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Was Peter in Rome?

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Was Peter in Rome?

Like other Protestants, Fundamentalists say Christ never appointed Peter as the earthly head for the simple reason that the Church has no earthly head and was never meant to have one. Christ is the Church’s only foundation, in any possible sense of that term. 

The papacy, they say, arose out of fifth- or sixth-century politics, both secular and ecclesiastical; it has no connection with the New Testament. It has not been established by Christ, even though supposed “successors” to Peter (and their defenders) claim it was. At best the papacy is a ruse; at worst, a work of the devil. In any case, it is an institution designed to give the Catholic Church an authority it doesn’t have. 

A key premise of their argument is the assertion that Peter was never in Rome. It follows that if Peter were never in Rome, he could not have been Rome’s first bishop and so could not have had any successors in that office. How can Catholics talk about the divine origin of the papacy, Fundamentalists argue, when their claim about Peter’s whereabouts is wrong? 

Let’s look at this last charge, reserving for another tract a look at Peter’s position among the apostles and in the early Church. 


How to Understand the Argument

At first glance, it might seem that the question, of whether Peter went to Rome and died there, is inconsequential. And in a way it is. After all, his being in Rome would not itself prove the existence of the papacy. In fact, it would be a false inference to say he must have been the first pope since he was in Rome and later popes ruled from Rome. With that logic, Paul would have been the first pope, too, since he was an apostle and went to Rome. 

On the other hand, if Peter never made it to the capital, he still could have been the first pope, since one of his successors could have been the first holder of that office to settle in Rome. After all, if the papacy exists, it was established by Christ during his lifetime, long before Peter is said to have reached Rome. There must have been a period of some years in which the papacy did not yet have its connection to Rome. 

So, if the apostle got there only much later, that might have something to say about who his legitimate successors would be (and it does, since the man elected bishop of Rome is automatically the new pope on the notion that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and the pope is merely Peter’s successor), but it would say nothing about the status of the papal office. It would not establish that the papacy was instituted by Christ in the first place. 

No, somehow the question, while interesting historically, doesn’t seem to be crucial to the real issue, whether the papacy was founded by Christ. Still, most anti-Catholic organizations take up the matter and go to considerable trouble to “prove” Peter could not have been in Rome. Why? Because they think they can get mileage out of it. 

“Here’s a point on which we can point to the lies of Catholic claims,” they say. “Catholics trace the papacy to Peter, and they say he was martyred in Rome after heading the Church there. If we could show he never went to Rome, that would undermine—psychologically if not logically—their assertion that Peter was the first pope. If people conclude the Catholic Church is wrong on this historical point, they’ll conclude it’s wrong on the larger one, the supposed existence of the papacy.” Such is the reasoning of some leading anti-Catholics. 


The Charges in Brief

The case is stated perhaps most succinctly, even if not so bluntly, by Loraine Boettner in his best-known book, Roman Catholicism (117): “The remarkable thing, however, about Peter’s alleged bishopric in Rome is that the New Testament has not one word to say about it. The word Rome occurs only nine times in the Bible [actually, ten times in the Old Testament and ten times in the New], and never is Peter mentioned in connection with it. There is no allusion to Rome in either of his epistles. Paul’s journey to the city is recorded in great detail (Acts 27 and 28). There is in fact no New Testament evidence, nor any historical proof of any kind, that Peter ever was in Rome. All rests on legend.” 

Well, what about it? Admittedly, the Bible nowhere explicitly says Peter was in Rome; but, on the other hand, it doesn’t say he wasn’t. Just as the New Testament never says, “Peter then went to Rome,” it never says, “Peter did not go to Rome.” In fact, very little is said about where he, or any of the apostles other than Paul, went in the years after the Ascension. For the most part, we have to rely on books other than the New Testament for information about what happened to the apostles, Peter included, in later years. Boettner is wrong to dismiss these early historical documents as conveyors of mere “legend.” They are genuine historical evidence, as every professional historian recognizes. 


What the Bible Says

Boettner is also wrong when he claims “there is no allusion to Rome in either of [Peter’s] epistles.” There is, in the greeting at the end of the first epistle: “The Church here in Babylon, united with you by God’s election, sends you her greeting, and so does my son, Mark” (1 Pet. 5:13, Knox). Babylon is a code-word for Rome. It is used that way multiple times in works like the Sibylline Oracles (5:159f), the Apocalypse of Baruch (2:1), and 4 Esdras (3:1). Eusebius Pamphilius, in The Chronicle, composed about A.D. 303, noted that “It is said that Peter’s first epistle, in which he makes mention of Mark, was composed at Rome itself; and that he himself indicates this, referring to the city figuratively as Babylon.” 

Consider now the other New Testament citations: “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion’” (Rev. 14:8). “The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev. 16:19). “[A]nd on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations’” (Rev. 17:5). “And he called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great’” (Rev. 18:2). “[T]hey will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, ‘Alas! alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come’” (Rev. 18:10). “So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence” (Rev. 18:21). 

These references can’t be to the one-time capital of the Babylonian empire. That Babylon had been reduced to an inconsequential village by the march of years, military defeat, and political subjugation; it was no longer a “great city.” It played no important part in the recent history of the ancient world. From the New Testament perspective, the only candidates for the “great city” mentioned in Revelation are Rome and Jerusalem. 

“But there is no good reason for saying that ‘Babylon’ means ‘Rome,’” insists Boettner. But there is, and the good reason is persecution. The authorities knew that Peter was a leader of the Church, and the Church, under Roman law, was considered organized atheism. (The worship of any gods other than the Roman was considered atheism.) Peter would do himself, not to mention those with him, no service by advertising his presence in the capital—after all, mail service from Rome was then even worse than it is today, and letters were routinely read by Roman officials. Peter was a wanted man, as were all Christian leaders. Why encourage a manhunt? We also know that the apostles sometimes referred to cities under symbolic names (cf. Rev. 11:8).

In any event, let us be generous and admit that it is easy for an opponent of Catholicism to think, in good faith, that Peter was never in Rome, at least if he bases his conclusion on the Bible alone. But restricting his inquiry to the Bible is something he should not do; external evidence has to be considered, too. 


Early Christian Testimony

William A. Jurgens, in his three-volume set The Faith of the Early Fathers, a masterly compendium that cites at length everything from the Didache to John Damascene, includes thirty references to this question, divided, in the index, about evenly between the statements that “Peter came to Rome and died there” and that “Peter established his See at Rome and made the bishop of Rome his successor in the primacy.” A few examples must suffice, but they and other early references demonstrate that there can be no question that the universal—and very early—position (one hesitates to use the word “tradition,” since some people read that as “legend”) was that Peter certainly did end up in the capital of the Empire. 


A Very Early Reference

Tertullian, in The Demurrer Against the Heretics (A.D. 200), noted of Rome, “How happy is that church . . . where Peter endured a passion like that of the Lord, where Paul was crowned in a death like John’s [referring to John the Baptist, both he and Paul being beheaded].” Fundamentalists admit Paul died in Rome, so the implication from Tertullian is that Peter also must have been there. It was commonly accepted, from the very first, that both Peter and Paul were martyred at Rome, probably in the Neronian persecution in the 60s. 

In the same book, Tertullian wrote that “this is the way in which the apostolic churches transmit their lists: like the church of the Smyrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the church of the Romans, where Clement was ordained by Peter.” This Clement, known as Clement of Rome, later would be the fourth pope. (Note that Tertullian didn’t say Peter consecrated Clement as pope, which would have been impossible since a pope doesn’t consecrate his own successor; he merely ordained Clement as priest.) Clement wrote his Letter to the Corinthians perhaps before the year 70, just a few years after Peter and Paul were killed; in it he made reference to Peter ending his life where Paul ended his. 

In his Letter to the Romans (A.D. 110), Ignatius of Antioch remarked that he could not command the Roman Christians the way Peter and Paul once did, such a comment making sense only if Peter had been a leader, if not the leader, of the church in Rome. 

Irenaeus, in Against Heresies (A.D. 190), said that Matthew wrote his Gospel “while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church.” A few lines later he notes that Linus was named as Peter’s successor, that is, the second pope, and that next in line were Anacletus (also known as Cletus), and then Clement of Rome. 

Clement of Alexandria wrote at the turn of the third century. A fragment of his work Sketches is preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History, the first history of the Church. Clement wrote, “When Peter preached the word publicly at Rome, and declared the gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had been for a long time his follower and who remembered his sayings, should write down what had been proclaimed.” 

Lactantius, in a treatise called The Death of the Persecutors, written around 318, noted that “When Nero was already reigning (Nero reigned from 54–68), Peter came to Rome, where, in virtue of the performance of certain miracles which he worked by that power of God which had been given to him, he converted many to righteousness and established a firm and steadfast temple to God.” 

These citations could be multiplied. (Refer to Jurgens’ books or to the Catholic Answers tract Peter’s Roman Residency.) No ancient writer claimed Peter ended his life anywhere other than in Rome. On the question of Peter’s whereabouts they are in agreement, and their cumulative testimony carries enormous weight. 


What Archaeology Proved

There is much archaeological evidence that Peter was at Rome, but Boettner, like other Fundamentalist apologists, must dismiss it, claiming that “exhaustive research by archaeologists has been made down through the centuries to find some inscription in the catacombs and other ruins of ancient places in Rome that would indicate Peter at least visited Rome. But the only things found which gave any promise at all were some bones of uncertain origin” (118). 

Boettner saw Roman Catholicism through the presses in 1962. His original book and the revisions to it since then have failed to mention the results of the excavations under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, excavations that had been underway for decades, but which were undertaken in earnest after World War II. What Boettner casually dismissed as “some bones of uncertain origin” were the contents of a tomb on Vatican Hill that was covered with early inscriptions attesting to the fact that Peter’s remains were inside. 

After the original release of Boettner’s book, evidence had mounted to the point that Pope Paul VI was able to announce officially something that had been discussed in archaeological literature and religious publications for years: that the actual tomb of the first pope had been identified conclusively, that his remains were apparently present, and that in the vicinity of his tomb were inscriptions identifying the place as Peter’s burial site, meaning early Christians knew that the prince of the apostles was there. The story of how all this was determined, with scientific accuracy, is too long to recount here. It is discussed in detail in John Evangelist Walsh’s book, The Bones of St. Peter. It is enough to say that the historical and scientific evidence is such that no one willing to look at the facts objectively can doubt that Peter was in Rome. To deny that fact is to let prejudice override reason. 


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St. Irenaeus - Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 3)

2. 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 [potiorem principalitatem].


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      How do we arrive at correct understanding of the scriptural account of Peter’s role, according to Afanassief and his followers? We start with the apostolic presuppositions Afanassief has recovered for us. Then quite apart from what Scripture says about Peter and the Church, we must decide whether the scriptural doctrine of the Church allows or excludes Petrine primacy. In other words, before we can decide whether Jesus granted Peter jurisdiction over a universal Church (which is what Petrine primacy means), there is another preliminary question we must answer. Was there, in Jesus’ mind, such a thing as a universal Church over which Peter could have jurisdiction?
      But at that point, who needs exegesis? We have our exegesis done even before we begin. Afanassief’s apostolic presuppositions tell us that in Matthew 16:18 Jesus referred to a local church (probably the church in Jerusalem) for which Peter would be the foundation. So before we look at Matthew 16:18 we know there was no universal Church and there could be no universal primacy even for Peter.
      Except for some Baptist traditions which also deny the reality of the universal Church, Afanassief and his followers stand completely alone in the Christian world in their denial. Everyone else-Protestant, Catholic, Eastern-recognizes that while the Greek word ekklesia does sometimes denote a local congregation, here in Matthew 16:18 the context is clearly Messianic. The substance of Peter’s confession is Messianic. In Jewish thought, Messiah could never be detached from the messianic community, the whole body of his people. So here, when Jesus uses the term he is referring to all his people: the Universal Church.[ This interpretation is also held by the Protestant scholar whose classic work on Peter was the original stimulus to Afanassief’s thinking about the papacy: Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr [New York: Living Age Books, 1958].]
      Eastern apologists generally, like Protestants, contend that when Jesus referred to the rock on which he would build his Church, he was referring to the confession of faith Peter had made, and not to the person of Peter himself. [This is the claim of Abbé Guettée, The Papacy: Its Historic Origins and Primitive Relations with the Eastern Churches (New York: Minos Publishing Co., no date), 36-38).]A number of the early Church Fathers also wrote that in this verse “rock” refers to Peter’s faith. But those same Fathers in fact accepted the primacy of Peter. They were not using their interpretation to deny that primacy, as Protestants and Easterners do.
      Peter himself or Peter’s faith: which is “rock”? Perhaps the clearest and one of the most detailed arguments that “rock” refers to Peter himself, not to his faith, has been made by the eminent Protestant scholar mentioned above. The theory that “rock” refers to Peter’s faith, says Cullmann, falls to pieces when one puts the word “rock” in its context. In Matthew’s account “there is little concern with the faith of Peter, which here is anything but exemplary.” Moreover, the text itself does not support the equation of “rock” with Peter’s confession of faith. Here we have two statements: “you are rock” and “upon this rock I will build.” The parallelism shows plainly that the second must refer to the same as the first.
      It is true, Cullmann notes, that elsewhere (as in Matt. 21:42) Christ himself is designated as rock. “But that is not what is said here; this passage says that Jesus’ role as rock is transferred to a disciple.” Another and telling argument of Cullmann is that if Jesus was designating Peter’s faith as the “rock,” there would simply be no point in Jesus’ giving Peter himself the name of “rock.”
      Cullmann concludes that Jesus was saying that he would build his Church on the person whom he had designated “rock.” [Ibid., 206-207.] It should be noted, however, that Cullmann does not accept Petrine primacy. He agrees with Catholic teaching about the meaning of Matthew 16:18, but says it was to apply to Peter himself, not to any successors.
      Cullmann argues that Jesus entrusted to Peter extraordinary authority in order to get the Church started. Once it was under way, he claims, there was no longer any need for Petrine authority. A Catholic would want to ask, if that authority was essential for the first generation of Christians, why is not essential for all succeeding generations?
      Abstractly, a Catholic can argue that it is impossible to build an institution on the foundation of a principle. Institutions do have basic principles, but they cannot exist unless there are persons by whom and structures through which those principles can be embodied.
      Put the issue into the Christian context. The statement that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, in itself has no power to unify those who say they accept it. It cannot interpret itself in the face of divergent (even contradictory) understandings. Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus cannot itself be the foundation of Christ’s Church. Peter can. Peter is.
      But, say Easterners and Protestants, Scripture teaches that Jesus is the one and only Rock. How can Peter be “rock”? In response to this challenge, a Catholic would add that according to 1 Peter 2:45, every true believer is a rock, a living stone. These three dimensions of “rock” harmonize unless one interprets each in an exclusive sense which distorts its meaning.
      It is Christ’s union with mankind that provides the foundation of the Church and the Christian life. Only he is “rock” in this ultimate sense. Why did Jesus establish his Church? What is its purpose? The answer is clearly stated by Pope John Paul II in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (13). He recalls the teaching of Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 22) that by his incarnation the Son of God has united himself with each person. Then he adds, “The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually.”
      In other words, the Church is the context in which, the means whereby, Jesus actualizes in individual lives the union he effected with each person by his incarnation. The Church is the meeting place, so to speak, of God and man. Without the institutional Church, none of us would or could respond to God’s outreach to us, God’s embrace of each of us, in the incarnation.
      In Jesus’ only recorded words about the establishment of his Church, he names Peter as foundation. As rock. Peter is the unifying basis of the institution. Individual believers become living stones (1 Pet. 2:4-5) by being united with Christ the Rock in the community Christ founded and established on Peter.
      Further light is shed on the role of Peter as rock, as foundation of Christ’s Church, by the book of Daniel. Vladimir Soloviev, a member of the Russian Church but an apologist for the papacy, calls attention to two series of verses, Daniel 7:13, 18, 27 and Daniel 2:34-35, 45.
      Daniel 7:13 is the key passage for the title “son of man” which our Lord applied to himself (see especially Matt. 16:13). The verses from Daniel 2 tell of a fifth kingdom which comes like a gigantic stone to destroy and supplant the four pagan empires. [Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), 114.]
      Although the New Testament does refer to Christ as Rock, he never applied the image to himself Instead, he consistently used the language of Daniel 7:13, “son of man.” If the stone of Daniel 2 represented Christ, this would mean that Christ himself would become the great mountain which filled the earth and replaced the pagan empires. Christ himself, in other words, would be the institutional Church. But this interpretation would only confuse and distort the imagery used by the sacred writer.
      It comes to this. Daniel 7:18 and 27 state unequivocally that the fifth kingdom is that of “the saints of the Most High.” Obviously (says Soloviev) the fifth kingdom is the universal Church which Christ established. Now both Daniel and Matthew give us the titles “son of man” and “rock” of the Church. There can be no doubt that “son of man” in both Daniel and Matthew denotes the same person, the Messiah. By analogy, “rock” must bear in the same sense in both passages. In Matthew, Peter is rock. Therefore the rock (stone) in Daniel must “equally foreshadow the original trustee of monarchical authority in the Universal Church,” that is to say, Peter.
      In the fullness of time, Soloviev concludes, the stone of Daniel 7 turns out to be Peter, “the rock which was taken and hurled not by human hands [Dan. 2:34, 45] but by the Son of the living God and by the heavenly Father himself revealing to the supreme ruler of the Church that divine-human truth [Matt. 16:17] which was the source of his authority.” [Ibid., 115. ]
      Note further that Jesus did not simply give Simon a surname. He gave him a title. Just as “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus, the Christ [Messiah],” so “Simon Peter” means “Simon, the Rock.” Three times in Scripture-and always at great turning points-God gave a man a new name. In his covenantal encounter with Abram (Gen. 17), God changed his name to “Abraham” (“father of a multitude”), father of all believers.
      God chose Jacob as progenitor of the line of descent in which God’s Son would be born, and called him “Israel.” When God in Christ established the Church, he called Simon to be earthly head, center and source of unity, and called him “Peter” (the “rock” foundation).
      Jesus further specified Peter’s role by giving him two distinct offices (Matt. 16:18-19). He gave him custody of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and the power of “binding and loosing.” On the basis of his presuppositions, Afanassief simply dismisses the power of the keys. Reject the whole idea of universal Church, he says, and you “shall not find the promised ‘power of the keys’ in our logion.” He does not tell us what we will find in Jesus’ words about the keys.
      Other Eastern apologists interpret the two offices as being two ways of saying the same thing, and they lump them under the general heading of “binding and loosing.” Then they note that in Matthew 18:18 Jesus gave the power of binding and loosing to all the apostles. Therefore, they say, it follows that Jesus also gave the power of keys to the other apostles. Then they drop the subject of the keys.
      Countering this argument, Soloviev points out that the language of binding and loosing is not appropriate for the use of keys. “A room, a house or a city may be shut and opened, but only particular beings or objects situated within the room or house or city can be bound and unbound.” [Ibid, 103.] If the second commission (bind and loose) was only an explanation of the first (power of the keys), then Jesus should have spoken of opening and shutting as he does in Revelation 3:7.
      Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:19 about binding and loosing seem to apply to objects and things (“whatever you bind”). On the other hand, the context of Matthew 18:18 (Jesus authorizes the apostles to bind and loose) makes it clear that this special power applies to individual cases. “Only personal problems of conscience and the direction of individual souls falls under the authority to bind and loose which was given to the other Apostles after Peter.” [Ibid., 104.] The symbol of the keys must represent a wider, more inclusive authority than the symbol of binding and loosing.
      What is the authority connoted by the imagery of the keys? Eastern scholars ignore the scriptural background of the phrase “keys of the kingdom.” Not so with Protestant scholars, who along with their Catholic counterparts have devoted a good bit of attention to this subject.
      Standing clearly in the background of Matthew 16:19 is Isaiah 22:20-23, which relates the installation of Eliakim as custodian of “‘the key of the house of David.'” In the exercise of that authority “‘he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.'” This responsibility being placed on Eliakim, as all commentaries on Isaiah tell us, was that of the master of the palace. In the ancient Near East the office was widely established. Joseph was master of the palace of Pharaoh in Egypt (Gen. 41).
      The master of the palace was second in command to the king (or in Joseph’s case, the pharaoh) himself. He had immediate access to the royal throne. All officials reported to him, all important documents required his seal, all matters of state came under his scrutiny. He governed in the name of the king, and acted for him when the king was absent. There are numerous Old Testament references to the work of the master of the palace in ancient Israel.
      Our risen Lord identifies himself to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7) as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” To the visionary (John) he identified himself in these words: “I am the first and the last, and the living one, I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:17f.)
      Jesus is the master of the house (the Church) which he established on earth. He has the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Cullmann sees a clear parallel between Isaiah 22:20-23 and Matthew 16:19. “Just as in Isaiah 22:22 the Lord lays the keys of the house of David on the shoulders of his servant Eliakim, so Jesus commits to Peter the keys of his house, the Kingdom of Heaven, and thereby installs him as administrator of the house.” [Cullmann, op. cit., 203.]
      The Catholic Church’s catechism (section 553) says this. “The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church;. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.'” The Church makes it plain that Peter was “the only one to whom he [Jesus] specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.”
      This latter conclusion is also the position of Cullmann and a number of other Protestant scholars. Like Cullmann, however, those scholars argue that the authority granted to Peter by Jesus died with Peter.
      We have noted that Easterners attempt to dissolve the power of the keys into a generalized commission to “bind and loose.” What they really seek to do is “bind and lose” those keys. This attempt reminds one of a folk song entitled “The Cat Came Back.” The song tells the story of a pesky cat and its owner who went to astonishing lengths to rid himself of the cat. The cat was indestructible. He always came back. The keys Jesus gave to Peter are like that. The gifts Christ gave his Church are not disposable. For centuries non-Catholics have tried to lose those keys, but you can’t get rid of them. Especially if you don’t have them to begin with.
      Easterners, then, subsume the power of the keys under the power of binding and loosing. “Binding and loosing is a reference to the teaching, sacramental, and administrative powers of the Apostles which were transmitted to the bishops of the Church.” [The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), footnote, p. 47.] The Catholic Church in her Catechism (section 553) explains our Lord’s words: “The power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.”
      Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, 22) points out that “the office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.” Easterners and Catholics can readily agree on that statement, down to the last four words: “united to its head.” In early centuries we agreed on those words also, as we shall see in later articles. Now, however, the words formulate the basic issue which divides Easterners from Catholics.
    • Од Bernard,
      At Catholic Answers, we often get the question: “If St. Peter was made the visible head of the Church, why don’t we see it in the book of Acts? Is not St. James (or perhaps St. Paul) the real leader of the early Church?”
      How do we reply?
      Actually, St. Peter is quite obviously the visible head of the Church in Acts. When you consider the inspired author of Acts was St. Luke, a companion of St. Paul, it is quite telling that for the first 15 of 28 chapters, Peter is the center of attention rather than Paul. Why this focus on Peter?
      Let’s take a look.
      1. Acts 1:15-26: It is St. Peter who is clearly in charge in choosing and ordaining a new apostle to replace Judas when he gives an authoritative interpretation of Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. And I might add that these texts do not have an obvious interpretation. Psalm 69:25, for example, speaks of the messiah’s persecutors (plural) who “give him gall for (his) food and sour wine to drink” – in 69:21. Then in verse 25 it says “May their (plural) camp be a desolation, let no one dwell in their tents.”
      There is never a question from the rest of the apostles, “Hey, Peter, that’s a pretty shaky interpretation of those two texts. What hermeneutical principles are you using, anyway?”
      2. Acts 2:14-41: It is St. Peter who is in charge at Pentecost and preaches the first sermon whereby 3,000 are baptized. 
      3. Acts 3:1-4:4:  It is St. Peter who performs the first miracle in Acts, healing the man with withered feet and ankles. He then preaches again and, this time, 5,000 are converted in chapter 4:4.
      4. Acts 4:3-12: When St. Peter and St. John are arrested and called before the Sanhedrin, it is St. Peter, in verse 8, who speaks for both and preaches boldly of Christ and the name of Jesus.
      5. Acts 5:1-29: It is St. Peter who is in charge of the Church in collecting funds for world evangelism and pronounces God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira. It is then, in verse, 15, the people desire St. Peter’s shadow to pass over them that they may be healed. Then, in verse 29, after the apostles were arrested and miraculously set free by the angel of the Lord, they are before the Sanhedrin for the second time. St. Luke records:
      Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”
      St. Peter is set apart. It’s “Peter and the apostles.”
      6. Acts 8:14-24: We see St. Peter leading (listed first) when he and St. John confirm new converts in Samaria after the evangelistic efforts of St. Phillip. And it is St. Peter who pronounces judgment on Simon the sorcerer who wanted to buy the power to convey the Holy Spirit.
      7. Acts 9:32,40-43: Here we have an interesting little passage most pass over too quickly.
      As Peter was passing through every region, he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda (NAB).
      Here we have St. Peter making his pastoral rounds. To what part of the Church? All of it! He then proceeds to do another first. He raises Tabitha from the dead in Joppa.
      8. Acts 10-11:18: It is St. Peter to whom God gives a vision to lead the Church in allowing the gentiles to be baptized and enjoy full membership in the Church. This was a radical move! If you think we have a problem with racism in the 21st century, we have nothing on first century opinion of the gentiles! Notice, after the other apostles and other disciples heard Peter declare what God had done, they say, in 11:18:
      When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”
      They heard St. Peter speak and the question was settled.
      9. Acts 12:1-17: St. Peter is arrested again. Notice that the entire Church then goes to “earnest prayer” (vs. 5) and into the night (vs. 6, 12) until he is released miraculously. This is not recorded to have been the case when St. James or any others were arrested.
      10. Acts 15-16:4: We read of an enormous problem in the early Church, the heresy of the Judaizers. They taught believers in Christ must not only believe and obey the New Testament law as given by Christ and the apostles, but they must keep the Old Testament law given by Moses as well, especially circumcision.
      Notice, St. Paul and Barnabas could not quell the upheaval. 
      Even more importantly, however, is the manner in which the problem is dealt with. Do they get out their Bibles and start arguing passages? No! They respond decisively, but not in the way a “Bible Christian” would today. They respond to the difficulty in obedience to the command of our Lord in Matthew 18:15-18. Jesus gives us authoritative instructions on what to do in the case of a disagreement over doctrine or discipline in the Church. First, go to your brother. Second, if he won’t hear you, take two or three witnesses with you. If he won’t hear them, the final arbiter of the situation will be the Church. 
      The Christians in Antioch, no doubt, tried to handle the problem on a local level first. That is what the text indicates. But they couldn’t take care of the dispute. Then they brought in the big guns—Paul and Barnabas—a pretty formidable “one or two” to employ!
      It did not work!
      This problem was so enormous, St. Paul could not even settle it. Where do they go then? Just as our Lord said, they “take it to the Church.” The church at Antioch obeys our Lord and takes it to the Church in Jerusalem. Whence cometh the first Church Council.
      Do you notice how sola scriptura is nowhere to be found here?
      Peter or James?
      But now we need to answer another question. Some Bible Christians will say, “Was not James the true leader of the early Church and not Peter?”
      If you examine the text of Acts 15 carefully, you will see this is not the case. In verses six and seven, we see all of the apostles and elders gathered together and doing what? Disputing!
      Notice, it is Peter who speaks first, in verses 7-11. After so much disputing in Antioch that St. Paul and Barnabas could not settle the difficulty:
      And afterthere had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them… “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence…
      “After much debate” here at the Council, Peter declares the truth and then—“the whole assembly fell silent” in verse 12. The issue was settled.
      This speaks volumes.
      And notice as well: Peter uses the first person personal prounoun in the plural. “We believe…” Peter does not speak just for himself. He speaks for all.
      However, there was still a pastoral issue. How are we going to bring about unity, in a pastoral sense, between the Jews and Gentiles? The Jewish Christians were worshipping in a Jewish manner which involved many Old Testament practices. St. Paul himself acknowledged the validity of this manner of worship, and participated in it himself in Acts 21:15-26. Many of these Jews wanted to make their rules the universal norm for everyone and even believed it necessary for salvation. The question: How do we unify the Gentile and Jewish Rites without compromising the truth? The Church could not say Gentiles had to keep what were peculiarly Old Testament practices in order to be saved, but the Church also wanted to respect some of the ancient practices of the Jews.
      St. James stands up in Acts 15:13-23, and gives his pastoral opinion on the matter:
      My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has [declared] how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name… It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter avoid [1] the pollution from idols, [2] unlawful marriage, [3] the meat of strangled animals, and [4] blood. Then the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas… This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the presbyters, you brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings…”
      Two Key Points:
      1. When James stands up to speak, the first thing he says after getting the attention of the Council is, “Symeon has related…” In other words, Peter has spoken… He repeats what Peter has already said definitively. Then, rather than speaking for all, St. James says, “It is my judgment…” 
      A little over 400 years after this proclamation by St. James, the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon would similarly declare, “Peter has spoken through Leo, the question is settled” after hearing a written declaration of St. Peter’s successor, Pope St. Leo the Great, read at that great Ecumenical Council. In AD 451, the issue was concerning the monophysite heresy and the nature of the God-man Jesus Christ. But both times, the same Principle was in effect. God spoke definitively through the authority He established on this earth to Shepherd his people.
      2. When St. James gives his pastoral judgment, in verse 19, his judgment was that the Church ought to bind the Gentiles to four laws:
      … abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood.
      But notice what happens immediately thereafter, in verses 22-28:
      Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas… with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling to your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul… We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”
      Three sub-points:
      1. When Peter speaks in Acts 15:7-11, just as we saw in Acts 10-11:18, the question was settled. St. Peter’s authority is unique. He has the keys of the kingdom and as such speaks for Christ with or without the consent of the others (Matthew 16:15-19).
      2. When James gives his pastoral judgment concerning how to deal with an extremely difficult situation, the apostles, elders and the whole church had to agree before an epistle could be written to be sent out to the troubled churches. Why? Because the other apostles’ authority is depicted in a collegial manner. Jesus gave Peter and all the apostles the authority to “bind and loose” in Matthew 18:15-18. Notice, it was all the apostles with Peter that acted in sending out the decree to the troubled churches. James and the apostles authority was exercised as a college. Only St. Peter was given the keys of the Kingdom. Only St. Peter acted alone in the context of all of the apostles at the Council. 
      3. Notice the nature of the letter sent out by the Church. When the Council of Jerusalem sends out the decree, the Church declares:
      It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell. (Acts 15:28, NAB)
      As St. Paul and Silas traveled about delivering the decree of the Church, the Scripture records:
      As they traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
      Catholic trivia point:
      The Greek word for decisions there is “dogmata” in Greek.
      One Final Note:
      When St. Paul and Barnabas went to Antioch (this was where the trouble started according to Acts 14:26-15:2) immediately after the Council and delivered the teachings, the people “were delighted with the exhortation” (see Acts 15:30-31). The dispute was settled. However, not everyone was obedient. Judging from the letters of St. Paul to the Galatians and Romans, and the letter to the Hebrews, we can clearly see that there were rebels then just as there are now who will not listen to the Church.
      St Irenaeus gives us some interesting insight as to one problem person who would not obey the Church. He was the seventh deacon who is listed among the first deacons ordained in Acts 6:5. You’ll notice that among the seven, he is listed last. According to St. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, Bk. 1, ch. 26, para. 3, he was one of the leaders of the rebellion against the Council. Scripture records Nicolas the deacon was a “convert from Antioch.” Antioch is where all the trouble started.
      The final point I want to make here is that Jesus himself has very strong words for these Nicolaitanes! These were basically anti-nomians who thought they did not have to obey the laws of the Church. When Jesus gives a personal message to St. John in the beginning of the Book of Revelation, he has a special message for those who would disobey the Church.
      Remember then from what you [the church in Ephesus] have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Rev. 2:5-6).
      I have a few things against you [the church in Pergamum]: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Rev. 2:14-16).
      I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on the side of folks whose deeds are “hated” by the Lord. I will remain on the side of the Church!
      If you want to remain on the side of the Church, you must remain with the Vicar of Christ, St. Peter, and his successors the Popes.
      If you liked this and would like to learn more, click here.
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