Dialogue on Development of Doctrine (Esp. the Papacy)

Dialogue on Development of Doctrine (Esp. the Papacy) December 14, 2017

vs. Protestant apologist and anti-Catholic polemicist Jason Engwer

BBC199371 Credit: Portrait of Cardinal Newman (1801-90) (oil on canvas) by Millais, Sir John Everett (1829-96) National Portrait Gallery, London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

The following is a reply to Protestant [anti-Catholic] apologist and polemicist Jason Engwer’s paper, A Response to Roman Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong Regarding Development of Doctrine. His piece purports to be (I think?) a critique of my paper, “Refutation of William Webster’s Fundamental Misunderstanding of Development of Doctrine.” Mr. Engwer’s words shall be in blue. I have somewhat abridged the original exchange, which was extremely lengthy.


I. Preliminaries

It is unclear whether Mr. Engwer intends for his paper to be a direct defense of Mr. Webster’s paper, which I critiqued. It is hardly even a response to mine, except in part, as it is devoted to development of doctrine in general and particularly with regard to the papacy. Mr. Webster’s article, on the other hand, set forth a thesis that Vatican I and Pope Leo XIII denied development of doctrine, at least insofar as it related to the papacy.

I believe that I thoroughly demolished that hypothesis, by proving that Vatican I cited the very passage from St. Vincent of Lerins which is the classic exposition of development of doctrine in the Fathers, and identical in its essence to Cardinal Newman’s “development of development” fourteen centuries later. Secondly, I showed how Leo XIII was quite fond of Newman, and that the great convert was the first person he appointed as Cardinal — exceedingly strange if he didn’t believe in development of doctrine himself.

So if Mr. Engwer’s goal was to bolster Mr. Webster’s thesis, he has not done so in the least — not having dealt at all with the facts of the matter, as I did (even seeming to concede some of them). Nor is it clear whether or not Mr. Engwer was asked by Mr. Webster to offer some sort of reply to my paper. Rather, Mr. Engwer has sought to cast doubt on the very notion of the papacy itself (whether one agrees or disagrees with it), by taking the view that it didn’t develop as an historical institution, and that it was not present even in kernel form in the ante-Nicene Church.

This is an entirely different argument. Mr. Webster sought to reveal an alleged serious inner contradiction in Catholic teaching: that in point of fact the papacy obviously developed historically, but that its development was officially denied by both Vatican I and Pope Leo XIII. Mr. Engwer takes a more radical view, and wishes to cast doubt on any development whatsoever of the papacy, and assert that it was never known at all in the first three centuries or so. At least that is his argument as far as I understand it. He is equally as mistaken and misinformed as Mr. Webster, and I will demonstrate this in due course.


II. The Curious Development of Protestant Polemics Against Development

Mr. Engwer approvingly cites George Salmon twice in his paper. Salmon was a prominent 19th-century Anglican polemicist against Catholicism, who vainly imagined that he had refuted Newman’s famous thesis of development of doctrine. But Salmon seemed to deny development of doctrine altogether (even Mr. Engwer didn’t take it that far), as the following citation indicates:

Romish advocates . . . are now content to exchange tradition, which their predecessors had made the basis of their system, for this new foundation of development . . . The theory of development is, in short, an attempt to enable men, beaten off the platform of history, to hang  on to it by the eyelids . . . The old theory was that the teaching of the Church had never varied. (George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House (originally 1888), 31-33 [cf. also 35, 39] )

I dealt with the absurdity of this opinion in my paper contra Webster. Here it is sufficient to note that Salmon takes a far too radical view in opposition to development, and shows a complete miscomprehension of both development itself, and how it synthesizes with Tradition, within the Catholic system.

It will be shown that this concept of true developments being — in effect — the Protestant (i.e., supposedly always so “biblical”) doctrines, while the distinct Catholic ones are corruptions, is both circular and inconsistently and illogically applied, for the Protestant has no reason for accepting development of certain doctrines while denying the (legitimate) historical development of others, other than to baldly assert, “well, because we accept these doctrines!” This will become clearer as we proceed in our analysis.


III. Catholic Apostolic Development vs. Protestant Subjectivity and Circularity

Anybody who knows much about church history knows why Catholic apologists appeal so often to development of doctrine.

We appeal to it because it is an undeniable historical fact. If Protestants accept development of trinitarianism or the canon of the New Testament, then it is not improper for us to accept development of the papacy, or Marian doctrines, etc. Mr. White locates the difference of principle in alleged lack vs. abundance of biblical support. We assert that we have biblical (as well as patristic) support for our views. The Protestant disagrees. But the criterion for the Protestant — when their view is closely scrutinized — reduces to mere subjectivism according to Protestant preconceived notions (depending on denominational tradition, of course), whereas for the Catholic it is historically demonstrable unbroken apostolic Tradition, developed over 2000 years. In any event, the controversy cannot be settled by a disdain for the very concept of development (which seems implied above), as if it were improper to utilize it at all in the discussion of historical theology.

Concepts like the Immaculate Conception, private confession of all sins to a priest, and the existence of no less and no more than seven sacraments didn’t arise until long after the apostles died. To make such doctrines appear credible, Catholic apologists have to argue that these post-apostolic developments are approved by God.

This is strikingly illustrative of Mr. Engwer’s basic miscomprehension of development, just as his comrade-in-arms Mr. Webster misunderstood it. Briefly, doctrines remain the same in essence, while their complexities and nuances develop. Thus, in the above cases, the essence of the Immaculate Conception is the common patristic notion of Mary as the New Eve, which implied sinlessness (as the first Eve was originally sinless) — backed up by the “full of grace” clause of Luke 1:28, and many indirect biblical indications, as outlined in many papers on my Blessed Virgin Mary web page.

The essence of private confession to a priest is the biblical teaching of confession per se (“confess to one another”) combined with the explicit biblical teaching of the prerogative of priests to “bind and loose” and to forgive sins (Mt 16:19, 18:17-18, Jn 20:23). Likewise, sacramentalism is a thoroughly scriptural concept; the settling on seven sacraments is the development of the prior essence. So the core and foundation of all these beliefs are not only not “post-apostolic;” they are demonstrably biblical. To acquire a basic understanding of the basis for development of doctrine, readers unacquainted with the notion are strongly urged to consult the many papers and links on my Development of Doctrine web page.

They’ll argue for the acceptance of the papacy on philosophical and speculative grounds, then they’ll appeal to the authority of the papacy for the acceptance of other developments (the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, etc.).

Hardly; the papacy is explicitly biblical as well, as I will show below. Mr Engwer doesn’t even trouble himself sufficiently to represent the Catholic apologetic fairly and accurately. Catholics certainly do ground the papacy in Scripture itself. One may disagree with our conclusion, but they may not falsify the facts as to where and how we derive the doctrine.

I’ve made three arguments against the Roman Catholic appeal to development of doctrine:

1) The appeals are speculative. They’re unverifiable.

That simply isn’t true. We can trace all the doctrines through history. We can determine whether or not they were held as consensus or as increasingly consensus opinions throughout Church history – particularly with regard to the Church Fathers. We can compare and contrast them to Holy Scripture (being harmonious with and being explicitly contained in Scripture are not identical concepts, nor is the former antithetical to the latter). Divergent Protestant opinions, on the other hand, are thoroughly unverifiable upon close scrutiny. They are only as good as the individual or denomination holding to them.

Mr. James White, e.g., believes in adult, believer’s baptism. He calls himself “Reformed.” Yet his Presbyterian comrades — people like R.C. Sproul (as well as John Calvin himself, and Luther) — believe in infant baptism (and Luther even holds rather strongly to baptismal regeneration). All appeal to Scripture Alone (as Tradition is rejected as any sort of norm or authority for doctrine). How does one choose? Well, it comes down to the atomistic individual in the end. Now, how “speculative” and “unveriable” is that?! Surely more than the Catholic apostolic and historical view, which takes seriously what the Holy Spirit has been saying through the centuries to believers en masse, and what He has taught the Church (what Catholics call the “mind of the Church”). In Catholicism, it is not the individual who reigns supreme, but the corporate Christianity and “accumulated wisdom” of the Church (itself grounded in Holy Scripture); Tradition passed down in its fullness through the centuries, just as St. Paul refers to in many places in his epistles.

2) The appeals to development contradict what the RCC has taught. For example, if the Council of Trent teaches that transubstantiation has always been the view of the eucharist held by the Christian church, Catholic apologists can’t rationally argue that transubstantiation is a later development of an earlier belief in a more vague “real presence”. To make such an argument would be a contradiction of the teachings of the institution Catholic apologists claim to be defending.

This is a false analysis. It rests upon the fallacy of the Tridentine use of the word “substance” as equivalent to the entire structure of Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophical analysis of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Trent stated that the “substance” of the bread and wine “converted” to the Body and Blood of Christ at consecration (Decree on the Eucharist, chapter 4). It didn’t (technically) say that transubstantiation — conceived as a philosophical construct — had always been held. But in developmental terms, the basis for the later view was clearly there in the notion of Real Presence, taught in Scripture and almost-unanimously held by the Fathers (while denied by virtually all Protestants).

The early Church believed that the Body and Blood of Christ were literally, truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. Utilizing the word “substance” is simply one way of thinking about such complex issues, just as homoousios was used with reference to Christ’s nature. It doesn’t imply that Christians always spoke in those terms, even though they had always believed Jesus was simultaneously God and Man. So one could say that the Church “always” believed in the Two Natures of Christ, while at the same time realizing that earlier Christians did not use the Chalcedonian terminology of 451. This was a development; so was transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, and other doctrines which Protestants detest.

3) What Catholic apologists call developments are sometimes contradictions instead. For example, if the most straightforward readings of passages like Luke 1:47 and John 2:3-4 are that Mary was a sinner, and church fathers teach for centuries that she was a sinner, it’s irrational to argue that a later belief in a sinless Mary is a development of the earlier belief. Such a change would be more accurately described as a contradiction, not a development.

Mary did need a Savior, as much as the rest of us. The Immaculate Conception was a pure act of grace on God’s part, saving Mary by preventing her from entering the pit of sin as she surely would have, but for that special grace. John 2:3-4 in no way supports some supposed sin on Mary’s part, except on prior Protestant presuppositions, making the argument circular (but I myself wouldn’t have thought when I was a Protestant that this verse is an unambiguous example of a sin committed by Mary). Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes:

The title “Woman” is not a sign of disrespect, it is the opposite – a title of dignity. It is a formal mode of speech equivalent to the English titles, “Lady” or “Madam.”

The Protestant commentator William Barclay writes:

The word Woman (gynai) is also misleading. It sounds to us very rough and abrupt. But it is the same word as Jesus used on the Cross to address Mary as he left her to the care of John (John 19:26). In Homer it is the title by which Odysseus addresses Penelope, his well-loved wife. It is the title by which Augustus, the Roman Emperor, addressed Cleopatara, the famous Egyptian queen. So far from being a rough and discourteous way of address, it was a title of respect. We have no way of speaking in English which exactly renders it; but it is better to translate it Lady which gives at least the courtesy in it. (The Gospel of John, revised edition, vol. 1, 98)

Similarly, the Protestant Expositor’s Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan, states:

Jesus’ reply to Mary was not so abrupt as it seems. ‘Woman’ (gynai) was a polite form of address. Jesus used it when he spoke to his mother from the cross (19:26) and also when he spoke to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (20:15). (vol. 9, 42)

Even the Fundamentalist Wycliffe Bible Commentary put out by Moody Press acknowledges in its comment on this verse, “In his reply, the use of ‘Woman’ does not involve disrespect (cf. 19:26). (p. 1076).

So Mr. Engwer’s “straightforward” biblical interpretations of Mary’s alleged sins in Scripture are not quite so clear to many prominent Protestant commentators — no doubt much more learned in the arts of exegesis and hermeneutics and linguistics than he is, if I do say so.

As for the Fathers teaching “for centuries” that Mary was a sinner, this is absurdly simplistic. The consensus was that she was actually sinless. This was strongly implied by the New Eve motif, which goes back as far as St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus. Other Fathers who believed Mary was sinless included Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianz, Gregory Nyssa, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Augustine, Ephraim of Syria, and Cyril of Alexandria. The exceptions are few: Tertullian (later a Montanist heretic), Origen, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom thought Mary committed actual sin.

But Catholic teaching does not require literal unanimity of the Fathers; only significant agreement. Individual Fathers are not infallible. The Church Councils make the judgment as to orthodox doctrine. Catholics believe that even St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas got a few things wrong (just as Protestants believe that Calvin and Luther were not infallible).


IV. Protestant Logical Problems With Regard to Development of Doctrine

In explaining the difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of development of doctrine, I have compared a Trinitarian doctrine that can be said to have developed in some way (the co-existence of the three Persons) with a Roman Catholic doctrine that’s said to have developed (the Immaculate Conception). As I explained in that earlier post, the co-existence of the three Persons is a necessary and non-speculative conclusion drawn from Matthew 3:16-17 and other passages of scripture. The Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is an unnecessary and speculative conclusion drawn from Luke 1:28 and other passages of scripture.

To argue that this Trinitarian doctrine and this Roman Catholic doctrine developed in the same way is fallacious. The Trinitarian doctrine is a necessary and non-speculative development, something that’s already in scripture. The Roman Catholic doctrine (the Immaculate Conception), on the other hand, is an unnecessary and speculative attempt to give a scriptural foundation to a much later concept. In other words, there’s a difference between a) developing an understanding of something already in scripture and b) trying to read a post-scriptural concept into scripture in ways that are unnecessary and speculative.

First of all, Mr. Engwer’s judgment regarding what is overly “speculative” is itself ultimately “speculative” and “unverifiable,” precisely as he accuses Catholic developments of being. They rest — in the final analysis — upon himself and other Protestant scholars and commentators, not on Scripture itself, because the Bible never specifically informs us of which beliefs are “overly speculative.” Why should I accept the word of these Protestants, where they contradict the Church Fathers, who were much closer in time to the apostles? It is no coincidence or shock that the Protestant finds “overly-speculative” all doctrines held by the Catholic Church which have been discarded by Protestantism! Again, this is circular reasoning, and obviously so. But let’s accept this methodology (also espoused by James White) for a moment, for the sake of argument, and apply it as a reductio ad absurdum for the Protestant:

1. True developments must be explicitly grounded in Scripture, or else they are arbitrary and “unbiblical” or “antibiblical” – therefore false. Mr. James White (a la Confucius) says: “The text of Scripture provides the grounds, and most importantly, the limits for this development over time” (Roman Catholic Controversy, 83).

2. The Trinity and the Resurrection of Christ and the Virgin Birth, e.g., are thoroughly grounded in Scripture, and are therefore proper (but Catholics also hold to these beliefs).

3. The canon of the New Testament is (undeniably) not itself a “biblical doctrine.” The New Testament never gives a “text” for the authoritative listing of its books.

4. Therefore, the canon of the New Testament is not a legitimate development of doctrine (according to #1), and is, in fact, a corruption and a false teaching.

5. Therefore, in light of #4, the New Testament (i.e., in the 27-book form which has been passed down through the Catholic centuries to Luther and the Protestants as a received Tradition) cannot be used as a measuring-rod to judge the orthodoxy of other doctrines.

6. #5 being the case, the Engwer/White criterion for legitimate developments is radically self-defeating, and must be discarded (along with sola Scriptura itself).

This is an airtight argument, and there is no way out of it. It renders null and void Mr. Engwer’s and Mr. White’s arguments concerning development of doctrine. I don’t think White and Engwer will be willing to give up both sola Scriptura and the New Testament in order to maintain a fallacious, utterly nonsensical opinion (given the above conclusions) of what constitutes a true development! The only conceivable escape from the logical horns of the dilemma would be for Mr. Engwer to allow a tacit and altogether arbitrary exception for the canon of the NT, but then, of course, we immediately ask,

“On what basis can you absolutely bow to (Catholic) Church authority in that one instance, while you deny its binding nature in all others, and fall back to Scripture Alone, the very canon of which was proclaimed authoritatively by the Catholic Church?”

This entire system of interpretation of the Bible and Church history is absurd, as is — in the final analysis — the formal principle of sola Scriptura upon which it is built. Scripture does not teach sola Scriptura and it does teach about an authoritative Tradition and Church. Therefore, even the premise on which the intellectually-suicidal White/Engwer criterion for true vs. false developments rests (sola Scriptura), is itself self-defeating. Christian Tradition simply cannot be dismissed, for to do so is to discard the Bible itself, and with it, the entire Protestant epistemological foundation and formal principle. It is only possible to have Bible + Church + Apostolic Tradition, or to have none of the three. No other position can be rationally taken, whether the question is approached historically or biblically (as if Scripture can be totally divorced from history). It’s a matter of inescapable logic.

Clearly, then, I don’t object to all forms of development of doctrine. I object to the Roman Catholic version of development as it’s used to defend the early absence of doctrines like the papacy and the Immaculate Conception. In other words, if Catholic apologists want to argue that people’s understanding of the implications of a passage like Matthew 3:16-17 developed over time, I don’t object to that. But if these same Catholic apologists want to argue that the Immaculate Conception is a development of what the earliest Christians believed about Mary, I do object to that use of the development argument. As far as I know, the Protestant apologists mentioned by Dave Armstrong (William Webster, James White, etc.) agree with me on this.

Then they are subject to the same extreme difficulty I just mentioned. And beyond that, if I can show that there is plenty of biblical evidence for the papacy (as I intend to do, and have done in my papers already), then the papacy is on the same epistemological ground as something like, say, congregationalism or a symbolic Eucharist and baptism, which arguably rest on quite flimsy biblical grounds. The Protestants give their biblical arguments for doctrines; we give ours. Who is to say who is right? On what basis? We answer (just as the Fathers did) that this is determined by tracing back doctrines historically: what has the Church taught in the past? Can this particular doctrine x be traced back to the apostles, even if only in kernel or primitive form? The Protestant distinctives cannot be so traced. The Catholic distinctives certainly can, once development is rightly understood and consistently applied.


V. Development According to Protestant Polemicist William Webster

In his article on development of doctrine and the papacy, William Webster makes some comments that could be interpreted as opposition to all forms of development.

I didn’t contend that he denied all forms of development (as Salmon seems to do). What I argued was that — by his reasoning in the paper — Mr. Webster fundamentally misunderstood what Catholics believe development to be. As he was attempting to establish that our view was internally inconsistent, it was of the utmost importance that he get our views right, or else his thesis would hardly be forceful or compelling (indeed, it was not at all, in my opinion). That’s what is called a straw man.

Or, the comments could be interpreted as William Webster saying that the RCC has condemned all forms of development. But if you read William Webster’s article, it becomes clear that he’s addressing some specific arguments for development, not all forms of the concept. Namely, he specifically objects to Catholic apologists appealing to development on issues such as the primacy of Peter and the universal jurisdiction of the earliest Roman bishops. This doesn’t mean that William Webster is objecting to every appeal to development, nor does it mean that he thinks the RCC has condemned every form of development.

I don’t believe I stated otherwise. Again, I argued that Mr. Webster did not show that he understood how we view development, because he made some very foolish arguments. But his position is still subject to the severe internal logical difficulties outlined above.

I think Dave Armstrong’s response to William Webster is off the mark, in that he reads too much into what Webster has argued.

I seriously wonder whether Mr. Engwer even understood my argument, as evidenced by these remarks. If he did, he is not even arguing against it, let alone disproving it.

There are some comments Webster makes that could be interpreted as a condemnation of all forms of development. But you’d have to ignore what Webster argues elsewhere, in the same article. And I don’t think we should do that.

I didn’t. And I think Mr. Engwer should not largely ignore my reasoning in a paper mentioning my name and claiming to be a response to one of my works.

James White, in his most popular book on Roman Catholicism, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1996), specifically advocates development of doctrine. He also contrasts acceptable forms of development with unacceptable forms of development (pp. 80-85). White’s book has been out for a few years now, so he can’t be accused of just recently coming up with this argument.

Yet — curiously — he accuses Cardinal Newman of “coming up with” his analysis of development, which I have shown in several of my papers was taught in its basic form by St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century (!!!), and echoed by St. Augustine in the same period. This is no new concept.

Evangelicals are more specific in their arguments than Dave implies. William Webster in particular has produced hundreds of pages of documentation of specifically what he means when he says that the First Vatican Council is a contradiction of modern Catholic appeals to development.

Then why hasn’t he explained to all of us why Vatican I cited St. Vincent of Lerins?

Yes, the First Vatican Council believed in some forms of development of doctrine, as Dave argues in his article. But, at the same time, there are some specific cases, such as Vatican I’s claims about Matthew 16, where development just isn’t a valid argument.

Only wrongly interpreted, as I demonstrated, I think, in my paper contra Webster. Development of doctrine applies across the board in Catholic teaching.


VI. The Historical Development of the Ante-Nicene Papacy

This is Dave’s first argument, as I summarized it:

1) The papacy has existed since the time of Peter in at least a seed form, but it later developed into something more. The development isn’t a contradiction. It’s a progression. The seed we can see early on consists of concepts such as the universal jurisdiction of Peter. However, even this seed may not have been fully understood or universally recognized early on.

An accurate summary!

One of the problems with Dave’s argument is that it’s so speculative. Might the keys of Matthew 16 be a reference to papal authority? Yes. Might they also be something else, such as a reference to Peter’s authority in preaching the gospel at Pentecost? Yes. As we’ll see later, the evidence is against the papal interpretation. But even without knowing that, isn’t it problematic when people like Dave want to build an institution like the papacy, with all of its major implications, on something as speculative as the papal interpretation of Matthew 16? How much is this sort of speculation worth?

Elsewhere at his web site, Dave explains that the Biblical evidence for the papacy, aside from passages like Matthew 16 and Luke 22, consists of things like Jesus preaching from Peter’s boat and Peter being the first apostle to enter Jesus’ tomb after the resurrection. Again, do you see the role speculation is playing here? Does Peter say and do many things that are unique in one way or another? Yes. So do the other apostles. John is called “the beloved disciple”, is referred to as living until Christ’s return, and lived the longest among the apostles. Paul is called a “chosen vessel” who will bear Christ’s name before the world, he repeatedly refers to his authority over all the churches, and he’s the only apostle to publicly rebuke and correct another apostle (Peter).

Can you imagine what Catholic apologists would make of these things, if they had been said about Peter rather than about another person? What if Peter had been uniquely called “the beloved disciple”? What if Peter had uniquely been referred to as living until Christ’s return? (Catholic apologists would probably cite the passage as evidence that Peter was to have successors with papal authority until Christ returns.) What if it had been Peter rather than Paul who had repeatedly referred to his authority over all churches, and had publicly rebuked and corrected another apostle? If Catholic apologists are going to see papal implications in Jesus preaching from Peter’s boat or in Peter being given some keys, why don’t they see papal implications in these other passages involving other people? The passages involving Paul, for example, such as his references to having authority over all churches, are closer to a papacy than anything said about Peter.

This is much ado about nothing, because it is primarily the dismantling of a straw man. Mr. Engler picks a few examples and acts as if these are considered compelling in and of themselves. But the salient fact concerning Petrine primacy is the cumulative power of the evidence. This I summarized in my paper: 50 NT Proofs for Petrine Primacy & the Papacy. Mr. Engwer is welcome to refute the 50 NT Proofs one-by-one. They are not insignificant. No Protestant has yet done so, and my website has been online for nearly five years now. [Jason — to his credit — later attempted to do so and I replied in turn. He counter-replied, and I replied again] We shall soon examine two crucial aspects of this Petrine data in some depth.

Notice something Dave Armstrong says about the alleged early evidence for a papacy:

The primacy itself was given to him [Peter]; the duty and prerogatives of the papal office, and the keys of the kingdom, but none of that implies that a full understanding or application, or unanimous acknowledgement by others is therefore also present from the beginning.

It’s important to notice what Dave seems to be arguing here. Apparently, he’s saying that even the seed form of the papacy wasn’t necessarily understood or universally recognized early on.

Not fully understood, and not universally recognized. This is human reality; it is not unexpected, and it is not a disproof of Catholic development or self-understanding.

But think of the logical implications of this. If there was no oak tree early on, and even the existence of an acorn is questionable, isn’t that problematic for the claims of the RCC?

No, because the acorn was not “questionable.” The Roman church was preeminent from the beginning, and its bishops, the popes, exercised the primacy, albeit with much more confidence and self-understanding as time went on. As the Newman citation from my paper contra Webster illustrated, this is not unusual, and the development of creeds, trinitarianism, and the canon of Scripture likewise rapidly developed in the 4th century, after persecution had ceased. Likewise, the papacy, and things like Mariology. This was clearly primarily a cultural/historical phenomenon, rather than a “biblical” one.

If all Catholics have is a series of speculations about passages like Matthew 16 and John 21, followed by a later development of a papal office with all that it involves today, aren’t they basically admitting what Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and others have been saying all along? As Peter de Rosa wrote in Vicars of Christ (New York, New York: Crown Publishing, 1988), “The gospels did not create the papacy; the papacy, once in being, leaned for support on the gospels” (p. 25).

But of course, again, this is a cardboard caricature of the biblical evidence for the papacy. Anyone reading this and not knowing anything further — especially if they are predisposed to reject the papacy due to nearly 500 years of incessant Protestant propaganda and disinformation –, would accept the Protestant view as self-evident, and the Catholic as fundamentally silly. But that is what happens as a result of one-sided (and thoroughly slanted and biased) presentations.

I think it would be helpful at this point to repost a citation I’ve used before from a Roman Catholic historian:

There appears at the present time to be increasing consensus among Catholic and non-Catholic exegetes regarding the Petrine office in the New Testament. The further question whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter’s lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter’s death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably ‘no.’ If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter’s death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church’s rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer….Rome did not succeed in maintaining its position against the contrary opinion and praxis of a significant portion of the Church. The two most important controversies of this type were the disputes over the feast of Easter and heretical baptism. Each marks a stage in Rome’s sense of authority and at the same time reveals the initial resistance of other churches to the Roman claim. (Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], pp. 1-2, 11)

Notice that this Catholic historian:

1) Acknowledges that he’s describing a consensus among Catholic and non-Catholic scholars.

2) Describes a consensus that contradicts what the RCC has taught at the First Vatican Council and elsewhere.

Schatz doesn’t just say that the papacy developed over time. He specifically refers to concepts such as Peter having universal jurisdiction and being succeeded to in that role exclusively by Roman bishops. And he says that there’s a consensus, even among Catholic scholars, that the earliest Christians had no such concepts. In other words, even the seed form of the papacy that people like Dave Armstrong try to defend didn’t exist early on.

I’ve never heard of this guy, and therefore I don’t know if he is an orthodox Catholic or not (one can’t assume that — sadly — these days). But I can offer counter-evidence. First, I will again cite Cardinal Newman, concerning the early papacy:

A partial fulfilment, or at least indications of what was to be, there certainly were in the first age. Faint one by one, at least they are various, and are found in writers of many times and countries, and thereby illustrative of each other, and forming a body of proof. Thus St. Clement, in the name of the Church of Rome, writes to the Corinthians, when they were without a bishop; St. Ignatius of Antioch addresses the Roman Church, out of the Churches to which he writes, as “the Church, which has in dignity the first seat, of the city of the Romans,” and implies that it was too high for his directing as being the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna has recourse to the Bishop of Rome on the question of Easter; the heretic Marcion, excommunicated in Pontus, betakes himself to Rome; Soter, Bishop of Rome, sends alms, according to the custom of his Church, to the Churches throughout the empire, and, in the words of Eusebius, “affectionately exhorted those who came to Rome, as a father his children;” the Montanists from Phrygia come to Rome to gain the countenance of its Bishop; Praxeas, from Asia, attempts the like, and for a while is successful; St. Victor, Bishop of Rome, threatens to excommunicate the Asian Churches; St. Irenaeus speaks of Rome as “the greatest Church, the most ancient, the most conspicuous, and founded and established by Peter and Paul,” appeals to its tradition, not in contrast indeed, but in preference to that of other Churches, and declares that “to this Church, every Church, that is, the faithful from every side must resort” or “must agree with it, propter potiorem principalitatem.”

“O Church, happy in its position,” says Tertullian, “into which the Apostles poured out, together with their blood, their whole doctrine;” and elsewhere, though in indignation and bitter mockery, he calls the Pope “the Pontifex Maximus, the Bishop of  Bishops.” The presbyters of St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, complain of his doctrine to St. Dionysius of Rome; the latter expostulates with him, and he explains.

The Emperor Aurelian leaves “to the Bishops of Italy and of Rome” the decision, whether or not Paul of Samosata shall be dispossessed of the see-house at Antioch; St. Cyprian speaks of Rome as “the See of Peter and the principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise, whose faith has been commended by the Apostles, to whom faithlessness can have no access;” St. Stephen refuses to receive St. Cyprian’s deputation, and separates himself from various Churches of the East; Fortunatus and Felix, deposed by St. Cyprian, have recourse to Rome; Basilides, deposed in Spain, betakes himself to Rome, and gains the ear of St. Stephen. (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878 ed., Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989, 157-158; Part 1, Chapter 4, Section 3)

In a less technical and historically dense fashion, I summarized in another paper some notable instances of papal authority, up through the 6th century:

There was no problem of authority in the early Church. Everyone knew how doctrinal controversies could be definitively resolved. Even as early as the 2nd century we observe the strong authority of Pope Victor (r. 189-98) with regard to the Quartodecimen controversy (over the dating of Easter). St. Clement of Rome exercised much authority in the late 1st century. In the 3rd c., Pope St. Stephen reverses the decision of St. Cyprian of Carthage and a council of African bishops regarding a question of baptism. St. Cyprian had appealed both to Popes Cornelius and Stephen to resolve this issue. Shortly thereafter, many appeals were made to popes for various reasons, which would lead one to believe that the pope had some special authority: at least primacy, if not supremacy:

1. St. Athanasius (4th c.) appeals to Pope Julius I, from an unjust decision rendered against him by Oriental Bishops, and the pope reverses the sentence.

2. St. Basil the Great (4th c.), Archbishop of Caesarea pleads for the protection of Pope Damasus.

3. St. John Chysostom, in the early 5th c., appeals to Pope Innocent I, for a redress of grievances inflicted upon him by several Eastern Prelates, and by Empress Eudoxia of Constantinople.

4. St. Cyril (5th c.) appeals to Pope Celestine against Nestorius; Nestorius also does so, but the Pope favors Cyril.

5. Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, is condemned by the Robber-Council of 449, and appealed to Pope Leo the Great, who declared the deposition invalid; Theodoret was restored to his See.

6. John, Abbot of Constantinople (6th c.) appeals from the decision of the Patriarch of that city to Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reverses the sentence.

This strikes me as a great deal of “authority.” All these people were from the East — many of the most revered figures, I might add. They knew where the authority resided; they knew how to settle conflicts authoritatively in favor of orthodoxy. Do Orthodox [and Protestants] want to say that they were all deluded in this regard? That if they had been in their shoes, they wouldn’t have known where to go for redress against injustice or persecution? They wouldn’t have known who spoke for the Universal Church; the Catholic Church; or for orthodoxy?


VII. Does Catholicism Require a Unanimous Patristic Interpretation of Matthew 16?

This is Dave’s second argument, as I summarized it:

2) Even if some church fathers rejected the papal interpretation of a passage like Matthew 16 or John 21, that doesn’t change the fact that others accepted the papal interpretation. Or, they at least accepted a seed form of the papal interpretation, one that would later develop into the papal interpretation. And a church father could possibly believe in the doctrine of the papacy even if he didn’t see a papacy where Catholics see it today (Matthew 16, Luke 22, John 21, etc.). Dave’s argument is spurious. Here’s what the First Vatican Council claimed in chapter 1 of session 4, concerning the papal interpretation of Matthew 16:

To this absolutely manifest teaching of the sacred scriptures, as it has always been understood by the Catholic Church, are clearly opposed the distorted opinions of those who misrepresent the form of government which Christ the lord established in his church and deny that Peter, in preference to the rest of the apostles, taken singly or collectively, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction. The same may be said of those who assert that this primacy was not conferred immediately and directly on blessed Peter himself, but rather on the church, and that it was through the church that it was transmitted to him in his capacity as her minister. Therefore, if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole church militant; or that it was a primacy of honour only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ himself: let him be anathema.

Notice, first of all, that Vatican I claims that the papal interpretation of Matthew 16 is clear, that only distorters would deny it, and that it’s always been accepted by the Christian church. Catholics may appeal to development of doctrine on other issues, but these claims of Vatican I don’t allow for any appeals to development with regard to the papal interpretation of Matthew 16.

Yet, what do we see when we examine the history of the interpretation of this passage of scripture? As William Webster documents in his books and at his web site, the earliest interpretations of Matthew 16 are either non-papal or anti-papal. Even among the later church fathers, there’s widespread ignorance of, and even contradiction of, the papal interpretation. Even in some cases where a papal interpretation might be in view, the papal interpretation is at best a minority viewpoint. Augustine, writing as late as the fifth century, specifically denies that Peter is “this rock”, and he gives no indication that he’s thereby doing something revolutionary or something that would be perceived as “distorting”, as Vatican I would put it.

What we see in the history of the interpretation of Matthew 16 is just what William Webster has described. Catholic apologists are forced, by the facts of history, to argue for a gradual development of the papal understanding of Matthew 16. Yet, the First Vatican Council claimed that the papal interpretation had always been accepted by the Christian church. According to the First Vatican Council, the papacy is clear in Matthew 16, and only perverse distorters would deny that. But the papal interpretation of Matthew 16 is actually absent and contradicted early on. The facts of history fly directly in the face of what the RCC has taught.

Mr. Engwer makes the same logical mistake which Mr. Webster committed (one grows weary of repeating the same points): he imagines that the bishops of the First Vatican Council believed that all Catholics at all times accepted the interpretations of the classic biblical papal proofs. But the Council does not speak specifically of Matthew 16 when it sums up the Catholic teaching. My translation of the Council (New York: 1912; reprinted by TAN, 1977), reads: “At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture, as it has ever been understood by the Catholic Church . . .”

In other words, it is the teaching, the doctrine about the papacy and Petrine primacy which was always understood (i.e., in its essence), not the interpretation of Matthew 16. It is indeed somewhat of a subtle distinction, but it is there, nonetheless. What was “clear” was Jesus’ bestowal of the “jurisdiction of Chief Pastor and Ruler over all His fold” upon Peter, which the Council states right before Mr. Engwer’s lengthy citation, followed by John 21:15, 17. So one might argue that that passage is being referred to, rather than Matthew 16 — if one insists on arguing that passages, rather than doctrines are the primary intended reference. The Catholic Church, however, is much more concerned with true doctrine, rather than required readings of biblical texts.

Furthermore, contending that a certain belief “has ever been understood by the Catholic Church” is not the same as believing that all the Fathers believed it. There will always be anomalies in the Fathers. But the authority of the Catholic Church ultimately resides in Councils and popes. Furthermore, if we, e.g., assume for a moment that St. Augustine disbelieved the papal interpretation of Matthew 16 (which is questionable), does it therefore follow that he rejected the papacy? Hardly. He assuredly did not. And that is what is being referred to at Vatican I, not particularistic knowledge of patristic interpretations of every “papal” passage. But Protestant polemicists often cannot see the forest for the trees. As we shall see below, there was, nevertheless, an extraordinary patristic testimony that Peter was the Rock and foundation of the Church.

Elsewhere, this same council refers to the papacy as described above as something “known to all ages”, something that “none can doubt”. What are we to make of Dave Armstrong’s argument, in light of what the First Vatican Council taught?

We are to make of it that it is consistent, whereas Mr. Engwer’s argument is not. We are to understand that these passages presuppose a certain development of all doctrines, but that that doesn’t preclude referring to early adherence in terms of “known to all ages” any more than it would preclude the statement: “early Christians knew what books constituted the New Testament.” Protestants such as Mr. Engwer do not deny that statement, despite a host of anomalies I could point out, where prominent Church Fathers thought books not now in the NT were biblical books, and where many others denied the canonicity of Revelation and James well into the 4th century. Likewise, one can find divergent interpretations of Matthew 16, but that does not establish that the papacy was therefore unknown and unacknowledged (Mr. Engwer writes near the end of his paper — astoundingly — “perhaps . . . there just wasn’t a papacy at the time?”). One could “get some papal texts wrong” in the early centuries and still accept the primacy of Peter and papal supremacy, just as one could “get some biblical books wrong” and accept the inspiration of Holy Scripture (whatever it actually is).


VIII. St. Peter as the Rock and Foundation (Head, Pope) of the Church

This is the third argument made by Dave Armstrong, as I summarized it earlier:

3) The prominence of the Roman church early on is evidence of a papacy. Even if there are other explanations for the prominence of the Roman church, such as Peter and Paul having been martyred there and the city’s prominence within the Empire, the papacy could also be a factor.

The problem with Dave’s argument is that all of the earliest references to the Roman church’s prominence are non-papal. The apostle Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others give non-papal reasons for commending the Roman church. They mention things like the Roman church’s faith, its love, its generosity, its location in the capital of the Empire, Paul and Peter having been there and having been martyred there, etc. Rather than the prominence of the early Roman church being an argument for the papacy existing at the time, it’s an argument against it. When one source after another commends the Roman church, and all sorts of reasons are given for commending it, and those reasons never include a papacy, that speaks volumes.

If it were only true, it would indeed speak volumes, but I think the historical examples given above suggest otherwise. And in the 4th and 5th centuries, the patristic evidence gets very common and explicit, as the many papers and links in my Papacy web page abundantly make clear.

It’s a confirmation of what Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and others have been saying for centuries. The Roman church rose in influence for various practical reasons. Once the bishop of Rome had attained a wide influence, that influence was increasingly attributed to Divine appointment. As Peter de Rosa said in my earlier citation, the gospels didn’t create the papacy; the papacy, once in being, leaned for support on the gospels.

To admit that there were practical factors involved in the rise of the Roman church’s influence, then suggest that a papacy may have been a factor as well, is just a begging of the question. The practical factors are specifically mentioned by the early writers (Paul mentions the Roman church’s faith, Ignatius mentions its love and generosity, Irenaeus mentions that Paul and Peter were there, etc.). A Divinely appointed papacy, on the other hand, is not mentioned by the early writers. So it’s just more question begging on the part of Catholic apologists for them to ask us to assume that the papacy was a factor at a time when it’s never mentioned. Could documents like First Clement and Irenaeus’ letter to Victor be interpreted in a papal way? Yes. Could they also be interpreted in non-papal and even anti-papal ways? Yes.

Alright; it’s now time to delve deeply into Scripture itself, for historical testimony — no matter how voluminous or widespread — is never sufficient for the Protestant who has a built-in hostility against the papacy, episcopacy, the Catholic Church; indeed, oftentimes against the notion of any binding spiritual and ecclesiastical authority whatsoever (and also, far too often, to historical analysis per se). Holy Scripture gives us the common ground and the jointly acknowledged authority which both parties wholeheartedly accept. Here we have a divinely-inspired Revelation and Word of God. Therefore, if we can show that in this Revelation the papacy is clearly ordained by Jesus (not simply a result of historical happenstance or pure chance), then we shall have gone a long way towards accomplishing our purpose.


Mr. Engwer, like his comrades Salmon and Webster, makes great play of the fact that the “papal”interpretation of Matthew 16 was supposedly not very widely held. But this is not the case. There were exceptions (as there always are), but there was also great consensus (just as, e.g., was true with regard to the NT canon). The following Fathers (and an Ecumenical Council) held that it was Peter, not his faith or confession, who was the Rock:

Aphraates the Persian
Ephraim the Syrian
Hilary of Poitiers
Zeno of Africa
Gregory of Nazianzen
Gregory of Nyssa
Basil the Great
Didymus the Blind
John Chrysostom
Cyril of Alexandria
Peter Chrysologus
Proclus of Constantinople
Secundinus (disciple and assistant of St. Patrick)
Council of Chalcedon

(all of the above are prior to 451 A.D.)

Maximus the Confessor (650 A.D.)
John Damascene (d.c. 749 A.D.)
Theodore the Studite (d. 826 A.D.)

[For 65 pages of documentation of these facts, see Jesus, Peter, and the Keys, by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess, Santa Barbara: Queenship Pub. Co., 1996, pp. 215-279]

Thus, it is beyond silly for Mr. Engwer to state: “But the papal interpretation of Matthew 16 is actually absent and contradicted early on. The facts of history fly directly in the face of what the RCC has taught.” He might, I suppose, emphasize the fact that most of the solid sources are from the 3rd or 4th century on, but of course that brings him right back into the insurmountable problem of the canon of the New Testament for the Protestant, and the similarly relatively late flowering of explicit trinitarianism and Christology and the doctrine of original sin as well. The Protestant distinctives of extrinsic justification and symbolic baptism and Eucharist are virtually unknown among the Fathers, as we noted above (the same holds for sola Scriptura, though this is very difficult to prove to Protestants for various reasons).



(originally posted in 2000)

Photo credit: Portrait of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) [public domain]



Browse Our Archives