Do the Apostles Have Successors?
Both the Church of Rome and the Church of England claim to be the one true church by reason of apostolic succession. Can these claims be proved?
DO THE apostles have successors? Yes, says the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia. The popes of Rome “come immediately after, occupy the position, and perform the functions of St. Peter; they are therefore his successors.” The claim of the Church of England to be apostolic depends, at least in part, upon this claim of the Church of Rome.
In support of the Roman Catholic position four claims are made: (1) That Peter was the first pope, being given headship by Jesus’ words: “Thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church.” (Matt. 16:18, Msgr. Knox) (2) That St. Peter came to Rome and there ended his pontificate. (3) That the bishops of Rome who came after him held his official position in the church. (4) That this line of successors has continued unbroken down to the present time. What do the Scriptures, the facts of history and reason indicate regarding these claims?
Does the first claim hold, that Matthew 16:18 applies to Peter as the rock on which the Christian congregation is built? Some Bible translations, such as the Revised Standard Version, show that in the Greek two different words are used: Petros being translated “Peter,” and petra, “rock.” This in itself would seem to indicate that Jesus did not mean that Peter was the rock on which he would build his congregation, especially when we note that Petros is masculine and petra feminine.
But, say some, Jesus spoke in Aramaic and in that language the same word keʹpha is used in each instance. True, but let it be noted that in his expression “on this rock” Jesus used a feminine demonstrative pronoun, translated “this,” which he would not have done had he meant that Peter is the rock on which his congregation was to be built. It was, no doubt, because this feminine demonstrative pronoun made it apparent that Jesus intended to distinguish between Peter and the rock on which his congregation was to be built that Matthew when translating into Greek used two different nouns, Petros and petra. (Incidentally, the evidence indicates that Matthew first wrote his gospel in Hebrew and then himself translated it into Greek.) We cannot imagine Matthew’s being so careless as to use two different nouns if Jesus had not intended to make any distinction. And so we have a modern literal translation of Jesus’ words as follows: “You are Peter [Petros, masculine], and on this rock-mass [petra, feminine] I will build my congregation.”—Matt. 16:18, NW.
PETER NOT THE HEAD OR VICAR
Had Jesus meant for Peter to act as his vicar and exercise headship over the other apostles this fact certainly would be apparent in the book of Acts. But nowhere is Peter shown as ruling over the rest. In view of Paul’s needing to insist on his apostleship, could we imagine that Peter would never have had occasion even to refer to his headship had he been the head? True, Peter did take the lead at Pentecost and in first preaching to the non-Jews, when sent to Cornelius. Thereby he used the two keys of knowledge to open up the opportunity for becoming members of the body of Christ, the heavenly kingdom, and therefore called by Jesus “the keys of the kingdom.” But taking the lead in these two instances does not mean headship. An oldest son may take the lead among brothers, but the father still remains the head.—Luke 11:52; Matt. 16:19, Knox.
That Jesus did not mean that Peter would be at the gates of heaven to pass on who deserves to get in, as popular belief has it, can be seen from the plain scriptures that show that Christians all “have a scrutiny to undergo before Christ’s judgement-seat, for each to reap what his mortal life has earned.” Yes, the Father “has left all judgment to the Son,” not to Peter.—2 Cor. 5:10; John 5:22, Knox.
The fact is that Peter did not even continue to take the lead, not to say anything of headship! As soon as the apostle Paul was chosen we find him coming to the fore, in the record of Acts. Peter is mentioned only once in that book after the twelfth chapter, and throughout the whole book of Acts less than one half as often as is Paul. When the apostles and older men met at Jerusalem to discuss points of Christian teaching and practice, it was James, the half brother of Jesus, who presided. In summing up the matter he said: “My decision [not even our decision, much less Peter’s decision] is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God.”—Acts 15:19, NW.
Nor can the fact that Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed his sheep be used to argue that Peter was given headship. It was but fitting, in view of Peter’s having three times denied his Lord, that Jesus should three times ask him if he loved him and then tell him to feed his sheep and lambs. That Peter did not consider his position as shepherd as unique is seen from his words at 1 Peter 5:1-4 (Knox), where he speaks of himself as one of the “presbyters,” literally “older men,” and instructs them: “Be shepherds to the flock God has given you.” Continuing, Peter calls, not himself, but Jesus, “the Prince of shepherds.”
Further, let it be noted that it was Paul, not Peter, who was rocklike when public opinion threatened. Paul had to rebuke Peter for being ashamed to be seen in public with his non-Jewish Christian brothers. This cannot be minimized as Catholic theologians try to do, as though Peter had a better understanding of the situation and was acting from principle. Paul’s severely rebuking those who took this course and referring to them as being “false to their principles” and as insincere shows that it was a case of Peter’s not having entirely overcome his fear of man, which had, long before, caused him to deny his Lord. (Gal. 2:11-16, Knox) And further note that it was not Peter but Paul that carried the burden of the “anxious care for all the churches.”—2 Cor. 11:28, Knox.
Far from Peter’s being singled out as a special foundation, we read only of Jesus as being the chief cornerstone or special foundation: “Apostles and prophets are the foundation on which you were built, and the chief corner-stone of it is Jesus Christ himself.” (Eph. 2:20, Knox) In fact, repeatedly we read of Jesus’ being the chief cornerstone but nowhere of Peter’s occupying a preferred position among the other apostolic foundations.—See Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:8-12; 1 Peter 2:4-8.
The testimony of the early so-called church fathers is often adduced to prove Peter’s headship. But their testimony proves just the opposite, as shown by such leading Catholic theologians and scholars of the nineteenth century as Döllinger, Strossmayer and Archbishop Kenrick. In fact, Kenrick shows that some eighty percent of the early church fathers, among whom are Origen, Jerome and Augustine, did not apply Matthew 16:18 to Peter. Clearly the testimony of the Scriptures and the facts of history do not allow us to apply to Peter Jesus’ words about “this rock” on which he was to build his congregation.
WAS PETER IN ROME?
Nor do the Scriptures and the facts of history prove that Peter went to Rome, served there as bishop and died there. Paul wrote several of his letters from Rome during the time that Peter was supposed to have been there. Yet in not one of these does he make any reference to Peter’s being in Rome. At 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul complains that only Luke continued with him. And in the letter Paul wrote to the Christian congregation at Rome he sends greetings to twenty-six, and, in all, makes mention of thirty-five Christians, but does not mention Peter. Could Paul have thus ignored Peter if Peter had been in Rome, and pope at that? Unthinkable! Indicative of the weakness of the case of Peter’s having been in Rome is the applying of Babylon to Rome at 1 Peter 5:13.
True, many religious historians hold that Peter did go to Rome, but what is their proof? Merely tradition. Thus The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that there is a period of one hundred years after Peter’s time during which the legends about Peter’s having been in Rome could have been formed. It endeavors to fill this gap by quoting certain expressions; into which, however, one could only read that Peter was in Rome if there were other evidence that he had actually been there. That is why the noted sixteenth-century chronologist, Scaliger, regarding whom The Encyclopædia Britannica states ‘he was the greatest scholar of his day and he hated above all else dishonesty of argument and quotation,’ says that Peter’s being in Rome must be classed with the ridiculous legends.
DID PETER HAVE SUCCESSORS?
As for others being made successors to Peter, there is likewise no proof for this in either the Scriptures or secular history. To have successors to the twelve apostles is as reasonable as to expect that there were successors to the twelve family heads of Israel, the twelve sons of Jacob. Thus Jesus told his apostles: “When the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, you also shall sit there on twelve thrones, you who have followed me, and shall be judges over the twelve tribes of Israel.” In the apocalyptic vision John saw that the wall of heavenly Jerusalem had only “twelve foundation stones; and these, too, bore names, those of the Lamb’s twelve apostles.”—Matt. 19:28; Apoc. (Rev.) Re 21:14, Knox.
Christ himself specially chose the twelve apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have appointed you.” (John 15:16, Cath. Confrat.) The eleven acted without full understanding when at Peter’s instance they thought to choose a successor to Judas. God and Christ himself did that, as Paul testifies: “Paul, an apostle not holding his commission from men, not appointed by man’s means,”—as were Matthias and the claimed apostolic successors—“but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father.” “Am I not an apostle, have I not seen our Lord Jesus Christ?” And again: “In no way have I fallen short of the most eminent apostles, even though I am nothing. Indeed, the signs of the apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in miracles and wonders and deeds of power.” Which of the claimed successors of the apostles can prove his claim by having seen Jesus Christ, and by performing miracles, wonders and deeds of power?—Gal. 1:1; 1 Cor. 9:1, Knox; 2 Cor. 12:11, 12, Cath. Confrat.
Regarding the early so-called successors of the apostles, Catholic authorities admit little knowledge of them, “however dim may be the figures of these early pontiffs.” Also that “the dates are but approximate before 220.” (A Short Story of the Popes) In view of these facts, how can it be claimed that the line has continued without interruption? It cannot. Otherwise it would not have been necessary for the Catholic Church, on January 19, 1947, in its new edition of Annuario Pontificio, to list six changes in the list of popes. Thereby they admitted that a list, which was supposed to establish direct connection with the apostle Peter and had been used for many centuries, was actually mistaken in six respects, two of the popes being found to be actually nonexistent and four antipopes. Yes, these “successors to St. Peter” were such dim figures and their dates so approximate that it was hard to draw the line between those that actually existed and those that did not.
This new list was said to have been the result of two centuries of research. The very fact that such research was felt to be necessary shows serious doubts in regard to the claims made. And if the facts were so tampered with in an effort to show an unbroken line of successors that six nonpopes were listed, what assurance is there that further investigation might not find still more gaps? No wonder that the scholar Scaliger so sarcastically commented on the claims of Peter’s having been in Rome, why he was so indignant with dishonest argument and quotation, and why as long as he lived the apologists of the church of Rome were on the defensive.
The facts further show that the ever-increasing claims to superiority and jurisdiction on the part of the bishops of Rome during the first three centuries were “promptly and emphatically denied in all parts of the Christian world.” The Council of Nice A.D. 325, at which the pope of Rome was not even present, granted the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria metropolitan rights over the churches in their provinces “since the same belongs to the bishop in Rome.”—McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 7, p. 628.
Truly the Scriptures, the facts of history and sound reasoning combine to prove that Peter is not the rock on which Christ built his Christian congregation, that he was not the first “bishop” of Rome, that neither he nor any of the other apostles had successors, and that there has not been a continuous line of such from Peter’s day down to ours. Hence the answer to our question, “Do the apostles have successors?” must be an emphatic and unequivocal No!