Sunday, August 08, 2010

St. Peter's Primacy: Another Futile anti-Catholic Argument

So this time my anti-Catholic friends have suggested that St. Peter could not have been pre-eminent (and thus papal authority spurious) because he refused to let anyone bow before him and that he was a "fellow elder". The sources of these argument comes from Acts 10 (Cornelius calls for Peter) and First Peter (To Elders and Young Men):

"And it came to pass, that when Peter was come in, Cornelius came to meet him, and falling at his feet adored. But Peter lifted him up, saying: Arise, I myself also am a man." - Acts 10:25-26

"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed... not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." - 1 Peter 5:1, 3 (NIV)

Any time an anti-Catholic presents a very limited scope with their argument (i.e. one or two verses at a time; "cherry-picking" scripture), you have to get them to read the bits around what they're using. In other words, it is necessary to read verse(s) in context (remember: a text without a context is a pretext).

So then, Acts 10 in context...

The question you'd first need to ask the anti-Catholic presenting this argument is why Cornelius called for Peter in the first place. The answer's right there in the first few verses of Acts 10 but encourage them to do the reading anyway. Once they've given you the answer (an angel of God appeared unto Cornelius and instructed him to seek out Peter) you could then ask why Cornelius was instructed to seek out Peter and not any other of the apostles, but that's a different matter all together; we're addressing the "bowing" thing.

It's important to note that Cornelius was "seized with fear" (Acts 10:4) and had been given an instruction by God via an angel to seek out a specific individual. Think of the significance of that for a second: God, essentially, is asking a man to seek out Peter! Now, if God asked you to seek out someone, you'd think they were pretty important, right? Wouldn't you be pleased to see the guy when he came through your door? And yes: you could excuse Cornelius for bowing before a man that God had asked him to seek out!

Peter did tell Cornelius to get up, but it's what he says after this that bears great significance: "I myself also am a man". Peter, being a humble man as a good pope should be, was quite likely embarrassed (i.e. abashed) by this greeting and since Christians were still being publicly persecuted (this went on until the fourth century), he probably didn't want to draw an unnecessary attention to himself. It wasn't like Peter was chastising Cornelius for bowing before him either. Cornelius bowed before Peter as a sign of respect and you could argue out of reverence: this was the man an angel of God had told him to seek out after all and I don't seem to recall the angel of God telling Cornelius to not greet Peter with any respect or reverence and that doing so would be offensive to God.

It is also worthwhile to note that this - Acts 10:25-26 - is the only instance in scripture where someone has "bowed" before Peter followed by Peter's instruction to "get up". Remember: there's nothing wrong with greeting someone with respect; bowing does not necessarily equate to worship as anti-Catholics may think it does.

So what about Peter referring to himself as a "fellow elder" (1 Peter 5:1, 3)? The suggestion is that by referring to himself as a "fellow elder", that this immediately negates any notion of primacy or eminence (and thus the primacy and eminence of the papacy). This is actually an easier argument to rebut; there's no need for a full exegesis of the chapter, but a simple reading between the lines. Consider this first: when the president of the United States of America addresses the American people by beginning with, "My fellow Americans..." does this negate his leadership and make his eminence void? Sure, it would if you followed the logic of the anti-Catholic. By the president referring to himself as a "fellow American" and not as "the president of the United States of America" this would mean he could not be speaking with any authority or as an authoritative figure. We know this is complete rubbish; it is flawed logic. The president of the United States of America can address the American people both as an American citizen and as their leader. In the same way, Peter can address other elders both as an elder himself and as an elder of the elders; the eminent elder.

The next consideration of the "fellow elder" argument is the elephant in the room that anti-Catholics miss, and it's hard to believe that they could miss something so obvious... then again if you're looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, then everything will appear not as it is.

We read about this "fellow elder" business in St. Peter's epistle (a letter) to fellow elders. What is St. Peter doing in this particular letter? He's instructing them; guiding them. This is evident throughout the chapter:

"Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve..." - 1 Peter  3:2

"Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." - 1 Peter 3:5-9

"Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ." - 1 Peter 3:14

Now isn't usually the job of the leader to instruct and guide? Now the anti-Catholic might argue that this was indicative of St. Paul as well - an eminent member of the early church instructing Christian communities - but then again St. Paul wasn't appointed by Christ himself to be the rock, the foundation of the visible church (Matthew 16:18). Even among elders there is an elder of elders; a leader of leaders.

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Would you like to know what the Early Church Fathers thought about the primacy of St. Peter? Check this out:

I would also highly recommend reading Steve Ray's book on the primacy of St. Peter, Upon This Rock.

God bless.


  1. While I have my own arguments for why there was no pope in the early church, the points you make here are valid enough.

    However, it's clear enough from this Scripture and others that neither popes nor anyone else should be letting people bow to them the way Cornelius did to Peter.

  2. Bowing is not to be equated to worship, and this should be kept in mind by whoever it is greeting the pope (or a bishop or cardinal for that matter) and those observing (witnessing) these greetings.

    There is, however, a particular etiquette to be observed when meeting anyone of eminence, whether it be the queen of England, a head of state, a person of another culture (namely Oriental cultures), etc. We follow this etiquette not because of any means to "worship", but because it's the proper and respectful thing to do.


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