Catholic Proof Texts and One-liners for Papal Primacy Debunked: Part One

If there isn’t anything more annoying to an Orthodox individual who happens to engage in debate with a Catholic, it is the endless proof texts that Catholics trudge out to prove their case for their version of papal primacy, namely that the pope is unique and reigns supreme over all of the other bishops. This authority of the pope, according to Catholics, is due solely by the virtue of the pope holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and being the actual rock of the Church. I have heavily criticized such a position before using Latin exegeses from approximately 400 AD to 1200 AD. In that previous post, I had made the case that Sacred Tradition regards the keys given to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 as the exact same as the powers of binding and loosing, and that at a minimum the rest of the apostles were given these keys. Additionally, Sacred Tradition also regarded Peter as the rock only in metaphorical terms. Nevertheless, as important of a historical and theological revelation as this might be, to a dedicated Catholic believer such truths might not be enough. Instead, what is often resorted to in recourse is to turn to proof texts that have been used for centuries by Catholic apologists to justify their understanding of papal primacy.

What is often characteristic of these so-called “proof texts” is that they are unusually short and come from various genres of literature. As such, they are easily taken out of context. In the case of being excruciatingly short, allow me to provide an example of an instance where something is taken out of context and thus offers a very different picture:

Out+of+context+hilarity+big3+dagashi+kashi+big3_b17da9_5845248Now one would assume that she might be talking about some new and latest drug from the picture, but in actuality she is talking about the latest candy that one could find at a Dagashi store (roughly equivalent to a candy and snack store). As we can see from this example, context very much requires more than single lines. Otherwise, we are prone to misunderstanding. Contextualization is a basic reading skill taught from childhood here in the First World, and we would be foolish not to use it.

As for the latter portion concerning genres of literature, it is somewhat related to the former. Letters and other theological tracts are much easier to take out of context than exegeses. The reason for this is because when one quotes from letters et al, they usually don’t provide the historical scenario unto which the author of the text was writing. The reader of the one-liner “proof-text” has no way of knowing what the full conversation was or what it might have been, because there is no evidence to provide additional clues. All they have is the single solitary line of text in front of them. Meanwhile, within the genre of exegesis, when one quotes from such writings, the reader has a pretty good idea of what the writer is referring to and the full context in which they are writing. This is because Late Antique and Medieval exegeses usually involved commentary verse by verse and line by line. The author almost always quoted the scripture that they were referring to, and it is because of such detailed writing that it makes it much more difficult to take exegeses from the Late Antique and Medieval periods out of context.

Now I will tackle some of the proof-texts that Catholics generally offer in favor of papal authority. By no means is this list meant to be comprehensive, as they are numerous. And neither am I sure how many parts this series of posts will have. However, I do hope to chip away at these fallacies that Catholic apologists have rendered through their poor readings. My efforts of course will be limited due to the fact that I do not have reading knowledge of Greek. Many of their proof-texts are translations from the Greek, albeit removed from their context. Therefore, I am restricted to finding the full sources of their quotes not in the original Greek, but in either English, Latin, German, or French so that I might provide the full context of their quotes.

[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church?

St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Christian Faith, Book IV, Ch. 5: 57

There is nothing contradicting here in this quote to an Orthodox understanding of Peter and papal authority. In fact, this understanding accords well with Jerome’s understanding of Peter as the rock and foundation of the Church in a metaphorical sense. Orthodox understand that Christ and the faith in Christ are the foundation of the Church, not Peter.

‘But,’ you [Jovinian] will say, ‘it was on Peter that the Church was founded’ [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division…

St. Jerome, Against Jovianus, Book I: 26

Jerome’s understanding of Peter and the rock of the Church is, as I stated before, in accordance with an Orthodox understanding. Let us look at the full context of this quote:

If, however, Jovinianus should obstinately contend that John was not a virgin, (whereas we have maintained that his virginity was the cause of the special love our Lord bore to him), let him explain, if he was not a virgin, why it was that he was loved more than the other Apostles. But you say, Matthew 16:18 the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.

St. Jerome, Against Jovianus, Book I: 26

Note that the red is Jerome quoting Jovinianus’ argument, while the blue is Jerome’s own argument. The full context here reveals quite the different picture, doesn’t it?

Blessed Simon, who after his confession of the mystery was set to be the foundation-stone of the Church, and received the keys of the Kingdom…

St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity Book VI: 20

Let me stress that Orthodox do not dispute that Peter received the keys nor that he was privileged in being the first. What we do dispute, again, is that it ended with him and thereby all are subject to him and his successors. Now, allow me to quote the same work of Hilary, which supports the Orthodox position:

36. A belief that the Son of God is Son in name only and not in nature, is not the faith of the Gospels and of the Apostles. If this be a mere title, to which adoption is His only claim; if He be not the Son in virtue of having proceeded forth from God, whence, I ask, was it that the blessed Simon Bar-Jona confessed to Him, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God Matthew 16:16 ? Because He shared with all mankind the power of being born as one of the sons of God through the sacrament of regeneration? If Christ be the Son of God only in this titular way, what was the revelation made to Peter, not by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven? What praise could he deserve for making a declaration which was universally applicable? What credit was due to Him for stating a fact of general knowledge? If He be Son by adoption, wherein lay the blessedness of Peter’s confession, which offered a tribute to the Son to which, in that case, He had no more title than any member of the company of saints? The Apostle’s faith penetrates into a region closed to human reasoning. He had, no doubt, often heard, He that receives you receives Me, and He that receives Me receives Him that sent Me. Matthew 10:40 Hence he knew well that Christ had been sent; he had heard Him, Whom he knew to have been sent, making the declaration, All things are delivered unto Me of the Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, neither knows any one the Father save the Son. What then is this truth, which the Father now reveals to Peter, which receives the praise of a blessed confession? It cannot have been that the names of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ were novel to him; he had heard them often. Yet he speaks words which the tongue of man had never framed before:— You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. For though Christ, while dwelling in the body, had avowed Himself to be the Son of God, yet now for the first time the Apostle’s faith had recognised in Him the presence of the Divine nature. Peter is praised not merely for his tribute of adoration, but for his recognition of the mysterious truth; for confessing not Christ only, but Christ the Son of God. It would clearly have sufficed for a payment of reverence, had he said, You are the Christ, and nothing more. But it would have been a hollow confession, had Peter only hailed Him as Christ, without confessing Him the Son of God. And so his words You are declare that what is asserted of Him is strictly and exactly true to His nature. Next, the Father’s utterance, This is My Son, had revealed to Peter that he must confess You are the Son of God, for in the words This is, God the Revealer points Him out, and the response, You are, is the believer’s welcome to the truth. And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built. But the perceptive faculties of flesh and blood cannot attain to the recognition and confession of this truth. It is a mystery, Divinely revealed, that Christ must be not only named, but believed, the Son of God. Was it only the Divine name; was it not rather the Divine nature that was revealed to Peter? If it were the name, he had heard it often from the Lord, proclaiming Himself the Son of God. What honour, then, did he deserve for announcing the name? No; it was not the name; it was the nature, for the name had been repeatedly proclaimed.

37. This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation;

St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VI: 36

As can be shown again, Hilary supports the Orthodox understanding, not the Catholic understanding. The keys are the powers of binding and loosing, and all those who have the faith, have the keys. The keys are not exclusive to Peter and his successors.

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord’s words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff].

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Two Homilies Concerning Saint Stephen

One must understand that Gregory speaks of Peter’s name as a play on words, and throughout this particular work refers to Peter, James, and John as equally important and equal leaders. He refers to the names of James and John as the “sons of thunder” just as Peter is a rock. This is the appropriate context for understanding:

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord’s words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff]. Then we have mention of James, John and [J.105] as sons of thunder whom the Savior had named and who had brought rain clouds; for the gathering of clouds by necessity herald rain. Thus the clouds represent Apostles and prophetic words; although times of preaching differ, nevertheless the laws of true religion are in harmony and one spirit is the source of various gifts….

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Two Homilies Concerning Saint Stephen

A full reading of this work, which I have linked above, would dispel any notion of Gregory supporting the Catholic position. It is not a long work, and I highly recommend it.

This Peter on whom Christ freely bestowed a sharing in his name. For just as Christ is the Rock, as the Apostle Paul taught, so through Christ Peter is made Rock, when the Lord says to him: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My church.’

St. Maximus of Turin, Homilia LXVIII, Patrologia Latina 57: 0394A

Note: Translation is not my own, although I cite the original Latin in the PL. The PL can be found freely available on Google Books.

This actually conforms to the Orthodox understanding and to Jerome’s understanding of it as a metaphor, and it actually matches up quite nicely with St. Bruno of Segni’s interpretation in particular.

After carefully considering all of these proof-texts here, it seems abundantly apparent that they do not support the Catholic interpretation of papal primacy, but rather support the Orthodox view of papal primacy, that is a primacy of honor.

About Alura

I have a keen interest in history, philosophy, and theology. I read about these subjects in Latin, French, German, and of course English.
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