Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.19: Primacy of the Pope

Nineteenth Question: Is the Roman pope the successor of Peter in a monarchy or ecumenical pontificate? We deny.

At every turn, we’ve seen Turretin leave open the theoretical possibility that Peter was accorded certain honors or excellences. But he has also consistently maintained that such things don’t translate into the sort of position and authority claimed by and for the pope in the early modern period. Here Turretin clarifies the logic that governs his thinking on this: “the pope cannot be the successor of Peter, whatever privilege he [Peter] may have obtained, because it was extraordinary and special (which could not pass over to others)” (18.19.1). In other words, positions or offices are the sort of thing that can be handed to successors, while personal excellences are not—they pertain to the individual only. Of course, no point is properly made unless Turretin can show that Bellarmine is confused and self-contradictory on the matter (18.19.2).

Turretin isn’t done making this point, however. The pope can be Peter’s successor in two ways: first, as successor to the ministry that is common to all the church’s ministers or, second, as successor to the unique ministry of the apostolate. Oh, but before you get your hopes up, remember that the apostolate was an extraordinary and temporary ministry that doesn’t exist anymore. So it has to be the first option. In which case, all ministers are Peter’s successors. Tidy little argument, this (18.19.3).

Besides, tradition says that Peter was also bishop of Antioch, so maybe the bishops there are his legitimate successors. And the tradition is pretty confused over the exactly line of succession in Rome, and that creates problems (18.19.6). But even if these things can be resolved, you still have the problem of demonstrating that the bishop of Rome as successor of Peter was a universal pontiff. In fact, many arguments “are at hand by which it is proved that he was anything but a universal pontiff” in the first centuries of the church’s existence. Allow me to enumerate them:

  1. There’s a bunch of canons from the early ecumenical councils that articulate a basic equality between the various patriarchs, even if there are also some ordered relationships between them in terms of jurisdiction (18.19.7).
  2. Speaking of councils, you’d think that if the church had a universal (ecumenical) monarch then that universal monarch would be the one responsible for calling together the ecumenical councils. But you’d be wrong! Those councils were actually convened by — wait for it — the various emperors! “From this it is perfectly plain that the right to convoke councils belonged not to the Roman bishops, but to the emperors.” And sure, the pope called a number of councils in the High Middle Ages, but those can hardly be called ecumenical (18.19.8).
  3. Furthermore, a bunch of councils and synods forbade appeals of judgments rendered under one patriarch to the authority of another, and a number of these are specifically aimed at keeping folks in the Greek-speaking church from appealing to Latin-speaking Rome (18.19.9).
  4. In certain cases when confirmation or legal second opinions were needed, cases pertaining to the see of Rome were tried on appeal by other bishops. Those of you who know your church history may remember Donatus, who appealed the judgment rendered by the bishop of Rome to the bishop of Arles. And then the same case was appealed to the emperor (18.19.10).
  5. There are also records of people disagreeing with the bishop of Rome. Turretin highlights the case of Cyprian, that venerable North African bishop of the 3rd century, who “dealt with Stephen [the bishop of Rome] as with a brother, not with a prince or universal lord, and thought that no absurdity would be perpetrated by him, if he would not only dissent from, but rebuke him” (18.19.11).
  6. Back to the emperors, they installed and deposed bishops in Rome with some regularity, thus demonstrating their superior jurisdiction (18.19.12).
  7. The bishop of Rome and all the other bishops in the earlier centuries addressed each other in collegial ways that demonstrated parity in a shared ministry (18.19.13).

Following this enumeration of arguments, Turretin summarizes by saying that the pope is the successor of Peter neither de jure (by right) nor de facto (in fact). As to succession by right, (a) you’d think Christ would have said something about it, (b) if they needed a successor of Peter they would likely have selected the apostle John who outlived Peter, and (c) someone who wanted to succeed Peter would have to actually “perform the duties of Peter, such as to feed the sheep of Christ, to teach the word and other similar duties.” But the pope doesn’t do this, as far as Turretin’s concern. The same thing goes for Christ, of course, with reference to one of the pope’s most exalted titles: “Nor can he be called a vicar of Christ who either denies or does not perform the functions of Christ in preaching the gospel committed to him.” Oh, and you can’t just pay someone else to do this stuff for you (18.19.14). As to succession by fact, (a) the people living in Rome originally picked their bishop but why should they get to pick the universal pontiff?, (b) the line of succession is confused, (c) there’s “no trace . . . of this universal pontificate” in the early centuries (as previously enumerated; 18.19.15).

We shouldn’t get the wrong idea and think that Turretin is entirely against succession. In fact, he thinks that “succession is necessary in the church.” But the succession that Turretin has in mind is “not of place, or of persons and of the extraordinary apostolic office”; instead, this is a succession “of doctrine and of the common and pastoral ministry.” The church has always needed and will always need ministers, but not all of the offices in the church are perpetual. Some are temporary and aimed at particular needs, such as the offices of apostle and evangelist (18.19.16). To jump back a bit, Turretin identifies four qualities that are unique to the apostolic office: (a) their doctrine is infallible and (b) their ministry is universal because (c) they were witnesses to Christ’s life and resurrection and (d) the power of their ministry was demonstrated through miracles (18.19.3). That bit about being witnesses rules out any ministers in later generations, regardless of what you think about the quality of doctrine or universality of ministry or miracles you think might be involved.

Consequently, “there should be a perpetual succession of pastors. But this succession is not tied down to one see or to any particular person” (18.19.17). And Turretin draws from this a point that contemporary Protestant ecumenicists should keep in mind: “The unity of the church does not depend upon its external form of polity, for it was one from the beginning, but not governed in one way” (18.19.16). In other words, the unity of the church is tied to the perpetual succession of pastors, and not to a particular external form of government.

There’s always more to say about Turretin, but in closing I want to highlight that he argues once again that if you’re inclined to look for a particular see to invest with priority, you can do much worse than Jerusalem since “the church of Jerusalem is called ‘the mother of all’” (18.19.22). Besides, the church in Rome, and later in Constantinople, only became important because it was the seat of empire (18.19.18).


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