The Papacy: Answering Common Objections (#6-8)

Back in October, I started answering a series of oppositions to the Papacy which I was calling the Reymond questions, after their author, Robert L. Reymond of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (originally from here). You can find all of my answers by using the Reymond Question tag at the bottom of the post. Today’s 3 all deal with a similar theme: the relationship between Peter and the other two prominent Apostles, James and John.

Question 6. Why does Paul list Peter as only one of the pillars in the mother church of Jerusalem, and second after James at that (Galatians 2:9)?

This has always struck me as one of the strangest arguments against Petrine primacy for Protestants to use. It acknowledges that within the Twelve, some were considered more prominent than others. It even acknowledges that Peter was one of them. It just says, “other people were considered leaders amongst the Twelve” as if that disproves the primacy of Peter. It doesn’t, of course: Catholics don’t think that Peter was the only prominent Apostle, or that the pope is the only prominent modern Catholic (or even the only Catholic with significant authority). What it does disprove is this notion that all the Twelve carried equal weight and authority.

So first, let’s just make it clear that the “Pillars,” Peter, James, and John, are clearly singled out within the Twelve: to this extent, Reymond is correct. Simon is renamed Peter (Matthew 16:17-19), while James and John are together nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). The prominence of these three is made most clear in Luke 8:51, when Jesus goes to resurrect a dead girl, the only people He allows in the room besides the girl’s parents are Peter, James and John. In Mark 14:32-33, at the Garden of Gethsemane, all of the Disciples follow Jesus, but He leaves all but these three behind to go and pray. Luke 9:28 records that Peter, James and John are the three Jesus took to His Transfiguration.

Yet even within these examples, we see that Peter is given a prominence even over the other two. Luke 9:32 refers to the three Disciples at the Transfiguration as “Peter and his companions,” and in Mark 14:37-38, at the Garden of Gethesane, Jesus returns from praying to find Peter, James, and John asleep. Peter alone is singled out by name: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

That Peter is scolded for doing the same thing James and John had done makes sense: Luke 12:48 says that “to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Or, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben told him, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s got an absolutely singular role, and he can’t afford to behavior like the other Eleven, even like the other two Pillars.

Finally, a point I’ve mentioned before. In Mark 16:7, the angel sends the three women at the Empty Tomb, saying, “go, tell His Disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.'” Peter, of all the Disciples, is singled out as leader. Now, compare this to Acts 12:17. After Peter is sprung from prison by an angel, he says, “Tell James and the brothers about this.” It’s like “Buddy Holly and the Crickets.” It’s not a denial that Peter’s a Disciple or James is one of the Brethren; it’s a place of prominence. If that’s correct, then the angel at Easter is signaling Peter’s primacy; Peter does the same for James, which makes sense. By this point, James is the only other living “Pillar,” and is believed to have been the Bishop of Jerusalem, where Acts 12 takes place.

The appeal of this argument against the papacy is that it imagines that the only Catholic cleric with any authority (or at least, any significant authority) is the Pope. That view, if correct, would indeed contrast with the way power was exercised in the early Church. But, of course, it’s not correct. And yet in the early Church, as with the modern Church, we still see ultimate responsibility (for better or for worse) falling to one man: Peter then, Benedict now.

Question 7. Why at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which James quite obviously presided, is Peter merely the first speaker, assuming no special prerogatives in the debate that ensued, and not the president of that Council? Why was the entire matter not simply submitted to Peter rather than to the Council, and why did not the decision go forth as a Petrine deliverance rather than an apostolic decree?

Let’s take these questions separately. First, in what was is it clear that “James quite obviously presided”? Both James and Peter have a large role in the Acts account of the Council. There’s a large debate, Peter gets up and speaks, citing to the revelation the Holy Spirit made to him individually (Acts 15:7-11; the revelation in question occurred in Acts 10:9-23), and immediately, “the whole assembly fell silent” (Acts 15:12). He stopped the debate. This opens the floor for Paul and Barnabas to present their testimony (Acts 15:12). After Paul and Barnabas finish speaking, then – for the first time – James speaks (Acts 15:13).

Now compare the first words out of each of their mouths. Peter’s opening remarks: “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7). He speaks of the special role that God chose for him to the Gentiles (see Acts 10:9-23). James’ opening remarks: “My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name” (Acts 15:13-14). So both Peter and James use Peter’s unique role as their first argument for considering the Gentiles equal to the Jews.

If the passage stopped there, it would certainly be a strong argument in favor of Peter’s overwhelming role at the Council. But it doesn’t. After Acts 15:13-14, James cites to the Old Testament for support of this proposition (Acts 15:15-18), concluding, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21). So clearly, both Peter and James have very important roles at the Council.

I think the most honest assessment is that Acts 15 is ambiguous the Council. But that’s not that surprising. It’s a Church Council. Centuries from now, if you were to look at the records of the Second Vatican Council, for example, you’d likely be similarly confused about whether the Bishop of Rome had a special place of primacy. And perhaps some Protestants would say of Vatican II, “Why was the entire matter not simply submitted to Paul VI rather than to the Council, and why did not the decision go forth as a papal deliverance rather than an conciliar decree?”

Which brings us to the second question: Why was the entire matter not simply submitted to Peter rather than to the Council, and why did not the decision go forth as a Petrine deliverance rather than an apostolic decree?” I’m not sure Reymond realizes how important this question is: and not just to Catholics. Let’s not even address the issue of the papacy yet. First, Peter is an Apostle. When we read 1 Peter and 2 Peter, we don’t ask, “Ok, but what’s the majority opinion of the rest of the Apostles?” It’s sufficient that an Apostle said so: case closed. Second, Peter’s already been given the answer to the question which is in dispute. The Holy Spirit showed Peter the equality of Jews and Gentiles in Acts 10, and Peter explained this to his critics in Acts 11. So given that through a Divinely-inspired vision, an Apostle was given a pretty straightforward answer to the question in dispute, why is a Council needed?

Put more simply, why is there a need for Church Councils when there are Apostles empowered to act independently? This question is at the heart of the purpose of Church Councils. I attempted to explore the interrelation between the papacy and Church Councils here, but I’m not sure I did a very good job. The short answer is that valid ecumenical Councils have intrinsic authority, independent of the pope’s own infallibility. So papal-approved Church Councils have two signs of infallibility. And for certain serious issues facing the Church (such as the Jewish-Gentile question, which seemed poised to tear the Church in half), it makes sense to employ this extraordinary measure.

Here, though, the Church Council is simply affirming what Peter was proclaiming five chapters earlier. So if Reymond’s argument is that Peter has to wait and see what the Church council says, he’s proven something nearer the opposite.

Question 8. Why can Paul say of the Jerusalem leadership (James, Peter and John) who seemed to be something: What they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality (2:6)?

This one’s easy. Look back to Peter’s speech from Acts 15:9, where he says that God “makes no distinction” between Gentiles and Jews. Being a Jew or being a Gentile isn’t what saves you. Being pope doesn’t save you. Sin’s still sin whether it’s done by the pope or by anybody else. In fact, like I mentioned above, Luke 12:48 suggests that those with much are held to a higher standard. Paul just uses the impartiality of God – the very thing Peter already affirmed – to show that sin from Peter’s still sin.

In fact, the fact that Paul feels the need to justify calling Peter out on this sin suggests that he was aware there were Christians who would be shocked by this. That’s an argument for an understanding of Peter having a special prominence, not against it. Paul doesn’t refute that Peter has a special prominence, he just makes it clear that rank doesn’t entail the privilege to sin freely. But again, this is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches. After all, we’ve got churches named after folks like St. Raymond of PeƱafort, who in his position of papal confessor was responsible for forgiving Pope Gregory IX of his sins. So no partiality: when the pope sins, he’s got to go to confession, just like everybody else.

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