Before we even begin to discuss Peter as Pope we need to get one thing out of the way: no church historian, worth their weight, would ever claim that Peter was the first Pope—in the exact way we understand it today.
Like our understanding of the Trinity, the canon of the New Testament (what books make up our Bibles), and our doctrines surrounding salvation and the after-life these concepts, naturally, developed over time as the Church grew into its britches.
The books of the New Testament didn’t drop out of the sky bound for us in patent leather, for example.
A complete understanding of the three natures of God, in the Trinity, wasn’t cleverly presented as a Sunday School flannelgram.
Instead, these important aspects of Christian belief and understanding emerged and developed alongside other concepts like, for example, the papacy. To suggest that Peter was the first Pope, then, isn’t to suggest that his role was defined in the exact parameters as we’d find it today but, surprisingly, we can clearly see an understanding of the importance and prominence of Peter and his fundamental, and hierarchical role as leader of the Christian Church at, basically, the very beginning.
A New Testament Pope
There are two primary sources that we can examine, in brief, to get a clear picture of the role of Peter as the first Pope of the Christian Church and we begin in the New Testament.
That Peter held a certain pre-eminence among the other apostles is clear. In the books of the New Testament Peter is mentioned a total of 191 times. John, coming in a distant second, is mentioned only 48. Peter’s fundamental role as leader of the apostles seems beyond dispute and although they don’t refer to him as “Pope” a number of other indicators reveal a clear understanding of his authority.
First, Peter is alone amongst the apostles to receive a new name, “Rock,” and the charge that its Peter, the Rock, who Jesus will build his Church on. Peter leads the charge in replacing Judas with a new apostle (Acts 1:22), he presides with authority over the first Church Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:7-11), and commissions the baptism of the first Gentiles entering the Church (Acts 10:44-48).
Here a common rebuttal should be noted.
Many argue that Peter’s authority was not complete and point to Paul’s public rebuke of Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-21). If Peter were truly the first Pope, how is it that Paul can rebuke him? How is it that Peter can stuff things up so badly, so early in the game?
What’s important to note, however, is that nowhere in our understanding of the papacy do Catholics argue that the Pope must be perfect. Instead, the Church down through the ages—from Peter himself!—has recognized that Popes can make mistakes. After all, Peter previously denied knowing Christ. While certain teaching aspects of the papacy are protected from error, the Pope himself can certainly make mistakes.
Some Popes were bad.
So, while Paul may publicly rebuke Peter for falling into bad behaviour does he ultimately recognize Peter’s authority? Of course! After all, what does Paul call Peter? Not Simon, which was his name, but Peter. The name given by Christ, when he made his declarative, authoritative pronouncement about Peter’s leadership in the Christian Church.
Paul is calling Peter, “the Rock,” a title given by Christ.
Pope of the Early Church Fathers
The second source which provides insight into how the Early Church understood the role of the pope are the writings of the Early Church Fathers—the disciples of the very first apostles—who wrote immediately following the authors of the New Testament. Following in the footsteps of the apostles, the writings of the Early Church Fathers clearly attest to the primacy of Peter’s role and, remarkably, how its authority is passed on after his death.
Beginning in AD 189, Irenaeus makes note of the Church of Rome being “handed over” to Linus following the death of Peter, a clear indication from the very beginning that the office of leader of the Church of Rome was a position which was meant to be “handed over.” In the same way that the apostles replaced Judas when he died the Bishop of Rome, the “episcopate,” was handed over to someone else.
Later, in 251AD Cyprian of Carthage appeals to the “chair” of Peter in calling for unity amongst Christian groups,
“If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
Following the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva wrote stirringly similar words when addressing the Reformers as they broke away from the Catholic Church to establish their own movements.
Evidence from the first two hundred years of the faith onward only begins to increase in substance and quantity as an understanding of the important role of Peter—the Chair of Peter—and the papacy began to take shape.
It should be note, in the very same way that the doctrine of the Trinity took form, the papacy was under construction, too. Like many doctrines of the Early Church, these often developed in tandem.
And, so an understanding of the role of the Pope began to develop such that by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, the same council which declared Mary the Mother of God and affirmed our modern day understanding of the Trinity, Pope Celestine I, sent a papal delegation which addressed the synod as saying,
“Here is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod.”
By 431, the role of the Pope was clearly established as “first amongst the apostles” and that this particular role, often referred to as the Chair of Peter, played a particularly important part in uniting the Christian faith. Equally, an important role in ruling authoritatively so that, in 445, Pope Leo I was able to write,
“Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others. . . . [So today through the bishops] the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head.”
Was Peter the First Pope?
The question of whether or not Peter was the first “Pope” is an important one. Its answer should, and will, impact our understanding of the faith.
If Peter was merely the chief apostle and when he died nothing in particularly important happened then the impact is felt very little, if felt at all. But, instead, if Peter’s role was always intended to be an “episcopate” as Irenaeus described in 189AD then we have to ask ourselves: what happened to it?
Did the teaching and leadership office of Peter that Christ established fall into sin and irrelevance?
Was it somehow swept away in scandal despite the clear and incontrovertible words of Christ when he told Peter that he was building his Church on him—the rock—and, “the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:17-19).
Or, rather, did the Chair of Peter continue to be passed on down through the ages—the divinely instituted and protected seat of unity for the Christian Church.
For my part, a clear-eyed and honest look at the evidence of the New Testament and a closer examination of the writings of the Early Church led me to come to but one conclusion. That Peter must have been the first Pope. That the office of the papacy must be of God, established by Christ. And that if these two things were true then I must be a part of that too.