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St. Peter’s Secret Popes

Some Protestants ask: if Peter had successors as pope, then why doesn't he mention them in Scripture? Here's an answer for them.

Protestant apologists often argue against the papacy along the following line: if Peter were the first pope, as Catholics say he was, then we’d expect to find the New Testament mention such a Petrine office when it would have been pertinent to do so. Since we don’t find this, it follows that Peter must not have been the first pope.

There are several places where Protestants think the Petrine office should be mentioned. One is Peter’s farewell address, recorded in his second letter.

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer states the argument this way:

When Peter is nearing death, he tells his readers that he’s leaving behind written documents to remind them of what he had taught (2 Pet. 1:13-15, 3:1-2). He doesn’t say anything about successors, Roman bishops, antipopes, etc.

Todd Baker follows suit, querying, “Are these words of someone who believed he was going to appoint another pope as his successor?” Of course, Baker’s answer is no.

Baker goes on: “Would it not have made more sense (assuming a Roman Catholic belief in apostolic succession) to have given explicit instructions to the Church to obey the new pope?”

For Engwer and Baker, Peter’s affirmation that his letters are written to serve as a reminder of his teachings and his silence regarding his successors to the papal office are sufficient to show that Catholics are wrong in saying that Peter was the first pope.

Is this true? Let’s take a look.

We can start with Engwer’s and Baker’s argument from silence. It’s based in part on what Peter doesn’t say: he doesn’t mention anything about new popes to succeed him. But this line of argumentation proves to be problematic.

Notice that Peter doesn’t say anything about the synoptic Gospels, which already would have been circulating at that time. Knowing whether we should be using them or if they’re inspired by God is important for us as Christians, and Peter’s farewell address would have been an opportune time to tell us about them. Must we conclude that Peter didn’t think the Gospels should be used by Christians and were inspired because he doesn’t mention anything about them? The logic of Engwer’s and Baker’s argument would have us conclude yes.

Another problem with Engwer’s and Baker’s focus on what Peter doesn’t say is that it distracts from the evidence that we do have for Peter’s role as the first pope and papal succession after him. There’s no need to rehearse those arguments here. But suffice it to say that having such evidence secures our belief even though Peter, for whatever reason, doesn’t mention it in his farewell address.

Let’s now look at the specific passages that Engwer appeals to for support of his argument: 2 Peter 1:13-15 and 2 Peter 3:1-2.

In 2 Peter 3:1-2, Peter does mention his writings as serving the purpose of reminding his readers of what they have learned:

This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder; that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.

Engwer sees this as evidence that Peter intended his letters to guide the Christians whom he was leaving behind and not his successors. But to affirm that his letters are a guide for Christians doesn’t necessarily exclude successors. To illustrate the point, if I affirm that cardiovascular workouts are essential for good health, I don’t thereby deny healthy dieting as also essential. All Peter does in the above passage is affirm that his writings are meant to serve as a reminder of what the holy prophets said and what the commandment of the Lord is. To view this as excluding successors is to read something into the text that is not there.

On to 2 Peter 1:13-15. The text reads,

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. And I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

An interesting point about this passage is that Peter doesn’t mention his writings as Engwer thinks he does. He speaks of arousing his readers “by way of reminder,” but he doesn’t specify the way in which he will remind them, unlike in 2 Peter 3:1, where he says, “This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder.”

Here in 2 Peter 1:13-15, Peter says, “I will see to it [Greek, spoudasō—future active] that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” Why does Peter refer to what he will do in the future? If Peter were referring to his epistles, wouldn’t he have said something like, “In what I have done and am doing right now, in writing my letters, I am seeing to it that you may be able to recall these things”? That Peter speaks of what he will do in the future suggests that he will do something different from what he is doing in the present (which is writing a letter).

What might that different thing be? Appointing a successor in the Petrine ministry, or at least making provisions that a successor be appointed, can’t be excluded as a possible answer.

There’s one last thing that we need to point out here that’s relevant to answering Engwer’s and Baker’s objection. We may not be able to say conclusively why Peter doesn’t mention successors, but there is one possible answer that makes a lot of sense: Peter’s purpose in writing his letters is not to give a general outline for the governance of the universal Church. His purpose, rather, is to encourage the individuals whom he had a specific pastoral relationship with to live as Christians and be saved.

This is supported by the fact that Peter didn’t address his letters to the entire Church. Rather, he addressed them to specific regions. Peter begins his first letter, which the second letter quoted above presupposes, as follows: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” That Peter addresses his letters only to specific regions where he had close pastoral ties sheds light on why he wouldn’t be concerned in them with wider Church issues such as governance after his departure. Moreover, that Peter’s main interest is the salvation of his readers is evidenced by the list of things that Peter wants his readers to remember (“the things that pertain to life and godliness . . . I intend always to remind you of these things”—2 Pet. 1:3,12), all of which Peter concludes provides “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The objections to the Catholic belief in Peter’s role as the first pope are numerous. And they all deserve a worthy response. Engwer’s and Baker’s argument here is no exception. But in the end, it fails. Peter’s silence doesn’t prove what Engwer and Baker think it proves, and we can provide a plausible explanation to account for the silence. The Catholic belief that Peter was the first pope still stands.

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