“Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., has been elected as Supreme Pontiff, the 265th successor of Peter.”—VATICAN INFORMATION SERVICE, VATICAN CITY, MARCH 13, 2013.
“The bishop of Rome has the right of primacy above the universal Church, since he is the successor of Saint Peter, who received such prerogative from Jesus Christ.”—THE PRIMACY OF THE BISHOP OF ROME DURING THE FIRST THREE CENTURIES, 1903, BY VINCENT ERMONI.
“If, then, anyone shall say . . . that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy; let him be anathema [that is, be declared a heretic].”—THE FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL, JULY 18, 1870.
TO MILLIONS of Catholics around the world, the 1870 decree of the first Vatican Council is a dogma of the church, a binding teaching. However, the question must be asked, Is it a Scriptural teaching? In addition, is Pope Francis really a successor of the apostle Peter? And was Peter the first pope?
“UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH”
The 1870 Vatican Council’s decree was based primarily on its interpretation of Matthew 16:16-19 and John 21:15-17. The conversations between Jesus and Peter that we read in these passages as well as other Bible accounts show that the apostle Peter had an important role in the history of early Christianity. In fact, the first time they met, Jesus predicted that Peter would display rocklike qualities in his life. (John 1:42) But did Christ give Peter primacy?
At Matthew 16:17, 18, we find Jesus’ words to Peter: “I say to you, you are Peter [whose name means “A Piece of Rock”], and upon this rock I will build my church.”* Was Jesus saying that his “church,” or congregation, would be built upon Peter, a man? Was Peter to be the head of all other followers of Jesus? How did the other apostles present at that conversation understand Jesus’ words? The Gospels reveal that later, on a number of occasions, they argued about who was the greatest among them. (Matthew 20:20-27; Mark 9:33-35; Luke 22:24-26) If Jesus had already given Peter primacy, or superiority, could there have been any question as to who was the greatest among the apostles?
How did Peter himself understand Jesus’ words? Growing up an Israelite, Peter would have been familiar with various Hebrew prophecies speaking of a “stone” or a “cornerstone.” (Isaiah 8:13, 14; 28:16; Zechariah 3:9) When he quoted one of them in a letter to his fellow believers, Peter explained that the prophesied “cornerstone” was the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Peter used the Greek term pe’tra (the same word found in Jesus’ statement at Matthew 16:18) for Christ alone.—1 Peter 2:4-8.
The apostle Paul was another faithful follower of Jesus. Did Paul believe that Jesus had given Peter primacy? Acknowledging Peter’s position in the early Christian congregation, Paul wrote that Peter was among those “reputed to be pillars.” For Paul, there was more than just one ‘pillar.’ (Galatians 2:9) Moreover, if Peter had been appointed by Jesus as the head of the congregation, how could he simply be reputed, that is to say, supposed or thought by his fellow believers, to be a pillar?
When writing regarding certain inconsistencies in the way Peter treated people, Paul respectfully but frankly stated: “I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” (Galatians 2:11-14) Paul did not think that Christ had built his church, or congregation, upon Peter or any other imperfect man. On the contrary, he believed that the congregation was built on Jesus Christ as the foundation. For Paul, “the rock was the Christ.”—1 Corinthians 3:9-11; 10:4.
“YOU ARE PETER . . .”
So how are we to understand the words: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”? To understand an excerpt correctly, we need to read its context. What were Jesus and Peter speaking about? Jesus had just asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Peter answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” With that, Jesus commended Peter and then added that he would build his “church,” or congregation, on an even more solid “rock,” the one in whom Peter had just expressed faith—Jesus himself.—Matthew 16:15-18.
How are we to understand Jesus’ words: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”?
Consistent with this, many of the “Church Fathers” wrote that the rock of Matthew 16:18 is Christ. For example, Augustine in the fifth century wrote: “The Lord said: ‘On this rock-mass I will build my Church,’ because Peter had told him: ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God.’ It is therefore on this rock-mass, that you confessed, that I will build my Church.” Augustine repeatedly stated that “the Rock (Petra) was Christ.”
Augustine and others would be considered heretics if judged according to current Catholic doctrine. In fact, according to Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz, the consensus of opinion on this subject among Bible scholars today would have been condemned by the 1870 Vatican Council as heresy.
THE POPE—PETER’S SUCCESSOR?
The title “pope” was unknown to the apostle Peter. In fact, until the ninth century, many non-Roman bishops applied the title to themselves. Even so, the term was rarely applied as an official title until the late 11th century. Moreover, no early Christian thought that a primacy supposedly given to Peter had been transmitted to any successors. Hence, German scholar Martin Hengel concluded that there is “no demonstrable historical and theological way to arrive at what later became papal ‘primacy.’”
In conclusion: Was Peter the first pope? Did he have any successors? Is the Catholic dogma of papal primacy Scripturally valid? The only correct answer to each question is a simple no. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus unquestionably did build his church, his true congregation, upon himself. (Ephesians 2:20) For each one of us, then, the important question is, Have I found that true congregation?
All Biblical quotations in this article are from the Catholic New American Bible, the version used in the official Vatican website.