Mark 8:27-30 and its more robust parallel in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew's gospel has been the source of some historical controversy between Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. It is taken by the latter to be biblical warrant for the institution of the Roman papacy, the Pope as the father of the church and its supreme teacher in regards to faith and morals. I will quote the Matthew passage here:
16Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
While this brief essay cannot treat these issues with the rigor which is needed, I do hope it might illuminate the differences between Roman and Protestant/Eastern Orthodox views of the Christian faith. I will lay out a few points of argument made by each side in regards to the issue of the papacy.
Catholic Arguments for the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope)
There are many arguments that the Roman church makes in favor of the primacy and leadership of the Pope and the hierarchy of cardinal, bishop and priest which is under him. The argument usually takes two lines-one from the sacred tradition of the church and the other from Holy Scripture.1 On the tradition front, there is a section in the classic work of the 2nd century church father Irenaeus to which Roman Christians point to as favoring papacy. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon which was located in what is now modern day France. He wrote extensively confronting several heretical teachings of his day. He is quoted often in various contexts-in this case, in favor of the primacy of Rome.
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.2
Additionally, the ecumenical council of Nicea in AD 325 listed four major patriarchates/sees (seats of authority) being Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem with Rome given the place of highest honor. In the late fourth century Constantinople was inserted making the list of honor-Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, though the rivalry of Rome and Constantinople would continue until the east/west split in AD 1054. One of the issues was papal authority which the Eastern Orthodox churches still reject until this day. Finally, the text from Matthew quoted above is used extensively in the argument for the papacy. The keys of the kingdom were given to Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome, the first pope. His successors maintain the highest authority in the church. The succession of bishops or overseers of the church in Rome is not the issue, the issue is this man's rule over the church as the supreme representative of Jesus on the earth today.
Arguments Against the Papacy
There are many long standing arguments against the papal authority in church history. They too interpret both tradition and Scripture to make the argument. Again, this is necessarily brief and therefore incomplete. First, it is argued that Peter is but one of a plurality of leaders in the early church. All traditions attribute great honor and leadership to Peter, but he was by no means infallible. During the life of Jesus we see Peter's evolution into a great leader through his many failures. Yet even post resurrection we see the apostle Paul rebuke Peter for his inconsistent and hypocritical actions in relating to Jew and Gentile in a way contrary to the gospel (See Galatians 2:11-14). Second, the text in Matthew 16 does not imply the papacy and certainly nothing like papal infallibility. Many interpretations have been offered which give primacy to Peter and his role in the establishment of the church, but none of this need imply the papacy which evolved in the Roman church during the middle ages. Third, the historical honoring of Rome by councils does not warrant the papacy. Rome is honored as a great historical church in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, but the other great churches and their patriarchates were not subjected to her-in fact, this was not the case with Constantinople and continued to be an issue for hundreds of years and persists until today. There also has been a reality in history which stated that councils should decide matters of dispute, not one bishop. This was the case through the first seven ecumenical councils and was argued by the Conciliar movement in the late middle ages. Additionally, the apostolic succession of Pope's and their infallibility seems historically dubious. First, one particular pope, Honorius 1, was declared posthumously to be a heretic and false teacher in AD 681 for advocating something called Monothelitism . How could he be considered infallible? Second from AD 1378 to 1417 there were actually two popes in the Western church, one in Rome one in France seated at Avignon. The Council of Pisa in 1409 disposed both popes and appointed another, but both did not step down leaving the church with three popes for a brief time. The issues were resolved with the Council of Constance (1414-17) but raised the question of whether a council could rule over the pope for the council had removed the two popes and elected Martin V to power.3 One last historical issue is of note, although the Roman church claims it was always the case, papal infallibility was not made Roman teaching until Vatican I in 1870.
In conclusion it must also be said that the story of the papal institution has been haunted by grabs for power, accumulation of wealth, immorality and sin. Though the Catholic church claims that the Pope has not erred and has never taught in contradiction to Scripture I think history is replete with examples of both action and teaching which do not reflect infallibility. This only means that Popes are people and are in no way infallible. The highest authority for the church has never been the succession in Rome, but the apostolic teaching of Scripture being faithfully entrusted and passed on through the ages. We trust not hierarchy or power to maintain the church, but the Spirit and the Word of God. There are errors on all sides...Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic. Yet our disputes are resolved in humility, standing under, not over the very Word of God in Scripture. History and our lives are messy, we no doubt move forward with truth and error. But much as Luther echoed long ago under great pressure to recant his views-Our consciences are chained to the Word of God...here we stand, we can do no other.
1. It should be noted that in the Roman religion that Scripture and the teaching Tradition of the church are equal forms of authority which are seen as complementary and never contradictory. Protestants hold that Scripture is the supreme authority and is the corrective and judge of all human teaching in the church.
2. Irenaues, Against Heresies 3.3.2-http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html
3. For a good summary of church history during this era see Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (New York: HarperOne, 1984) - See particularly the chapter on the Medieval Papacy.