A Roman Catholic Dialogue

Posted by Clark Bates
May 19, 2017

Recently, I engaged in a discussion on social media with a Roman Catholic regarding the historicity of the Pope and the nature of the New Testament Canon.  I found his response to be fairly well presented and would have been very convincing at face value, which has led me to want share the discussion with all of you.  Here is the response as it was sent to me:

The Roman Catholic Position

“The Bishop of Rome was given authority in A.D.33 when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. He left Peter in charge of his Church on earth and the Catholic Church still retains this authority through apostolic succession.  The Early Church Father’s support this assertion.

‘Therefore shall you [Hermas] write two little books and send one to Clement [Bishop of Rome] and one to Grapte. Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, because that is his duty’

(The Shepherd 2:4:3 [A.D. 80]). -Hermas

‘Ignatius . . . to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father’

(Letter to the Romans 1:1 [A.D. 110]). – Ignatus of Antioch.

‘The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]). … On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?’

(The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).  – Cyprian of Carthage.

‘With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source’ (ibid., 59:14).

-Cyprian of Carthage.

Seems like the Bishop of Rome had authority before 1054 A.D according to early Christians.

And about Scripture… The canon of the bible does come from tradition. How do you know that twenty seven books are in the New Testament? Because it was the Church that chose which books were considered to be inspired. Why not add to it? Why not take out books? because we as individuals so not have that authority.  Christ established one physical and unified Church on Earth- all others have split from Her. By using the Bible as your foundation you are putting your faith in the Bishops of the Catholic Church (including the Bishop of Rome himself) which is something I don’t think you would agree with.

Though collections of sacred writings, varying in extent, existed in the various local Churches of Christendom, the canon or official list of Scripture was only compiled by the Church toward the end of the fourth century—at Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, whence it was sent to Rome for confirmation in 419. The Bible may be called the notebook of the Church, and she has always claimed to be the guardian, exponent, and interpreter of it. By these Councils, the Bible we see today came into be. These Councils are Catholic. How do we know? Well, St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Christian Church Catholic. Let me quote him, ‘Where there is Jesus Christ, there is the Catholic Church.’ ”

A Protestant Response

This was my response:

As I mentioned, there are some errors in your response, and I have to say, not to be condescending or anything, that I have a sneaking suspicion that you haven’t actually read the full writings of the church fathers you’re citing.  The reason I say this, is that I’ve seen these same texts quoted before and they are the same quotes available on Catholic apologetics sites like The New Advent or Catholic Answers, and they always contain the same typo.  You see, Cyprian’s 59th epistle doesn’t have 14 verses, it has 4.  The quote that claims to be from the 59th epistle actually comes from the 54th epistle.  This is a small error, but it’s rather telling when people continue to repeat it.

I’m going to address each of your points individually so that I don’t miss anything.  I’ve decided to leave the Shephard of Hermas quote for my response to your points about the Canon however, so we’ll begin with the quote from Ignatius.  You wrote,

“Ignatius . . . to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father” (Letter to the Romans 1:1 [A.D. 110]). – Ignatius of Antioch.

This is, of course, the introduction to Ignatius’ letter to the church at Rome, but it doesn’t actually read as you have it translated here.  This is how it actually reads,

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father:[1]

This may seem like a small matter but the attempt to change the translation to read “which holds the presidency” is improper.  For the church of Rome to preside over the region of Rome says nothing of any far-reaching supremacy over all churches.  This is nothing more than a standard greeting customary in epistles, including those of Ignatius.  If Ignatius were wishing to emphasize the primacy of the bishop of Rome over the Church why not write as he did to the church at Smyrna,

“It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil.   For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [Church’s] unity, and throwing its order into confusion?. . . Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.”[2]

Here, Ignatius is giving a primacy to the bishop of Smyrna, but clearly only in the sense that the Smyrnaeans are to submit to their church’s authority.  Why, if Ignatius felt, as you claim, that the Bishop of Rome was the head of the Church, would he not write this in his letter to the Romans, even more emphatically?  If you read Ignatius’ writings in their totality, you cannot come away with the impression that he viewed the universal church to be under the authority of Rome.

Next, you cite some fairly lengthy sections from Cyprian of Carthage:

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]). … On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).  – Cyprian of Carthage.

“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source” (ibid., 59:14). -Cyprian of Carthage.

The typo I mentioned, is in the second paragraph, but more importantly than that, is the context within which Cyprian is writing.  As with all church fathers, it is terribly easy to misunderstand much of what they say, if one is unfamiliar with why they were writing.  Briefly, the writings of Cyprian, in question here, are in response to the Schism of Novation that took place in the early third century of Rome.

The Novation Schism

At this time in church history, a great persecution had just ceased in which Christians were forced to offer sacrifices to the emperor.  Some Christians had succumbed to the threats and abuse, while others had obtained false documentation that they had sacrificed to the emperor when they had not.  The issue of the day regarded how churches should receive members back into the fold after, a.) sacrificing to false gods, or b.) lying about sacrificing to avoid persecution in the name of Christ.

Cyprian felt that they should be welcomed back into the fold only after performing various penitential acts, whereas Novation, a presbyter of the church of Rome, took a more extreme position, believing that they could never be restored to full communion.  Cyprian supported the more moderate Cornelius for Bishop of Rome, but Novation attempted to subvert the election of Cornelius by having himself ordained as Bishop of Rome at the same time.  This lead to a divide in Rome with two separate bishops.[3]  This is what led to the writing of Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

Regarding the particular quote you have cited, there is quite a bit of important information contained in the ellipsis you have after the quote of Matthew 16.  Here is what Cyprian wrote in entirety,

“The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  And again, to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.”  And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whosoever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.”[4]

Immediately, it is evident that Cyprian did not view the apostle Peter as superior to the other apostles.  In his writings, Cyprian uses the apostle Peter as the symbol of unity for the universal church, not as the seat from which the Bishop of Rome presides.  There is no mention in any of his writings that the bishops of Rome are endowed with divine authority over the Church.  Even in Cyprians 54th epistle cited secondly, the mention of Rome as a “chief church” is indicative of the contemporary view that the Western church found its center at Rome, just as the Eastern church found its center in Jerusalem, not that the church in Rome was pre-eminent above all.

This understanding of Cyprian is not only mine, nor is it one held strictly by Protestants.  This is supported by Roman Catholic historians like Robert Eno, Fr. Maurice Bevenot, James McCue, Michael Winter, and others.  As an example, historian Karlfried Froehlich writes,

“Cyprian understood the biblical Peter as representative of the unified episcopate, not of the bishop of Rome . . .”[5]

More could be said regarding the ecclesiology of both Ignatius and Cyprian, but it is clear even in this short address that they did not hold the position espoused by many Roman Catholic apologists.

Regarding the Canon

Moving to your next point regarding the New Testament Canon you write,

“How do you know that twenty seven books are in the New Testament? Because it was the Church that chose which books were considered to be inspired. Why not add to it? Why not take out books? because we as individuals do not have that authority.  Christ established one physical and unified Church on Earth- all others have split from Her. By using the Bible as your foundation you are putting your faith in the Bishops of the Catholic Church (including the Bishop of Rome himself) which is something I don’t think you would agree with.

Though collections of sacred writings, varying in extent, existed in the various local Churches of Christendom, the canon or official list of Scripture was only compiled by the Church toward the end of the fourth century—at Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, whence it was sent to Rome for confirmation in 419. The Bible may be called the notebook of the Church, and she has always claimed to be the guardian, exponent, and interpreter of it. By these Councils, the Bible we see today came into be. These Councils are Catholic. How do we know? Well, St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Christian Church Catholic. Let me quote him, ‘Where there is Jesus Christ, there is the Catholic Church.’”

In response, I’ll note at the outset that when Ignatius, much like Cyprian and their contemporaries, use the term Catholic Church they are speaking in the terminology of the Apostle’s Creed, not after the manner of Rome.  This has already been addressed above, but it must be re-stated that the universal (catholic) church of the first six centuries or more, was not a term applied to the Roman See, but to the entire Church of Christ.

The canonical model you use is commonly called the Community Model of Canon which states that the Canon of the NT did not exist until the community (i.e. the Church) accepts it.  Ironically, you cite the fourth century lists as the compilation of the Canon, but the Bishop of Rome made no formal affirmation of Canon until the Council of Trent in 1546.  According to Roman Catholic dogma, this means that you, as a Catholic cannot affirm that the NT Canon existed until this date.  In addition, the Roman Catholic Canon includes the writings of the apocrypha (including the Shepherd of Hermas you cited earlier) which are not listed as canonical by any 4th century catalog.

These are not the earliest lists of the NT canon however, as lists can be found in both Origen’s Homily on Joshua and the Muratorian Fragment, both dating to the early third, possibly late second, century.  The fact that these lists circulated by the late second century indicates that the texts included within them were accepted as authoritative prior to their codification.  Interestingly enough, the Muratorian fragment, the list of Origen, and even the late fourth century list of Athanasius, all exclude the apocrypha as having canonical status, the Muratorian Fragment even citing the Shepherd of Hermas by name as being excluded.

This is one reason why I do not except a citation from the Shepherd of Hermas as supporting the papacy.  Even the church father Clement of Alexandria, often cited as quoting from the Apocrypha prevalently, only acknowledges apocryphal works 16 times in his writings, while quoting from the Gospels alone over 1,000 times.

Beyond that, a community model approach is not an attractive method of identifying Canon, as it allows for the entire period prior to formalized lists to be without clear instruction from the Lord.  For the Protestant that would be only about 300 years, but for the Roman Catholic, it would be nearly 1500 years!  Yet, this is not the case.  From the end of the first century onward the church has repeatedly utilized only the 27 books of the New Testament canon as authoritative.  This is not because the community chose them, but because they acknowledged the divine qualities within them that did not exist in other writings.  These books continued the theology of the Old Testament, and bore the authority of those who walked with Christ.  The Canon of Scripture was never decided by any church council, it was merely recognized and codified.

The irony is that to appeal to the Roman Catholic Church as the determiner of the Canon, one must ask the question, “How do we know the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to decide such things?”  The response would typically be that the Church has that authority because it holds the keys given to Peter.  But the only way to justify that position is to appeal to the New Testament Canon!  This reasoning becomes circular until one accepts that the Canon itself must serve as its own authority in which case circular reasoning is acceptable by way of an appeal to ultimate authority.  The Roman Catholic Church cannot establish its authority over the Canon without appealing to the Canon, therefore even under the Roman Catholic position, the Canon authenticates itself; it is not authenticated by any external agent.

To claim that the Roman Catholic Church is the sole interpreter or expositor of the Scriptures also leaves you at a disadvantage, given that the Pope has never interpreted a biblical text ex cathedra, leaving all other interpretations merely matters of opinion.  In the end, your support of the papacy comes down to a proper understanding of Scripture, which you paraphrased with the opening statement,

“The Bishop of Rome was given authority in A.D.33 when Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. He left Peter in charge of his Church on earth and the Catholic Church still retains this authority through apostolic succession.  The Early Church Father’s support this assertion.”

If I were nitpicking, I would note that the exchange you’re referring to happened several years prior to 33AD given that this is the accepted date of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I believe you simply mean that the authority of Rome was given to Peter after Christ’s death.  But was it?  Is there any point in the New Testament, after the death of Christ that demonstrably shows Peter as being the lead apostle?  Certainly, he was a key figure.  In Acts 1:12-26 it is Peter that instigates the voting in of a new apostle to replace Judas, but it is not clear if this was even an action that was approved by God.  Beyond this, the only other point in which it is argued that Peter holds primacy over the other apostles is Acts 15.  However, while Peter does make a grandiose pronouncement in vv.6-11, we read that in vv.13-21 it is James, the brother of the Lord, who makes the final decision on the matter, saying,

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God. . .”(v.19).

We also find that the apostle Peter is publicly rebuffed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:11-24 for acting in a hypocritical manner toward the Gentiles.  These are hardly characteristics of one who was supposed to be considered Pontifex Maximus.

Conclusion

While both issues addressed in this dialogue are separate, they both stem from a similar error.  The error of Sola Ecclesia or the belief that a singular human directs the doctrine of Christ’s church.  The belief that Peter held this position cannot be supported through the writings of the New Testament any more than it can be established from the writings of the first few centuries of the church fathers.  In the same way, the Canon of the New Testament was never determined by the church, merely discovered by it.  That is to say, the divine orchestration of the New Testament exists outside of any determinative council or choice of man.  It was communicated by the Holy Spirit to the self-same Spirit residing within His people.

 

[1] Ignatius, Letter to the Romans: Introduction, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.v.html.

[2] Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans: IX.I, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.vii.ix.html.

[3] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-reformation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005): 166-167.

[4] Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 4.

[5] Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and the Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, p.36, 13, n.28.

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