How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First Pope?-Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004
Is there biblical evidence that Peter was appointed Pope by Jesus? Is there biblical or historical information to show that he ever actually help held the position of Pope?

The Rise of The Papacy

A number of historical factors explain the rise of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.[1] Perhaps the most important was the church’s failure to abide by scriptural teaching. This topic can be divided into two basic sections, 1) historic factors and internal conditions that permitted the rise of the papacy (these are not given in any particular order of importance); and 2) key figures historically who guided the Church in this direction.

The Evolution and Increase in Ecclesiastical Offices.

From the simplicity of the biblical deacon and presbyter, which are roughly equivalent, the Church added additional offices including sub-deacons, readers, acolytes, and bishops, who became distinguished from presbyters. For example, in 252 A.D. the Roman bishop had 46 presbyters. One Roman bishop, Callistus I, actually said that no presbyter could ever depose a bishop—even if the bishop committed a “mortal” sin. Bishops became subdivided even among themselves. Bishops in the country were held to be inferior to bishops in the city. In capital cities with more than one bishop, one among their number became the head bishop. Thus, in Alexan­dria, 12 bishops convened to elect one bishop from among their number. In the fourth century the office of Metropolitan was recognized as being superior to the office of bishop.

This growing ecclesiastical hierarchy provided justification for the emerging hierarchical system and increasing divisions between clergy and laity. The addition of clerical garb also helped to distinguished clergy from laity.

The historical relationship to Roman Catholicism can be seen as follows:

Roman Catholicism
Evolving Church
Pope Patriarch—head over an entire geographical region
Cardinal Metropolitan—head over several bishops
Bishop Bishop (sub-divisions; inferior to Metropolitan)
Priest Presbyter (distinguished from bishop)
The people The people

Ironically, the increasing ecclesiastical divisions in the Church under girded the subsequent Romanization of the Church. Even though the goal itself was laudable—desire for greater visible unity—this demanded an increasing centralization of power that was not biblical.

The Emergence of Sacerdotal System

This system was justified from the Old Testament model where the High Priest acted as the mediator between God and the people. In essence, the Old Testament High Priest, altar and sacrificial system became replicated in the Roman Church. The priest mediates or officiates between God and the people, the altar separates them and the elevation-transubstantiation of the host re-sacrifices (or “re-presents”) Christ: Finally the priest officiates between God and the people through the confessional.

The basis of sacerdotalism is laid in the early Church Fathers. For example, Cyprian (200 A.D.) is considered the “father” of the sacerdotal system. He believed the bishops were the special bearers of the Holy Spirit who, through ordination, was passed on from Christ to the apostles to the bishops. An episcopacy or “rule by bishops” slowly developed through the con­cept that only those who have had hands laid on them by a bishop are qualified to be in the ministry. Cyprian believed that the Church exists in the bishop and the bishop exists in the Church. Therefore whoever is not with the bishop is not with the Church. Along with other fac­tors, this led to the idea that one had to be within the one true visible Church in order to be saved—to be outside the Church meant to be outside of salvation.

Additional Church fathers supported similar ideas, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. For example, the Church was described as being similar to Noah’s ark. To be in the ark (the Church) was to be saved from judgment; to be outside was to perish—thus the Church was the safe haven to which the world must flee for salvation.

In the third century the term “priest” was used only for the bishop, not anyone else. But once the idea emerged of a priestly rule—i.e., priests as a special class of people—the biblical teach­ing of every believer as a priest was eventually undermined (1 Pet. 2:9; 2:5, etc.). This had the result of producing further division between clergy and laity. (Something similar occurred with the concept of “saint”; whereas every true believer of every moral or spiritual state is a saint, the term became applied only to certain “special” people the Church recognized for particular rea­sons.)

The Concept of Unity

In the second century Iranaeus used the term “Catholic” Church. The growing power and influence of the Roman bishop was under girded by a perceived need for visible unity before the world. In other words, the Church believed it should have a united front which led to the accep­tance of increasingly centralized power.

If Christ actually ruled over the earth, even though He was now in heaven, and if the bishop was the visible symbol of Christ on earth, then on earth, the bishop can rule in Christ’s place.

The Church was also coming to be seen as a visible, rather than invisible, entity. While this idea, along with the episcopacy, or government of the Church by bishops, would under gird Church unity, it would also undermine the fact that the true Church is made up of people who are true believers in Jesus Christ, wherever they are—inside or outside a visible Church or structure. In other words, the “invisible” Church of true believers was ignored in favor of the visible Church as the true Church.

The Prominence of the Roman Church

The Roman Church had the only Patriarch, or Bishop of high rank, in the West. All others were in the East—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, etc. This helped Rome to centralize its spiritual power without competition.

Many factors contributed to the prominence of the Roman Church.

  1. The city of Rome itself had the prominent position as the capital city, center of trade, etc. It was the most powerful and influential city in the Roman Empire.
  2. The Roman Church, quite in error, claimed Peter as supreme among the apostles. Peter allegedly held a superior position because a) Jesus Himself supposedly singled him out (Matt. 16:18); b) Jesus singled out no one besides Peter; and c) the Roman Church believed that Peter’s power and position were transferable to his successors. This is why Roman popes trace their lineage back to the “first” pope, Peter. Just as in the Old Testament the high priest had to be of the tribe of Levi and a descendant of Aaron—just so the pope had to be a “descendant” of Peter spiritually by apostolic succession, laying on of hands, etc.
  3. Rome claimed it was the only apostolic, ancient Church (actually the Church of Jerusalem was older). Rome also claimed that both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were directly associated with it. Since two major apostles were related directly to Rome, Rome was allegedly the superior Church. Paul, at least, was related to the Roman Church—he wrote the book of Romans. But Rome was not perfect, e.g., “Rome had a tradition of tolerance for modalist tendencies since the time of Victor [189-198].”[2] But she sided with orthodoxy and as such became increasingly respected and other churches began to acknowledge her “superiority”—even ac­cepting her rebuke and excommunication for minor issues.
  4. The Roman Church was a suffering Church which engaged in good works and had a respectable, caring, orthodox leadership. This also granted the Church favor in the eyes of other churches.

Many early Fathers agreed that Rome was a superior Church. Irenaeus said Rome was among the greatest of churches. There seemed to be a common consensus that Rome was “first among equals” which, rather quickly, degenerated to simply, “first”. Roman bishops even claimed supremacy in their own districts. While some, like Hippolytus, opposed this claim, it was generally accepted.

The Increasing Doubt That Salvation Was by Grace Through Faith Alone

Human nature being what it is, this is not so surprising. Like the ancient Israelites who forgot God even after their great deliverances through Moses, many of the early Church Fathers quickly forgot that salvation was entirely apart from works. Many came to believe that baptism remits sins and, in logical progression, good works were soon seen as necessary for salvation. Once the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone was increasingly obscured, the door swung open to views of self-salvation, building brick upon brick, for an entire system of salvation by works.

Again, while this evolution was understandable, it was also regrettable in that it laid the foun­dation for the later complex system of Roman soteriology. As an illustration consider the con­cept of the martyrs emerging as a special class of people.

The early Church was persecuted so heavily that yearly memorials of those martyrs bal­looned into an unbiblical system. These commemorations began as mere graveside services where accounts of their sufferings were read. They soon changed so that martyrdom itself became 1) a greater Christian virtue; 2) a substitute for baptism; 3) a power to cleanse from sin and 4) a guarantee of heaven. Origen even ascribed an atoning value to others from a martyr’s death. In the end, the clothes, bones, etc., of martyrs became objects of veneration, resulting in another division among the body of Christ—special Christians (martyrs) versus less special Christians.

The concept of martyrdom became so important that marginal or heretical groups began teaching that backsliders were not permitted into the Church (the Novatians) or that those who gave up their Scriptures in the persecutions committed an unpardonable sin (the Donatists).

Eventually the very idea of ascribing a special status to the martyr meant that there was a certain act one could do which could earn merit before God—thus justifying in part the concept of penance. This was one of many factors which under girded merit before God on the basis of good works. The veneration of martyrs gave way to veneration of “saints” in general, opposing the biblical teaching that every believer is a saint. Eventually this led to an entire cultic substruc­ture.

The Division of Sin

Another factor was the concept of different categories of sin. This apparently began with the legalistic, ascetic, charismatic Montanists. If some sins were held to cause the loss of salvation and were thus “mortal” or deadly, then less serious sins were merely “venial” or of secondary importance. If the Church sacraments could also dispense grace, then the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism could be established in which, e.g., penance was required to forgive mortal sins.

The above constitute some of the factors that permitted the rise of the Roman Church to a position of prominence and laid the foundation for the papacy. Six key figures subsequently built upon that foundation to bring about the concept and reality of the papal office as we find it in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Leo the First (d. 461 A.D.)

Leo was not a pope, but a Roman Bishop who served from 440-461 A.D. During the Robber Council (449)—Eutychian/monophysite controversy, Leo did everything in his ability to increase the power and control of the Roman Bishop in order to more effectively oppose heresy.

Thus, Leo was the one who called the great Council of Chalcedon to refute the Eutychian heresy. The result was one of the classic creeds of Christendom which upheld Nicea and under girded orthodoxy. Leo’s involvement in the council and on the side of orthodoxy increased the power and respect of the Roman Bishop. However, it also raised serious questions about the use of political power within the Church.

Gregory the First (540-604 A.D.)

Also known as Gregory the Great, he served just before and after 600 A.D. (590-604).

Gregory may be considered the first pope. In many respects he was a great man who did many good things. He was a good preacher and teacher and used his gifts in the Church widely. In fact, he sent so many missionaries to England the country was converted to Christianity. He protected Rome militarily from pagan hordes; he also fed the poor by the thousands.

Although the concept of a universal rule of the Church was repugnant to him when it was first mentioned by an Eastern Constantinople bishop (he called it “anti-Christ”), his term and the offices he held greatly under girded the concept of a papacy. In essence, Gregory was the first

to be 1) a Bishop of Rome, 2) a Metropolitan (over Roman territory) and 3) a Patriarch (of Italy, for all the West).

The mere fact that one man held all three offices clearly laid the foundation for the papacy while it also greatly increased Roman power. If the Roman Catholic Church begins to emerge anywhere, it is here.

Leo the Third (d. 816 A.D.)

Leo the Third served just before and after 800 A.D. (795-816) As evidence of the increasing secular and political power of the Church, Leo actually crowned Charlemagne Emperor, raising the issue of whether or not any secular ruler or king could be such without the “blessing” of the Church.

Until Hildebrand (Gregory the Seventh) and Henry the Fourth, mutual coronations became the rule, not the exception. Of course, if a king could not be a king without the Church’s ap­proval, the ruler of the Church had more power than the state itself. In this respect, Leo the Third was a key ingredient in the union of Church and state.

In between Leo the Third and Gregory the Seventh are found the “Pseudo-isidorian Decretals.” These were allegedly written around 600 A.D. and under girded the primacy of Rome and its papalism. Unfortunately, they were forgeries used for hundreds of years to strengthen papal power, beginning with Nicholas the First around 865. It was not discovered until much later that they were written in the mid 9th century.

Gregory the Seventh (Hildebrand) (1021-85 A.D.)

Hildebrand was pope from 1073-85. He reformed the papacy by outlawing corruptions such as simony, and by insisting on the celibacy of the clergy. He also strengthened the Church’s power base, which all along had been gathering great influence and wealth from various land­holdings, conquests of war, tithings and gifts, etc.

Hildebrand saw the Church as the one visible object with the pope as its head as the “vicar” of Christ. The Church was equivalent to the kingdom of God. To be in the Church was to be saved; to be outside the Church was to be damned. Hildebrand saw the Church as supreme over the state—indeed the Church was the glorious sun while the state was merely the moon, which gets its light only from the sun.

Hildebrand instituted what is known as the “Gregorian Theocracy.” His personal convictions are acted out in his battles with King Henry the Fourth whom he both excommunicated and placed an interdiction on—a censure of spiritual benefits. This meant that Henry could not receive the sacraments and his subjects were no longer duty bound to obey him. In part, this provided justification for subsequent papal political use of excommunication and even the use of an interdict against nations.

King Henry did repent—at first. But in 1084 he seized Rome, forcing Gregory to flee, under­scoring the problem of Church-state politics.

In between Gregory the Seventh (1025-85) and Innocent the Third (1161-1216), we find the Lateran Council of 1059. This decreed that popes were to be elected by cardinals, from among Roman delegates in Rome. At this point the Church had clearly become the Roman Catholic Church.

Innocent the Third (1161-1216)

Innocent the Third ruled as pope from 1198-1216. He represents the height of medieval papal influence and power—overall, no pope before or after has been more powerful. Innocent be‑

lieved an interdict could even be placed on nations. He forced King John of England to become his vassal and had Emperor Otto deposed in favor of Frederick II. During his reign we have the Magna Carta battle with King John and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). This council: 1) Began the Inquisition; 2) Forbade monastic orders; 3) Held that membership in the visible Church was necessary for salvation; 4) Declared the transubstantiation dogma; 5) Declared yearly confessions mandatory; and 6) Instituted a crusade against the Turks for the Holy Land.

But the papal office also began degenerating here. The Crusades were ever less popular, indulgences and papal dispensations for money caused endless amounts of corruption and evil, as did the Inquisition. Relatives could be bought out of purgatory, while neighbor turned against neighbor as land could be received as payment for reporting “heretics”. Taxes on bishops and churches also became oppressive: papal authority was destined to decline.

Boniface the Eighth (1235-1303 A.D.)

Boniface the Eighth ruled just before and after the 1300s (1294-1303). He steadfastly as­serted papal authority over European leaders and issued the Unum Sanctum which was the highest expression of papal authority, going so far as to claim temporary papal rule over nations. This led to conflict with Philip IV of France and Boniface’s eventual death.

Papal degeneration continued. The rise of separate states, rebellion within the Church lead­ing to sects and “heretical” pre-Reformation groups such as the Waldensians eventually culmi­nated in the Reformation wherein Martin Luther not only nailed his historic Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg University door, he enunciated the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone declaring it to be the central dogma upon which the Christian Church stands or falls.[3]

In conclusion, the idea of papal infallibility is one that no Christian can accept, either on historical grounds (because of papal error) or on scriptural grounds (where the doctrine is not explicitly stated and is implicitly rejected). Indeed, to accept this doctrine is to accept all the pronouncements of the Popes which have been wrong or anti-biblical. As Kung confesses, “…no one is infallible except God himself.”[4]


  1. These and others can be traced in Williston Walker, et al. A History of The Christian Church (N.Y. Schribner’s, 4th ed. 1985), pp. 75-78, 82-83, 98-101, 125,135-36, 151-53, 159-60, 170,167-70, 183-86, 203, 213-17, 235-39, 250, 268, 275-76, 277-79, 290, 368-71.
  2. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940), p. 121.
  3. Most of this material was excerpted from John Weldon’s 1987 notes in Dr. Harold Lindsell’s class on Church History at Simon Greenleaf University, Anaheim, CA.
  4. Hans Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1972), p. 215, and passim.


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