Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Absence of Papal Views Among the Earliest Christians

By Keith Thompson


In the fourth session of the 1870 first Vatican Council, Rome made the utterly false assertion that belief in papal primacy has always been understood by the church as a doctrinal necessity. Rome claimed this teaching “has been ever understood by the Catholic Church (Vatican I, 4th Session, Chapter I, Of the Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in blessed Peter, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates, 1907], p. 37). In the same council Rome declared this teaching is known to all ages . . . [and] has at all times been necessary(Vatican I, 4th Session, Chapter II: On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates, 1907], pp. 38-39 brackets mine).

In this essay we will prove the most primitive Christians after Jesus and the apostles did not have a pope or believe in the papacy. In fact we will show there is no primitive, meaningful evidence Peter was the first Roman bishop. What is more, we will demonstrate there was no Roman bishop prior to A.D. 150. Before that a group of equal bishops governed the Roman Church simultaneously. Thus, there was no “pope” seen as Peter’s unique successor but instead a group.

Moreover, we will refute the historicity of the Roman claim that primitive Christians believed everyone must submit to the papacy “not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world” (Vatican I, bull Pastor Aeternus). We will also refute the Roman claim the earliest Christians believed “if any questions should arise regarding the faith, they must be decided by her [Rome’s] judgement. . . . To her all the Churches are subject; their prelates give obedience and reverence to her” (The Second General Council of Lyons (1274), quoted in Jacques Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, [Alba House, 2001], p. 20 brackets mine).

If we show the most primitive Christians rejected these papal ideas then we historically refute fundamental components of modern Rome’s doctrine of papal primacy. If papal primacy was not taught by the primitive Christians then it is not part of the faith once for all delivered to the saints by God (Jude 1:3). Rome claims her dogmas were all taught by Jesus and the apostles and handed on in scripture and tradition as part of this deposit of faith God revealed. As Vatican I declared:

“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles” (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution, section 4, ed. Vincent McNabb, The Decrees of the Vatican Council, [Burns and Oates, 1907], p. 45).

The Catholic Encyclopedia likewise affirms:

“That Revelation was given in its entirety to Our Lord and His Apostles. After the death of the last of the twelve it could receive no increment. It was, as the Church calls it, a deposit — ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude, 3) — for which the Church was to ‘contend’ but to which she could add nothing” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Charles George Herbermann, [Robert Appleton Company, 1912], Vol. 13, p. 4).

Thus, if the earliest Christians after Jesus and the apostles did not believe in papal primacy then Romanism is refuted and we demonstrate such a doctrine was not revealed by God through Jesus and the apostles in the first century. Finally, we will critique the few specious arguments Roman apologists offer for papalism based on the writings of the earliest church fathers.

No Primitive Evidence Peter was first Roman Bishop

Is there any primitive, meaningful evidence which would substantiate Rome’s claim that Peter functioned as the first Roman bishop? One would think if such an idea is true then we would have numerous early proofs for it. However, not only does the Bible not affirm it, but neither do the apostolic fathers, the early patristic apologists, or the earliest Christian writers after them!

While the New Testament affirms Peter had spent time in Rome (1 Peter 5:13), there’s no indication he functioned as her first bishop. Although Ignatius of Antioch does write to Rome near the end of the first century saying Peter and Paul issued commands to the Roman Christians thereby teaching there at times (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, 4), he never states Peter was the first bishop there. Instead he mentions Peter and Paul on the same level in regards to their time in Rome. Another apostolic father writing towards the end of the first century, Clement of Rome, does indicate Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 5), but he never indicates Peter was her first bishop. Again, if it is true Peter was bishop there, these are the early writings we would expect to affirm that and prove it to be true. But they do not. Dionysius, writing around A.D. 166 in his Letter to Soter at Rome, again affirms Peter and Paul taught in Rome at times and were martyred in there (Letter of Dionysius of Corinth to Soter of Rome, quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25.8), but never says Peter was its first bishop.

Irenaeus (A. D. 130-200) merely stated “Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1). He also claimed Peter and Paul founded the church at Rome and actually made Linus the first bishop which refutes Romanism. He mentions the “Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul . . . [they] committed into the hands of Linus the office of episcopate” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.2-3 brackets mine). This demonstrates that even near the end of the second century Christians were not saying Peter was the first Roman bishop, but that instead Peter and Paul ordained the first Roman bishop. This contradicts the Roman Catholic narrative.  

Moreover, while Tertullian (A. D. 160-225) affirmed Peter and Paul gave the gospel to Romans (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.5), that Peter ordained Clement as the first bishop of Rome (Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics, 32.1), and that Peter taught there at times and died there (Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics,  36.1), he never said Peter was Rome’s first bishop. This is astonishing in light of Romanism’s claim to historicity. Historically speaking, we do not yet see any evidence for a belief which, if true, should have at least been mentioned once by this time.

It is sometimes falsely claimed that Hippolytus (A.D. 170-225) named Peter as the first bishop of Rome in the Liberian Catalog which lists alleged bishops of Rome starting with Peter and ending with Liberius. However, this list actually comes from A.D. 354 as even Catholic scholar Philippe Levillain admits: “Shortly after Eusebius, however, in AD 354, an unknown complier prepared a list of Roman bishops which differs significantly from Eusebius’s. This list, usually called the ‘Liberian Catalogue’ since Liberius is the last mentioned Roman bishop” (Philippe Levillain The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2, [Routledge, 2002], p. 1064; see also Thomas J. Herron, Clement and the Early Church of Rome, [Emmaus Road Publishing, 2010], p. 97). It is speculated by certain Catholics that Hippolytus may have authored portions of the list earlier but to dogmatically claim he is the one who named Peter as being the first Roman bishop is just not demonstrable. The earlier more reliable evidence we provided refutes that idea and shows it is ahistorical.

It is actually not until the early third century when you start to see people coming up with the novel claim Peter was the first Roman bishop. Serious historians employ the historical method when testing a historical claim. They look for early accounts, multiple independent attestation and things of this nature. We don’t find that when it comes to historically discerning if Peter was the first Roman bishop. As we showed, the earliest evidence shows Peter was not the first Roman bishop. This foundational Roman Catholic idea does not have support for almost 200 years after the death of Peter, and it is contradicted by the earlier evidence we amassed.

Catholic scholar H. Burn-Murdoch admitted, “None of the writings of the first two centuries describe Peter as a bishop of Rome” (H. Burn-Murdoch, The Development of the Papacy, [Faber & Faber, 1954], 130). Herman Bavinck’s remarks are also relevant, “It is clear from the bishops’ lists in Hegesippus, Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius that at the end of the second century and even in the beginning of the third, Peter was not yet considered a bishop of Rome” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, trans. John Vriend, ed., John Bolt, [Baker Academic, 2008], p. 365). Catholic scholar Jerome Neyrey admits: “. . . there is solid support for his eventual travel to Rome and martyrdom there . . . There is less evidence of how Peter functioned while in Rome. It would be wrong, however, to read back into first century Rome the existence of the papacy as we know it today. . . . By the late second or early third century, however, the tradition identified Peter as the first Bishop of Rome” (Jerome Neyrey, “St. Peter,” ed. Richard P. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995], p. 993). The historian Philip Schaff remarked, “The Roman tradition of a twenty or twenty-five years’ episcopate of Peter in Rome is unquestionably a colossal chronological mistake” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2011], p. 252). Likewise, the historian John Van Engen notes, “Singular emphasis upon Peter as the founder and first bishop of Rome first emerged in the third century and became prominent in the late fourth century” (J. Van Engen, “Primacy of Peter,” ed. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, [Baker Academic, 2001], p. 910 italics mine).

There was no “Bishop of Rome” until A.D. 150

We can account for the earliest evidence not affirming Peter being the first Roman bishop once we recognize there was no singular Roman bishop until about A.D. 150. Roman Catholics believe in a singular succession of the office of pope. This means they believe Peter handed his alleged papal authority and office to the next bishop of Rome in line, and then he handed on his office to the next pope, etc. As Vatican I erroneously claimed: “blessed Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the universal Church” (Vatican I, 4th Session, Chapter II: On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates, 1907], pp. 39).

Thus, when we examine the history of the early church we should find that Peter had a singular successor in Rome, being the singular Roman bishop who was viewed as the singular leader of the universal church. However, early Christian history actually shows the Roman Church up to the mid second century did not even have a singular bishop or pope! Instead the Roman Church functioned under a plurality of equal bishops who governed it simultaneously. This is, after all, the God-ordained model of church government found in the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament teaches there was a plurality of equal bishops/presbyters in each local church (the “presbyters” were the same as bishops and were not distinct priests as we know from Titus 5:1-7 and 1 Peter 5:1-2). 
Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).

“5This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you—6if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an bishop, as God's steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:5-7).

“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the presbyters of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17).

“. . . appoint yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache, 15).

“For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate [office of bishop] those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 44).

“be obedient to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ” (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 5).
We will now show the earliest evidence demonstrates the Roman Church up until the mid second century functioned with this New Testament model of plural bishops governing simultaneously and did not have a singular bishop or pope seen as Peter’s unique successor as modern Romanism claims.

Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans. When Ignatius wrote his letter to the Roman Church at the end of the first century, he did not greet a single bishop near the beginning like he does when writing to other churches which had one (e.g. like he did in his letters to the Magnesians, Trallians and Ephesians).

Commenting on this point Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown concedes, “No single-bishop is mentioned at Rome, probably because the church still had the twofold structure of presbyter-bishops and deacons” (Raymond Brown, Antioch and Rome: New Testament cradles of Catholic Christianity, [Paulist Press, 1983], p. 202). Roman scholar John P. Meier also confirms: “Ignatius is totally silent about the existence of this pivotal office in the Roman church, probably because – as we can see from 1 Clement – it did not exist in Rome at that time” (John P. Meier, The Petrine Ministry in the New Testament and the Patristic Traditions, ed., J. F. Puglisi, How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010], p. 27).

This severely calls into question the papal claim that the early Roman church affirmed the church being governed by a singular successor of Peter.

Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians. Clement of Rome wrote the Roman Letter to the Corinthians in the late first century. Modern Rome falsely claims Clement was the third successor of Peter as Pope at Rome. However, the evidence shows Clement was not the Roman bishop but was just a secretary of the early Roman Church who wrote on behalf of the Roman bishops (more on this later). When this letter is assessed with a focus on what it tells us tells us about the Roman Church, it is apparent there was no singular bishop of Rome at the time of its composition. Historians take note of the first person plural “we” in the document. For example ch. 62 reads:

“Concerning the things pertaining to our religious observance which are most profitable for a life of goodness to those who would pursue a godly and righteous course, we have written to you” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, Ch. 64).

One never finds first person singular statements such as “I, bishop of Rome tell you X” or even instances of first the person singular at all. This suggests the document was written on behalf of the Roman Church’s leadership (the plurality of bishops).

With regards to Clement being pope, we read in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible:

“. . . it is certain that he did not function as a monarchical bishop, as Irenaeus later claimed (Adv. Haer. 3.3.3), since other early sources (notably Ignatius’ letter to Rome) confirm that the monarchical episcopate did not exist in Rome until at least the middle of the 2nd century (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman, [Amsterdam University Press, 2000], p. 264).

The Shepherd of Hermas. The mid second century Roman document known as The Shepherd of Hermas indicates the New Testament two-fold structure of bishops and deacons was still present at Rome until the mid second century, not the later three-fold structure of single bishop, presbyters, and deacons. Writing from Rome and about Rome the author mentions plural bishops:

“And from the tenth mountain, where were trees which overshadowed certain sheep, they who believed were the following: bishops given to hospitality, who always gladly received into their houses the servants of God, without dissimulation. And the bishops never failed to protect, by their service, the widows, and those who were in want, and always maintained a holy conversation” (The Shepherd of Hermas, Book III, Similitudes, 9, 27).

It also says elsewhere: “After that I saw a vision in my house, and that old woman came and asked me, if I had yet given the book to the presbyters. And I said that I had not.” (Shepherd of Hermas, Book I, Vision 2, Ch. 4). As noted, in the New Testament and primitive churches the office of presbyter and bishop were the same office (e.g. Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Peter 5:1-2). Thus, here the Shepherd is again affirming multiple bishops of Rome. Commenting on this point Orthodox Scholar Laurent A. Cleenewerk remarks, “I am well aware that the distinction between presbyteros [presbyters] and episkopos [bishops] is a delicate one. The consensus among scholars is that it can not be clearly found in the New Testament or in such early writings as 1 Clement” (Laurent A. Cleenewerk, His Broken Body, [Euclid University Consortium Press, 2007], p. 72 brackets mine).

Catholic Scholars. Now, many high level Roman Catholic scholars are willing to admit the early Roman Church did not have a singular bishop or head pope, but that it functioned under the leadership of a plurality of bishops.

In his work From Apostles to Bishops Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest Francis Aloysius Sullivan concedes,
“The other reason for the common opinion that a college of presbyters led the church of Rome well into the second century is based on The Shepherd of Hermas, a work generally agreed to have been written in Rome during the first half of that century. As in I Clement, the terms used here to refer to people in leadership roles are all in the plural: ‘leaders’ (prohegoumenois); ‘presbyters who preside over the church’ (tn presbutern tn proistamenn ts ekklesias); ‘leaders of the church and occupants of the seat of honor’ (prohegoumenois ts ekklesias kai tois prtokathedritais). The Shepherd makes no reference to any one person having a role of leadership in the church. However, the argument is not based merely on silence about a bishop; in my view the stronger evidence in both I Clement and The Shepherd is the consistent use of the plural in referring to those in positions of leadership” (Francis Aloysius Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops, [Paulist Press, 2001], p. 222).

Moreover, in his work The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity Romanist historian Joseph Kelly affirms, 

“In the late 2nd or early 3rd cent. the tradition identified Peter as the first bishop of Rome. This was a natural development once the monarchical episcopate, i.e., government of the local church by a single bishop as distinct from a group of presbyter-bishops, finally emerged in Rome in the mid-2nd cent” (Joseph Kelly, The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity, [The Liturgical Press, 1992], p. 6).

Likewise, in his book Antioch to Rome the Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown says,

“An older generation of Roman Catholic scholars assumed that the single-bishop practice was already in place in Rome in the 90s or earlier; and they opined that, as fourth pope (third from Peter), Clement was exercising the primacy of the bishop of Rome in giving directions to the church of Corinth. The failure of Clement to use his own name or speak personally should have called that theory into question from the start, were there not other decisive evidence against it. As the ecumenical book Peter in the New Testament (done by Roman Catholics and Protestants together) affirmed, the connection between a Petrine function in the first century and a fully developed Roman papacy required several centuries of development, so that it is anachronistic to think of the early Roman church leaders functioning as later popes. Moreover, the Roman episcopal list shows confusion . . . All of this can be explained if we recognize that the threefold order of single-bishop, with subordinate presbyters and deacons, was not in place at Rome at the end of the first century; rather the twofold order of presbyter-bishops and deacons, attested a decade before in I Peter 5:1-5, was still operative. Indeed, the signal failure of Ignatius (ca. 110) to mention the single-bishop in his letter to the Romans (a very prominent theme in his other letters) and the usage of Hermas, which speaks of plural presbyters (Vis. 2.4.2) and bishops (Sim. 9.27.2), make it likely that the single-bishop structure did not come to Rome till ca. 140-150” (Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome, [Paulist Press, 1983], p. 204).

Romanist scholar John P. Meier likewise notes:

“As we have seen from 1 Clement, at the end of the first century, the Roman church was governed by presbyter-bishops assisted by deacons. At the end of the second century, single bishops like Victor I seem firmly in control” (John P. Meier, The Petrine Ministry in the New Testament and the Patristic Traditions, ed.,  J. F. Puglisi, How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010], p. 28).

In The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2 edited by French Roman Catholic historian Philippe Levillain, we read: 

“In the pastoral epistles . . . the role of bishops and presbyters was not yet differentiated (Titus 1:5-7). The church organization revealed in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110) attests to the importance of the monarchical bishop in a good many churches, although Rome at that time was still governed by a college of presbyters or presbyter-bishops. As a matter of fact, it was not until the middle of the 2nd century that Rome had a monarchical bishop” (Philippe Levillain, The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, [Routledge, 2002], p. 1244).

Protestant Scholars. The nineteenth century Reformed historian Philip Schaff noted,

“It is quite evident from the Epistle [Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians] itself that at that time the Roman congregation was still governed by a college of presbyters” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2011], p. 158 n. 2 brackets mine).

At the close of the nineteenth century the Dutch Reformed scholar Herman Bavinck noted the following in his work Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4:

“In keeping with these data, the most ancient tradition consistently mentions Peter and Paul in the same breath and tells us that not Peter alone but Peter and Paul jointly started and built up the church at Rome. These ancient stories know nothing of a stay of many years and of an episcopacy of Peter at Rome. On the contrary, according to 1 Clement (dating from the years 93 to 95), the Shepherd of Hermas (compose at Rome around 100 or 135-45), and Ignatius’ letter To the Romans, the monarchical episcopate did not yet exist in Rome at the time (that is, in any case around the end of the first century), the church was led by a college of presbyters or episcopi” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, trans. John Vriend, ed., John Bolt, [Baker Academic, 2008], p. 365).

In the tome Evangelical Dictionary of Theology edited by Walter A. Elwell we read:

“In recent years the most fundamental attacks have come, ironically from Catholics promoting collegiality. They have produced historical evidence to show that the Roman Church retained a presbyterial structure (making Peter and Clement merely spokesman, not presiding bishops) into the second century, and that the church as a whole had a decentralized regional structure at least into the fourth, whereby councils of bishops ruled on larger issues and the Roman Church enjoyed at best a primacy of honor” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, [Baker Academic, 2001], p. 910).

In the work The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 2 edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Erwin Fahlbusch we read:

“The presbyter-bishops exercised a leadership of oversight in their local churches. Evidently the emergence of a single bishop distinct from a college of presbyter-bishops did not occur until well into the second century” (Geoffrey William Bromiley, Erwin Fahlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Vol. 2, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999],  p. 106).

With respect to the time of Bishop Anacletus, the second alleged successor of Peter as Bishop at Rome, the noted patristic scholar J.N.D Kelly states,

“His [Anacletus’] actual functions and responsibilities can only be surmised, for the monarchial, or one-man, episcopate had not yet emerged in Rome” (J.N.D. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes, ed. Michael J. Walsh, [Oxford University, 2010], p. 3).

In his history of the church Methodist historian Justo L. González notes,

“. . . several of the most ancient churches had lists of bishops linking them with the apostolic past. Rome, Antioch, Ephesus, and others had such lists. Present-day historians do not find such lists absolutely trustworthy, for there are indications that in some churches–Rome among them–there were not at first ‘bishops’ in the sense of a singe head of the local church, but rather a collegiate group of officers who sometimes were called ‘bishops’ and sometimes ‘elders’ – presbyters” (Justo L. González, Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, [HarperCollins, 2010], p. 80).

German theologian and historian of early Christianity Peter Lampe notes that “before the middle of the second century . . . [we observe] the historical plurality of presbyters” (Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006], p. 406 brackets mine).

Reformed scholar Keith Mathison remarks:

“Although Rome traces the origins of the papacy to the Apostle Peter, the historical evidence indicates that there was no monarchical bishop in Rome until sometime between A.D. 140-150. Instead of a single bishop, it appears that the Roman church was organized under a college of presbyters or presbyter-bishops. No evidence exists for any claims to jurisdictional supremacy by Rome in the first century” (Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, [Canon Press, 2011], p. 51).

Thus, there seems to be somewhat of a growing consensus among scholars on this issue. If popery is true how could this be? If the early church believed that was the supreme ruler of the church, and that his Roman successor alone held this primacy of authority, and that Peter and his unique Roman successor alone held the keys of the kingdom of heaven granting them infallibility, why for the first one-hundred years of church history did Rome lack a singular Roman bishop seen as Peter’s successor? In light of credible historical research it is now time to move away from later, novel Romish claims.

Later Contradictory Succession Lists of Roman Bishops

There are contradictory late second century and early third century succession lists of alleged Roman bishops. Why is this so? Many scholars note it is because there actually was no succession of a single bishop until A.D. 150. This is why such later church fathers contradicted eachother on who the earliest single bishops were.

Writing around A.D. 180 Irenaeus wrote that Peter and Paul instituted Linus as the first Roman bishop and then Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telephorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, and Eleutherius followed (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3).

However, writing around A.D. 200 Tertullian offers a rival view. Instead of Peter and Paul instituting Linus as the first Roman bishop and then Clement being third in the list as Irenaeus claimed, Tertullian said Peter ordained Clement as the first Roman bishop. Clement went from being the third bishop of Rome to the first. Tertullian wrote:

“For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies, Ch. 32).

In a later spurious document known as Pseudo-Clement’s Epistle to James, it is also said that Peter ordained Clement as the bishop of Rome. It presents  the following fictitious remark from Peter:

“Hear me, brethren and fellow-servants. Since, as I have been taught by the Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ, whose apostle I am, the day of my death is approaching, I lay hands upon this Clement as your bishop; and to him I entrust my chair of discourse” (Pseudo-Clement’s Epistle to James, 2).

Church historian Everett Ferguson notes that scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, now realize the confusion among these authors arises because they ignored the fact of the primitive Roman Church’s plurality of bishops governing simultaneously:

“As many Protestant and some Roman Catholic historians have observed, the difficulty arises because there was a plurality of presbyter-bishops at this time in the church of Rome, and Irenaeus and others read back into this time the later organization of only one bishop in a church” (Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume One, [Zondervan, 2005], p. 52).

Polycarp Opposed Anicetus the Bishop of Rome on Easter

An incident in the mid second century between the Christian Polycarp (A.D. 69 – 155) and the Roman Bishop Anicetus (d. A.D. 167) demonstrates that papal primacy was unknown to Polycarp. Polycarp went to Rome and met with Anicetus. They disagreed as to the dating of Easter celebration. Polycarp with those of the churches of Asia Minor dated it to the fourteenth of the Jewish month Nisan. However, Roman bishop Anicetus celebrated the resurrection every Sunday and had no one date set aside to have an Easter festival. As the third century church historian Eusebius reported:

“And when the blessed Polycarp visited Rome in Anicetus’s time, though they had minor disagreements on other matters, they made peace immediately, having no wish to quarrel on this point. Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp not to observe it, since he had always done so with John, our Lord’s disciple, and the other apostles whom he knew. Nor did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, who said that he was bound to the practice of the presbyters before him” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.24).

So, not only did Polycarp refuse the practice of the alleged pope Anicetus, but he actually tried to convince Anicetus to adopt his view, though unsuccessfully. This demonstrates Polycarp did not affirm Anicetus had papal primacy. The Roman Catholic Second Council of Lyons said, “if any questions should arise regarding the faith, they must be decided by her [Rome’s] judgement. . . . To her all the Churches are subject; their prelates give obedience and reverence to her” (The Second General Council of Lyons (1274), quoted in Jacques Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, [Alba House, 2001], p. 20 brackets mine). Yet, Polycarp did not exhibit this kind of attitude toward Anicetus. Nor did Polycarp believe “religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25, ed. Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, [The America Press, 1966], p. 48). No, rather Polycarp interacted with Anicetus as though he were simply a regular bishop, not supreme leader of the church. This information shows the papal primacy found in Rome’s modern formulations was not practiced by the earliest Christians. Yet, Rome claims her papal beliefs were always observed by the church!

Early Apologists, Gnostics, Pagans and the Roman Bishop

Another interesting fact undermining papalism is that when the pagans or gnostics would debate and challenge early Christian apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc), not once in the vast amount of literature we have do the pagans or gnostics object to the concept of the institution of the papacy. Also, when debating such people the early apologists did not combat them with argumentation insisting that a sentence from the Roman bishop settled theological disputes. As Isaac Barrow noted:

“It is most prodigious that, in the disputes managed by the Fathers against the heretics, the Gnostics, Valentinians, etc., they should not, even in the first place, allege and urge the sentence of the universal pastor and judge, as a most evidently conclusive argument, as the most efficacious and compendious method of convincing and silencing them” (Isaac Barrow, James Hamilton, The works of Isaac Barrow, Vol. 3, [Nelson, 1861], p. 81).

Addressing Catholic Arguments from Early History

Although the New Catholic Encyclopedia falsely claims you can find some early evidence in support of the papacy, it actually admits the following in direct opposition to Vatican I’s claims of historicity:

“One need not expect to find in the early centuries a formal and explicit recognition throughout the Church either of the primacy or of the infallibility of the pope in the terms in which these doctrines are defined by the Vatican Council” (Patrick Toner, “Infallibility” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, [Robert Appleton Company, 1910], 30 Nov. 2010).

This truly is an odd admission in light of the fact that the First Vatican Council claims their idea of papal primacy is the ancient and constant belief of the universal church (Vatican I, 4th Session, Chapter I, Of the Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in blessed Peter, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates], 1907, p. 37; Vatican I, 4th Session, Chapter II: On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates], 1907, pp. 38-39). Likewise, the Catholic scholar Ludwig Ott gives this admission:

“The Fathers did not expressly speak of the infallibility of the Pope, but they attest the decisive teaching authority of the Roman Church and of its Pontiff” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [Tan Books and Publishers Inc., 1960], p. 288).

Ott admits that no early church fathers expressly spoke of papal infallibility. But I thought papal infallibility was taught by Jesus and the apostles. However, he then argues that the early fathers taught the primacy of the Roman Church and papal authority. We will now deal with the main and earliest examples Catholics bring up to test this claim. We will be examining Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians, Ignatius’s Letter to the Romans, Irenaeus’ writings and Tertullian’s writings. We are told by Catholic apologists these documents affirm that the primacy of the Roman Church and the papacy were primitive realities for the earliest Christian people. Yet, once responsible, thorough investigation is conducted, such claims are shown to be inaccurate. 

Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians

Regarding the first century Roman document known as Clements letter to the Corinthians, the relevant part of this letter has to do with its offering instruction to the Corinthian Church who, because of troubles, deposed some of her own presbyter-bishops from office. With the author allegedly being a pope according to the Romanists, Romish apologists will argue he speaks with papal authority: “But if certain persons should be disobedient unto the words spoken by Him [Jesus Christ] through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger, but we shall be guiltless of this sin” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 58, 59). Romanists also point out that Clement demanded obedience to this epistle by saying: “For ye will give us great joy and gladness, if ye render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 63). However, such authoritative language and exhortations urging repentance and obedience does not require papal primacy. After identifying this Roman argument as “objectively weak” Orthodox scholar Laurence Cleenewerck observes:

“We find other bishops writing strong reprimands to other Churches. Bishop Dionysius of Corinth wrote to the Athenians ‘censuring them’ and to Bishop Palmas of Amastris he ‘directs’ a policy on repentance. We should also mention the many bishops who ‘sharply rebuked’ Bishop Victor of Rome in the affair of the Asiatic Churches. . . . In short, a comparison of Clement’s letter with similar correspondence yields nothing in favour of ‘an early papal decretal” (Laurence Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, Euclid University Press, 2008], pp. 149-150).

Henry Hudson likewise observes:

“Clement did not really assert jurisdictional authority; rather, the tenor of his letter was clearly that of spiritual concern for the feuding Christians at Corinth, and he rebuked them for their unruly behaviour. By analogy, this would be little different from any pastor writing to admonish Christian brethren in a church other than his own. Certainly it would not mean lordship over them” (Henry Hudson, Papal Power, [The Trinity Foundation, 2008], pp. 43-44).

Some Roman apologists claim that the Church of Corinth actually asked the Church of Rome for a decision allegedly recognizing its papal power. For example, Romish apologist Scott Butler erroneously asserted: “The Corinthian Church, this is around the year 95, had appealed to Rome to make a decision” (Boston College Papacy Debate, Dr. Robert Sungenis & Scott Butler vs. Dr. James White & Robert Zins, 1995). However, another Roman Catholic writer, Steve Ray, admits, “There is no evidence of an appeal by the Corinthian Church to Rome for help” (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 125 note 23).

Contrary to the claim that the Corinthian Church appealed to Rome for a decision or that the Church of Rome was here viewed as having jurisdictional primacy over the whole church, patristic scholar Cyril C. Richardson notes,

“In any case there is no evidence that Corinth applied to Rome for a judgment in the matter. Rome's intervention is to be explained from other factors. It was nothing extraordinary for leaders of one church to send a letter of advice and warning to another congregation. The apostolic prerogative exercised by Paul had set a wide precedent which was followed by the author of the seven letters in the Revelation, by Ignatius, by Polycarp, by Dionysius of Corinth, by Serapion, and by many others. Each Christian community seems to have felt a sufficient sense of responsibility for the others so that its leaders could admonish them with solicitude. In some instances, of course, the authors claimed a special right to speak. The seer of the Revelation and the martyr Ignatius are examples. But the point to bear in mind is that the local churches did not conceive of themselves as isolated and autonomous units. They were part of the wider Church, and were not unconcerned with what happened in other congregations. This is most forcibly brought home to us by the style of our document. For it is not written in the name of an individual, but of a congregation. It is very far from a papal decree, though it was doubtless written by one of the leaders of the Roman church. It makes no claim to superior authority, but, basing itself on the authority of Scripture, it tries to persuade an errant congregation to return to the right way…Corinth, moreover, by being a natural halt on the route between Rome and the East would be in constant touch with the imperial capital” (Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, [John Knox Press, 2006], pp. 35-36).

After all else fails Roman apologists will ask why the Corinthian Church did not just ask the Apostle John for a decision instead. As Roman apologist Steve Ray argues:

“At the time of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle John was presumably still living and presiding over the Asian Churches only 240 miles away from Corinth. Why was John not consulted to correct the problem in Corinth? Why was the task assumed to be the responsibility of Rome, which was well over six hundred miles away? (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 122).

However, in response to this rather desperate Roman assertion the scholar Dr. Laurence Cleenewerck notes:

“The issue of St. John still being alive is hardly worth mentioning. John may have been out of reach in his Patmos exile and the relationship between Rome and Corinth was already established . . . if we are to understand that Peter had ‘chief authority among the brethren’. . . we have the question of John finding himself under the ‘chief authority’ of the Bishops of Rome. This is the Roman Catholic position if, as they contend, Peter’s successors are exclusively the bishops of that city. It is difficult to argue that the Gospel of John allows for such an interpretation. Clearly, the destiny of the beloved disciple is not Peter’s business or concern, much less that of any future bishop anywhere” (Laurence Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, [Euclid University Press, 2008], pp. 150, 275).

Now, regarding Clement allegedly being a pope, the second century Roman document called The Shepherd of Hermas refutes such an idea noting Clement was actually the secretary of the Roman Church which is why he wrote The Letter to the Corinthians on behalf of the Roman bishops: “Write, then, two small booklets, one for Clement and one for Grapte. Clement will then send it to the cities abroad since this is his duty” (The Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2, 4). In their work History of the World Christian Movement, Volume 1 Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist mention Hermas . . . who recorded a series of charismatic visions he received around this same period, mentioned Clement in the capacity of a corresponding secretary for the churches in Rome without specifically referring to any Episcopal office (Dale T. Irvin, Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1, [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 78). The Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman came to the same conclusion: “This Clement then appears to have had an official role in the church, at least in Hermas’s time (first part of the second century), as some kind of secretary in charge of foreign correspondence” (Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, [Harvard University Press, 2003], p. 21). Hence, the evidence suggests Clement was secretary of the Roman Church and that is why he wrote the Letter to the Corinthians on behalf of the multiple Bishops in Rome. Thus, to identify him as “the pope” or “the bishop of Rome” is inaccurate.

More on the Shepherd of Hermas

Some Roman apologists have noted in the section of the Shepherd of Hermas called “Commands” or “Mandates” mention is made of “men sitting on a seat, and one man sitting on a chair” (Shepherd of Hermas, Commandments, 11). They claim this refers to a main bishop of Rome on the chair and lesser bishops under him on a seat. However, this is incorrect since in the next sentences we read, “And he says to me, Do you see the persons sitting on the seat? I do, sir, said I. These, says he, are the faithful, and he who sits on the chair is a false prophet, ruining the minds of the servants of God” (Shepherd of Hermas, Commandments, 11). Are Romanists willing to say their pope was a false prophet?

Hence, in this difficult passage, rather than speaking about a pope or leading bishop of Rome occupying this mysterious seat, he mentions some false prophet. The comments of Catholic scholar Bernard Green serve as an answer to any attempt to use this Hermaen passage as dogmatic evidence for papalism: “the passage is too obscure to bear much weight of interpretation” (Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome, [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010], p. 93).

Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans

Ignatius’s Letter to the Romans written around A.D. 105 is important to address since Roman apologists often misuse it. However, it is actually very damaging to papal claims since it speaks of the Roman Church as being “her that hath presidency in the country of the region of the Romans” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, Greeting). Rather than bolstering the supposed universal presidency over the whole church, Ignatius actually limits Rome’s jurisdictional authority. As English church historian William Bright observes,  here Ignatius “indicates no more than her pre-eminence among Italian Churches” (William Bright, The Roman See in the Early Church and Other Studies in Church History, [BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009], pp. 26-27). Papal apologists also appeal to Ignatius’s remark that the Church of Rome “has a presidency of love” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, Greeting). However, again, Bright notes this remark “has been absurdly strained by treating ‘love’ as a synonym for ‘the whole Christian community,’ (without any such limitation as the other clause suggests), whereas it naturally points to the peculiar conspicuousness of the Roman Church in the matter of generous charity, to which as Bishop Lightfoot aptly remarks, Dionysius of Corinth bore testimony, and which Dionysius of Rome exhibited by sending relief to sufferers in Asia Minor” (William Bright, The Roman See in the Early Church and Other Studies in Church History, [BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009], pp. 26-27). Indeed, all Ignatius says is the Roman Church had a presidency over Italian Churches and that due to its early generosity and charity, it could be said to have a presidency of love (i.e., it was a very loving church). There is no papalism here.

Now, Roman apologists will claim such high language in Ignatius’s greeting to Rome nevertheless somehow proves Roman supremacy. But, this type of exalted language Ignatius employed towards the Roman Church was not limited to Rome. Ignatius used very exalted language towards the Church of Ephesus in his letter to them. Hence, this was common and does not warrant a popish interpretation. To the Ephesians Ignatius wrote:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestined before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory, being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God: Abundant happiness through Jesus Christ, and His undefiled grace” (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, Greeting).

Imagine if Ignatius’ words to the Ephesians were instead offered to the Roman Church. Protestants would never hear the end of it. The Catholics would shout: “Ignatius said the Roman church was predestined before time that it would endure in unchangeable glory! This proves the supremacy of the Roman Church!” But, obviously such language was common in Ignatius and therefore does not affirm the doctrine of the papal primacy. Plus, lest Catholics forget, Ignatius does not even mention a single Roman bishop or teach anything about the alleged authority of a pope.

Irenaeus on Roman Bishops and Roman Preeminence

Roman Catholics will also appeal to the writings of the second century church father Irenaeus in so far as they claim he affirmed the succession of Roman Popes and the absolute primacy of the Roman Church. However, we already noted Irenaeus’s succession list of Roman bishops contradicts other lists from that period because the earlier Roman Church did not even have a single bishop model as the most primitive evidence proves. Thus, historians do not view Irenaeus’s remarks of the succession of Roman bishops as carrying much weight anymore. Nevertheless let us examine his remarks to see if he teaches the supremacy of the Roman church and papal authority. In A.D. 180 Irenaeus wrote the following in his work Against Heresies:
“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 preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate...To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric…To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.2, 3)
I will offer six reasons as to why this patristic citation does not support the doctrine of the papacy or the supreme authority of the Roman Church.

First, in this quotation Irenaeus does not talk about popes but bishops of Rome. Such language about Roman popes of the universal church is a much later development. Therefore, it is erroneous when people claim Irenaeus talked about popes of Rome.

Second, Irenaeus does not say Peter was the first Roman bishop. He says that Peter and Paul made Linus the first Roman bishop. This is important because the official Roman view of today is that Peter was the first Roman bishop and as such he was functioning as the first pope. However, Irenaeus says nothing of that nature.

Third, although this is assumed by some papists, Irenaeus never says the subsequent Roman bishops were the unique sole successors of Peter with infallible unique power as leaders of the universal church. That is neither the context nor the emphasis of this passage. Irenaeus does not here speak of the Roman bishops as if they alone possessed Peter’s alleged unique power and authority. No, here Irenaeus was actually responding to the gnostic heretics of his day who erroneously claimed they had special secret oral tradition from the apostles (which is actually quite similar to what modern Romanism says!). Irenaeus argued that Peter and Paul ordained the first Roman bishop and that there is a succession of true Christian gospel teaching handed down bishop to bishop. Thus, he argued, the gnostic heretics should recognize that Irenaeus’ gospel, preserved in Rome, was true and that “secret gnostic teachings” were untrue. Therefore, the emphasis is neither the primacy of Peter alone, nor on the primacy of the Roman bishops as sole leaders of the church. That is not the context. The emphasis is on being able to trace the gospel or faith back to the apostles through a line of bishops because gnostic groups falsely claimed to have true secret teachings from the apostles.

Fourthly, as we have shown, despite Irenaeus’ late second century statements regarding singular Roman bishops succeeding Peter and Paul, the earlier historical data written long before Irenaeus shows that there was no singular bishop functioning in Rome until the mid second century. This was covered earlier in depth, but here we will quote Peter Lampe’s excellent discussion regarding this issue as it pertains to Irenaeus’s writings:

“The presence of a monarchical bearer of tradition is projected back into the past. This model of history abstracts from the actual course of history; one would have had to present a ‘bundle’ of chains before the middle of the second century in order to correctly portray the historical plurality of presbyters as Roman bearers of tradition. But this type of unpopular, complex representation was badly suited for a handy model of history by which the integrity of Eleutherus’s doctrine was supposed to be proved. Result: The list of Irenaeus (Haer. 3.3.3) is with highest probability a historical construction from the 180’s, when the monarchical episcopate developed in Rome. Above all, the framework of ‘apostolic’ twelve members (from Linus to Eleutherus) points in the direction of a fictive construction. The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the city of Rome (for example, ‘Clement’ or the brother of Hermas, ‘Pius’). They had belonged to presbyters of Roman church history. These persons, however, would never have understood themselves as monarchical leaders–especially Pius at the time of Hermas” (Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006], p. 406).

Fifth, here Irenaeus says that Peter and Paul committed into the hands of Linus the office of episcopate. But let us think about this. Why would Peter, if he was in fact the pope, commit into the hands of Linus the papacy if he (i.e., Peter) was still living? What you would have is two popes living at the same time. This further illustrates the erroneous nature of the Roman Catholic position.

Sixth, what did Irenaeus mean when he said, “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should convenire with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.2)? There has been much scholarly discussion centered around Irenaeus’ use of the Latin word convenire on if it means “agree with” the Roman Church (i.e., submit to the Roman Church and its teaching) as Roman apologists argue, or if it means “resort to” and “foregather” at the Roman Church (i.e., so that the apostolic faith would be kept, preserved and witnessed there). This seems to be the context rather than the first option. The Latin word can mean either or but the context is the key. Scholars like Nicholas Afanassieff and Laurence Cleenewerck argue the phrase should be rendered something like “every church should foregather with the Roman Church” as opposed to “every church should agree with (or submit to) the Roman church.” The end of the Irenaean sentence contained in relevant quotation makes it clear he is speaking about everyone foregathering at, or having recourse, to Rome: “. . . that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” Hence, Irenaeus’ use of the word convenire should be understood as pointing to the necessity of Christians at that time foregathering at or having recourse to Rome so people could witness the apostolic traditional teachings held by Christians around the world which were preserved there.

That is why Irenaeus then says the Roman church was supreme in its class or preeminent in the same paragraph. It is a preeminent example of tradition perseveration. Irenaeus further confirms our interpretation with an example noting how Polycarp, the first century bishop of Smyrna, had learned from the apostles and then went to Rome with that knowledge preserving true teaching there. This is, again, why everyone should convenire (“forgather”) at Rome. Irenaeus states that, “He [Polycarp] it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3,3,4). So, this is clearly the context which destroys the papal misuse of this text.

Orthodox scholar Nicholas Afanassieff notes,

“I think a likelier sense of convenire here is ‘address oneself to,’ ‘turn to,’ ‘have recourse to.’ The sense of the remark should then be: every local church should have recourse to the Church of Rome” (Nicholas Afanassieff, The Church Which Presides in Love, ed., John Meyendorff, The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church, [St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992], p. 132).

Orthodox scholar Laurence Cleenewerck likewise states:

convenire ad should properly be translated ‘resort to.’ In this case, Irenaeus is saying that in order to ascertain controversial issues, the Churches should consult with the ‘apostolic witness’ par excellence, the Roman Church because the preaching of Peter and Paul was still fresh and preserved intact” (Laurence Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, [Euclid University Press, 2008], p. 280).

Roman Catholic scholar Robert Eno does not see in this reference from Irenaeus any Roman supremacy in the modern papal sense:

“The context of Irenaeus’ argument does not claim that the Roman Church is literally unique, the only one of its class; rather, he argues that the Roman Church is the outstanding example of its class, the class in question being apostolic sees. While he chose to speak primarily of Rome for brevity’s sake, in fact, before finishing, he also referred to Ephesus and Smyrna (Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy, [Wilmington: Glazier, 1990], p. 39 quoted in William Webster’s, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, [Banner of Truth Trust, 1995], pp. 57, 58).

Irenaeus, Pope Victor and the Easter Controversy

Victor the Bishop of Rome reigned from A.D. 189-199. He had a conflict with the churches of Asia Minor over the date of Easter. The Asian Churches celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan whether the date fell on a Sunday or not. Victor proposed that local churches everywhere hold their own synods on the issue and come to decisions. All but the churches of Asia Minor led by Polycrates reported back to Victor affirming Sunday Easter. Victor, along with the rest of the churches, held that the day the Resurrection ought to be celebrated on was Sunday. Polycrates, spokesman for the Asiatic churches and bishop of the church at Ephesus, the leading church in Asia Minor, refused to yield to Sunday Easter. Polycrates therefore wrote a letter to Victor, which Eusebius quotes in his Church History, claiming that the tradition of the church supports his case. Victor then wrote to the Asian churches declaring they were excommunicated. Many bishops disagreed with this decision. Irenaeus then persuaded Victor, by letter, not to take such a rash route and sharply rebuked him explaining that although there were similar controversies earlier on, for example with Polycarp and Anicetus, peace was still maintained. As the third and fourth century church history Eusebius documents:

“Among them was Irenæus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom . . . He adds to this the following account, which I may properly insert: ‘Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it…16. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another…Thus Irenæus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches” (Eusebius, Church History, Ch. 24).

With that said, the Roman Catholic claim is that this Easter controversy allegedly shows Victor had a universal primacy of jurisdiction at the end of the second century. Roman apologists usually make two main arguments. The first argument is that Victor shows his primacy of jurisdiction by proposing local synods gather and come to conclusions on the issue (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 160 n. 26). This is the question: does a request to other bishops on the part of the Bishop of Rome to summon councils so that they can individually consider the issue for themselves really prove Victor was the Vicar of Christ with absolute primacy of jurisdiction? The answer is: obviously not. As Edward Denny notes in his classic work Papalism:

“It is noticeable that he did not issue ‘in virtue of his Apostolic Primacy,’ a command that the universal Church should henceforth observe that custom, he did not 'command' Synods to be held in order that his decree binding on the whole Church should be promulgated in them. On the contrary, it is clear from the letter which Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, wrote to ‘Victor and the Church of the Romans’ in the name of his Synod, that he asked the Metropolitans to hold Synods. The word which Polycrates uses is ήξιέωσάτε, ‘you requested,’ a word which plainly implies that Victor had no jurisdiction to compel the convocation of such Synods” (Edward Denny, Papalism, [Rivingtons, 1912], p. 251).

The second argument from Roman apologists is that Victor had the supposed papal authority to excommunicate the churches of Asia which, according to papists, shows his primacy of jurisdiction on matters of church government (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 162 n. 29). In addressing these Roman claims it is important to again pay careful attention to the account by Church historian Eusebius:

“Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor” (Eusebius, Church History, Ch. 24).

The Roman position is refuted when one notes Eusebius says Victor merely “attempted” or “endeavoured” to cut off the churches of all Asia. Commenting on this point the historian Abbe Guettee, who left Roman Catholicism, notes:

“It is difficult to believe that the partisans of the Roman pretensions can find in these words of Eusebius and in the conduct of Victor any proof in favor of their system. Without much effort, they might find in them a proof to the contrary. The expression of Eusebius, that ‘Victor endeavoured,’ etc., must first be noticed. It is clear that those who endeavour have not in themselves the power to do that which they have in view, otherwise the act would follow the will” (Abbe Guettee, The Papacy, [Carleton, 1867], p. 58).

Moreover, the fact Eusebius tells us many bishops disagreed with Victor’s decision and even rebuked him for it shows they did not believe he had papal primacy and universal supremacy over such matters of church government. Nevertheless, modern Rome claims the pope must be listened to on matters of church government: “[all must] submit to this power by duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this is not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world” (Vatican I, bull Pastor Aeternus). Guettee notes:

“The Bishops, who would have submitted to his sentence, if they had recognized in him the Head of the Church, invested with universal authority, not only did not obey him, but strongly censured his conduct. ‘But this,’ adds Eusebius, ‘was not the opinion of all the Bishops. They immediately exhorted him,’ [Victor] ‘on the contrary, to contemplate that course that was calculated to promote peace, unity, and love to one another.’ Thus, instead of believing that unity consisted in union with Victor, the bishops exhorted him to observe better the true notions of unity. Many went even further. ‘There are also extant,’ continues Eusebius, ‘the expressions they used, who pressed upon Victor with much severity” (Abbe Guettee, The Papacy, [Carleton, 1867], p. 58-59).

Moreover, with respect to the issue of Victor excommunicating the Asian churches, modern Roman apologists assume that this meant the same thing back then that it means today. However, Michael Plekon observes:

“Modern historians speak of the excommunication of these churches. If we attribute to this term the modern meaning we use, then it is absolutely wrong in this earlier context. The pope had not wished to excommunicate, and it appears, had not truly done but one thing. He had effectively broken communion with the churches of Asia Minor so that these churches found themselves outside the union of local churches. People of this era, and in particular Pope Victor himself, were far from thinking that the churches of Asia Minor ceased to be the Church of God after this break in communion and consequently that the sacraments celebrated in them were no longer valid. The only result of the break was that the churches of Asia Minor were isolated from the other churches, which explains, most probably, why they appear to disappear from the stage of history for some time at this point (Michael Plekon, Tradition Alive, [Rowman & Littlefield, 2003], p. 19).

Tertullian and “Pontifex Maximus”

Tertullian (A.D. 160 – 220) was an influential Latin Christian who later became a Montanist. After he left mainstream Christianity and joined the Montanist sect he wrote a work called On Modesty. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic apologists appeal to the content of this work when discussing early views on the Bishop of Rome. When writing this work Tertullian was outraged about an edict issued by an unnamed Bishop who many assert was the Bishop of Rome of Tertullian’s day, (i.e., Callistus who reigned from A.D. 217-222). I will present the facts as though Tertullian were referring to Callistus even though that is debatable. Tertullian had a problem with sins like adultery and fornication being remitted or forgiven by the church and taught that they could only be forgiven by God. In the edict by Callistus which Tertullian was opposed to we see a more relaxed position which is that those guilty of such sins could be re-admitted to communion if they repented. In response to this edict Tertullian wrote the following:

“In opposition to this (modesty), could I not have acted the dissembler? I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus — that is, the bishop of bishops — issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.’ O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, Good deed!” (Tertullian, On Modesty, Ch. 1).

Notice, Tertullian mocks Callistus calling him “bishop of bishops” and “Pontifex Maximus,” the latter being a pagan title belonging to the leader of the pagan cults in Rome which means “greatest high priest.” It is ironic that this pagan title Tertullian used to mock the Roman bishop would actually be favourably used by later popes in history. Hence, today you will see Roman coins with the faces of popes and the words “Pont. Max.” inscribed. Tertullian was in a way following in the footsteps of the church father Irenaeus who had to censure Victor the Roman bishop during the Easter controversy, Cyprian who opposed the Roman bishop Stephan the on the issue of baptism, and Augustine who opposed the Roman bishop Zosimus on the issue of Pelagianism.

Although Tertullian sees Callistus as exceeding the powers of his office by allowing certain sinners to repent of serious sins and be re-admitted to communion, there is nothing in Tertullian’s work demonstrating he believed Callistus was claiming to literally be the unique successor of Peter with absolute primacy of jurisdiction on matters of faith and morals. The reason Tertullian called Callistus “Pontifex Maximus,” a pagan title meaning “greatest high priest,” was not because Callistus actually had universal primacy, but because for Tertullian only Jesus was “Pontifex Patris” or “high priest of the Father” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book, IV, Ch. 13) and “authenticus Pontifex dei Patris” or “authentic High Priest of God the Father” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book V, Ch. 9) who could forgive irremissible sins. Tertullian thus remarked, “lighter sins, will be able to obtain pardon from the bishop, or else, for greater and irremissible ones, from God only” (Tertullian, On Modesty, Ch. 18). Therefore, Tertullian condescendingly called Callistus “Pontifex Maximus” or “greatest high priest” because he perceived that Callistus was trying to take Jesus’ spot in remitting irremissible sins (i.e., the spot of the true high priest of God). And he mockingly called him “bishop of bishops” because for Tertullian a bishop could only remit lighter sins. So, as Tertullian mockingly reasoned, Callistus must have been a super-bishop or “bishop of bishops” if he could remit serious ones. Once this context is observed, any implication of papalism evaporates. Clearly Tertullian did not apply such titles to Callistus because he saw him as claiming universal jurisdiction over every believer on matters of faith and morals. Those are foreign popish concepts which have nothing to do with the context of this situation.

Secondly, there is a popular alternative view to this Callistus interpretation. Many scholars think Tertullian was actually rebuking Aggripinus the bishop of Carthage which, if true, would likewise refute the Roman Catholic misuse of this text. As Orthodox scholar Laurent Cleenewerck states:

“Tertullian became bitterly critical of the ‘lax’ absolutions granted by an unnamed bishop who may have been either Callistus or Aggripinus of Carthage. . . Unfortunately, there is no way to determine whether Tertullian was referring to the bishop of Carthage or Rome. . . Incidentally, the title ‘pope’ was also commonly used to refer to the bishop of Carthage which renders the identification of Tertullian’s opponent all the more difficult” (Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, [Euclid University Press, 2008], pp. 283-284 n. 2).

This is debatable but scholars who hold to the view that Tertullian was referring to Aggripinus bishop of Carthage include Edward Denny in his work Papalism, T.D. Barnes in his work Tertullian, David Rankin in his work Tertullian and the Church, Hans von Campenhausen in his work The Fathers and the Latin Church, and David Wright in The Early Christian World, Vol. 2, etc. Consult their works for argumentation for that position. If this view is true it would utterly refute the Roman argument. But, as we showed, even if Tertullian was referring to Callistus it would not affirm papal primacy existed in the early third century.


This is as far as a historian using criteria of authenticity will want to go in regards to discerning if the most primitive Christians affirmed popery. This is because historians want to assess the earliest material. After the period we covered, however, we observe much speculation, deviation, man-made ideas and opinions I am frankly not interested in assessing. We have seen the apostolic fathers, second century apologists, and more of the earliest Christian writers knew nothing of the office of the papacy. We demonstrated Peter was not the first Roman bishop. We documented there was no singular Roman bishop until the middle of the second century. We documented various primitive fathers rejected fundamental components of papal primacy. Finally, we refuted the various Romish attempts at showing the earliest material supports papal primacy. Thus, history clearly stands against the papal narrative Romanists have been deceived to accept.

We can maintain with absolute confidence, based on the correspondence view of truth, an answer in the negative to the question of whether or not modern Rome’s papal views come from Jesus and the apostles. Those they handed their teaching to clearly did not advocate papalism. Thus, papal primacy, like many of Rome’s other teachings, is not part of divine revelation and should be rejected by the person who seeks to believe what God actually revealed in the first century.

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