This is one of my favorite URC stories.
Back in our old building–located on a busy street and right across from MSU–people would park in our parking lot without permission. While we tried to be gracious and as slow-moving as possible, sometimes we would have to tow vehicles parked on our property. On one occasion, a young man came into our building looking for his car. Our building manager kindly and patiently informed him that as per the signs in the parking lot, his car had been towed. The man was not happy. Our building manager continued to calmly explain the situation, but this man was having none of it. Even though he saw the sign which clearly stated his car would be towed, he just couldn’t believe a church would do this. Finally, he stomped out of our building and told our building manager exactly what was on his mind: “You guys aren’t very good Catholics!”
By definition Protestants do not make very good Catholics. (Or to be more precise, we are not goodRoman Catholics, though I’d like to think a robust Protestant is a small-c catholic in the best sense of the word.) However much Protestants and Catholics can work together on social issues, and however much we may share an early creedal tradition, there are still many significant issues which divide us. One of the most important of those issues is how we understand the government that Christ gave to his church.
In his massive four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) gives six reasons Protestants reject the primacy of the Pope and the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession.
1. The distinction between clergy and laity that underlies the Roman Catholic hierarchy is neither taught in the New Testament nor exhibited in the organization of the first-century church. To be sure, the Bible distinguishes between shepherds and flock. Church offices are manifestly biblical, but in Catholic theology “clergy” and “laity” refer to more than just “pastor” and “church member.” As Bavinck explains, “In the Roman Catholic Church ‘clergy’ has become the word for a special class of ecclesiastical persons who by being tonsured and consecrated have been separated from all others, constitute a unique class of ‘clerics,’ are in a very special sense the Lord’s possession” (4:358). By contrast, the Scriptures teach that the people as a whole are the kleros, the Lord’s possession and inheritance (Exod. 19:5-6). There is no special priestly class in the New Testament, for all true believers are filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit, share in the Spirit’s anointing, are a royal priesthood and God’s treasured possession. Pastors and elders are shepherds who serve the flock, not priests who make sacrifices or hierarchical bishops who rule over the people. “Office in the church of Christ is not a magisterium but a ministerium” (4:359).
2. The New Testament knows no episcopacy that is different from the presbyterate. Acts 20 is the classic text, for there we see Paul using the Greek words for overseer (episkopoi) and elder (presbyteroi) interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28). Peter even calls himself an elder (1 Pet. 5:1). “Aside from the extraordinary offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist, there are only two ordinary offices, that of deacons and that of presbyteroi (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 8): pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:17), those with gifts of administration (1 Cor. 12:28), those in positions of authority (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12), and leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17)” (4:360).
3. The apostolate was an exceptional and temporary office in the New Testament church. Granted, there should be a succession of apostolic truth, and there is a sense in which overseers/elders care for churches like the apostles did. But in the strictest sense, the apostles have no successors. They are a part of the non-repeatable, once-for-all foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). “The apostles had been the ear-and-eye witnesses of Jesus’s words and deeds. They were directly called by Christ himself to their office, received a special measure of the Holy Spirit, and were called to a unique task, that is, to lay the foundation of the church and to offer in their message the permanent medium of fellowship between Christ and his church. In all these things they are distinguished from all others, are situated on a level far above all their successors, and hold an office that is nontransferable and nonrenewable” (4:362).
4. There is no scriptural proof that Peter had a unique authority different from or superior to the other eleven Apostles. Even if we take Matthew 16:18 to mean that Jesus promised to build his church upon Peter (and not simply upon his confession), the fact is that Jesus only makes such a promise in view of Peter’s confession. Peter would be foundational to the early church, but so would the rest of the Apostles (Eph. 2:20), for they too confessed Jesus as Christ (Matt. 16:15-16). Moreover, the power of the keys was extended to all the apostles in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 (4:363). The picture of Peter in the rest of the New Testament is never one of a man who has been given (or understands himself to have been given) authority over the whole church. He is rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11) and had no jurisdiction over Paul (Gal. 2:6, 9). He is sent along with John to Samaria by the other apostles (Acts 8:14). He is never mentioned as prince of the apostles (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; Rev. 21:14) and refers to himself meekly as a fellow elder (1 Peter 5:1, 3).
5. Even if Peter had been given unique authority over the church (which is not the case), this would still not establish the primacy of the bishop of Rome. For the Catholic understanding of the papacy to be true, it would have to be the case (1) that Peter spent some twenty plus years in Rome, (2) that he was the bishop there and primate over the entire church, and (3) that he consciously and intentionally transferred the authority in these two offices (bishop and primate) to Linus his successor. In Paul’s letter to Rome, and in his several letters from Rome, there is no mention of Peter’s ministry there, let alone a pontifical one. According to the oldest documents from the early church, the church in Rome was led by a college of presbyters, not by a monarchical episcopate (4:365). It wasn’t until the middle of the second century that the legend of Peter’s lengthy ministry in Rome began to circulate, a legend that Eusebius and Jerome would later make a part of the definitive Roman tradition (4:365-66).
6. The premise of the Catholic Church as run by a pontiff in Rome rests on a history that, even at its best, is filled with unfounded assumptions. As Bavinck points out again and again, if the primacy of the Roman bishop is true, then we must demonstrate that Peter spent decades in Rome, that he held the office of bishop and primate, and that he deliberately transferred this office to his successor at Rome. But later church tradition says Peter appointed overseers in other cities besides Rome. How do we know, if he meant to transfer supreme authority to any bishopric, that he meant to pass this primacy on to Rome? And if he transferred such power, where is the historical evidence for such a succession? And by what authority did he do so? “There has to be a divine law underlying this episcopal papal structure,” Bavinck notes. “But this is where the shoe pinched: it does not exist. Christ never said a word about Peter’s episcopacy at Rome nor about his successor. Neither according to Scripture nor according to tradition has Peter ever breathed a hint that the bishop at Rome would be his only true successor. The link between the primacy and the Roman episcopate is therefore only based on the fact that Peter did spend time in Rome and on the unhistorical assumption that he held the office of bishop and primate there” (4:367) With the entire foundation and unique authority of theRoman Catholic Church cobbled together by such dubious history, it’s no wonder that Bavinck remarks: “Eternity, here, hangs on a cobweb” (4:366).
So, that irate college student of yesteryear was right: I’m not a very good Catholic. The more important point to consider is whether the biblical and historical evidence suggests that I should be.
Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition.