In 2013, the Vatican Information Service announced: “Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S. J., has been elected as Supreme Pontiff, the 265th successor of Peter.” The belief that Jesus started the Catholic church is based on apostolic succession – that a succession of Popes have descended from apostle Peter to the current Pope. Catholics believe all other churches cannot even be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense because they do not have this.
The idea that Peter was “the first pope” from whom a dynasty of popes emerged has no support in the Bible. In the absence of Biblical evidence, Catholic apologists clutch at early church history, employing tricks to make it validate their position. In a debate between Dave Hunt and Karl Keating titled, “Was the Early Church Catholic?” Mr Keating cited patristic works to support apostolic succession and papal primacy but his quotes were out of context. Here are 2 examples:
He said: “Clement, the 4th bishop of Rome, writing to the Corinthians in the year 96 said: ‘Our apostles appointed those who had already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that if they were to die, other approved men should succeed in their ministry.”
This quote was taken is from 1 Clement 44 and he omitted a sentence:
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.”
Notice that plural appointed ministers were referred to here. The “office of the episcopate” refers to bishops or overseers (Gr: episcopois) which is synonymous with elders (Gr: presbuterous). See Acts 14:23, 20:17, 28, Tit 1:5-7, Phil 1:1, 1Pet 5:1-5.
He also quoted Irenaeus: “It is necessary to obey those as we have shown have succession from the apostles, those who have received with the succession of the episcopate…”
This was taken Against Heresies 3:3:1 “It is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the church – those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the Apostles. For those presbyters, together with the succession of bishops…”
Again, the source refers to presbyters/elders, not a pope. Both citations do not support his claims. This is one of the shortcomings of oral debates – a person can easily sway the audience with misquotes, rhetoric or body language. In a written debate, such slyness will not work. This is not a matter of being an erudite scholar. You can be a genius of all time, but if facts and truth are not on your side, you can be defeated by an infant who knows the truth.
Why apostolic succession is false
1. It is based on false assumptions. Catholics who try to make a case for apostolic succession have a whole set of unproven axioms which colour their view of Scripture and history. They:
a) assume Peter resided in Rome. If 1 Pet. 5:13 proves he was in Rome, then 1Cor. 1:12, 9:5 would also prove he was in Corinth. Neither passages prove he was resident in Rome.
b) assume Peter was the bishop of Rome. An apostle is a “sent one” and it differs from the office of a bishop. Being an apostle is analogous to being a prophet; it is a calling, not an office. That Peter was an apostle doesn’t automatically make him a bishop.
c) assume Peter was the first bishop of Rome who started the church of Rome. The early Roman churches (note the plural) were house churches made up of Jewish or Gentile members or both (Rom. 16:5, Acts 18:2). Peter didn’t start the church of Rome.
d) assume Peter was the “only” bishop of Rome. This is refuted by the fact that New Testament church leadership was pluralistic, not monarchical. A plurality of bishops (pastor/elders) presided over a local church. Whenever Catholics come across the word “bishop” in patristic works, they read their own idea of a monarchical prelacy into it whereas the idea of a single bishop presiding over a plurality of churches was not the early model.
e) assume Peter ordained a successor. He didn’t. Even if he ordained a candidate, that would make him a pastor, not a pope. Popes are elected, not ordained. If the apostles appointed pastors or elders, that doesn’t really make them successors. Ordination entails a succession in teaching, not a succession in authority. Take note also, that while Mathias was chosen to replace Judas, no one was chosen to replace James (Acts 12:1).
2. The belief is hinged on doubtful sources.
Irenaeus’ listings of bishops is said to be the “list of popes” who succeeded Peter. He listed Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter and Eleutherius (Against Heresies 3:3:4). First of all, the term “pope” or “papa” was generally used for all bishops from the 3rd century. It wasn’t until 1079 AD that the title was reserved for the bishop of Rome, so it’s anachronistic to use this list as a proof of papal succession.
Second, Irenaeus places Paul and Peter together as bishops without saying anything about the primacy of Peter. This list was compiled by Hegesippus and there was a reason it was presented:
“The first claim to a succession from the apostles in support of particular doctrines was made in the second century by the Gnostics…Hegesippus, an opponent of Gnosticism, compiled a list of bishops in Rome (Eusebius, H. F. 4.22.5f). Irenaeus of Lyons drew on the idea of the succession of bishops to formulate an orthodox response to the Gnostic claim of a secret tradition going back to the apostles” (Everett F. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 1999, 94-95).
Ireneaus’ list contradicts that of Tertullian (Praescriptione, xxii) in which Clement comes after apostle Peter. Interestingly, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about “pope” Linus:
” We cannot be positive whether this identification of the pope as being the Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21 goes back to an ancient and reliable source, or originated later on account of the similarity of the name … The dates given in this catalogue, A.D. 56 until A.D. 67, are incorrect . Perhaps…Linus had held the position of head of the Roman community during the life of the Apostle … But this hypothesis has no historical foundation …The “Liber Pontificalis” asserts that Linus’ home was in Tuscany, and that his father’s name was Herculanus; but we cannot discover the origin of this assertion.”
The Vatican has published conflicting lists of popes from Peter which had to be revised. The earliest list is from the Liber Pontificalis (presumably first composed in the 6th century), yet even the New Catholic Encyclopedia says:
“But it must be frankly admitted that bias or deficiencies in the sources make it impossible to determine in certain cases whether the claimants were popes or antipopes” (1967, 1:632). The truth is, the Catholic “church” is yet to verify an accurate and complete list of the popes. The so-called “unbroken line of succession back to Peter” is pure fiction.
3. The nature of papal successions.
For apostolic succession to occur, each pope must choose his own successor and personally lay hands on him and ordain him. This was how Paul and Barnabas were appointed before they were sent forth by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:3). Timothy’s appointment to the ministry was also by the elders laying hands on him (1Tim. 4:14). This biblical procedure is never followed with regard to successors of Catholic popes or bishops. Papal succession has most often followed ungodly procedures:
a) Many popes were installed by political intrigues. During the Middle Ages, the papacy was owned by powerful families (e.g the Caetani, Conti, Orsini, Colonna etc). Pope Boniface VII, a Caetani, had to battle the Colonna to remain in power. In 1303, he was seized by the emissaries of Philip the Fair of France and Rome fell into French possession. As a result, the papacy was moved to France, and from 1309-77, the popes were French and resided at Avignon.
“From the 4th to the 11th century, the influence of temporal rulers in papal elections reached its zenith. Not only the Roman emperors, but also, in their turn, the Ostrogoth kings…attempted to control the selection of Roman pontiff. This civil intervention ranged from the approval of elected candidates to the actual nomination of candidates (with tremendous pressure exerted on the electors to secure their acceptance) and even to the extreme of forcible deposition and imposition.” (Cath. Ency. 11:572b)
That pagan rulers rigged papal elections proved that the popes weren’t chosen by the Holy Spirit.
b) Many popes bought the papal seat. Wealthy candidates bought their way to popehood (simony) or bribed their opponents to step down. Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) bought the papal throne with “villas, towns and abbeys…[and] four mule-loads of silver to his greatest rival, Cardinal Sforza, to induce him to step down” (Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, 1988, 104).
The papal throne was so commercialized that John XII became pope at 16 and Benedict IX at 11, because their families were wealthy. As a Catholic historian notes “the Apostolic throne… was now bought and sold like a piece of merchandise.” When Benedict IX was tired of being pope and was eager to devote himself to his favourite lover, he sold the papacy for 1500 pounds of gold to his godfather, Giovanni Gratiano, who then became pope in 1054 under the name Gregory VI. Apostolic succession? No.
c) Many became popes through violence and murder. Gregory of Tusculum, a powerful warlord, used the power of the sword to install 3 of his sons and a grandson (one succeeding the other) as popes. When Pope Benedict IX fled his papal chair, John, bishop of the Sabine hills, entered Rome and installed himself as pope Sylvester III (1045). Then Benedict stormed back overpowered him and ruled again as pope (Dave Hunt, A Woman rides the Beast, 1994, 106). It is a mockery to call this “apostolic succession.”
In the 9th century, “popes scrambled onto the bloodstained [papal] throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks – or even days – before being hurled themselves into their own graves” (E. R. Chamberlin, The Bad Popes, 1969, 21). Pope Alexander V (1409-10) who was notably attended to by 300 females in his regal palace, was poisoned to death by Baldassare Cossa who then became Pope John XXIII.
At a point, there were 3 popes ruling over different portions of Rome which their private army controlled, until Emperor Henry III marched into Rome with his army and presided over a synod that deposed all three “popes” and installed Clement II, his own choice.
d) Papal succession has been influenced by sex. No less than 6 popes (e.g Pope Anastasius, Pope Lando etc) were put in their offices by a mother-and-daughter pair of prostitutes. A historian notes that:
“The influence of two prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues. The most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre…The bastard son, the grandson, and the great grandson of Marozia – a rare genealogy – were seated in the Chair of St. Peter” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1830, xlix).
That harlots – Theodora and Marozia – determined who became pope disproves apostolic succession. Marozia’s grandson, Octavian, also became John XII – a pope so obsessed with illicit sex that he was killed by a husband who caught him having sex with his wife!
4. The holy order quicksand
Only a valid priest can be a valid bishop and then become a valid pope. I use the word “valid” because there are certain conditions which can invalidate a person from receiving a lawful holy order. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (7:89) states that “the lawful reception of Orders demands outstanding and habitual goodness of life, especially perfect chastity . Solid possession of this latter virtue is an indispensable condition of clerical vocation and its presence must be positively evident.”
How can a person’s “habitual goodness” be verified? Do they read the minds of the candidates? How can “perfect chastity” be “positively evident” in males (since females don’t become popes)? How do they prove male virginity? Can you see the quicksand here?
The person administering the holy orders must also meet up with certain conditions: “the sanctity and dignity of the sacrament [of holy orders] demands for lawful and worthy administration that the minister be in a state of grace, free of ecclesiastical penalties” (Ibid, 7:88a).
How many priests or bishops, from the medieval period to this present day, meet up to all these conditions? By Rome’s own standards, there is a high probablity that they have been electing anti-popes!
When we also consider the fact that many popes were heretics, this automatically breaks the link in the apostolic succession chain. And if just one papal link is “missing” – whether by dubious records, political, sexual or simoniacal ascension to the papal seat – then the whole “unbroken chain of apostolic succession” becomes a grievious lie! Why Rome’s apologists still defend this falsehood was summed up by Ignatius of Loyola:
“That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner pronounce it black” (Rules for Thinking with the Church, Rule 13).
In God’s kingdom, however, truth is more important, and only those who love and embrace the truth will be set free (John 8:32).