Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Article IId): Peter, Leadership in the Church and Acts

The Series So Far

Preliminary Warning

That Non-Catholics readers will probably disagree with Catholic belief in this area is expected.  However, please spare me comments that verse X:XX of the Book of Y "proves" me wrong.  The reader's personal interpretation of a Scriptural verse means nothing.  How the early Christians understood the Scripture is what matters if one wants to argue that the Catholic Church imposed the papacy later.

The Non-Catholic may disagree with this article.  However, the question is whether it can be established that their understanding of Scripture was believed in the early Church.


As I pointed out before in this series, the challenge to show "Peter was the first Pope" made by some is the wrong question.  I wrote:

…asking the question “Was Peter the first Pope?” is the wrong way of framing the question. If one believes it, one looks for evidence to show the answer in the affirmative. If one does not believe it, one looks for evidence to disprove it.  Each side grows frustrated with the other side and assumes they are acting from ignorance or obstinacy.

A better question would be, “What was the role of Peter in the early Church?” This is a question which can be answered by the data of scripture and of history of the earliest Christians.

The challenge is made with the thought in mind to demand proof that Peter did the same things as Pope Benedict XVI does, with the belief that since Peter did not do certain things the current Pope does (this usually has to do with the trappings of the office) it means Peter was not the first Pope.

This sort of challenge demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Catholic belief.  The real question is, whether there is evidence of Peter displaying leadership over the Church.  If Peter was leader of the Church, then it seems that the differences certain people object to is nothing more than the difference of governing the Church when it was small (3,000 people) and governing the Church when it had a billion people.  Of Course the leadership of the Church must necessarily take different forms as the situation changes, but this does not change the fact of leadership existing.  Bill Gates may have run things differently when Microsoft was a small business than when it became a massive corporation, but it does not follow that the institution in 2010 was a different entity than what called itself Microsoft in 1975, and the current institution has no connection to the group of 1975.

Thus to argue that the Pope does X, but we see no mention of Peter doing X is entirely irrelevant to the point.  The question is, "did Peter display behavior which shows leadership of the Church as it existed at that time?"

In past articles (IIa-IIc) I have discussed Peter and the promises and actions made by Christ which indicates a role of primacy for Peter.  Obviously, in the consideration of Acts we will need to see whether the behavior of Peter and the behavior of the Apostles indicate a role of leadership for Peter as the Catholics believe.

The Fallacy of the Fictitious Question

Historian David Fischer has written about what he terms the fallacy of the fictitious question.  He describes this as: "an attempt to demonstrate by empirical method what might have happened in history as if in fact it actually had.

Fischer uses an example of some historians using certain data from the 19th century to argue that railroads were not as important to the development of the United States as  previously thought, using data such as prices to ship by rail compared to by water.  Fischer points out that this data does not change the fact that railroads did become prominent in 19th century America.  In other words, the best theoretical case means nothing if it did not in fact happen this way.

It is an important distinction to make.  What might have been the case is worthless.  What was the case is what we are concerned with.  Many people have tried to argue for James as the head of the Church for example.  However, to argue that James could have been the head of the Church based on one passage in Acts 15 is not establishing that James was head of the Church. (I will look at this issue in Article IIe, the conclusion of Part II in this series).

Therefore, someone who asserts James as head of the Church to reject the Catholic claim of Peter is just as obligated to demonstrate a consistent portrayal of James' leadership to prove their assertion. 

The Fallacy of the Argument from Silence

The Argument from Silence is a fallacy that claims that since there is nothing against a certain interpretation, it must therefore be true, or alternately since there is nothing for a certain interpretation it must be false.

For example, the Bible Commentary by Matthew Henry offers this interpretation of the Apostles and the records:

When, upon the conversion of thousands, the church was divided into several societies, perhaps Peter and John presided in that which Luke associated with, and therefore he is more particular in recording what they said and did, as afterwards what Paul said and did when he attended him, both the one and the other being designed for specimens of what the other apostles did.

Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Ac 3:1). Peabody: Hendrickson.

Now, we don't have a record of most of what the other Apostles did.  We see John mentioned in passing, and James mentioned in Acts 15.  It would be an argument from silence to either argue that the others did the same things or that it means they did nothing.

All we know from Acts is what the author chose to emphasize, and that in believing Scripture is inspired, that what was included was important for us.

Argumentum ad numerum (Appeal to numbers) fallacy

The Argumentum ad numerum fallacy is also sometimes employed in Acts.  I've seen some people object to the Catholic belief in the primacy of Peter on the grounds that Acts (concerning Paul) and Paul's epistles fill up more of the Bible than Peter's role in Acts and Peter's epistles.  Mere volume is not proof of importance.  It is what role is presented that indicates authority or not.

Peter v. The Apostles?

It would be incorrect to assume Catholics believe that Peter's authority was in opposition to the Apostles.  So appeals to actions of the other Apostles does not demonstrate a case of disproving the Catholic claim.  Nor does a reference to the Apostles being in agreement mean that there was no head of the Church.  It merely means that the apostles were in agreement on how the Church should handle an issue

Jesus v. Peter?

Now, before one tries to make a Jesus v. Peter contrast, let me say this.  In a Church that believes that Jesus is risen and is Lord, of course any human leader of the Church will be subordinate to Christ.  We do believe the Pope must follow Christ and is not free to make teachings which go against Christ.

Now, as I pointed out in the "Preliminary Warning" section, I recognize non-Catholics do believe that Catholic teachings "contradict" the Bible.  However, the issue to establish this is whether the non-Catholic interpretation of the Bible can be shown to be held by Early Christians as opposed to a 16th century interpretation of the Bible.

Defining Leadership

Of course, we ought to define what it means to lead before continuing on.  Otherwise we can end up at cross purposes here. 

The definition of "leader" is: "the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country."  "Lead" is defined as "be in charge or command of, cause to go with one by drawing them along."

So right now in this discussion, the question is whether Peter displayed behavior in Acts which demonstrated leadership.  Generally speaking, a leader has the role of guiding the group he leads, setting the policies, drawing the line where debate ends, establishing penalties for the people who break the rules of the group.

Peter's Acts in Acts

The question is, do we see Peter taking a role of leadership over the whole Church?  We do, in several examples from Acts 1 through Acts 15 (After Acts 15,  the emphasis is on Paul's missionary work).  Now, taking one of these instances alone might seem like a stretch to claim that Peter was head of the Church.  However, once viewed in totality, we can see that the actions of Peter do confirm the behavior of the leadership bestowed by Christ.

It certainly seems that Luke's writing indicated the reader of Acts (Theophilus and others) had an understanding about Peter's role within the Church and wished to speak of the actions of Peter, just as he would speak about Paul's missionary journeys later in the book.  This indicates Peter was important enough a person to write about.

Now, if the role of Peter is portrayed to be a role of leadership, then perhaps it is reasonable and Scriptural for Catholics to recognize the authority of Peter in the Church.  If one wishes to deny this, can evidence be found for an alternate interpretation which is not merely personal opinion?

Peter Decrees the Succession of Judas

In Acts 1, we see that Peter announces the office held by Judas as an apostle was to be replaced (1:15ff).  There is no mention of consultation with the apostles or the others present.  He simply decrees that another is to be appointed in the place of Judas.  The response is not whether they should do this.  Rather it is how to carry it out.

This is also something to consider in terms of infallibility.  Was Peter right to make this decision?  Did he make a lucky guess?  If he ought not to have made this decision (which indicates that the Church can appoint successors to the apostles), then we have an example of the Apostles teaching error right from day one.

Only if we believe Peter protected from error in matters of doctrine and moral teaching can we be assured he did not err here.

Peter Speaks for the Twelve

After Pentecost (Acts 2), it is Peter who speaks to the people of Jerusalem, telling them what they must do to be saved.  The author of Luke and Acts saw fit to record the actions and speech of Peter, and only mention the rest of the apostles in passing.

Here is the dilemma.  If one wants to downplay Peter's role, and one wants to appeal to Scripture alone, one has to answer why Luke saw fit to emphasize only Peter's role, while the rest of the apostles are mentioned merely in passing.  If one appeals to Scripture alone and cannot support the view from Scripture alone, this is a contradiction.

Peter Works the First Miracle in the Church… and Defends the Church against the Sanhedrin.

In Acts 3, we see Peter heal a crippled man.  This becomes the lead in to Peter again speaking before the crowds and then to the Sanhedrin.  Again Luke emphasizes the action of Peter, and again the one who would downplay this needs to ask why Luke is emphasizing Peter, and not giving John an equal role?  It should be noted that the crowd and the Sanhedrin look to Peter as the spokesman.

Peter Passes Judgment

There are two distinct stories here.  One involving Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).  The other, Simon the Magician.  In the first case, Ananias and Sapphira have resolved to sell property and give the proceeds to the Church.  Then they keep part of the money, while pretending to give all of it.  Now, as Peter points out, the property was theirs.  When they sold it, the money was theirs to do with as they wished.  However, claiming to donate all of it, while holding back some of what they promised to give was their sin.

Peter proclaims their sin which they thought was secret, and both fall down dead.  What we see here is an example of what Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16: "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."  God's action demonstrates Peter does have the power to pass judgment within the Church, and that judgment will be bound in Heaven.

In the second case, Simon Magus (Acts 8) tries to buy the authority to impose hands and call down the Holy Spirit.  Peter condemns his unworthy motives.  The result is that Simon the Magician asks Peter to pray for him that what he said will not happen to him.  This seems to be an odd reaction unless it was recognized that Peter spoke with authority in doing so.  Simon does not appear to believe that Peter merely lost his temper.  He recognizes that Peter speaks in deadly earnestness, and has the authority to call this down on him.

The Baptized Do Not Receive the Holy Spirit Until Peter Imposes Hands

Here is an interesting account which shows the difference between the ministry of the apostles and the ministry of the deacons.  Peter and John go to Samaria (Acts 8:15) to pray for the Holy Spirit to be bestowed on the people.

This demonstrates a view of a hierarchic Church, not a democratic Church.  The apostles have the authority do do this, the deacons do not.  Certainly for Peter to be able to bestow the Holy Spirit indicates that Peter is not acting contrary to God's will.

Peter Baptizes Gentiles

This one is a rather important incident.  After having a vision, Peter goes to the house of Cornelius and meets a God-fearing gentile who believes.  Peter makes the decision that Gentiles can be baptized.  Peter recognizes that God makes no distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised, and from this makes a decision which will affect the entire Church: In Acts 10:48, "He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ."

The word Προσέταξέν (Prosetaxen) means to command, to give orders, to decree.  In this case, there is no ambiguity in the Greek text of the New Testament.  This is something done by one in authority, and it is obeyed.  This is strong evidence for showing Peter as leader in the Church.

In Acts 11, some believers did disagree (and in Acts 15, we will see this disagreement did not go away) and some challenged Peter on account of this.  However, this is revealing.  The fact that they were bothered, and spoke to him, indicates a recognition of his authority to make such a decision.  If Peter did not have the authority to give such a command, the circumcised believers simply could have ignored Peter's "opinion."

Instead, Peter demonstrates this ruling was not on a whim, but carried out based on what God willed.

We also have strong evidence for infallibility in this section.  If God did not protect Peter from error, it means Peter could have made a mistake and thus just because the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles did not mean God wanted them baptized.

Considering the possible differences between what God intended and what Peter did, the only assurance we can have that Christians do not have to be Jews first is if Peter was protected from error in what he decreed.

God Saw fit to Deliver Peter from Captivity

In Acts 12, Herod executes James the brother of John, one of the Twelve, and imprisons Peter with the intention to do likewise.  God delivers Peter from captivity through divine assistance.  Now I don't argue that this means James was less of a Christian than Peter.  We are not arguing about personal holiness here.

Rather it indicates that God had a purpose in keeping Peter alive.  God does not do things for an arbitrary reason.  We as Christians believe God is perfectly good and just, and does all things for a reason.

So the question for the person who seeks to downplay Peter is: Why did God choose to deliver Peter from the hands of Herod, but not people like James and Stephen?

Peter at the Council of Jerusalem

It is a common assumption among those who reject the Primacy of Peter that James and not Peter was the head of the Council in Acts 15 and it was James who made the decision on how to treat with the gentile believers.

This is not supported by the text, and is in fact a reading based on the a priori assumption that Peter could not be Pope and is searching for an alternate to permit this denial.

The facts of the case are as follows:

  1. Certain Jewish Christians argue that one must be circumcised to be Christian.
  2. Paul disputes this and is sent to Jerusalem by his congregation to inquire about this.
  3. After some debate, Peter arises and tells them of what God revealed to him, and tells the members of the circumcision party they are wrong.
  4. The assembly is silenced (The Greek Ἐσίγησεν [Esigēsen] indicates that they were stilled by Peter before Paul spoke)
  5. The assembly (subdued) listens to Paul's presentation on what God has done among the Gentiles.
  6. James voices agreement with Peter and suggests a pastoral solution based on what Peter has said.
  7. The Apostles and presbyters send Paul with their instructions on how Gentile Christians are to behave, pointing out that the Circumcision party did not teach with the permission of the Church.

One of the common arguments in favor of James leading the Church is that he proposed the solution, with the word in 15:19 of κρίνω (krinō).  The problem is, unlike Peter's command (Prosetaxen) when he baptized Gentiles, krinō can be used for suggestions as well as judgments.

Claiming that James ruled the Church on the basis of this passage is to take the passage of Scripture further than can be justified.  Since James is agreeing with what Peter has said, which silenced the assembly of Apostles and presbyters, and with Paul said, proposing a solution in line with Peter's decree and Paul's testimony, it seems he is offering a pastoral solution which reflects the doctrinal decree of Peter and the testimony of Paul.

Those who disagree with this need to demonstrate why Luke placed such an emphasis on Peter in Acts, but mentions James (who was not an Apostle) only three times in Acts (12:17, 15:13 and 21:28), and why James is mentioned three times in Galatians and once in Jude, and is believed to be the author of the Epistle of James. 

Now I don't want this to be an appeal to numbers here.  Luke also thought it important to discuss Stephen (the first Martyr of the Church) and the deacon Philip.  I am not arguing more verses proves authority.  Rather I am pointing out whom Luke saw as most important in his account on the early Church.  It seems his main focus is on Peter and Paul, and while the description of Paul shows him in his activity as a missionary, the description of Peter demonstrates one who is leading the Church.


I believe in pointing out instances of Peter speaking and acting demonstrate examples of leadership compatible with what Catholics believe Jesus promised.  We have shown that Catholics are not ignorant of Scripture in believing that Peter was the leader of the Church.

Now, some will argue based on certain limited verses that Peter was not head of the Church, and will use these verses to claim that James led the Church.  Now, while I touched on this briefly in my discussion on Acts 15, I recognize this needs a deeper investigation, especially in light of the references made to Galatians, Peter and Paul opposing him to his face.

The consideration of James and Peter will be the topic of Article IIe, which will (I hope) be the end of Part II of this series.

No comments:

Post a Comment