Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Kind Of Successor Of Peter?

The apostle Peter had many roles. He was a Christian. He was one of the Twelve, the original disciples of Jesus. He was one of the apostles (a group not limited to the Twelve). He was a spokesman for Christianity (e.g., Acts 2). According to some later traditions, he was a bishop of Rome and/or Antioch. He was a martyr. Etc.

When a church father or some other source refers to somebody as a successor of Peter, we ought to ask in what sense that individual is a successor. A person can succeed Peter in one sense, but not in another.

This principle is illustrated in one of the earliest extant commentaries on Matthew 16:

“And if we too have said like Peter, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,' not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, 'You are Peter,' etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, and the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God.” (Origen, Commentary On Matthew, 12:10)

Is Origen saying that all Christians are Popes? No. He’s saying that all Christians are what Peter was in a particular context. A person can succeed to Peter, or be what Peter was, in one sense, but not another. Somebody who succeeds Peter as a Christian doesn’t necessarily succeed him as an apostle, bishop, martyr, etc.

Keep such distinctions in mind when you see Catholics citing patristic passages that refer to the bishop of Rome as a successor of Peter. A successor in what sense?


  1. I want to give some examples of what I’m referring to with regard to Roman bishops. A bishop of Rome could be considered a successor of Peter in many ways. He’s a bishop. In that sense, he’s a successor of Peter in the same way as any other bishop. (Peter is often thought to represent all bishops in John 21:15-17, for example.) But if a church father thinks that Peter was a bishop of Rome, he could refer to a Roman bishop as a successor of Peter in that capacity. He would be a successor to Peter in Peter’s role as Roman bishop, but not necessarily a successor to Peter as apostle, a successor to Peter’s historical role in founding the church, etc.

    And different church fathers viewed Peter’s roles (as Roman bishop and in other contexts) in different ways. If you believe that Peter had a symbolic primacy among the apostles, but not a primacy of jurisdiction, then your view of Petrine succession may differ from that of somebody who thinks Peter had a jurisdictional primacy. Or somebody who thinks Peter had a jurisdictional primacy might believe that a Roman bishop succeeds Peter in some other sense. The mere fact that Peter is thought to have had a jurisdictional primacy doesn’t prove that anybody referred to as a successor of Peter is thought to have succeeded Peter in that sense.

    How do we distinguish among these possibilities? In some cases, we can’t. If a source is vague enough, we have to be open to multiple possibilities.

    But often we can judge which possibilities are more and less likely by looking at the surrounding context. If somebody like Augustine has relatively little to say about the bishops of Rome, refers to ecumenical councils as having authority over all bishops, agrees with Cyprian that there is no bishop who has universal jurisdiction, etc., then Augustine most likely doesn’t mean that Roman bishops have universal jurisdiction when he refers to them as successors of Peter. To just quote Augustine referring to a primacy of Peter, referring to Roman bishops as successors of Peter, etc., as if such comments prove his belief in the papacy, is simplistic.

  2. Another context in which succession from Peter can be significant is the argument from historical proximity. People like Irenaeus and Tertullian appealed to apostolic succession as a historical argument. Church leaders who were in a direct line from the apostles have some credibility as historical witnesses that others, like heretical leaders, don’t have. That sort of argument isn’t conclusive by itself, and it loses force with the passing of time. But it does have some significance. A Roman bishop’s succession from Peter would carry evidential weight under such an argument, even if that Roman bishop isn’t thought to have universal jurisdiction. It’s not as though belief in a papacy is the only context in which people would want to appeal to a succession from Peter.

    On a related note, somebody who appeals to that sort of succession from Peter doesn’t necessarily think the person who succeeded to Peter has all of the attributes that Peter had. If a church father refers to some sort of primacy of Peter, then refers to a Roman bishop as a successor of Peter, there may not be an intention to suggest that the Roman bishop has that same primacy. Peter and his successor can both be significant without having the same significance. It’s important to make these kinds of distinctions and to examine the context carefully.

  3. With all due respect Jason, I do think you need to re-think your willingness to ascribe the term "catholic" to Romanists. The dogmas that are peculiar to that communion are not "catholic" either with respect to the consent of the rest of Christendom, and are actually "anti-catholic" in spirit to the rest of Christendom. To insist, for example, as Leo XIII did in Satis cognitum that papal primacy (even without reference to papal infallibility) is "the essential constitution of the Church" (§ 14) is as anti-catholic as the sentiment can be expressed.

    I do not use the term "Romanist" as derogatory term, but rather as a description of those who adhere to the communion of Rome in order to distinguish them from the rest of Christendom, as they are so fond of doing themselves in their various controversies with us when they insist on their version of Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) to be a reference to the communion of Rome, rather than the mystical body of Jesus Christ.

    I offer my gratitude for any forbearance granted me while expressing this conviction.

  4. When I read this Jason, I immediately thought of these words from Isaiah:

    Isa 2:1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
    Isa 2:2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
    Isa 2:3 and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
    Isa 2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

    Isa 2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.

    The "Light" of the LORD!


    1Jn 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
    1Jn 4:11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.


    atonement, that is, (concretely) an expiator: - propitiation.

    We haven't been called to die on His predetermined Cross for the sins of all His people.

    We have, however, been called to expiators by the Authority He gives us by being bearers of His Name:

    Luk 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
    Luk 24:46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
    Luk 24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

    Luk 24:48 You are witnesses of these things.

  5. David King wrote:

    “With all due respect Jason, I do think you need to re-think your willingness to ascribe the term ‘catholic’ to Romanists.”

    The term shouldn’t be applied to them in a way that suggests their orthodoxy or the universal nature of all of their beliefs, and it shouldn't be applied in a way that suggests that their denomination is the universal church or the heart of the universal church. They aren’t orthodox. And some of their beliefs aren’t universal even among all of the people they consider Christians. Some of their beliefs have little or no acceptance outside of their denomination. And they're neither the universal church nor any sort of core or center of the universal church.

    I use the term Catholic, with a capital C, as a commonly recognized title, much like I use the term Jehovah’s Witnesses without thinking that they’re actually witnesses of Jehovah. If we disagree on this issue, it’s probably a relatively minor difference about the appropriate language to use. I think we agree on the most substantive issues underlying that language.

    You write:

    “I offer my gratitude for any forbearance granted me while expressing this conviction.”

    I don’t have any objection to your raising the issue. I’m glad you’re posting here, and I hope you’ll do so more often.

  6. "What Kind Of Successor Of Peter?"

    I wonder if the victims and the families of the victims' of Catholic clergy pedophile abuse are right to ask this question.

  7. Truth Unites... and Divides wrote:

    "I wonder if the victims and the families of the victims' of Catholic clergy pedophile abuse are right to ask this question."

    Here are some examples of what earlier generations of Christians thought about such issues. They believed that the validity of church leaders, as well as of succession, depended on moral requirements that were met by the office holder.

    And here are some examples of other types of corruption among past Popes.

  8. Jason: "They believed that the validity of church leaders, as well as of succession, depended on moral requirements that were met by the office holder."

    From reading comments by knowledgeable Catholics, it seems to me that the term "validity" has a technical and precise theological aspect to it.

    What I mean to say, is that I could imagine a Catholic invoking the "Donatist heresy" defense when the issue becomes the thoughts and behavior of immoral priests.

    That the validity of the Holy Eucharist is not invalidated by a wayward priest, even if the priest is a pedophile and who confected the elements immediately after an act of pedophilia.

    Then they seem to draw a distinction between an irregularly ordained priest and an invalidly ordained priest. I'm not sure of the difference, but it seems complicated.

    But when you use the term "validity" and moral requirements of the office which leads to the issue of ordination and succession and other things, it seems to lead to a windy, confusing wicket.