February 22 is the Feast of the Chair of Peter. A question on an internet forum a little while ago asked “What is the biblical basis against Papal succession?”

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of Papal Succession: that, starting from Peter, there has been a line of Popes to lead the Church. Neither the Orthodox Church nor Protestant churches in general affirm this doctrine. What, then, is the biblical argument against papal succession?

The question is flawed, as (a) it assumes that there is such an argument and (b) it discounts events since biblical history which have influenced ecumenical relations. However, it can be answered very simply.

There is no biblical argument against Papal succession.

Such a bald statement needs some justification. It’s not possible to prove a negative, so it’s necessary to look at such evidence as there is which cannot be reconciled with an argument against Papal succession. The Bible is internally consistent, so evidence for succession supports that position.

The authority of Peter to govern the Church is based on the words of Christ in Matthew 16:18 —

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

There are other practical examples of Peter’s primacy, too. Whenever the disciples are named, Peter heads the list —

The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. [Matt 10:2–4]

And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Bo-anerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. [Mark 3:14–19]

And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. [Lk 6:13–16]

And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. [Acts 1:13]

Sometimes the apostles were referred to as “Peter and those who were with him” (Luke 9:32). Peter was the one who generally spoke for the apostles (Matt 18:21; Mark 8:29; Luke 12:41; John 6:68–69) and he figures in many of the most dramatic scenes (Matt 14:28–32; Matt 17:24–27; Mark 10:23–28). At Pentecost it was Peter who first preached to the crowds (Acts 2:14–40). He worked the first healing in the Church Age (Acts 3:1–7).

Our Lord’s prayer for Peter’s faith caused his reform after his denial:

I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. [Luke 22:31–32]

Not only did his faith not fail; not only did he strengthen his brethren; he became a charismatic leader. God more than answers the prayer: he puts Peter in a position of authority.

Peter led the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and announced the first dogmatic decision (Acts 15:7–11). It was to Peter that the revelation came that Gentiles were to be baptised and accepted as Christians (Acts 10:46–48). Some have claimed that Peter erred, citing Paul’s outburst in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal 2:11–14) as biblical evidence against Peter’s primacy, but this is not inconsistent with God’s direct revelation: it is a frank speech from a second-in-command which caused the leader to pray and accept — and expound — God’s revelation. If anything, it is a model for Papal Infallibility, which requires not a man’s opinion but God’s revelation.

Still others posit that in our accepting authority in the Church — albeit derived from our faith in Christ and a belief that he appointed Peter — the Church and the Pope effectively become an object of worship, an idol displacing Jesus himself. Again, if this is so, there is lots of Scripture condemning it; but these offensive accusations can be countered with Scripture, including even the writings of Peter himself:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. [1 Cor 3:11]

… built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. [Eph 2:20]

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [1 Pet 2:4–6]

Nevertheless, the dominical words which set Peter up as the rock on which the earthly Church stands, and who has the power and authority to bind and loose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven, remain.

Peter returned to Rome to head the “Roman congregation” and was martyred there, and St Peter’s Basilica was built near the spot and over his tomb. He was succeeded by Linus as episkopos, overseer, of that congregation, who is believed to be the Linus mentioned by St Paul in 2 Tim 4:21.

There is very little remaining evidence from that time, probably because the Roman persecutions were effective in destroying it; but the early Church Fathers, those Christians closest to the apostles in time, culture, and theological background, clearly understood that Jesus promised to build the Church on Peter at Rome, as shown by their writings which do remain:

[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19] … What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys. (Tertullian, Modesty 21:9–10, AD220)

Look at [Peter], the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church [Matt. 16:18]. And what does our Lord say to him? ‘Oh you of little faith,’ he says, ‘why do you doubt?’ [Matt. 14:31]. (Origen, Homilies on Exodus 5:4, AD248)

There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 43[40]:5, AD253)

You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. (Optatus, The Schism of the Donatists 2:2, AD367)

Philip, the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See [Rome], said: ‘There 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 Saviour 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’. (Council of Ephesus, Acts of the Council, session 3, AD431)

Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of the episcopate. (Council of Chalcedon, Acts of the Council, session 3, AD451).

The last two quotes, from pre-Schism Ecumenical Councils, are significant. The New Testament canon was fixed between AD367 and 405, so the Councils in 431 and 451 would have been particularly aware of what was biblical and what was not.

Chalcedon calls Leo the Great “most holy and blessed, archbishop of the great and elder Rome,” and lists no other members of the Council in that snippet; this puts the Pope in a position of authority. Ephesus arguably went further, agreeing that “Peter, head of the apostles, even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors.”

Thus the early Church prior to the Great Schism found nothing against Papal succession, and agreed that Peter’s authority subsists in his successors in Rome. Who are we to disagree?


All references and quotations are from the Revised Standard Version 2nd Catholic Edition. This article contains material from Christianity.StackExchange.com; both from my answer to the linked question and from another. This article was prepared before Pope Benedict’s announcement of his resignation.

    Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
    Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
    And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
    Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”
    Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
    And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
    When they came to Caperna-um, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
    And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches * to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.”
    But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day… [More]
    Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
    But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. [More]
    And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
    Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
    But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
    Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren.