Eamon Duffy on the Origins of the Papacy

Eamon Duffy is Professor of the History of Christianity, and Fellow and Director of Studies, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. He is author of several significant works of church history including The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) and Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). In the latter volume, discussing the origina of the Papacy he writes:

Irenaeus thought that the Church had been ‘founded and organised at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul,’ and that its faith had been reliably passed down to posterity by an unbroken succession of bishops, the first of them chosen and consecrated by the Apostles themselves. He named the bishops who had succeeded the Apostles, in the process providing us with the earliest surviving list of the popes — Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, and so on down to Irenaeus’ contemporary and friend Eleutherius, Bishop of Rome from AD 174 to 189.

All the essential claims of the modern mpapacy, it might seem, are contained in this Gospel saying about the Rock, and in Irenaeus’ account of the apostolic pedigree of the early bishops of Rome. Yet matters are not so simple. The popes trace their commission from Christ through Peter, yet for Irenaeus the authority of the Church at Rome came from its foundation by two Apostles, not one, Peter and Paul, not Peter alone. The tradition that Peter and Paul had been put to death at the hands of Nero in Rome about the year ad 64 was universally accepted in the second century, and by the end of that century pilgrims to Rome were being shown the ‘trophies’ of the Apostles, their tombs or cenotaphs, Peter’s on the Vatical Hill, and Paul’s on the Via Ostiensis, outside the walls on the road to the coast. Yet on all of this the New Testament is silent. Later legend would fill out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome — his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecutionin Rome, a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision by Christ (the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus at the time of the Emperor Nero. These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church — Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (Saints and Sinners, pg 2.)

(HT: Beggars All)

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. 1. Salutary and helpful.
    2. Coordinates with my reading as well, but he, a professional historian, is–obviously–better.
    3. His books sound like they need to be ordered, especially about the “stripping” of the altars. This will go to the pending Psalter-canonical texts-music-instrument questions, parish and Cathedral traditions, in the early English Reformation. (Still working on this question.)
    4. Dr. Clark, methinks Sharon and I need to relocate to Cambridge, e.g. St. John’s College. I can find a 1662 BCP service with good parish and Cathedral music traditions. As to theology, like now, will have to depend on reading. The American scene is disturbing…the degree of Anabaptist and revivalist influence is becoming clearer to me.
    5. Once again, thanks.

  2. Duffy is spot on about the origins of the papacy but needs nuancing in his rendition of Irenaeus’ theology. The latter also argued for a succession of presbyters handing on the truth, not just the bishops. Moreover, the reason for Ireneaus’ interest in succession was not because it was taught by the NT per se, but as a rebuttal to the Gnostics who claimed a they’d received a secret tradition via succession from the apostles that was not available to all who called themselves Christian.

    Duffy’s history of the English Reformation (in his works like “The Stripping of the Altars”) is highly controversial, not least because of his strong Catholic bias. As a good response I’d recommend Diarmaid MacCulloch’s works.

  3. I have read Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” and I would say it is definitely unfriendly toward the English Reformation. Alister McGrath is also good from the Historical Theology perspective.

    “Saints and Sinners” just might be a good read.

  4. Diarmaid’s work is informative and helpful, delving into details others often skip over. I was however disappointed by what seemed to me to be an over-emphasis on a sexual-political agenda in the work on the Reformation. I haven’t finished his new book – Christianity – the First 3000 Years’. What I have read so far presupposes a very liberal view of Scripture and the supernatural dimensions of early Christianity.

  5. Given that all history is in some sense polemics, in that even at our best historians argue from a perspective, I find Duffy to be a superb and winsome guide into areas that we Protestants have either ignored or become ignorant of. As one of the ‘revisionist’ historians of the English reformations, he is of course arguing that the received traditions of English Protestantism have been selective in the evidence advanced in support of the cause. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with Duffy’s conclusions, he is a careful historian, winsome to read, raising important questions that, at the very least, enrich one’s perspective on the local and national realities of England’s Protestant and Catholic communities. Plus, the fact that he debunks Roman Catholic mythology concerning the founding of the Roman church and the assumptions of a monarchical episcopacy from its beginning should alert one to the fact that Duffy is not some court historian for Mother Church. His Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes is well worth the read, especially if one can get a hold of one of the earlier illustrated editions (I’ve always liked books with pictures!). As is usually the case, there is more than one side to every story.

Comments are closed.