The Catholic-Protestant Schism: Competing Histories

Did Peter single-handedly assume control over the early Roman church with the idea that he was Christ's successor and that the Church would be the global epicenter of Christianity until the end of time? The answer will determine all else.
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Some of the greatest Protestant minds of the last 50 years have, at the peaks of their intellectual careers, converted to Roman Catholicism. Respect for those leaders has led me to spend months reading about their motivations for converting and to pursue extended conversations with Roman Catholic theologians to understand them better. Many converts have written prolifically about their rationale. But now that the Catholics Come Home ad blitz is heating up, I feel like this would be a good time to explain why some Christians will not be "returning home" in the year 2012, our great respect for the RC tradition notwithstanding.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out so many years ago, the essential difference between Catholics and Protestants is not some issue of doctrine, or our understanding of the Eucharist. In a letter to a Catholic, he once wrote: "We disagree about nothing more than the authority of the Pope: on which disagreement almost all the others depend."

And in another: "The real reason I cannot be in communion with you is ... that to accept your Church means not to accept a given body of doctrine but to accept in advance any doctrine that your Church hereafter produces."

Though Protestants (especially evangelicals) like to think that the disagreement boils down to doctrine, Catholics don't recognize their right to argue from Scripture, so debating theology won't do. And though Catholics think the issue boils down to the validity of their sacraments, they're not willing to actually debate that topic because they won't concede that anyone else can consider the question with them. The result, in both cases, is frustrating circularity.

No, as with the Christian faith itself, the issue is historical. Did Peter single-handedly found or assume control over the early Roman church with the idea that he was Christ's successor and that the Church he was establishing would be the global epicenter of Christianity until the end of time? The answer to that question will determine virtually all else.

Pius X said "a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord." The catechism states that as "Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the church." Is that the most plausible historical explanation of what happened? I do believe there are many millions of people in the Roman Communion who are Christians, but I am not convinced that all Christians need be in the Roman Communion. In summary form, here are the reasons their telling of the story seems less plausible than the alternative.

Three Major Defeaters for the Papacy

Note: a defeater is a belief which, if true, necessarily invalidates some other belief (e.g. "Jesus was not raised from the dead" is a defeater for Christianity). These "defeaters" take aim at papal history.

  1. In virtually all the early citations used to say that Peter led the church in Rome, Paul is listed as co-leader of the church (cf. Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius). We should not be surprised at this. In all three letters to his disciples, Paul prescribes that there be multiple bishops (episkopoi) in every congregation. The church fathers testify to the same. This apostolically prescribed model, especially as history records it in Rome, is different from what papal historians might lead us to believe.
  2. Even though the founding of the papacy (if historical) would be the second most important event in all of history (after the Christ event itself), it has no place in the apostolic preaching (in Acts) or even in the writings of the apostolic fathers. The good news, if the papal narrative holds true, would have to be that Christ has come and that, in Peter, Christ remains. But there is not a trace or hint of this Petrine emphasis in the apostolic preaching. Nowhere do we hear it preached that "a human representative of Christ on earth will graciously continue on as Christ directs him." How could such a monumental component of the story be left out if in fact it was truly a part of the story?
  3. The medieval schism and Council of Constance not only severed what link there might have been to Petrine succession but, in fact, ground the true authority of all churches in Jesus Christ alone. In the papacy's darkest hour, the line of leaders which (is supposed to have) descended from Peter himself was broken, and the leaders of the church announced in their resolution to the schism that "everyone is subject to this ruling, even the pope. We draw our authority from Jesus Christ Himself." This is, in its essence, a Protestant understanding of authority, and it undercuts the whole Petrine office.

Six Secondary Defeaters

Let me handle these in chronological order.
  1. Peter did not seem to understand himself as the leader of the early church. He referred to himself as a "fellow elder" and was corrected and rebuked -- even after the ascension -- by other apostles.
  2. In Paul's Epistle to the Roman Church, the one primary early document we have about that all-important congregation, the names of 25 different people there are mentioned, but Peter's is not among them.
  3. The New Testament is concerned with "succession," but its emphasis is not on the succession of a group of people but on the succession of the message of the Gospel. In fact, Christ says "Don't call yourself rabbi; don't call yourself first; don't say you're Abraham's sons." So a ramping up of personal and individual importance seems not only surprising but antithetical to the "Jesus is better" emphasis of the NT.
  4. The documents most often used to bolster the papacy's historical case stem almost entirely from a sudden and suspicious increase in evidence in the fourth century, an increase which correlates directly to the shift of the capitol from Rome to Constantinople and the need of Rome to redefine and re-defend its own importance.
  5. As late as the year 189, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon wrote a candid and unequivocal rebuke to the bishop of Rome regarding the Paschal controversy. It seems unlikely he would do such a thing if he thought he was writing to the sole vicar of Christ on earth.
  6. Even though I see the administrative attraction of a strongly hierarchial style of church governance, I do not see it in New Testament apostolic practice. It's not the way Paul operated in handling controversy, and it's not the way Peter addressed himself either. Exhortation and prayer, not episcopacy and presbyteries, seemed to be the apostles' means of exerting their leadership.
Each of these points has been presented in summary form, but I hope they will be food for thought and fodder for discussion between Christians both inside and outside of the Roman communion. Come Lord Jesus!

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