One of the puzzles of Roman Catholic claims about the primacy of the papacy is that the biblical support for this view rests almost entirely on Matt. 16:18. Theologians and church members (at least of Protestant derivation) should always beware of so little biblical support. In addition, when you read the New Testament (if you do), Peter largely fades from view. In Acts Peter does not show up after the fifteenth chapter (according not to superior biblical knowledge but to a word search — “advanced,” mind you — at ESVBible.org). The rest of the book is really Paul’s story. And the rest of the New Testament is really Paul’s teaching. Yes, Peter, John and James write epistles but they are short compared to Paul (leaving aside Revelation in page count totals).
What is also striking about the New Testament is the interaction among the apostles. Galatians 2 proves to be a particularly difficult text to square with claims about Peter’s primacy, not to mention his infallibility, since it records Paul publicly rebuking Peter for caving to the Judaizers. Here first is Calvin’s rendering of Paul’s order of James, Peter, and John in Galatians 2:9:
I have already stated, that James was the son of Alpheus. He could not be “the brother of John” who had been lately put to death by Herod, (Acts 12:2,) and to suppose that one of the disciples had been placed above the apostles would be absurd. That he held the highest rank among the apostles, is made evident by Luke, who ascribes to him the summing up and decision of the cause in the council, (Acts 15:13,) and afterwards mentions his having assembled “all the elders” of the church of Jerusalem. (Acts 21:18.) When he says, that they seemed to be pillars, he does not speak contemptuously, but quotes the general opinion, arguing from it, that what was done by such men ought not to be lightly set aside. In a question relating to diversity of rank, it is surprising that James should be mentioned before Peter; but the reason perhaps is, that he presided over the church at Jerusalem.
Calvin follows with these remarks on Paul’s rebuke to Peter:
Now, as I have said, he goes further, and asserts that he had blamed Peter for leaning to the other side; and he proceeds to explain the cause of the dispute. It was no ordinary proof of the strength of his doctrine, that he not only obtained their cordial approbation, but firmly maintained it in a debate with Peter, and came off victorious. What reason could there now be for hesitating to receive it as certain and undoubted truth?
At the same time, this is a reply to another calumny, that Paul was but an ordinary disciple, far below the rank of an apostle: for the reproof which he administered was an evidence that the parties were on an equal footing. The highest, I acknowledge, are sometimes properly reproved by the lowest, for this liberty on the part of inferiors towards their superiors is permitted by God; and so it does not follow, that he who reproves another must be his equal. But the nature of the reproof deserves notice. Paul did not simply reprove Peter, as a Christian might reprove a Christian, but he did it officially, as the phrase is; that is, in the exercise of the apostolic character which he sustained.
This is another thunderbolt which strikes the Papacy of Rome. It exposes the impudent pretensions of the Roman Antichrist, who boasts that he is not bound to assign a reason, and sets at defiance the judgment of the whole Church. Without rashness, without undue boldness, but in the exercise of the power granted him by God, this single individual chastises Peter, in the presence of the whole Church; and Peter submissively bows to the chastisement. Nay, the whole debate on those two points was nothing less than a manifest overthrow of that tyrannical primacy, which the Romanists foolishly enough allege to be founded on divine right. If they wish to have God appearing on their side, a new Bible must be manufactured; if they do not wish to have him for an open enemy, those two chapters of the Holy Scriptures must be expunged.
Of course, defenders of the magisterium need not trust Calvin since he is writing out of a position of disobedience to the papacy. That is why it is intriguing what a Roman Catholic biblical commentary has to say about this passage:
St. Paul says that he withstood St. Peter to the face “because he was to be blamed,” inasmuch as, whereas he had hitherto eaten openly with Gentiles, he was now led by fear of the Judaizers to refuse to do so, “fearing them who were of the circumcision.” “To his dissimulation,” adds the Apostle, “the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.” St. Jerome maintained that the whole scene was a “dissimulation,” Peter was not “to be blamed” by Paul, but solely by those brethren whom he had offended by withdrawing from their table; the scene, therefore, was meant to appease both parties, viz. those who believed in circumcision—for they could follow Peter, and those who repudiated circumcision—for they could follow Paul. St. Jerome’s reasons for holding this view are briefly that Paul could not have withstood Peter, who was his senior, and further that Paul, by circumcising Timothy and shaving his head at Cenchre, was guilty of the same obsequiousness towards Jewish prejudices. Some, he says, try to avoid the dilemma by saying that “Cephas” is not the Apostle Peter, but one of the Seventy disciples, and, moreover, that Acts is silent concerning the whole affair. But St. Jerome replies that Cephas and Peter are but Aramaic and Greek forms of the same name; that he knows of no other Cephas than the one who is termed at one time “Cephas,” at another “Peter”; and finally, that St. Luke was not bound to mention every event he knew of.
St. Chrysostom’s explanation is fundamentally the same as that of St. Jerome. It could not, he urges, have really been a dispute, for this they would have had in private. Therefore “to his face,” κατὰ πρόσωπον, must be a figure of speech, and the equivalent of “in appearance,” σχημα. The explanation, then, is that Peter withdrew from the table of the uncircumcised converts for two reasons: lest he should offend the Jewish converts, and in order to give St. Paul an occasion for correcting him. This correction was necessitated, not because St. Peter was in the wrong, but because those who saw him eat with Jews might fancy he did so out of fear of St. Paul. The latter, of course, had no such feeling. “Paul, then, rebukes, and Peter bears with it; so that while the master is silent under rebuke his disciples may be the more easily induced to put aside their suspicion. . . . Peter, then, joins Paul in this pretense, συνυποκρινεται, as though were really in fault, so that owing to this rebuke they might be corrected. . . . Thus, by his silence Peter corrected their false suspicions; he put up with the imputation of dissimulation so as, by a real dissimulation, to free the Jews.”
This view was strenuously combated by St. Augustine, who pointed out that it made Scripture untruthful. St. Jerome replied that his view was derived from Origen, and that it seemed to him compelling from the twofold consideration that (a) Peter knew from the conversion of Cornelius that the Gentiles were to be received into the Church, and (b) that St. Paul had done the same in the case of Timothy, and in shaving his own head at Cenchre. Finally, he endeavored to show that he and Augustine were really saying the same thing in different words. But Augustine declined to accept this statement. The idea that the whole scene was fictitious was repellent to him, since it imperiled the whole truth of Scripture: “Non nunc inquiro quid fecerit, sed quid scripserit quaero.” “If Peter was doing what he had a right to do, then Paul lied when he said that Peter walked not uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel. . . . But if Paul wrote the truth, then it was true that Peter walked not rightly.” St. Augustine then shows that the cases of Timothy and the shaving of Paul’s head are not parallel with this episode at Antioch; he further points out that in St. Jerome’s list of authorities for his view Apollinaris the Laodicean and Alexander are heretics, while Jerome himself acknowledges that there are errors in Origen and Didymus. Augustine’s main exegetical point, however, is that the scene at Antioch took place either after or—as he himself at that date seems to have thought merely more probable—before the Council at Jerusalem. If after the Council, then it is to be noticed that whereas the Decrees forbade anyone to compel the Gentile converts to Judaize, they did not prohibit the Jewish converts from Judaizing. If before the Council, then it is not to be wondered at that St. Paul should urge St. Peter to uphold what he had already learnt from the case of Cornelius. But Augustine really based his whole position on the irrefragable veracity of Scripture; again and again in the course of the controversy does he return to the principle that if the scene is fictitious, then we can no longer trust Scripture. It is certainly remarkable that St. Jerome nowhere takes up this point, while his marked descent from acrimony to an unusual suavity in the course of the correspondence seems to indicate that he felt that Augustine’s position was really the sounder, though he never sang the palinodia for which St. Augustine called!
The point to notice in this commentary is the lack of consensus among the early church fathers even about as important an episode as this for claims about the primacy of Peter. The constant theme at Called To Communion is that the early church is in agreement about the deposit of the faith and that this provides a much more certain basis for faith than do Protestant interpretations of the Bible. Well, if Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine don’t see eye to eye on this matter, how unified are those early fathers? What kind of consensus exists that falls right down from Matt. 16:18 to a unified body of truth? Or how is it that Roman Catholic understandings of the early church fathers’ teaching do not rely on interpretations while Protestants only have their opinions? History is not so easily appropriated.
And that is an important point implicitly in Eamon Duffy’s history of the papacy (Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale, 1997). As students of the Reformation may know, Duffy is one of those historians that Roman Catholics like to cite because his book on England (The Stripping of the Altars) shows how vibrant Roman Catholic piety was before Henry VIII came along. Instead of being moribund, late medieval piety was alive and popular. But his introduction to Saints and Sinners will not set well with those CTCers who claim that the reality of Rome needs no interpretation:
All the essential claims of the modern papacy, it might seem, are contained in this Gospel saying about the Rock, and in Irenaeus’ account of the apostolic pedigree of the early bishops of Rome. Yet matters are not so simple. The popes trace their commission from Christ through Peter, yet for Irenaeus the authority of the Church at Rome came from its foundation by two Apostles, not by one, Peter and Paul, not Peter alone. The tradition that Peter and Paul had been put to death at the hands of Nero in Rome about the year AD 64 was universally accepted in the second century, and by the end of that century pilgrims to Rome were being shown the ‘trophies’ of the Apostles, their tombs or cenotaphs, Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, and Paul’s on the Via Ostiensis, outside the walls on the road to the coast. Yet on all of this the New Testament is silent. Later legend would fill out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome — his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ (the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus in the time of the Emperor Nero. These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church — Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or of the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (p. 1)
As I’ve said, the idea that only Protestants have opinions and Roman Catholics have epistemic certainty is nonsense historically considered.