Is the Pope the "Head of Christ's Church"? ...

Rome and the Early Church


  1. Introduction
  2. I. The Evidence from the New Testament
  3. II. The Evidence from References in History
  4. III. The Evidence from Events in History
  5. IV. Conclusion

A Study of Evidence

By Clement F. Rogers, Professor of Pastoral Theology, Kings College, University of London, 1925, SPCK, BX970.R7


It is the old story, familiar ever since Thucydides wrote, of "hegemony" changing itself into "rulership" ... in the case before us "what was be demonstrated" is the primitiveness not of "hegemony" but of "rulership." W. Bright, Waymarks in Church History, p. 213.

C.F. Rogers: ROMAN CATHOLICS are constantly attacking the English Church.

(See, for instance, the Catholic Truth Society's page of advertisements of "Books and Pamphlets for Anglicans." [Author's footnote])

They deny the validity of our Orders, and that on the ground that they are not Catholic, by which they mean Roman. This they acknowledge to be behind all they say against them, behind all objections to [Archbishop] Parker's consecration, to the form of consecration, and to the intention of the Ordinal. All is resolved into the simple question of the Papacy. This, they are saying with increasing clearness, is the one thing that matters.

(E.g. Anglo-Catholics: have they grasped the Point? by the Rev. P. H. Malden (Catholic Truth Society), who writes with real sympathy for, and charity towards, a movement which "is genuinely religious in all its aims" and "is neither negligible nor moribund," the members of which "are perfectly sincere and perfectly convinced of the rightness of their cause," and place the "essence of Catholicism in Creeds, Orders and Sacraments" (p. 10.) He declares, however, that "to be a Catholic means precisely to be in communion with the Pope, and nothing else," and that "to become a Catholic because one has come to disbelieve in Anglican Orders ... is a crime of the first magnitude," for it does not make "the Papal claims one whit more true" (p.12.).)

I have no desire to make a counter-attack. All controversy is ugly, and protesting, even when necessary, is odious. Nay, a Protestantism that only finds fault is ugly with an ugliness unrelieved by any balance of catholic Christian life. It is the fault of most books on the subject that they merely try to attack, and therefore generally defeat their own end.

Nor do I desire to unsettle Roman Catholics, or to draw them away from their Church. This paper is not addressed to them. Or rather, it is my earnest desire to draw back to the fold those whom, in England, I believe to be in schism, but I quite recognize that this will not be done by argument, though arguments are there; it will only be done, if it is to be done, by our showing that our way is better, by the attraction of a deeper devotion and a wide spiritual life.

But if we are attacked we must defend ourselves and the best defence is always a fair statement of facts. I am, of course, biassed in my judgment, as must everybody be who cares about what he holds to be true, and that will come out in my presentation of the facts, as I shall always put my case last. But I will try to put both sides, and to put them fairly. I will, as far as possible, give the actual words of quotations so that my readers can form their own conclusion both as to the facts and as to my comments, and I will give my references so that they may be able, if they want to, to check my statements and get further information for themselves.

The question of the Papacy, and how far it existed in the Early Church, is the point from which all our differences arise. There are certain stock quotations which are used as authorities. It is useful to know what they are. As arranged in controversial documents, or displayed in popular tracts, they are very impressive. But most people have no means of checking them. Even where references are given they have no access to the originals. They do not read the languages they were written in. They have no special training in criticism, nor do they know how history is written. They are not able to set the passages in their contexts, or to judge what part they play in the whole. Therefore there seems to be need of a short, clear summary of these chief authorities and of the point at issue in the interpretation of them.

(In what follows I have taken my chief references to Roman Catholic authorities from Dr. F. X. Funk's A Manual of Church History, tr. L. Cappadelta (Kegan Paul, 1910), ch. ii. sec. 21: "The Oneness of the Church and the Roman Primacy," p. 59.

(Mgr. L. Duchesne's, The Churches Separated from Rome, tr. A. H. Mathew, from his Églises Séparées (Kegan Paul, 1907), ch. iv.: "The Roman Church before the Time of Constantine [300 A.D.]," pp. 76-108.

(Mgr. Pierre Batiffol's Primitive Catholicism, tr. H. L. Brianceau, from the fifth edition of his L'Église Naissante (Longmans, 1911).

(These are perhaps the three most distinguished of modern Roman Catholic writers of Church history. I have referred to these particular books because they give a short and clear summary of the chief points of evidence. In Mgr. Duchesne's Histoire Ancienne de L'Église, as in Mgr. Batiffol's L'Église Naissante and other volumes, the references are scattered and not so easy to find. Popular settings forth of the Roman Catholic case can be found, e.g. in Dom J. Chapman's Bishop Gore and the Catholic Claims (Longmans, 1905), ch. vi.: "The Growth of the Roman Church," and ch. vii.: "The Development of the Papacy in Latin Christianity," and generally in the publications of the Catholic Truth Society.

(I do not think I have left out any important point of evidence that is quoted.)

I. The Evidence from the New Testament

C.F. Rogers: LET us begin with the Bible. Here we are less at a disadvantage. Even if we know no Greek, the Revised Version is accessible to all and the New Testament is familiar to us as a whole. We can, therefore, be practically certain as to the exact words used, and are able to judge of their importance in relation to other texts. Let us take first, actual words said, and then events described.

Three sayings of our Lord

Of actual words said three sayings of our Lord are quoted. First, those which are set in their Latin form in gold letters round the inside of the dome of St. Peter's at Rome:-

"Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam," "Thou art Peter and upon is rock I will build My Church" (Matt. 16:18). This is interpreted as meaning that on him personally the Church was founded, and the words following, "and the gates of Hades (Hell) shall not prevail against it," are further interpreted as meaning that infallibility is promised to the Church, and to St. Peter when speaking ex cathedra as head of the Church.

The second passage is that in the verse following:

"Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Et quodcunque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram erit solutum et in coelis."
"And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven."

This, it is argued, implies that this headship is not a mere one of precedence or of interpretation of the mind of the Church, but one that involves supreme jurisdiction over all other churches, or, rather, over all parts of the one Church, though, of course, that jurisdiction may (if the Pope so wills) be delegated, and considerable freedom be allowed to lesser local authorities.

The third passage is that of John 21:15, in which our Lord, after His resurrection and before His command to the disciples as a body to preach the Gospel to the whole creation, gave a special charge to St. Peter, which for emphasis He repeated three times:

"So when they had broken their fast, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith unto him, Feed My Lambs. He saith unto him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith unto him, Tend My sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time, Lovest thou Me? And he said unto Him, Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed My sheep."

This, it is argued, means that the headship was not merely one of authority in jurisdiction, but that the Church, in its missionary aspect and as the dispenser of all grace in the sacraments, derives its power from God in Christ through St. Peter who is therefore His Vicar on earth.

It is further pointed out that these definite words are corroborated by the fact that in numerous other passages St. Peter appears as the chief of the Apostles and is in some way distinguished from them. Thus he heads the list of names. He has a new name given to him. He is specially prayed for that he may strengthen the others (Luke 23:31). He is the first [apostle] to see the Risen Christ. He is the spokesman in the early church at Jerusalem and opens the first Council (Acts 15:7). It is declared that, as a matter of history, he was martyred at Rome, and that the Church of Rome was always considered to have been founded by him. It is argued that it is inconceivable that such responsibilities and privileges could have been intended to last only for his lifetime, since the Church would always need jurisdiction and men would always need the Faith and the Sacraments, and that therefore his authority descended to his successors in the See [seat of power] as that of the Apostles did to the Bishops the ordained.

(Several interpretations are given by the Fathers of the Church. The first and perhaps the most natural is that the Rock is Peter himself. Thus Origen says (Comment. in Ep. ad Rom. bk. v. P.G. xiv. 1053): "the chief share in feeding the sheep was delivered to Peter, and upon him as upon a rock the Church was founded."

(And St. Jerome writes, "to Simon who believed on the Rock (Petra), He gave the name Peter (Petros), and after the metaphor of a rock it is rightly said, I will build My Church upon thee." (Comm. in Matt. 16:18 lib. ii. c. xvi. P.L. xxvi. 117.

(But Origen also says: "But if you think that the whole Church was built by God upon Peter alone, what would you say about John the son of Thunder, or each of the Apostles? Or shall we venture to say that 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against Peter, but shall prevail against the other apostles and those that are perfect'? Are not the words in question, 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,' and 'upon this Rock I will build My Church,' said in case of all and each of them?" (Comm. in Matt. 16:18, P.G. xiii. 1000).

(And Jerome also writes: "But you say that the Church is founded upon Peter, although the same thing is done in another place upon all the Apostles, and all receive the kingdom of heaven, and the solidity of the Church is established equally upon all, nevertheless one is therefore chosen that by the appointment of a head an occasion of dissension (schisma) may be taken away" (Adv. Jovinianum I. 26., P.L. xxiii. 247).

(The most general if not the most grammatical, interpretation seems to be that the Rock is the faith which St. Peter confessed. Thus, for instance, St. Chrysostom says, "therefore He added this, 'and I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church,' that is upon the Rock of his confession (Hom. liv. in Matt. 16. sect. 2, P.G. lviii. 534).

(And St. Hilary, "Upon this rock of the confession is the building up of the Church" (de Trin. vi. 36, 37; P.L. x. 186-7).

(The Liturgy of St. James also speaks of "Thy Holy Church which thou hast founded upon the rock of faith that the gates of hell may not prevail against it"; and a collect [prayer] for the vigil of St. Peter and St. Paul in the. Roman Missal [prayer-book] speaks of "us whom thou hast established on the Rock of the Apostolic confession."

(Augustine interprets the Rock sometimes as St. Peter and sometimes as Christ Himself. In his Retractations (Bk. i. c. xxi. P.L. xxxii. 618) he gives his reasons for preferring the latter.

(Many other references can be found collected in E. Denny's Papalism (Rivingtons, 1912), ch. i. sect. vii.: "The Patristic Interpretations of the words 'Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church'" (pp. 29 ff.))

Against all this it is argued that the passages at least admit of a different interpretation, and that in reading the New Testament as a whole serious objections to this view appear.

For it is possible, at least, to interpret the Rock as the firm foundation of the confession that St. Peter had just made of Jesus as the Christ the Son of the Living God, and it is pointed out that, as the margin of the Revised Version reminds us, in the Greek and Latin, though not in the original Aramaic which our Lord probably used, there are two words, Petros, the masculine proper name Rock man, and Petra, the feminine substantive - Rock. Even if we hold, as many do, that there was no distinction in the original words, it might be argued that the name was only given to him as the first to make the confession, and that we can no more build on the title, Petros, a claim to be the head than we can on the name applied to him only a few moments after, of Satan, to destroy his authority. And "the power of the keys" was given to all the Apostles equally. When in John 20:23, our Lord says, "whosesoever sins ye forgive they are forgiven unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain they are retained," He makes no distinction between them. When in Matt. 28:18, He says, "All authority hath been given Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations," the Evangelist does not seem to be conscious of any difference between St. Peter and the others, but describes Him as giving the commission to the eleven as a body.

But the whole text is easily accessible, and an anyone can read the passages for himself. Without the after-history of the Church it is difficult to think that any one would have found the other meaning in the words, and as a matter of fact no one seems to have so interpreted them for nearly three hundred years. And though the words are not inconsistent with the idea of the transmission of St. Peter's authority (if it was then given to him), to his successors, or of his (and their) connection with Rome, there does not seem to be a word in the New Testament which even suggests it.

(Pope Siricius (A.D. 385) is said to have been the first to teach that St. Peter's authority was passed on to his successors at Rome.

(Denny, op. cit. p. 36, quoting his words, "We bear the burden of all who are heavy laden, or rather the blessed Apostle bear them in us, for he, as we trust in all things protects and defends those who are heirs of his government," Mansi, iii. 655.

(The two earlier examples quoted by Dom Chapman in his Bishop Gore and the Catholic Claims, p. 94, are, to say the least, capable of a quite different interpretation, and in any case leave a period of nearly 250 or 300 years before the teaching appears.)

It might, of course, have been impossible for Christ to have said anything about it while He was visible to all on earth. It would perhaps have been at least premature while His mission was still confined to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," but there is no sign of it in St. Paul's epistles, or (where surely we should have expected it) in the Acts, or even in St. Peter's own epistle, which may well have been written from Rome itself if we are so to understand Babylon in its last verse but one.

St. Peter, it is true, seems to have been the leader and spokesman of the Apostles, especially in the early days in Palestine. But he soon sinks rather into the background, and St. Paul becomes prominent. This, of course, may be due merely to the fact that St. Luke undertook to write about his friend, or it may be that his work was unfinished and that he intended to write a third volume giving the account of the work of St. Peter. But he gives no hint of it, and it is rather precarious to build on such a supposition. St. Paul describes himself as definitely opposing St. Peter (Gal. 2:11), and ,at the Council of Jerusalem, though St. Peter opens the debate it is St. James who presides.

(Acts 15:13. It is St. Paul, not St. Peter, who describes himself as having "the care of or anxiety for, all the Churches" (2 Cor. 11:28). This, of course, implies no doctrine of supremacy, but, then, neither would it if St. Peter had said it.)

It is at least doubtful whether St. Peter was at Rome till near the end of his life; at any rate we do know that he was active elsewhere, in Palestine, and at Corinth. St. Peter and St. Paul were associated at Rome, and St. Paul seems to put himself on an equality with St. Peter as Apostle to the Gentiles where St. Peter was Apostle to the Jews, and continually down to at least the time of Irenaeus (170-200) the two are associated together as joint founders of the Church of Rome. Then, too, the chief matters that are chronicled took place elsewhere, at Jerusalem, at Antioch, at Ephesus, at Corinth, and there is no suggestion of their being told to wait for developments in organization at Rome, still less of there being a center of jurisdiction and of grace there already.

At the same time we need not depreciate the importance of the Church of Rome. St. Paul, as was natural, did not consider his work as done till he got there. St. Luke makes his arrival the end of his story of the Acts of the Apostles. The capital of the Empire had a peculiar prestige and was a center to which all would flow. The Church there was, in the nature of things, in communication with the whole Church, and to Rome came all varieties of religious opinion, Catholic, heretical, and Pagan.

There is nothing, we may grant, inherently improbable in the belief that our Lord made St. Peter the head of the Church, and that He conferred the same power on the bishops of Rome, but, as far as the evidence from the Bible goes, there is nothing decisive to show that He did so. At least we cannot say that it is so convincing as to demand of us that we should give up our belief that our Church is part of the Catholic Church. What evidence is there, then, from outside history?

  1. II. The Evidence from References in History
  2. III. The Evidence from Events in History
  3. IV. Conclusion

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