wrote,

“Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop . . . [so they made preparations that] . . . if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1–3).

Just as the apostles’ authority was passed on their successors, Peter’s authority as the leader of the apostles and the rock on whom the Church was built (Matt 16:18) was passed on to his successor. This man inherited the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19) and Peter’s duty to shepherd Christ’s flock (see John 21:15-17). Peter’s successor was the pastor of Christ’s church and a spiritual father to the Lord’s children (1 Cor. 4:15), thus explaining his offices future title pope, which comes from papa, the Latin word for father.

Myth #2 – The Bishop of Rome had no special authority in the early Church. Peter was never even in Rome!

Both the New Testament and the early Church Fathers testify to Peter being in Rome. At the end of his first letter, Peter says he is writing from “Babylon” (5:13), which was a common code word for Rome, because both empires were lavish persecutors of God’s people (see Rev. 17-18; Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, 6).

In the words of Protestant scholar D.A. Carson, Peter was “in Rome about 63 (the probable date of 1 Peter). Eusebius implies that Peter was in Rome during the reign of Claudius, who died in 54 (H.E. 2.14.6)” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 180). Peter may not have always been present in Rome (which would explain why Paul does not address him in his epistle to the Romans), but there is a solid tradition that Peter founded the Church in Rome and later died there.

For example, Paul says the Roman Church was founded by “another man” (Rom. 15:21), and St. Ignatius of Antioch told the Christians in Rome he would not command them in the same way Peter had previously commanded them. At the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus” (Against Heresies 3:3:3).

A priest named Gaius who lived during Irenaeus’s time even told a heretic named Proclus that “the trophies of the apostles” (i.e., their remains) were buried at Vatican Hill (Eusebius, Church History 2:25:5). Indeed, archaeological evidence unearthed in the twentieth century revealed a tomb attributed to Peter underneath St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, “it is probable that the tomb is authentic. It is also significant that Rome is the only city that ever claimed to be Peter’s place of death” (353).

In regard to the authority of the Bishop of Rome as Peter’s successor, in the first century Clement of Rome (the fourth pope) intervened in a dispute in the Church of Corinth. He warned those who disobeyed him that they would “involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger,” thus demonstrating his authority over non-Roman Christians.

St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Roman Church as the one that teaches other churches and “presides in love” over them. In fact, the writings of Pope Clement (A.D. 92-99) and Pope Soter (A.D. 167-174) were so popular that they were read in the Church alongside Scripture (Eusebius, Church History 4:23:9).

In A.D. 190, Pope St. Victor I excommunicated an entire region of churches for refusing to celebrate Easter on its proper date. While St. Irenaeus thought this was not prudent, neither he nor anyone else denied that Victor had the authority to do this. Indeed, Irenaeus said, “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [Rome] on account of its preeminent authority” (Against Heresies, 3.3.2).

Keep in mind that all of this evidence dates a hundred to two hundred years before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, thus deflating the Fundamentalist theory that the papacy was created by the Roman emperor in the fourth century.

Some people object that if Peter and his successors had special authority, why didn’t Christ say so when the apostles argued about “who was the greatest” (Luke 22:24)? The reason is that Christ did not want to contribute to their misunderstanding that one of them would be a privileged king. Jesus did say, however, that among the apostles there would be a “greatest” who would rule as a humble servant (Luke 22:26). That’s why since the sixth century popes have called themselves servus servorum Dei, or “servant of the servants of God.”

Pope Gregory I used the title in his dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople John the Faster, who called himself the “Universal Bishop.” Gregory didn’t deny that one bishop had primacy over all the others,  since in his twelfth epistle Gregory explcitly says Constaninople was subject to the authority of the pope. Instead, he denied that the pope was the bishop of every individual territory, since this would rob his brother bishops of their legitimate authority, even though they were still subject to him as Peter’s successor.

This post excerpted from Trent Horn’s article “Defending the Papacy.” The full article can be found in this month’s issue of Catholic Answers Magazine, available for digital download here.


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