The Primacy of the Roman Church

Why do I write on Roman Catholicism? Because of claims like these:

I still have yet to see a good Protestant response to Irenaeus, who predates Cyprian:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the succession of bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.’ –Irenaeus, early Church father, ca. 180 A.D. in his famous work Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, para. 2

I don’t know if the Protestants would like me calling myself a Protestant, but I do protest against Rome’s claims, so here is my “good Protestant response.”

Rome, according to Irenaeus, was:

  1. very great
  2. very ancient
  3. universally known
  4. founded by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul

As a result, “it is a matter of necessity that every church agree with this church.”

The reason that every church must agree with this church is because of its “preeminent authority.”

Many Protestants, including the American editor of The Ante-Nicene Fathers don’t like “preeminent authority” as a translation of “potiorem principalitatem.” (We only have Against Heresies in Latin. The Greek original is not extant.) He likes another Catholic translation: “potent principality.”

That’s nice and literal, but does it really say anything different than preeminent authority? I think not. Let’s not kid ourselves. No matter how you translate those two words, Irenaeus believed in AD 185 that every church should agree with the Roman church, and that sure qualifies as preeminent authority to me.

In fact, Irenaeus says that every church in the world already agreed with Rome.

the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (Against Heresies I:10:2)

So why does Irenaeus bother to tell all these churches that already agree with Rome that they have to agree with Rome?

Irenaeus’ Audience

You may notice the name of the book in which Irenaeus’ quote is found: Against Heresies. Although Irenaeus is writing to the church in Rome, he is teaching the church at Rome how to answer gnostic heretics. In giving them arguments to use against heretics, he directs the arguments at the heretics, not the Christians. He is arming the Christians to speak to the heretics.

As such his words are for heretics, not Christians, except insofar as the Christians used those words to combat the heretics.

There is another long argument using apostolic succession besides Irenaeus’. That argument is written by Tertullian, and it is in a book called The Prescription Against Heretics. It is addressed to Christians that are examing the Scriptures to see if heretical gnostic teaching is true. Tertullian is trying to save these Christians from being seduced by the gnostics, so his words are addressed to the heretics as well.

You will not find anyone discussing apostolic succession except in the context of heresy.

Apostolic Succession Is an Argument, Not a Doctrine

There is one point to apostolic succession: “We have the truth; you don’t.”

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies III:3:3)

Apostolic Succession is an apologetic argument that the churches descended from the apostles are much more likely to hold to the truth than the upstart gnostics who have to ascribe their beginning to men who not only came after the apostles but were not authorized by the apostles.

Apostolic Succession Can Be Argued From Any Church

Even in the quote from Irenaeus that begins this blog post, we can see that the issue is not Rome. The issue is any church that has been able to hand down the truth from the apostles to elders or a bishop and on to the next set of elders or bishops.

The quote referenced at the start of this post begins with “because it would be tedious … to reckon up the succession of all the churches … ”

It also ends with:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles … but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna … [and] departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asian Churches testify. (ibid. III:3:4)


Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (ibid.)

Tertullian, who also makes Rome the best source of apostolic authority, provides many other churches that can be consulted to learn the truth.

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over to the apostolic churches … Achaia is very near you, in which you will find Corinth … Macedonia, you have Philippi … the Thessalonians … Asia, you get Ephesus … Italy, you have Rome, from which their comes into our hands the very authority [of the apostles or just “true authority”]. (Prescription Against Heretics 36)

Tertullian uses much the same terminology as Irenaeus, and he cites Rome, it seems, as the foremost authority, too. However, this authority cannot be separated from truth! The churches were ruled by the Truth above all.

If truth is not preserved, then any authority of apostolic succession is invalidated.

Doctrine Was Not Decreed from Rome or Any Other Church

Tertullian wrote:

… is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone
astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. (ibid. 28)

Consider this argument by Tertullian. This is his second argument. His first argument is that God gave the Gospel to Jesus, Jesus gave it to the apostles, and the apostles gave it to their churches. The churches then kept a roll of bishops, showing that they had handed the truth on purposefully from bishop to bishop and from one set of elders to the next.

His second argument was that if all the churches had the same doctrine, how did that happen? If error crept in, wouldn’t one error have crept in over in Caesarea and and a different one in Carthage? How could Alexandria go astray into an error and barbarians in Gaul wind up in exactly the same error?

Impossible. If a tradition is handed down in different places all over the world, and it is all in agreement, it is because there is one source, the apostles, not because one error crept over every church everywhere.

This argument presupposes that although Rome may have been the primary and most reliable preserver of apostolic truth at the start of the third century, it was not decreeing doctrine to all the churches. If it were, Tertullian’s argument would be invalidated. When he says that errors in doctrine would be different in various churches, the gnostics could have answered, “No. Rome fell into error, and it passed that error on to the rest of you.”

The heretics couldn’t deny Tertullian’s argument because although Rome was to be consulted in times of doubt, so were all the other apostolic churches. Rome could not decree new doctrines and had no means by which to pass on to everyone else her teachings.

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among
us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? (Against Heresies III:4:1)

When Rome did try to force its opinions on other churches, it failed … consistently (ref).

The Issue Is Truth

As you can see in all of this above, the issue is truth.

The argument of apostolic succession no longer applies. The roll of bishops that the Roman church can show us is tattered and fragmented at best. It is certainly not a lineage that can lay any claim to being a reliable transmitter of truth.

  • For almost a century, known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, there was no bishop in Rome at all. The pope lived in Avignon, France.
  • Even the Roman Catholic Church will admit that there were Middle Age popes who were simply wicked.
  • The Roman Catholic Church has not only lost or changed apostolic teachings, but it has changed the most important one that applies to apostolic succession! How are they going to transmit the truth unchanged when they now believe they have the authority to explain and add to apostolic tradition?

Apostolic succession does not give anyone or any church the right to decree or change truth. Apostolic succession is an argument to prove who has the truth, and the possession of the truth gives authority to the one who has it.

At one time, Rome was a beacon of truth, honored in all the world because of its stature in the Roman empire and its foundation in the apostles Peter and Paul.

It no longer possesses the foundation that gave it authority.

Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches,
however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master. (Irenaeus, Against heresies I:10:2)

It is unlawful to to assert that [the apostles] preached before they had perfect knowledge, as some even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. (ibid. III:1:1)

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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13 Responses to The Primacy of the Roman Church

  1. Bobby Johnson says:

    Many problems with the Ireneaus writing. We have no Greek originals. The earliest copies are in Latin from several centuries after Ireneaus. So accuracy of translation can be suspect. Secondly he calls the church in Rome the most ancient and say Peter and Paul founded and organized the church in Rome. Anyone who can read Scripture easily see these claims are false. Jerusalem would be the most ancient and a church existed in Rome before any apostle ever went there. Another serious problem for Roman Catholics is that the list of Roman bishops by Ireneaus does not start with Peter, it starts with Linus. Then we have to reconcile the fact that there are other early lists that differ from this one and from each other.

    • Paul Pavao says:

      Hi Bobby. I am sorry I took so long to approve this comment. The last few days have been a whirlwind for me.

      The fact that we don’t have the original Greek of Irenaeus is only a small problem. Most ancient books have similar textual problems, but unless there is controversy over the book, we usually have a text accurate enough for our purposes. In this case, there are several long paragraphs all on the same subject, so getting down to fine details is not necessary.

      Irenaeus calls the church in Rome very ancient, not most ancient. The point he is making is that Rome had apostolic authority, and then he makes the same point with Smyrna, and he says he could make the same point with many other churches. It would not suit Irenaeus’ argument very well to say, “Rome had a church before any apostles arrived.” The fact is, both Peter and Paul taught there, and Peter was an elder there (1 Peter 5 and the universal testimony of the churches).

      The book Irenaeus wrote assumes that the apostles are the authority. Jesus brought the Gospel and the teaching of the truth to earth from God, and he committed it to his apostles and no other. Thus, his most basic argument is that the catholic churches–i.e., all the churches founded by the apostles–have the teaching of the apostles, and the gnostics do not. So it is important to point out that Peter and Paul are the founding teachers in the sense that they are the apostolic authority in Rome. In Alexandria it would be Mark. In Ephesus, it would be Paul and John, since John lived the end of his life there.

      Tertullian makes the same arguments in _The Prescription Against Heretics_ and _Against Marcion_.

      None of this is evidence for the Roman Catholic claim that their bishop, now called the pope, has authority over all churches. They were a “preeminent authority” to testify to the truth, just as Mark Zuckerberg would be the preeminent authority to discuss the inner workings of Facebook and the mayor of Selmer, TN would be the preeminent authority on infrastructure plans in the city of Selmer. “It is necessary that every church agree with this church” is a statement Irenaeus could and did make the same claim about Ephesus: “Then, again, the church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.

      As I said in the post, the churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, and Alexandria, etc., already agreed with Rome, and Rome agreed with them. Irenaeus said so at the start of the first volume of _Against Heresies_, chapter 10. His statement that all churches have to agree with Rome was directed at the gnostic churches. In other words, he was saying, “Don’t listen to those gnostics! They don’t agree with Rome, nor Polycarp, who knew the apostles, nor Ephesus.”

      The point of all that is to say that the texts we have are good enough to understand Irenaeus’ message, especially since his book is five volumes. There is a lot of content, and the fact that we can produce a consistent text for five volumes is pretty good authority. It is a GREAT book, and just because Roman Catholic apologists abuse, twist, and misinterpret it does not mean we should get rid of it. They abuse, twist, misinterpret, and misquote many of the fathers, which I expose in my book, _Rome’s Audacious Claim_.

  2. paulfpavao says:

    I just use the term because I’m western and not Catholic. I don’t like it, and I have to tell Catholics and Orthodox who write to me to quit wasting their time arguing against Protestantism because I agree with almost all their arguments (against Protestantism). I just don’t agree that the answer to not being a Protestant is being Catholic or Orthodox. I just want to “pursue love, faith, righteousness, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

  3. History Man says:

    Interesting article. This of course makes a good argument for the Orthodox Churches. For they claim that Rome or the Latins abandoned the True Tradition during the 1023 Schism. One thought I did have was the difference between Primacy and Supremacy. It is not hard for me to image that Rome would have had the Primacy among all Ancient Churches, not to declare doctrine, but to protect the doctrine. Rome simply was “first among equals” and this goes back to Clement of Rome who simply wrote to the Church in Corinth to help deal with a schism there. Also supposedly Peter and Paul are buried in Rome, so that alone would have given Rome more of an aurora of Authority. I almost converted to Roman Catholicism, but the Avignon Papacy is one I can’t wrap by mind around. Currently studying Eastern Christianity, which by the way would probably agree with this article. Of course many of them view Protestants as a Schism within a Schism.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Oh, yeah. The Orthodox do not like the fact that I’m “out here” in the Protestant world, not under any ancient authority except the most ancient of all, God. Of course, I really don’t like their stance on icons. The more I talk to them the more understanding I am of their captivity to late traditon, but the less I like their tradition.

      Otherwise, well said. I especiall liked, “Rome would have the primacy among all ancient churches, not to declare doctrine, but to protect doctrine.” Agreed.

      I don’t think the church at Rome wrote to Corinth because of their authority over the Corinthians. I think they wrote because they loved the Corinthians, and even more so because they loved the church of God and would not see it corrupted by ambitious and envious men. Kudos to them. Would that later bishops of Rome had read that letter and avoided falling into the trap their ancestors saved Corinth from.

      • History Man says:

        So as much as you know of church history, especially 2nd Century, how is that you or I for that matter can claim the term “Protestant”. I know this is nothing to do with the OP. I might just have to write a dedicated post to my journey into Post-Protestantism.

  4. ruralcommoner says:

    John 4:21

  5. ruralcommoner says:

    God’s Kingdom is invisible, not seated in Rome. The goats and wolves have invaded, but the church is not limited to a geographical location. He isn’t saying it failed, just moved.

  6. Ben says:

    “No matter how you translate those two words, Irenaeus believe in AD 185 that every church should agree with the Roman church, and that sure qualifies as preeminent authority to me.”

    I guess I must not understand you then. Are you arguing that the “powers of death” (Matt. 16:18) have prevailed against the Church, which Jesus said would not happen? You seem to acknowledge along with Irenaeus that Christ’s Church has/had(?) preeminent authority in Rome, but you are trusting that this Church failed? Are you acknowledging that all churches must be in communion/agreement with Rome but you choose not to be? Or are you acknowledging that Rome has authority unless and until it does not pass your personal truth test? If so, that’s the sort of authority that only lasts until the first heretic comes along with his own truth test. I think it’s less of a stretch to believe that Christ has protected and preserved His Church. I’m sorry but I fail to see the logic in acknowledging Rome’s authority but hoping it has expired.


    • paulfpavao says:

      If in Matthew 16:18 Jesus meant that the organized churches would not become corrupt, then he made a false promise. There is absolutely no denying that they did.

      1. The difference between the 4th century history written by Eusebius and the 5th century histories written by Sozomen, Socrates, and Theodotus would be proof enough that the “ecclesia” that provides the basis for their “ecclesiastical history” had a great fall.

      2. If we refer to Rome as an individual church, then the absence of a bishop for 72 years followed by two and even three competing bishops for the next 37, wrecks the succession. But why should we think this has anything to do with what Jesus said in Matthew 16. Jesus threatened to remove Ephesus’ status as a church and spew Laodicea out of his mouth. While that didn’t happen because they repented, Jesus did not tell them, “Don’t worry about it, though. It’s impossible for you to fall away.”

      I agree that there is great danger in individuals being left to personal interpretation of the Christian faith. But let’s not be ridiculous. Wickedness can be recognized as wickedness, and Rome’s succession was wrecked by there not being a succession for 112 years and interrupted by wicked bishops many other times.

      Bishops appointed by emperors are not bishops preserving truth in a succession.

      It’s one thing when there’s a battle over how to treat those who lapsed during persecution. We should decide as a church, and the leaders should lead in that decision. But when hero worship enters the church, becomes Mary and saint worship, then no, we are not talking about a heretic making personal choices. We are talking about drastic departures from the faith, and asking me to pretend I’m stupid is not the same as asking me to submit to the church in questionable situations. The worship of Mary, even if you call it veneration, is wrong, not questionable. The authority that the pope has claimed for himself with no precedent is not questionable. Calling something a succession that preserved truth that has a gap of over a century along with a number of wicked persons in that succession is not questionable, it is false.

      I’m not hoping Rome’s authority has expired. It’s only authority consisted in its preservation of the truth, as did Antioch’s, Philippi’s, and Smyrna’s. It no longer has any argument that it has preserved the truth because it’s succession is long gone, and it claims the right to add to and adjust the faith once delivered to the saints.

      I just want to get us back into a sane discussion or end the discussion. “Are you trusting that this church failed?” is not a rational question. It assumes all sorts of things that are not remotely true, and it dodges responsibility. When a person loses trust through wickedness, then accuses those who no longer trust him of being the problem, that’s not only irrational self-justification, it is rude. In this case, I can have discussions about the RCC trying to justify itself after centuries of crushing the arguments presented by Irenaeus and Tertullian, but I will not have a discussion about why I believe they did what they did. I believe they are not trustworthy because they have a long history of not being trustworthy.

  7. ruralcommoner says:

    Amen. I wonder, because of the literacy rate and the availability of the written word, weren’t the Churches storehouses of the scriptures where many would go the hear the word read? If that is true, couldn’t that also be a reason why Rome was so heavily sought after during Irenaeus’s time? Just thinking.

    • paulfpavao says:

      I think Irenaeus and others say why Rome–and the other apostolic churches–were sought after. They were repositories of truth, the most trustworthy repositories around. I think most churches had at least one copy of most of the accepted apostolic writings by the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian.

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