Authority of Rome: A Protestant Perspective

This post is the second installment of a series on papal supremacy/infallibility and the authority of Rome. The first installment on the authority of Rome from a Roman Catholic perspective can be found here. The series was the product of fruitful discussion on a post concerning the 185th anniversary of Anglo-Catholicism. Please feel free to comment on any post in the series, or offer your opinion on this callout post for ideas, theories and opinions on the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

Before we begin this post on the protestant perspective of papal authority, it is important to define the boundaries of protestant theology within the context of this post. Dissent among protestants regarding the pope and the Roman Catholic church in general range from opposition to a handful of doctrines to complete rejection of everything catholic all of the way to ascribing a heinous mission for the Roman church as the whore of Babylon spoken about in the Book of Revelations. Before I can begin a discussion outlining the various protestant positions, I would like to make it clear that we will not be concerning ourselves with outlandish, ill-founded and flat out unChristian ideas about the catholic church. This post will specifically focus on the theological positions of the Anglican Communion (disregarding the Anglican Catholic movement in this particular series for now), and Reformed Christian churches. Note that the position of the  Eastern Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches will not be covered in this series, those will be part of the third and final installment on the authority of Rome from a catholic perspective. If you want some information on extreme positions against the catholic church (if not for curiosity sake), I encourage you to check out Are You Drinking From The Babylon Cup who has a very respectful blog with a lot of information (even if I do not agree with his opinions at all).

Another important item to keep in mind when reading about the various protestant positions on the supremacy of the pope is that historically opposition to the pope did not fall along the lines of how we understand the doctrine today. Given that the formalization of the supremacy/infallibility of the pope was first defined in 1870 at the First Vatican Council and then further defined at the Second Vatican council during the 1960s, we have to remind ourselves when reading about bold statements of opposition to the pope from history, that those dissenters were not writing about the doctrine as defined today, in fact in most cases what they were historically opposing was concurred by the church during the First and Second Vatican councils (more on that below). In history, traditional opposition to the bishop of Rome, rested on his temporal ability to make or end monarchs through out Christian Europe, to forgive regicide and to control the public decisions of catholic secular leaders– all items which were defined by the First and Second Vatican councils as in fact falling outside of the authority of the bishop of Rome.

Protestants the world over generally disregard the doctrine of papal infallibility based on a few common points:

  1. The Roman church relies on a overly literal reading of Matthew 16:18 (when Jesus apparently called Peter the Rock upon which He will build His church). James Robert White points out that in the passage Peter is the second person “you” but that “this rock” (being in the third person), refers to Christ. Protestants read Matthew 16:18 as Christ telling Peter that He is the Rock and Peter (along with the other apostles) is laid upon it to build the church
  2. Protestants point out that this interpretation of Scripture was supported by Saint Augustine of Hippo when he wrote, “on this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built.” (On the Gospel of John Tractate 12435)
  3. Protestants understand “the keys” mentioned by Christ in Matthew 16:19 to be the Word of God which ties in with instructions given to Timothy by Saint Paul regarding the defense of the true gospel accounts by apostles
  4. Reading Luke 22:32 when Jesus prays for Peter’s faith to be returned and strengthened, Protestants assert that infallibility cannot possibility rest with Peter as that would make the prayers of Christ regarding his faith redundant and pointless
  5. Protestants maintain that Peter’s prominence in the Book of Acts is overplayed by Roman Catholics. A reading of Acts as a whole together with the epistles presents a division within the church between Peter and Paul over the admission of Gentiles. During the First Council of Jerusalem, Protestants agree that it appears Peter rose to make final judgement, but the debate leading up to the council played out between Peter and Paul in their letters. Many times Paul rebukes Peter for not accepting Gentiles into the Christian faith as Christ directed. Protestants assert that it is Paul who takes center stage during the Acts of the Apostles and any inclusion of Peter is done to justify Paul’s position of authority among the Christians (many times Paul appeals to how he has the same powers and Spirit as Peter despite not being a direct witness of the life of Jesus Christ)
  6. Protestants point out that no formal Jewish magisterium existed and yet the faith endured for over a thousand years before Christ, Protestants use this historical fact to point out that the Roman Catholic teaching is a new doctrine (more on ‘new doctrines’ will come in the third installment, in this argument Protestants are pulling from the catholic playbook, and it gets a little awkward because of that)
  7. Protestants sift through history and point out several occasions when popes have spoke heresy (as recognized by the Roman church herself today, see mention above about temporal authorities of the pope) and use this to refute the claim that the pope alone is infallible. Specifically, Protestants will ascribe little weight to a pope stepping in to avoid heresy on the grounds that heresy was avoided because the opinion of the pope prevailed, Protestants consider this to be a cyclical argument that is illogical and has absolutely no direct Scripture to back it up
  8. Protestants point out that the Roman claim that monarchical leadership by an infallible pope as being inevitable within the universal church (or the more secular argument that any large organization needs decisive and clear leadership) as being directly contrary to Scripture where the church hierarchy is explained in a more local manner with deacons, priests and bishops (Titus 1:5-7, see also Saint Ignatius of Antioch quote in previous series posts)
  9. Protestants argue that over the entire history of the church, papal infallibility/supremacy lacked universal or widespread acceptance in the Christian world (even within the Roman church herself) which supports the claim that there is a lack of scriptural and historical basis for the doctrine itself. This was the issue addressed by Cardinal Newman in his quote about doctrine not being defined until it has been violated, but a historical review of how the First Vatican Council came to discuss papal authority will reveal that it was on the suspicion by church authorities that Pope Pius IX had overstepped his own authority in unilaterally ruling in favour of the Franciscan view of the Immaculate Conception of Mary over the Dominican view within the church which makes Newman’s casual observation about the defining pre-existing doctrine a little rich, considering the subject was the potential violator in this instance

A simple statement to capture the Protestant position concerning the Roman doctrine of supremacy of the pope can be summed up thus: it is not supported in Scripture or the historical record. They claim that the Roman church relies on a overly literal reading of certain passages of the gospels in order to justify a position of leadership for Peter above the others. Furthermore, they assert that claims to papal supremacy have more to do with secular issues than any ecclesiastical ones (this is supported historically, in that no pope has ever had to exercise papal authority to keep bishops from erring against the Creeds, it has always been done when theological questions fell along potentially new doctrine development, for example asserting the Immaculate Conception of Mary).

Individual Protestant churches have articulated their position on papal authority via various statements of faith or articles of faith. Again, we have to keep in mind that more often than not however, these articles were composed well before 1870 and therefore are not direct objections to how we view the papacy today, but to the clear abuses of papal authority that even the Roman church acknowledges today (no reasonable catholic argues that the pope has the authority to make or break world leaders or demand that a catholic government official does something).

The Anglican Church articulates her position against papal authority in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (which according to Anglo-Catholics contains nothing which is contrary to true catholic teaching):

XIX. Of the Church. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils. General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Note how the Anglican Church acknowledges that councils and the faithful are subject to err and that they have erred in the past but that the metric for determining the error was not a secular office, but the Word of God itself.

John Wesley amended the Anglican Articles of Faith for use by Methodists. The Methodist Articles of Faith are similar to the Thirty-Nine Articles but omit the lamenting about councils being in error in the past, or capable of error in general.

V. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation..

Reformed churches and Presbyterian churches reject papal infallibility outright. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was meant to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith in 1646, outright call the pope the ‘anti-Christ’:

(Chapter one) IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

(Chapter one) X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

(Chapter Twenty-Five) VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

Evangelical and Pentecostal churches all reject the authority of the Pope. As does the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witness. These churches tend to oppose the pope along the same theological lines as the Methodists (going so far as to call the pope the anti-Christ and ascribe heinous intentions regarding its formation).

The next installment of our series will cover the authority of Rome from the catholic perspective. It will require the reader to divorce the concepts of Roman and catholic and to understand them as two separate things. We will cover the position of the Orthodox churches, the Old Catholics and the Anglican Catholic perspective. To get the brain working before that installment is released, I leave you with this article from the 1860 edition of Keenan’s Catechism which was widely in use across England, Scotland and Wales within Roman Catholic schools (it was approved for use after being found to contain no catholic doctrinal error):

(Q.) Must not Catholics believe the Pope himself to be infallible?

(A.) This is a Protestant invention: it is no article of the Catholic faith: no decision of his can oblige under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body, that is by the bishops of the Church.

9 thoughts on “Authority of Rome: A Protestant Perspective

  1. EJ,

    Wow, there is a lot of information here. I know there are at least a few things that I could work on offering objections to, but I’m assuming that this format is meant to be informative primarily. But just in case, for clarification… Are there any of these 9 Protestant objections listed here that you find reasonable and personally would support against Rome’s claims of authority?



    • Protestants point out that this interpretation of Scripture was supported by Saint Augustine of Hippo when he wrote, “on this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built.” (On the Gospel of John Tractate 12435)

      Reading Luke 22:32 when Jesus prays for Peter’s faith to be returned and strengthened, Protestants assert that infallibility cannot possibility rest with Peter as that would make the prayers of Christ regarding his faith redundant and pointless

      Protestants point out that no formal Jewish magisterium existed and yet the faith endured for over a thousand years before Christ, Protestants use this historical fact to point out that the Roman Catholic teaching is a new doctrine (more on ‘new doctrines’ will come in the third instalment, in this argument Protestants are pulling from the catholic playbook, and it gets a little awkward because of that)

      Those are the three points that stood out for when I did my research in terms of being somewhat new concepts for me that I would like to explore further. We already kind of talked about the overplayed role of the Rock statement by Jesus and Peter’s role in Acts. That will be examined further from a catholic perspective in the next post.

      The prayer in Like 22:32 is interesting but also an over literal reading of the prayer from Christ. Even if the pope is infallible, I would think that he would need prayers (and does indeed humbly request those prayers from the faithful often). But the substance of the prayer is for Peter to return to the faith which indicates the possibility of error on the part of the very Rock the Romans are claiming possessed infallibility. That kind of ties in with the arguments that Paul talks about he had with Peter over accepting Gentiles (2 Gal 2:14-21). I would like to explore this more to be wholly honest.


      • Some thoughts on Augustine, about whom I’m not a scholar at all. I must rely on others. (Is there anyone in the world who has read everything Augustine wrote?)

        Fr. Joe Heschmeyer wrote this regarding Augustine’s view of the papacy.

        “Finally, I should note two things. First, in various writings, St. Augustine equated the Rock with Peter (individually), with Peter’s faith, and with Christ. So you can proof-text Augustine for anything on this point. At a minimum, Augustine didn’t find Peter’s confession ‘obviously the only reasonable interpretation,’ since he suggested two alternative interpretations.

        “Second and more importantly, there’s no question that Augustine still believed that Christ founded the papacy with Peter as the first pope, and that this papacy continued in Rome. So to take his exegesis of Mt. 16 in this way isn’t faithful to his own views on the papacy. That’s poor Patristics. I know it’s a popular Protestant meme, but I think it’s a misleading one.”

        In another place (which I don’t have the reference right now) Heschmeyer suggested the Rock in Matthew 16 was both Peter and his faith. Bible passages have deeper layers and there need not be one-and-only-one application for verses. We’re not Fundamentalists.

        Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Rock in Matthew 16 as Peter in one place (CCC 552) and his faith in another (CCC 424).

        I just figured these points were important to add to the discussion.

        God bless!


  2. EJ,

    Also, if I may add a question along with my previous… Since you mentioned the 39 Articles, I’m wondering whether you personally subscribe to them as as part of catholic beliefs. I guess I have an overall dilemma with your non-Roman Catholicism concept. Even if we avoid Protestantism as a basis we are still left with the need to determine for ourselves what our sources of authority are, much like the Protestants do… And then wrestle with how much we “require” others to accept the authority we have chosen in order to be counted among the truest version of Christianity. For me, it’s “I am in communion with Rome and accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church 100%” and that’s it. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Now let me be clear that any of the RC beliefs can amd should be tested, but my point is that it makes sense that God would have it set up in a way that we don’t need to sit around like the Protestants do and basically say “I’ll take a little of this and a little of that and I have determined that this is accurate and that isn’t [based on my own personal authority as pope of myself and anyone who will listen].” You know what I mean? Hopefully I’m not being unfair.

    I’m looking forward to your next post on the branch theory, but I am specifically curious about these overall concepts as well. I know you might be busy and that’s cool.

    Blessings my friend.



    • I distance myself on purpose when I wrote that Anglo-Catholics themselves see no contradiction between true catholic teaching and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith. Personally, I have not explored them in depth at this point to argue that there are no contradictions– I’d also consider myself entirely unqualified to even judge that. But I can say that I do not find myself disagreeing on the face of the Articles themselves– I do not find anything glaringly heretical about them.

      I do agree with you one hundred per cent on your assessment of protestantism. I hope that you would see me separating the installations on the authority of Rome by Roman, Protestant and Catholic as being an indication that I myself do not subscribe to general protestant ideology and thinking. I do not accept sola scriptura and I believe in a hierarchical church (Deacons, Priests, Bishops) under apostolic succession, united as one church (the Body of Christ, with Christ as her head entirely and fully), holy and most of all catholic (universal, meant for all) church. When it comes to “I’ll take this and leave that” I think that is something that happens in all churches. I know many Roman Catholics who would roll into church on Christmas and Easter, consume the Eucharist and never have church or religion in their lives in between. It is hard to land that fault on any particular church– backsliding is backsliding.


      • EJ,

        Oh yes I wholeheartedly acknowledge your efforts to educate on the different positions as a separate thing from your own position, especially in regard to Protestantism. I was just curious in a more specific way to get a better idea of what you personally hold to, such as with the 39 Articles. I’m not super familiar with them either but I’m trying to get an idea of where you stand on this issue of Rome compared with “regular” (shall we say?) Anglicans.

        Regarding the “I’ll take this and leave that” concept… I think the difference in the comparison lies in one type of person doing what they feel like despite the established belief system they claim to be a part of telling them to act differently, vs. another person deciding for themselves what their belief system is and tailoring it more to their preferences. That’s the difference between a “cafeteria Catholic” in the Roman Church vs. the example I was referring to in my previous comment. In short, there’s a difference between breaking clear rules and making up your own.

        To be clear, I totally acknowledge your view of bishops, hierarchy, apostolic succession, etc. But when the buck stops with Rome it’s possible to nail things down with more clarity for everyone. And that reminds me… I would like to make sure it’s clear that the Roman Catholic Church is intended for every single person on earth. It’s not some kind of exclusive club or something.

        I appreciate our similarities very much! And I very much appreciate your willingness to see where I come from and what I’m trying to share. I think that further conversation can be very helpful to both of us.



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