Sunday, March 07, 2004

Papal Primacy

Papal Primacy and a Bishop Among Bishops

In the first place, therefore, let us show from the [holy] Gospel that the Roman bishop is not by divine right above [cannot arrogate to himself any supremacy whatever over] other bishops and pastors.

I unqualifiably testify that I subscribe to this statement of Melanchthon's in The Power and Primacy of the Pope . I find M's arguments convincing, his citation of Scripture and Church Fathers compelling, and believe that adherence in practice to this theological assertion would benefit the church of Christ.

I have several reasons for this testimony. The list in the treatise is itself worth re-reading, but here I will give my own reasons. First, many theologians whom I respect that seek to lift up both the clear Lutheran witness as well as respect for the office of ministry, in spite of their valuing of the office of bishop, find the current primacy of the pope problematic. Second, the pope's authority in the West is a stumbling block for rapprochement with the Eastern Church. One answer to the question, "When might Lutherans faithfully return to the Roman Catholic church?" might be, "When the schism between east and west ends." Third, elevating the pope above all other bishops is not in keeping with the historic role Peter played in relation to the other apostles.

I do believe there is wiggle room here, at least at the hermeneutical level. For example, when Christ says, "Upon this rock I will build my church," certainly he is speaking, as the reformers attest, about the faith of Peter. It is Peter who says, "You are the Christ." It is this faith upon which the church is founded. But it is also true that Peter is Cephas, and some there is space for our understanding or recognizing Peter as special, as somehow representative of the apostles in a kind of figurative headship.

The other compelling text is Christ from the cross, who says, "Woman, here is your son. Son, here is your mother." He is speaking of Mary and Peter. This passage is stunning, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the passing on of sonship from Jesus to Peter. Mary, the Theotokos, now has a new son, Peter, and Peter now has as his mother the Theotokos. We speak of the church as the body of Christ, but at least here we also need understand the body of Christ as that which is born into the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is the church. And here, as elsewhere, Peter stands in for the church more generally.

Which is not to say that he has primacy or power which he can lord over others. Rather, Peter is the son, grafted into the family, and, as one apostle among many, representative of the inheritance that comes to all the apostles. In this sense, we can say that the bishop in Rome who is especially connected to Peter, has a special place in the church, but just that a special place in the church, not over the church. This is best attested in the NT by Paul's relationship to Peter. Our 13th apostle, Paul, does not need to be given authority through Peter, for he receives it directly from Christ. This is important, but it does not take Peter's special place away.

What then is the proper relationship between the pope and the church? The pope is the bishop of Rome, for one. He is the bishop who faithfully lays claim to the Petrine office. He is a bishop among bishops. But his witness would better serve the church if he would serve the church in the same way Peter did, rather than as a king among beggars. Well, I don't know if this is the proper image. But it at least speaks the challenge in metaphorical terms.

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