The Myth of the Papacy (1)

conclave of cardinalsYou know by now that Benedict XVI has abdicated the papacy and the college of Cardinals have been preparing to elect a new pope. on Tuesday they are set to begin the process of actually electing a new pope. Over the next few days, news coverage will be intense and, until a pope is elected and if coverage follows the usual pattern, we will likely witness reporters standing outside the Vatican breathlessly saying or implying that this is the way things have been since the 1st century. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. As a matter of history, the papacy is a collection of myths.

Our word “myth” is derived from the Greek word muthos (μυθος). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in English usage, “myth” denotes a

traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

This sense of the word “myth” partly captures what I mean by it here. The papacy is largely the result of a long series of practical and political developments that have been cloaked in the fabric of piety and supernaturalism. In that sense the current papacy invokes a myth involving supernatural explanations of the papacy when there are perfectly natural, historical explanations.

The OED adds a layer of explanation as it begins to list a series of definitions:

a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.

This captures exactly what I mean by myth in this context. There is a widespread but untrue story about the papacy. It is partly the result of assumptions but it is partly the result of a grossly anachronistic story told by Romanist apologists.

The historical truth is that the papacy as we know it today did not begin to exist until Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440–61.  In fact, the pope has not always been “the Pope.” There is absolutely no evidence in the Book of Acts that Peter had primacy among the apostles. Indeed, if we consider that Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch for denying the gospel (apparently “Peter” never learns), then the very notion of an unbroken succession of Petrine popes speaking infallibly from from a divinely instituted throne seems most unlikely indeed.

Though it is indeed possible and, depending upon how one reconstructs the patristic histories, even probable that Peter was in Rome, when the apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome he made no mention of Peter, who, on this reconstruction, was in Rome under Claudius 14 years before. Were Peter regarded as primus inter pares (first among equals) then we would expect some recognition of that status but there is none nor do we find any such recognition in the rest of the NT. It’s at least possible that other NT documents were written to the congregation at Rome and yet there is no recognition of Peter’s alleged primacy. He certainly did not assert any such primacy in the two epistles under his name. In the gospel of Mark, likely written as a follow-on to his visit to Rome and closely associated with his ministry, gives not a hint of Petrine primacy.

The case for the papacy in the 2nd century (from 100 AD) is just as weak. There is no evidence in the so-called Apostolic Fathers (a somewhat arbitrary, if illuminating and important collection of texts from the early to mid-2nd century) that they regarded Peter as the first pope. Terrence Smith says, “There is an astonishing lack of of reference to Peter among ecclesiastical authors of the first half of the second century.”1

Robert Eno says,

The evidence (Clement, Hermas, Ignatius) points us in the direction of assuming that in the first century and into the second, that there was not bishop of Rome in the usual sense given to that title. The office of the single mon-episcopos was slowly emerging in the local Christian communities around the Mediterranean world.2

This is what one finds in the Apostolic Fathers. Because Patristic texts have sometimes been translated under what we might call an “Episcopal assumption,” i.e., under the assumption that when a text says “Episcopos” (επισκοπος) it signals a single, centralized regional manager of the church, we are sometimes left with a misimpression. If, however, we read the Apostolic Fathers in context it quickly appears that we cannot read into “episcopos” the later monepiscopal office and authority.

There was a variety of church governments in the second century. There is good evidence for a variety of ecclesiastical structures in the second century. Three offices are mentioned consistently, episcopos, presbyter, and deacon. These are often used in a non-hierachical sense and the plurality of presbyters is not uncommon.

Gradually, however, in the face of the pressure of persecution, through the third century the churches began to gather around pastors in leading cities (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem) and those pastors began to exert more authority in the organization of the church. The rise of a bishop-centered polity, where a regional pastor exercised authority over local pastors and elders, was a pragmatic, development that modeled itself not on the New Testament pattern but on the prevailing pattern of (Roman) civil government. This, by the way, is yet another reason why Christians need to think carefully, historically, and intelligently about the problem of Christ and culture. When imitate the surrounding culture, when we fail to criticize the influence of the culture in the church, and when we baptize the prevailing culture—under whatever pretense—it has typically not gone well for the church.

The papacy as we know it today is a medieval creature. It did not exist in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, or even the sixth. It was Damasus I, who served 366–84, who first asserted the title “Pope” (Papa) and there was nothing like the papacy as we know it until Gregory I, who was in office from 590–604. As we will see in the series the power and influence of the papacy grew, gradually, by steps until the early 14th century, when, in 1302, in the papal decree (Unam Sanctam) the papacy asserted its primacy against Philip of France. That was likely the highpoint of genuine papal authority and the beginning of a long, ugly decline.

It seems likely that, if the college of cardinals (a medieval development), elects a pope, it will likely be the cardinal protodeacon who announces “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”). That announcement is symbolic of the myth of the papacy. Reporters intone about the ancient rituals, about St Peter’s Basilica, as if things have always been this way. It just isn’t so, however. During this week of March-Papal-Madness, I’ll try to add some historical perspective.

1. Terrence V. Smith, Petrine Controversies in Early Christianity: Attitudes Towards Peter in Christian Writings of the First Two Centuries (Tübingen: Mohr, 1985), 174 cited in Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papcy (Eugene: W & S, 1990), 15.

2. Eno, Ibid, 29.


    • Okay, I’ve taken a look. As I said, I’ve read the Apostolic Fathers. I read them every autumn in a seminar, in a Greek/English text. I’ve seen the same claims that Chapman made in the 20s. They are tendentious. Ignatius, e.g., read on his own terms, read without assuming Romanist definitions, is not even advocating episcopal polity let alone a papacy. Chapman’s account is only convincing to those who already agree with him.

  1. Dr. Clark, WSC should fly you to Rome so that you can be interviewed by all those “breathless” reporters camped outside the Vatican. Myth meets Truth… Thanks for the history lesson.

  2. Calvin (Institutes):
    “30. In regard to those whom they call Cardinals, I know not how it happened that they rose so suddenly to such a height. In the age of Gregory, the name was applied to bishops only (Gregor. Lib. ii. Ep. 15, 77, 79; Ep. 6, 25). For whenever he makes mention of cardinals, he assigns them not only to the Roman Church, but to every other church, so that, in short, a Cardinal priest is nothing else than a bishop.”

  3. Can’t help but comment on the photo. Isn’t it odd how these guys get together in a room filled with nudity? Especially with all the pedophile problems, this does not give a good image. I guess this is what they get to indulge in since they can’t get married. I suggest they do what Luther did and find a nice nun and raise a family; you know, have a mother-in-law like Peter.

    • Garry Wills, who is currently laying siege to the sacerdotal, Romanist, priesthood notes that there are paintings in Rome that show the Trinity in the background (itself a violation of God’s law!) and the faithful focused on God allegedly impanated (“em-breaded,” as it were). That’s Rome.

  4. “The historical truth is that the papacy as we know it today did not begin to exist until Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440–61.”

    “…and there was nothing like the papacy as we know it until Gregory I, who was in office from 590–604.”

    Just for clarity’s sake could you make some distinctions there Dr. Clark? I know you mean something different in each sentence but it comes off a bit contradictory at first blush.

    • Hi Chris,

      No, it’s not a contradiction. I struggled to articulate a developmental approach to the papacy. In distinction from Jay’s appeal to cutting-edge 1924 Romanist scholarship (now on my desk) it’s understood that the papacy and the sacramental system developed over time in response to internal and external stimuli.

      So, Leo I’s claim is a way point in the development of the papacy but the papacy as we know it doesn’t really exist until rather later. The formal claim to be “pope” doesn’t = “the papacy.” It was a contested claim. For that matter, it’s still a contest claim but historians have to distinguish between what Leo said and what actually was. So, we look at Gregory I as the first instance of something like a real “pope.”

      This approach to development is in distinction from the contemporary (post-Vatican I) approach which isn’t really development as much as anachronism. Reading later developments back into earlier situations isn’t really history at all. It’s polemics and dogmatics.


  6. Dr Clark;
    “There is a widespread but untrue story about the papacy. It is….partly the result of a grossly anachronistic story told by Romanist apologists”.
    Isn’t this stating the obvious? One of the tenants of the Catholic Religion is that modern doctrinal statements by Pope (or by Council and ratified by the Pope) are infallible. This infallibility is ensured by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and said operation is guaranteed in Scripture because Christ promised to preserve his Church (Church defined as those loyal to the succession of Roman Bishops). They know that the modern statement is “true”, therefore the historical basis for it must exist, in Tradition, the Fathers, and/or Scripture. Hence, one of the duties of a Doctor of the Church whose field of study is history is to show the historical justification for the new doctrinal statement. To use a well known example, in the Catholic paradigm, when Christ says “on this rock I will build my Church”, the only possible interpretation (for them) is that Peter will be the first Pope and that his Apostleship will pass divinely to his successors. So, while avoiding anachronism should be of first concern for a historian, does not the Catholic paradigm require anachronism of their historians, or am I missing something here?

    • Mark,

      Well, if I omitted the obvious then I should have to close the blog! The obvious is a good starting point—missed by a lot of people!

      Romanists have always practiced anachronism, but now they call it “development.” They don’t see the whole enchilada in the fist instance, because the older approach (to Vatican I) failed. It became too great an embarrassment. So, yes, anachronism is necessary but it’s also necessary to point it out when it comes under the cover of “development.”

    • True, and that’s interesting, as I was wondering about that. Council Vatican I (1870), which drew on Bellarmine, said: “For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.” (Pastor Aeternus, cap. 4) So, how did they get from there to where they are now (development)?

    • Prior to the 19th century Romanists argued that Tridentine doctrine was simply a repetition of what had always been taught. In the 19t century that claim became completely untenable. The polemic turned to a theory of development that is analogous to their doctrine of transubstantiation. Yes, this episode/doctrine/text appears to say/be one thing but it’s really (substantially) something else. The 19th century was a great period for theories of development, whether Hegel (d. 1831) or Darwin (d.1882).

      A proper historical theory will account for genuine continuity and particularity. E.g., Rather than reading the seed of the papacy into implausible texts/contexts (e.g., the NT) it’s better history to see the papacy developing gradually over time in response to stimuli. That actually accounts more fully for the facts as we know them.

      Roman historians do this regularly. Romanist accounts of the development of the sacraments, e.g., admit that they developed out of “sacramentals,” i.e., popular elaborations of the sacraments. They will attempt to link them to the Scriptures but it’s quite half-hearted. They know that the Roman additions are late, medieval, and ecclesiastical rather than biblical institutions.

  7. Dr Clark

    I am glad they are changing the guard at the Vatican (Buckingham, in England) Palace, because it enables me to put to you the long-standing bone of contention I have with regular Catholic inter-locutors – Petrine supremacy. They have recently offered two intriguing points

    1. Is 22 v 21-3 looks forward to Jesus, while remaining the Rock, nevertheless appointing Peter as chamberlain with full authority till the Second Coming. We would then have to concede that one chamberlain could hand over to the next.

    2. In the 3 statements in Mt 16 v 16,17,18 respectively, Jesus says ‘Blessed are you’; ‘you are Peter and on this rock..’; and then ‘I will give you the keys..bind..loose’. They argue that v 16 and 18 clearly focus on blessings/commissionings of Peter, so it would be a discontinuity to suggest that ‘this rock’ in v 17 was then Jesus referring back to himself (or to Peter’s God-enabled statement of faith).

    How say you?!

    3. Behind all this we also touch on a divide on free will between libertarian and compatibilist notions. I take it you favor the latter. My reading of Aquinas (whom they much revere!) suggests he might too, though maybe he is just too ambivalent (as Augustine, who is less revered here!)

    Can you help on this too, please! (and especially whether compatibilism is somehow replaced by libertarianism after conversion – or after baptism in their case)

    In need of ammo!

    • Richard,

      This, it seems to me, is relatively easy. Jesus says that, when Peter confesses Christ, he is the rock. When, however, Peter denies Christ, he is the devil. If Rome wants him for pope they must have him for antichrist.

      In context there’s nothing, not a hint of papacy about the passage. It’s about confessing Christ and not denying him. It’s not in the gospels at all nor in the epistles.

      Beware exegetical anachronism.

    • Aileen,

      If you want to engage the issues, you’re welcome but I’m not posting a bunch of RC polemics and spam from your heroes. The only authority that receives fides implicita here is God’s holy, perspicuous Word. Everything else is subject to criticism.

  8. Thanks Dr Clark (yours of 3.28 pm)

    Any comments about

    1. Is 22 and the chamberlain analogy

    3. the free will point

    2. I fully take your point about Peter capacity to deny Christ. But any comments specifically about Mt 16 v 17 sitting between two verses that are focusing on Peter

    (It’s not me that needs persuading; I just need the ammo !)

  9. Hey Scott –

    while you’re at it, what on earth is a Cardinal?

    I thought they had something to do with baseball…

    “Princes of the church” – talk about an over-realised eschatology!

    - Ben

    • Ben,

      A cardinal Bishop is a papal elector.

      “Cardinal” was originally used adjectivally of any priest permanently attached to a church. Then it became restricted to priests, deacons, and bishops in and around Rome. Cardinal is derived from cardo (hinge, axis). By the 11th century “cardinal” became a noun. In 1059 Nicholas II (contra Henry IV of England), in In Nomine Domine, gave Cardinal Bishops the sole right to elect popes. Cardinal priests and deacons were to give assent.

      By 1150 Cardinal Bishops were to reside in Rome and took up administrative positions there. 1163 they were allowed, in some cases, to return to their sees. Since the 12th century Cardinal Bishops have had precedence over Archbishops and even, since the 15th century, patriarchs. They began wearing the red hat in 1254.

  10. “There is absolutely no evidence in the Book of Acts that Peter had primacy among the apostles. Indeed, if we consider that Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch for denying the gospel (apparently “Peter” never learns), then the very notion of an unbroken succession of Petrine popes speaking infallibly from from a divinely instituted throne seems most unlikely indeed.”

    Not that it has ever stopped them from claiming Petrine supremacy, a few quotes, just for fun:

    Gregory: “Peter remained silent so that, being first in the hierarchy of the Apostles, he might equally be first in humility.”
    Augustine: “By showing that superiors admit that they may be rebuked by their subordinates, St. Peter gave posterity an example of saintliness more noteworthy than that given by St. Paul, although the latter showed, nonetheless, that it is possible for subordinates to have the boldness to resist their superiors without fear, when in all charity they speak out in the defence of truth.”“ (Commentary Ad Gal., II, 11.)
    Thomas Aquinas: “There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith. And, as the Glossa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2.14), ‘St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if sometimes they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects.” (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 33, A. 4)

  11. Dr Clark:
    What is the earliest church father that writes in this manner (assuming the Petrine supremacy)? I’m not really a historian, I like to read a lot of the early writings, but I havn’t read many historical overviews (other than Schaff).


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane or that deny the gospel or advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.