Is the Pope Really the Appointed Successor to the Apostle Peter?

Apostolic Succession

Put simply, evangelical theology dissents especially from Catholic theology’s doctrine of apostolic succession. Certainly, Jesus chose the twelve disciples to engage in ministry (Matthew 10), and after his death and resurrection, he appointed them to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20).

Specifically, the mission with which the Father had commissioned the Son became the mission with which the Son commissioned the church: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). This mission was evangelistic in nature, proclaiming the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44–48; John 20:23), and it involved making disciples throughout the world (Matt. 28:18–20).

The beginning of the fulfillment of the missionality of the church is narrated in Acts. What is striking is the apostles’ concentration on announcing the good news; calling people to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ by faith; promising the forgiveness of sins and the gift of his Spirit to those who so call upon the Lord; and baptizing these disciples and incorporating them into the church, where apostolic teaching, the Lord’s Supper, worship, prayer, fellowship, sacrificial generosity, signs and wonders, and multiplication took place (e.g., Acts 2:38–47).

This narrative does not present the development of a self-perpetuating hierarchy, nor does it offer the template for a line of succession from the apostles. Indeed, many non-apostolic characters figure in the story: Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7); Philip, the evangelist to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8); “men of Cyprus and Cyrene” who evangelize the Greeks (Acts 11:19–22) and launch the first Gentile church, led by Barnabas, in Antioch (vv. 22–26); and others. Certainly, the apostles selected leaders in the churches they had planted (e.g., 14:23), but such appointments did not transfer some type of apostolic authority to their recipients.

Episcopalian Church Government

The episcopalian form of church government, which led eventually to the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure with the papacy at its head, awaited historical development and is not without its problems.

Its three- tiered pattern of leadership—episcopate (or office of bishop); eldership/priesthood/pastorate; and diaconate—contradicts the two-tiered pattern of leadership as set forth in Scripture: The New Testament presents one office of teaching and oversight that is exercised by leaders who are called elders, bishops, overseers, or pastors (these terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament), and a second office of ministry or service that is exercised by deacons and deaconesses.

Another problem is that the historical development of this three-tiered ministry was a pragmatic solution to contextual factors, specifically the rise of heresy and the splintering of churches through division. The monoepiscopalian form of government elevated one bishop (Gk. mono = one; episcopos = bishop) around whom the entire church would congregate in hopes that he would stave off division and maintain the unity of the church. Though biblical support for this polity is offered—e.g., James’s role at the council of Jerusalem is similar to the function of a bishop; Paul’s appointment of apostolic legates (Timothy, Titus), who in turn appointed others, approaches the authority of a bishop—such support is only a seed awaiting the full flowering of the concept later in the early church.

This point introduces a further problem: Episcopalianism leading to the papacy departs from the sufficiency of Scripture because it is dependent on developments in the following centuries for its justification. Even here, the development of this structure is only part of the story, as some type of congregational form of church government was present at the same time in the early church.

Episcopalianism leading to the papacy departs from the sufficiency of Scripture because it is dependent on developments in the following centuries for its justification.

Peter the “Rock”

Part of this development focused on Jesus’s promise to Peter, who confessed the identity of his friend as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16): “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (vv. 18–19).

Several points need to be made: Whereas some evangelical theologians interpret “this rock” as a reference to Peter, and others as a reference to his confession, a more plausible understanding is that the rock is Peter in virtue of his confession. Thus, Jesus promises that he is about “to institute a new assembly of his people gathered under him—‘my church,’ he calls it—involving the Twelve and built on Peter and his authoritative word—the confession of faith in the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.” [1]

The promised “keys of the kingdom” will be the crux of Christ’s building of his church. Again, how we see the apostles in the book of Acts employing these gifts is crucial for our understanding of Jesus’s promise. “These keys have to do with the gospel and people’s response to it: those who repent of sin and embrace Jesus Christ by faith are ‘loosed’ from their sin, death and condemnation, domination by the world, and enslavement to the evil one. In contrast, those who refuse to heed the good news are ‘bound’ in that persistent hellish nightmare.” [2]

Accordingly, this passage is not support for the episcopalian hierarchy of the Catholic Church with the pope at its head and dependent on apostolic succession for its authority.

The Heart of the Disagreement

At the heart of evangelical theology’s rejection of apostolic succession is the doctrine’s basis in the Christ-Church interconnection, with its implication that somehow Christ transferred his ministerial authority and activity to the apostles, who in turn transferred it to their successors, the bishops, who continue it in the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Christ.

To its credit, the Catechism affirms that one aspect of apostleship cannot be and has not been transmitted: being eyewitnesses of the resurrection and as such being the foundation of the church. Where the Catechism goes wrong is in its insistence that another aspect of the apostolic office can be and has been transferred: the appointment of successors to the apostles; thus, apostolic succession.

John Webster well represents evangelical theology’s specific critique of this notion:

First, the ministerial acts of Jesus Christ in the Spirit, by which he gathers, protects, and preserves the church, are, properly speaking, incommunicable [non-transferrable] and non-representable. That is to say, if by ‘communication’ or ‘representation’ we mean the assumption of Christ’s proper work by agents other than himself, we may not make use of such concepts in a Christologically and pneumatologically structured theology of ministry. The dogmatic premises of an evangelical ecclesiology—that, as the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ is present and active—do not permit any such transference of agency. Christ distributes his own benefits through his Spirit, that is, by his own hand; they are not to be thought of as some treasure turned over to the church for it to dispense. [3]

Evangelical theology dissents from Catholic theology’s notion that Christ has transferred his authority and activity through the successors of the apostles through the line of apostolic succession.

Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

Gregg R. Allison

A theologian and church historian walks readers through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, winsomely evaluating Roman Catholic doctrine and practice from the perspective of both Scripture and evangelical theology.

What Evangelicals Believe

Positively, evangelical theology understands apostolicity to refer to the church’s focus on preaching, hearing, believing, and obeying the teachings of the apostles, written down in the canonical New Testament writings. Promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit for this very task, the apostles’ memories were aided by the Spirit as they wrote, rendering them and their writings bona fide witnesses of Jesus Christ (John 14:26).

Importantly, the apostle Peter himself underscores the manner in which he sought to ensure that the teachings that he had received from Christ would be transmitted to the church after his death (“departure”):

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet. 1:12–15)

Following this point, Peter explains that as an eyewitness of Jesus Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, he heard the very voice of God the Father commending his Son (vv. 16–18). Amazingly, however, Peter professes that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” and discourses on the written Word of God, the product of the biblical authors being moved by the Holy Spirit (vv. 19–21). If he, as the chief apostle, considered Scripture to be the sure, divine instruction for the church in the post-apostolic era, it is hard to see how apostolic succession could add to this already-certain foundation.

Accordingly, evangelical theology embraces apostolicity as the logocentricity, or Word-centeredness, of the church that is focused on the writings of the apostles.

[1] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 94.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh and New York: T & T Clark, 2001), 199–200.

This article is adapted from Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment by Gregg R. Allison.

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