Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 21, 1969
NUMBER 16, PAGE 1-3,7

But Is The Roman Church Apostolic?

David Baxter

In the happiness of better Catholic-Protestant relations and the exploration of possible avenues to unity, we need not lose sight of the need for critical examination. To do so is to go in for mutual adulation while omitting anything critical — and that can be disastrous.

Probably the most important claim advanced by the Church of Rome in inducing others to join her unity is that she is of apostolic origin. The papal succession follows. Then, since Peter is claimed as the first Bishop of Rome, all that remains is to establish him as "the prince of the Apostles" and all of his successors in the papal "chair of Peter" are princes over other bishops, holding primacy.

This claim carries more weight than many will admit, giving an aura of "validity" to the Roman hierarchy that cannot be claimed by any Protestant denomination. It caused many a would-be reformer who believed it to part company with Martin Luther even though they deplored wholesale apostasy and abuses in their church. Erasmus was a classic example. Later on, the fear of being outside the "true Apostolic religion?' — and being lost thereby — resulted in many defections from the Protestant revolution. Thousands of Anglicans — Catholics with an English accent — never have felt at ease about Henry VIII and succeeding British kings heading the church aloof from the Pope.

Brilliant Anglicans like Bishop Newman, Ronald Knox, G. K. Chesterton and others have been so convinced that an English church could not be beyond the authority of the apostolic-succession Popes that they became Catholics — Newman one of the greatest of cardinals.

And, while Roger Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America in Rhode Island, it is not so well known that he became troubled over the lack of any visible apostolic succession and left his church, remaining a "truth seeker" the rest of his days. Even John Wesley believed his Church of England to be of apostolic origin and, although he founded Methodism as a revivalist movement within the English church, he never would join the Methodist Church when it became independent.

The reason Rome classifies Protestants as heretics and the Eastern Orthodox as schismatic's is because the former broke from Rome's alleged apostolic succession while most of the Orthodox churches were apostle-founded, Rome thus recognizing the validity of their succession. The trouble between them is a split, or schism, not heresy. And the Orthodox think Rome an apostolic succession church, the Greeks especially conceding that St. Peter probably went to Rome. They merely refuse to acknowledge the Roman bishop's sovereignty over theirs. Like supposedly apostolic Rome, the Orthodox do not recognize the validity of the Protestant clergy.

Undoubtedly the reason Luther, Calvin and other Reformers hammered hard on this issue is because they could foresee a time when the Protestant ship would break to pieces on it, with a mass migration back to Rome — unless they and their successors opposed and disproved it. The present intense "apostolic-succession" campaign and the drive to get back in line with this pretended authority fully justifies the apprehension of the Reformers. To quote Luther is considered "unecumenical" today, but he said one thing almost 500 years ago that was indeed prophetic:

"I much marvel that the Pope extols his church at Rome as the chief, whereas the church at Jerusalem is the mother; for there Christian doctrine was first revealed. Next the church at Antioch, whence the Christians have their name. Thirdly was the church at Alexandria; and still before the Romans were the churches of the Galatians, of the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians. Is it so great a matter that St. Peter was at Rome? Which, however, has never yet been proved, nor ever will be, whereas our blessed Savior Christ Himself was at Jerusalem, where all the articles of our Christian faith were made.

One would suppose that a church claiming apostolic succession would have irrefutable proof of it, since this is the main reason for such a church's authority. Intent upon learning the truth about this and obeying it at any cost if established, I myself followed every clue that might prove beyond a reasonable doubt that St. Peter was the chief Apostle and first Bishop of Rome. But I have never uncovered conclusive evidence that Peter was either above other Apostles or that he was ever in Rome, as Luther contended.

I have been surprised at the lack of such proof on the part of top Catholic theologians, who nevertheless constantly repeat — as though it were established fact — that Peter, the "chief Apostle," was the Bishop of Rome for 25 years with the Popes as his successors and princes over all Christians. I raised the subject in discussions with a learned Catholic monsignor friend, wondering if he could present irrefutable arguments on this, the foundation dogma of the whole Roman succession. Frankly, I was amazed at this failure to do so, his total lack of proof and falling back on such weak contentions as that some ancients supposed Peter had been in Rome, with a few Protestant writers admitting such a probability. Actually, the chief ancients who said Peter was in Rome were the Ebionites, whom all historians admit were heretics and prevaricators of the worst type. One lone scriptural reference was given, where Peter in his epistle mentions writing from Babylon, which my monsignor friend claimed meant Rome. The more I pressed the matter, the weaker became the defense of the very first link in the Roman apostolic succession chain. All Scripture is against it, with such noteworthy incidents as Paul's silence in his epistles about having seen any "Pope Peter" during Paul's own years in Rome at the time Peter was alleged to have been ruling the Roman church. Probably the only church Peter really did serve as Bishop, and which the Bible records, was the Church of Antioch. That was a long way from Rome. The Antiochian Orthodox can and do claim apostolic succession from Peter that is far more valid than that of Rome. But the Antiochians do not pretend the slightest primacy over other Christians.

Arguments against Rome having been the "chair of Peter" with succession from him are now considered pass, among Protestants. But this chief Catholic claim, in the drive for unity, is being pressed harder than ever. It is why the Roman brethren, assuming the infallibility of such an apostolic succession, flatly refuse to abolish any doctrine they have added to the original fundamentals, change anything they consider "essential," or accept any definition of mutually-accepted doctrines other than that of their Councils. At the same time they expect Protestants — without an "infallible apostolic succession" — to drop many of their own beliefs and definitions.

With this in mind I took skeptical note of some remarks by a radio speaker suggesting that the present Roman church descends, not from Simon Peter, but from Simon Magus. Yet a little research made this theory more plausible than I supposed — and quite as probable as the Petrine papal succession.

The Bible refers briefly to Simon the sorcerer or Magus in Acts 8:9-24. As a Magus or magician he belonged to the "wise men" or Magi, who were held in superstitious esteem by eastern peoples Some of them brought presents to the infant Jesus. Whose coming and birthplace they knew from the ancient prophecies of Balaam, a chief of the Magi much of which can be found in the book of Numbers.

That Simon was a Magi leader is clear from the Acts account. He claimed the power of God. His being a Samaritan is noteworthy, too, for Samaria is an historic symbol of a union of conflicting religions (see II Kings 17:21-41), as Babylon is symbolical of chaos and confusion. The old Magi mystics, like cryptic cultists of today, had the idea of a universal (catholic) composite religion containing a little of every belief, as can be seen from the II Kings description of Samaria and its mixture of various pagan forms with the apostate religion of the house of Israel.

So Simon the Magus was a universalist or "catholic" in a very exact sense. Mixing Christianity with paganism and the magical arts would be right down his alley. The fact that he still had no real concept of true Christianity and wanted to apply it to magic and mysticism even after his conversion is clear from the Acts story. So he incurred a terrible curse from the Apostle Peter. It was then that he probably became the saint's bitterest enemy.

It was a simple matter for Simon to use the name of Christ to retain his influence over the converted Samaritans and thousands of others in the rising new faith. And it was equally simple for him to avenge himself of Peter by thus posing as a Christian while introducing false, pagan, Magi teachings and practices into the Church, "deceiving, if possible, the very elect."

It is even possible that Simon did, in his efforts to profit from Christianity while harming true apostolic work, pose as Simon Peter in places where Christians had never seen any of the twelve Apostles, particularly among the Greeks and Romans. In Rome, as in Samaria, Simon probably pretended divinity. And, having made himself an "apostle," it is likely that he "ordained" and sent out his own priests to make converts to his paganized "Christianity," building a religious machine with simony a major practice.

Such simony is certainly what Luther first revolted against centuries later, plus heathen doctrines added to Christian ones, pagan rituals "holy days," and priesthoods that continued to offer up Christ's body and blood in Mass sacrifices. One might detect Magi mysticism in such statements as that of Notre Dame's Father John A. O'Brien, in his book, The Faith of Millions, where he says:

"In this essential phase of the sacred ministry (consecrating), the power of the priest is not surpassed by that of the bishop, the archbishop, the cardinal or the Pope. Indeed it is equal to that of Jesus Christ. For in this role the priest speaks with the voice and authority of God Himself.

"When the priest pronounces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of monarchs and emperors, greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Cherubim and Seraphim. It is even greater than the power of the Virgin Mary. For, while the Blessed Virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, the priest brings Christ down from heaven and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal Victim for the sins of man — not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo' Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows His head in humble obedience to the priest's command."

I have always felt that New Testament writers, in issuing warnings against apostasy and falsehood creeping into the Church or masquerading as the "true church," were not only speaking in generalities but also of some specific imitation Christianity and men falsely claiming to be Apostles at that time. One may open the Bible to such warnings as that of Jude 3, 4 about earnestly contending for the true faith because "certain men crept in unawares" loaded with false doctrine. Or Peter's reference to false prophets and teachers and their great followings (II Peter 1:22). Or Paul's alarm over the seduction of Christians (I Timothy 4:1), warning of a false person who would pose as God and fool many with magic (II Thessalonians 2:1,2); of someone perverting the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:7), of false apostles transforming themselves into Christ's apostles (II Corinthians 11:13), exactly as Simon Magus did; of imposters who would masquerade as "ministers of righteousness" in order to make merchandise of Christians; to the Corinthians to be on the lookout for someone coming to them preaching "another Jesus" or "another Gospel" (II Corinthians 11:4), and many similar references, any one of which would easily fit not only counterfeit Christianity in general but specific pretenders like Simon and their clergy.

All of which might be purely coincidental except that in looking up possible evidence I noted the usually reliable Westminster Dictionary of the Bible referred to Simon Magus as, "A sorcerer who so amazed the people of Samaria with his arts that they said, 'This man is of that power of God which is called Great.' He was apparently converted through the instrumentality of Philip the Evangelist, by whom he was baptized. Having subsequently offered to buy with money the privilege of conferring the Holy Spirit on anyone he wished by the imposition of hands, he was sternly rebuked by Peter...Ecclesiastical tradition makes Simon recommence his sorceries and become the persistent antagonist of the Apostle Peter...He is said to have helped originate Gnosticism." There is not proof that Simon Peter, who was not sent to Rome but to the House of Israel, was ever in Rome. But Simon Magus, who cunningly transformed himself into an "apostle," almost certainly was, with Catholic (universal) tradition making the "Apostle Peter" — the one who was in Rome — its first Pope. It is very possible that no Roman Christian had ever seen the real Apostle Peter in far-away Palestine but had heard of his fame. The Magus might even have resembled him. Roman tradition makes this "Peter" to have performed great signs and wonders in Rome, which the Bible says false apostles and sorcerers (Magi) would be quite as capable of as genuine apostles.

Eusebius (260-340 A.D.) the church historian, says in his Church History, Book II, chapter 13, that: "We have understood that Simon was the author of all heresy. From his time down to the present, those who have followed his heresy have feigned the sober philosophy of the Christians... But they nevertheless have embraced again the superstition of idols, which they seemed to have renounced; and they fall down before the pictures and images of Simon himself,.."

Irenaeus (Against Heresies, xxiii, 1.) who lived from 130 to 202 A. D. also writes of Simon Magus: "This man, then, was glorified by many as if he were a god; and he taught that it was himself who appeared among the Jews as the Son, but descended into Samaria as the Father, while he came to other nations in the character of the Holy Spirit." This describes a false apostle who would also pose as God. With his magical "signs and wonders" he could easily have developed a deceived following or "church" in Rome not at all like the original Roman Christians of whom Paul wrote that "Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world."

At least if some Simon is doubtfully claimed as the first Pope, there is no doubt about Clement being the second or third one about 90 A. D. Clement in his Homilies, II, xviii, indicates that Simon Magus was not only before him, but that the sorcerer also admitted to him: "For if he (Magus) were known, he would not be believed; but now, not being known, he is improperly believed; and though his deeds are those of a hater, he is loved; and though an enemy, he is received as a friend; and though he be death, he is desired as a saviour, ... and though a deceiver, he is believed as a speaker of truth."

In view of which we might comment that while it is possible but not probable that Simon Peter was in Rome or the first bishop of the church there, it is highly probable that Simon Magus was.

In which case, what happens to the whole apostolic succession theory and all the authority and validity based on it?

Of one thing we may be sure: Catholic theologians haughtily point to the "human" origins of Protestant churches, like the Methodists coming from Wesley, Presbyterians from Calvin, etc. But their church, they tell us, cannot trace its origin to any human. So it must be divine because its beginning is "lost in the mists of obscurity," as Catholic literature often describes it. Yet this admission that they themselves don't know where it started damages their claim that it began when Jesus founded His Church in Palestine. By admitting ignorance of his church's genesis, the Catholic apologist cannot then deny the potent possibility of its having a human founder in the person of Simon Magus or that it may have been a dual church, a rival or apostate successor or an earlier group of Roman Christians. If Simon Magus was the first Roman bishop, the succession of whatever legitimate origin it may have had stopped right there.

Which does not in any way hamper our modern efforts toward more charity between Catholics and Protestants or our desires to some day behold a united Christianity. What the proposition does do is to put sincere Roman Catholics desiring to faithfully serve the Lord on the same footing as any other nominal Christians by removing their "apostolic succession" priority. It takes Rome out of the "only true, infallible church" category and makes her susceptible to essential as well as non-essential reforms in order to unite with other believers, just as she expects these other bodies to make some concessions and admissions of error in the approach to real unity based, not on human organization, but on truth. At least, since the assertion that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome is at best an unlikely theory and never proved, one may negatively deny it, as Luther did, or more positively present a more likely theory, like the case of Simon Magus. To ever admit the Roman Petrine prince of the apostles — apostolic succession — through Rome theory and accept it as genuine is to leave the Protestant "without a leg to stand on" and no possible alternative, in seeking Christian unity, but to join the Catholic Church without any reservations.

— Route 5, Rogers, Arkansas