by Harold O.J. Brown –

The words of Jesus Great High Priestly Prayer, in John 17:11, are sometimes used to prove that Jesus wants a unified church and that therefore separation is sinful.  Of course the Lord himself does not tell us, neither in John 17 nor elsewhere, exactly what the unity is to be like or how it is to be achieved.  One major ongoing theological conversation, Evangelicals and Catholics together, meets twice a year to discuss and as far as possible declare the common ground that does exists between serious, believing Christians of different traditions.  The host and de facto moderator of ECT, Father Richard John Neuhaus, has served as an ordained minister in two Lutheran Fellowships[i] before becoming a Roman Catholic and receiving ordination as a Roman Catholic priest.  Father Neuhaus likes to speak of what he calls “the Petrine ministry,” which Protestants lack.  By this he means the office of the papacy, which seeks to receive all of the dissidents into its fold and by this means create a visible, truly unified church. The evangelicals who participate, among them the present writer, hope to attain at least a measure of unity of faith, witness, and service without being subsumed under the authority of the pope.

Inasmuch as major evangelical traditions, such as Calvinist or Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican, express serious reservations about the papal office, even so far as going to identify it with the Antichrist, it is hard to see how they can move very far in the direction of unity under the pope without abandoning their saving faith in Jesus Christ as the only head of the church.

What did Jesus mean when he prayed “that they may be one”?  He continued, “even as we [the Father and Jesus] are one.” That is an ontological unity, a unity of being, and certainly is not organizational or institutional.  It does not exclude the possibility of a single head for the church, but it certainly does not prescribe it.  Although followers of Calvin were to designate the papacy as the Antichrist (see the Westminster Confession Art.  xxv), Calvin himself was less harsh.  Speaking of the Roman church, he said, “I do not deny that there are churches among them, but they are not the church.”[2]  It is not necessary to go so far as the Westminster Confession does to see that the claims of the pope to be Christ’s vicar and the spiritual head of the entire church are lacking in biblical, theological, and historical plausibility.


Was Peter the First Pope?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter answered the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” by his famous confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”(16:16).  Then Jesus told him, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).  This is the key verse upon which the Roman Catholic claims for the papacy are based:  Peter was the first pope, and later became the first bishop of Rome.  These are tradi­tional assertions for which there is no real historical evidence; they are certainly not verifiable.  All of Peter’s successors in that office, down to the present Pope, John Paul II, according to the Roman view, are likewise vicars of Christ and heads of his church on earth.

What did Jesus mean, “Upon this rock I will build my church”?  One modern Bible translation, the New English Bible, makes it plain, but not necessarily correctly, by adding an extra “rock” and writing “You are Peter the rock.”  In the Greek of the New Testament, “rock” is petra, while Peter is Petros, thus weakening the argument that Peter himself must be the rock on which the church is to be built.   The next words of Jesus should cause some hesitancy in acknowledging Peter as the future head of the church and guardian of the faith, for when he told Jesus that he should not be killed, Jesus rebuked him forcefully:  “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:22,23).  These sharp words of Jesus should give pause to those who want to see Peter as the first pope, the vicar of Christ and the guardian of the faith.  Indeed, during the long history of the papacy, there are abundant examples of popes thinking more of man’s interest than of God’s.[3]

Roman Catholics point out that at the Last Supper, before he predicted that Peter would deny him, Jesus told him, “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail;  and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:18).  There is no doubt of Jesus’ love for Peter, or even for a special place for Peter, but this does not indicate that his role as head of the church, whatever that may have been, was to be passed on to his successors as bishop in the capital city of the Roman Empire.

Duri­ng the period of the early church, it is not at all clear that a single head for the church was generally accepted.  In what is called the Apostolic Council, the first general or “ecumenical” council to  be held, it is Jesus’ brother James[4] who moderates the council and gives judgment (Acts 15:13:21, esp. v. 19, in which James says, “It is my judgment”).  If the successors of the first bishop of a particular city was to be the head of the church, one could plausibly argue for the successors of James rather than of Peter.­  Yet, Rome was the center of the Empire.  For that reason, the papacy centered at Rome gradually took on a certain eminence compared to the other “patriarchates” of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.


Did the Church Fathers Acknowledge a Roman Pope?

However, the idea that the church was to be built on Peter as “the rock” was not generally asserted by the early church fathers.  Although some did read the text in this way, more saw it as meaning something else, referring for example, to the faith that Peter declared rather than to Peter himself.  In the days before the Emperor Constantine decreed tolerance for the church in the Edict of Milan (313)[5], the church was an illegal organization and simply could not have a recognized, empire-wide or ecumenical structure with a recognized head.  Among the great Christian centers, Rome soon came to be considered especially eminent, but not because it was the see of Peter.  In the late second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyon used harmony with the bishop of Rome as a standard of orthodoxy.   Nevertheless, Rome was usually hailed as the city of “Paul and Peter,” where both saints gave their lives in martyrdom.  St. Paul, the author of so many influential epis­tles, stands out more in the thought of the early Christian communi­ties than Peter, of whose record as putative ruling bishop of Rome little if anything is known.  Certainly he was not acclaimed as the vicar of Christ on earth.

If the pope, the bishop of the see of the capital of the Empire, had no role in the great councils that established fundamental Christian doctrines, why think he was supposed to be the head of the church of Christ?  He was not instrumental in calling the first great ecumenical council in Nicaea convened at the invitation of the Emperor Constan­tine in 325.  It was this council which declared the unity of substance, the homoousia of the Son and the Father, clarifying the fundamental doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  The second great doctrinally important council, Chalcedon (fourth ecumenical) was also held near Constantinople, with no significant papal participa­tion, although Pope Leo the Great did affirm it.


How Did the Roman Papacy Arise?

The fact that Rome was the center of the Empire made it a logical place for the central authority of the church, and of course when Constantinople became the second capital, it began to take precedence.  At the end of the sixth century, when the city of Rome had already come under barbarian rule, the patriarch of Constan­tinople, John the Faster, began to call himself the “ecumenical [universal] patriarch.”  His contemporary, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), famous for sending missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in England and for what we now call Gregorian Chant, criticized him.  Gregory did not argue that John could not be the universal bishop because he himself was, but rather that no one could, for if one bishop set himself up in that way, he diminished all his brethren.

Early in the 7th century, the Emperor Heraclitus persuaded Pope Honorius to sign the Henotikon, a document intended to create unity with the rebellious Monophy­sites of Syria and Egypt.  Soon those countries were conquered by the Muslims and the need for compromise ended.  The Henotikon was repudiated in the East and the West, and for many decades new popes were required to swear rejection of the heretical Honorius before being installed.  This undeniable fact (i.e. that Honorius affirmed a heretical document) would lead to protests at the First Vatican Council as the infallibility of the pope was put forward (1870).  The nominal unity of the church was broken in 1054, when the Patriarch of Constanti­nople and the Pope issued mutual excommunications.  The infamous Fourth Crusade was diverted to sack Constantinople in 1204, overthrow the eastern empire and establish a Latin patriarchate.  The Greeks reestablished their control after 1237, but their empire was grievously weakened by the Roman perfidy, and considerable hostility to all things Roman persists to this day. ­

Meanwhile, in the West, the Roman church was consolidating itself to a degree previously unknown.  At the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 the doctrine of transubstantia­tion was proclaimed:  the substance of the bread and of the wine in the Eucharist are miraculou­sly changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ.  This decision in effect excommunicated many who had modestly differing views of the real presence of Christ, a doctrine which made the ministry of the Catholic priesthood all but absolutely necessary for salvation. Less highly defined views of Christ in the sacrament were no longer tolerated.  Such views would come to the fore again, but outside the Roman Church, during the Reformation.

In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII asserted, “It is absolutely necessary for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Bull Unam sanctam­).  Unfortunately for this pope, after his proud claim he ran into trouble with King Philip of France, who called for a general council and imprisoned the pope, who soon died.  Under his second successor, Clement V, the papacy was moved to Avig­non, thus beginning the 70-year “Babylonian Captivity of the Pope.”  Shortly after Pope Gregory XI w­as persuaded by St. Cathe­rine of Siena to return to Rome, but died the next year.  A rival papacy in Avignon was established and the Great Western Schism began (1378-1415).

At the Council of Pisa in 1409, both rival popes were deposed and Alexander V was chosen.  But the other two pope’s refused to resign, and so there were three.  The Council of Constance (1414-1418) was convened to settle the matter; all three popes were asked to resign but John XXIII, who had succeeded Alexander, put up considerable resistance until finally being forced out and replaced by Martin V (1417-1431).  The Council decreed that a general council was superior to the papacy, but after it was dissolved Martin made a number of deals (“concordats”) with European monarchs to maintain his own authority.  The worst misdeed of the Council of Constance was to condemn the Bohemian reformer John Hus to death by burning, disregarding a safe-conduct given him by the Emperor, and leading to a ferocious uproar in Bohemia.  Hus and his followers only sought services in the language of the people and communion in two kinds, with both bread and wine given to the people as well as to the priests.  He and many of his followers were put to death, but the Roman Catholic Church now permits both of these previously condemned practices.

The latter part of the fifteenth century saw the reign of the most notoriously corrupt pope of all, Alexander VI, a member of the infanous Borgia family and the father of Cesare and Lucretia (1492-1503).  The worldliness and corruption of the papacy and the Roman curia were notorious, leading to many demands for reforma­tion, but it was only Luther who was able to break the hold of the popes on the church.

Many of the major Protestant Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, entertained the hope of a reformation of the entire church, but the Council of Trent (1542 – 1563) effectively destroyed that hope and set the shape of the church for four centuries.  Thus, in recent history, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) by his own authority proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), and subsequently the pope was explicitly declared infallible at the First Vatican Council of 1859-70.  The curious conflict between this “infallibility” and the heresy of Pope Honorius, mentioned earlier, led to the withdrawal of some from allegiance to Rome.   In 1950 Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary.  This represented rather a high point in the history of papal authority and prestige.  The Second Vatican Council, contrary to the intentions of Pope John XXIII,[6] led not to a helpful aggiorniamento (bringing up to date) but to disorder and signs of collapse in the entire Roman Catholic Church.  Over against the trends to abandon familiar Catholic positions and even essentials of the general Christian faith, there remain many traditional Catholics who continue to assert the old doctrines, including the supremacy and infallibility of the pope.



For every objection and criticism enumerated here, traditional Roman Cathol­ic apologists have at least a kind of an answer.  To accept all of these answers, in the light of the evidence from Scripture, history, and theology, seems to require a suspension of belief, perhaps even a sacrificium intellectus (sacrifice of the intellect).  The straightforward confession of the Gospel does not.


Harold O.J. Brown is the John R. Richardson Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He is author of Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Doubleday, 1984).


1.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod.

2. John Calvin, Institute of the Christian Religion, IV, ii, 12, paraphrased.

3. During the period leading up to the Protestant Reformation, the papal project for building St. Peter’s, the most eminent church of the West, combined with the greed of Archbishop Albert of Brandengberg to have three archdioceses at once led to the financial deals that caused John Tetzel to hawk indulgences for cash across the Elbe River from Wittenberg.  Martin Luther reacted with the XCV Theses and the prized unity of the church, at least in the West, came to an end.

4. James is referred to as “the brother of Jesus” in Acts, but Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, who assert that Mary remained a virgin, see references to “brothers and sisters” as referring to children of Joseph by an earlier marriage or as other close relatives.

5. Constantine did not establish Christianity as the official religion of Rome; that came later, under Theodosius.

6.After the new pope chose the name John, the former John XXIII was removed from the list of popes.