Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Authority Both Apostolic and Petrine

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 20, 2010

In my review of C. E. Hill’s Who Chose the Gospels (Apostolic Authority and the Selection of the Gospels), I suggested that the author missed an opportunity to consider how apostolic authority would have been exercised if there had been a serious dispute about which gospels were authentic. Hill was quite right to conclude that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were accepted as the four exclusive inspired gospels on the authority of the apostles, and that there had never been a significant dispute on that score. But it seems clear that had there been such a dispute, Hill would not have been able to write nearly so successful a book.

For the problem with Apostolic authority (at least, so one would assume) is that it ended with the death of the last apostle. If, for example, significant portions of the post-apostolic Church had argued over whether the Gospel According to Luke was inspired, with each side presenting inconclusive arguments, how would the dispute have been resolved? Considering this problem in the abstract, C. E. Hill wrote that “there was certainly no great council of Christian churches before 150 which laid down the law on which Gospels to use.” Moreover, he asserts, “no single bishop…had the clout to make it stick.”

Here Hill expresses a fundamental insight about Apostolic authority which is nonetheless missing a key piece. His insight, which is quite correct as far as it goes, is that the bishops are successors of the apostles and so carry on Apostolic authority, but that to bind the Church they must exercise that authority together rather than individually (or as Catholic theology would put it, as a “college”). Thus his first instinct to check for a decree from a “great council” is sound. Catholics would recognize this as an ecumenical council. But his second instinct, that no bishop has sufficient authority on his own, is unsound. Is it really true, as Hill put it with admirable precision, that “no single bishop, not even the bishop of Rome”, had sufficient authority to settle such a question?

The Bishop of Rome

It is not true because it turns out that the Bishop of Rome is something of a special case. The bishop of Rome is the head of the episcopal college and has universal and immediate authority over every church, with or without the cooperation of the other bishops. Indeed, every other bishop exercises ecclesiastical jurisdiction only by virtue of the Roman bishop's universal authority. For this reason, it is precisely the presence and approval of the bishop of Rome that makes a council ecumenical.

As Christ said to Peter, before Peter denied him three times: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, you must confirm your brethren” (Lk 22:31-32). In exactly the same way that other bishops carry on Apostolic authority generally in a direct line from the apostles themselves, so too does the Bishop of Rome carry on Peter's universal and confirmatory authority over the entire Church.

In the context of this particular essay, one of the most interesting things about the Petrine authority is that the very same early authors Hill so persuasively cites for the continuous acceptance of the four gospels can also be cited for the continuous acceptance of full and complete authority over the Church by the successors of Peter in the Roman See.

In truth, the fact often precedes the theory. Thus in the second and third centuries, we see both legitimate bishops and unfortunate heretics appealing to Rome. Marcion and Praxeas rushed to Rome to gain approval for pernicious doctrines rejected by their local bishops, though Rome upheld the bishops. Basilides, Fortunatus and Felix—all bishops who were unjustly expelled from their sees—sought reinstatement from Pope Stephen. But the fact is also attested in the early writings. For example, just as Tertullian can be cited as accepting the four gospels, so also did he exclaim of the Church of Rome: “O Church, happy in its position, into which the apostles poured out, together with their blood, their whole doctrine” (Liber de prescriptione haereticorum).

The linchpin of Hill’s argument for the gospels is Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century. But St. Ireneaeus not only testified to the authenticity of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John; he also expounded a highly-developed ecclesiology, stressing the necessity of union with Rome, and exploring apostolic succession and even infallibility. He called Rome “the greatest Church, the most ancient, the most conspicuous, and founded and established by Peter and Paul”. And he emphasized that “in this Church, every Church, that is, the faithful from every side must agree together” (Against Heresies). As a practical example of this, Irenaeus recognized Pope Victor’s authority (in Rome) to excommunicate Polycrates (in Asia Minor).

Irenaeus had been a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been taught by St. John the Evangelist himself. Yet when Polycarp became concerned about the proper date for the celebration of Easter, he did not rely on St. John's teaching, but instead journeyed all the way to Rome to take counsel with the Pope. About the same time, St. Ignatius of Antioch—another source for the authenticity of the four gospels—spoke of that “church which has the first seat in the place of the country of the Romans” (Letter to the Romans). But the evidence goes back even to Clement of Rome, whom Hill also cites as providing early evidence for the acceptance of the gospels—and Clement was the fourth pope.

In the Roman See, Clement succeeded Anacletus, who succeeded Linus, who succeeded Peter. And in this context of Apostolic authority, what Clement did was really quite remarkable. In AD 96, Clement wrote to a distant diocese, Corinth, to settle a dispute which was upsetting normal church order. Word reached him of the rebellion of some members of that church against their lawful superiors, and so Clement wrote a letter to set things right. Hill, unfortunately missing the larger point while pursuing his gospel project, describes this as if it were a common exchange of letters among the various churches.

But among other things—and already using the pontifical “we” when referring to himself—Clement set forth the ordinary hierarchical structure of the local churches, taught that the apostles were to have successors in each place, and insisted that each person must not transgress the limits of his own rank. He also made his own authority clear: “Should any disobey what has been said by [Christ] through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgressions and no small danger.”

This letter was written while St. John was still living. Yet so well was the Petrine authority understood throughout the Church that it settled the dispute immediately; all parties accepted Clement’s judgment. Thus we find testimony to papal authority both as early and as strong as the testimony for the exclusive authenticity of the four gospels, and from most of the same sources cited by Hill in his excellent study of the latter question.

It is also true that, just as with the four gospels, the testimony in favor of papal authority grew more voluminous, specific and highly-developed throughout the third and fourth centuries, and was fully represented in the works of the great fourth century Fathers of the Church. But perhaps St. Cyprian put it most succinctly when he asked in his treatise On the Unity of the Church around AD 250: “Does he who opposes and resists the Church, who resists the Chair of Peter on whom the Church was founded, flatter himself that he is in the Church?”

The Biblical Canon: A Case Study

In light of all this, we can ask again what might have happened if a significant dispute had developed over which books were part of inspired Scripture. In fact, exactly such a problem arose in the late third and fourth centuries, during which it became increasingly clear that there was significant disagreement over whether the so-called deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament were inspired or not.

The dispute arose because there were seven books which many regarded as part of inspired Scripture despite the fact that they were not included in the Hebrew Bible: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees (and some fragments of other books as well). But these books were commonly read in the Greek translation of Scripture known as the Septuagint.

Among the most prominent Fathers of the Church, St. Jerome regarded the disputed seven books to be apocryphal, while St. Augustine accepted them as canonical. Jerome was probably the most knowledgeable Scripture scholar in the world at that time, as well as a great linguist. Most Protestants follow St. Jerome’s original opinion today. But Jerome’s opinion ran contrary to early tradition on this matter, and eventually Jerome changed his mind. What could have caused such a great scholar to renounce his position? It was the authority of the successor of Peter.

The full list of the canonical books of Scripture was promulgated at the councils of Rome, Carthage and Hippo in the late fourth century. The first of these councils was called by Pope Damasus I in 382, for Damasus had a special interest in the question. He wanted to make all of Scripture more accessible to the Latin Church, and a few years earlier, he had summoned Jerome to Rome to serve as his secretary and to translate the entire Bible into Latin, producing what is now known as the Vulgate—a Bible in the language of the people.

Now, at first Jerome did not wish to include the deutero-canonical books in his translation, but when Damasus made it clear to him that he held these books to be inspired, Jerome dropped his opposition. Thus they were included for well over a thousand years as part of the official Christian Bible in the West, until the Protestants arbitrarily rejected them anew in the 16th century. It was this that prompted the Council of Trent once again to reaffirm the canonical list that had first been published authoritatively by Damasus I, even though the list had also been proclaimed at the Council of Florence just a century earlier.

In his debates with the heretic Ruffinus, Jerome upheld the See of Peter as the touchstone of orthodoxy in the Church of Christ. In one famous passage he exclaimed, “whoever is joined to Peter’s chair, he is mine” (Letter to Pope Damasus). He lived what he wrote.

Thus Jerome and Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian and Irenaeus, Polycarp and Ignatius, Clement of Rome—and surely John the Evangelist himself, who taught Polycarp and witnessed Clement’s settlement of the problems of the Church in Corinth—all recognized what C. E. Hill unfortunately has not yet considered, though he cited the very same authorities on the gospels: There is indeed one bishop who did and does have “the clout” to settle questions of this kind, and this clout was acknowledged from the earliest possible date throughout the length and breadth of the Church.

That would be the Bishop of Rome. It is precisely this Petrine power, carried on by the popes, that gives the Church of Christ an authority capable of settling questions of Faith here and now. When there is irreconcilable disagreement about the meaning of the evidence remaining from Apostolic times, we must remember that Revelation was consigned to the Church and that Scripture itself is first and foremost the Church’s book. Through her very embodiment of Apostolic Succession—that is, her college of bishops united with its head, the pope—the authority of Christ Himself remains living and present, so that the Church may teach all nations to observe all that He has commanded, “even to the end of time” (Mt 28:20).

Previous in series: Apostolic Authority and the Selection of the Gospels

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Dec. 22, 2010 11:59 AM ET USA

    *Excellent* essay. This is worth keeping on one's desktop for easy reference.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 22, 2010 11:48 AM ET USA

    Also noteworthy re the Letter of Clement is not only was John still alive, but he was also much closer geographically and culturally to the Corinthians, who were having the dispute. Would have been much easier to appeal to John, but the Corinthians themselves appealed to Clement, the Bishop of Rome. That's a real trumpet blast denoting the ancient's understanding of Rome's preeminence if ever there were one.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Dec. 21, 2010 11:19 PM ET USA

    Thank you. My education at an Evangelical seminary consisted of the material cited by C. E. Hill. It was a bulwark against liberalism of all kinds. But my education also consisted of C. E. Hill's conclusion that that no bishop has sufficient authority on his own to guard the deposit of faith. But I had read Ireneaeus, Polycarp, and Clement before seminary and they left me with unresolved questions. Now, thirty years later, I am experiencing cognitive rest in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Dec. 21, 2010 10:33 AM ET USA

    The bishop of Rome is the head of the episcopal college and has universal and immediate authority over every church, with or without the cooperation of the other bishops. Let us not forget who called and presided at the first council. See Acts 1.