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Office of papacy remains point of contention with evangelicals over biblical guidelines

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While the world’s attention focused on the Vatican as a new pope was elected April 19, the evangelical outlook toward the Roman Catholic Church’s top leader stood firm.

Amid expressions of appreciation for the conservative moral views of Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal who was elected as the 265th pope of the Roman church, various evangelical leaders reiterated their disagreement with Catholicism’s papacy from a biblical standpoint.

“Evangelicals do not find any biblical warrant for the office of the papacy or the elaborate structure of the Roman Catholic Church,” Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., told Baptist Press.

“Further, the Catholic system’s emphasis on merit, works salvation and veneration of Mary and the saints are issues that those committed to ‘sola scriptura’ could never endorse or affirm,” Akin continued. “While we can appreciate the moral stand on life and marriage of the papacy, we will resolutely maintain that our High Priest is Jesus Christ in whom we have direct access to the true and living God.”

Mark DeVine, associate professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., noted, “As Protestants and evangelicals, we deny any special authority to the pope or any other religious leader. We insist that all things be tested by Scripture. We accept the authority of Scripture over all human authority –- as evangelicals and even more so as Protestants. We stand under the Word of God.”

Ratzinger, 78, who took the papal name of Pope Benedict XVI, succeeds Pope John Paul II, who died April 2 at age 84 after a 26-year pontificate.

Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope from a German-speaking land since Victor II held the office from 1055-57. He also is the second-oldest man to ascend to the position, three months younger than Clement XII when he was chosen in 1730. The last pope to adopt the name Benedict, which comes from the Latin for “blessing,” was an Italian cardinal, Giacomo della Chiesa, who held the office from 1914-22.

Ken Keathley, associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and associate dean of graduate studies, noted that Roman Catholics base the doctrine of the papacy “on the belief that the bishop (or in evangelical terminology, the pastor) of Rome inherits the position and authority of the Apostle Peter. This, Catholics believe, makes the Roman bishop the ‘Father’ or ‘Pope’ over all other bishops and their respective churches.

“In contrast,” Keathley told BP, “Baptists affirm the authority and autonomy of the local church under the lordship of Christ through the guidance of His Spirit.

“History demonstrates that the consolidation of authority into the hands of one person, no matter how well meaning that person may be, can result in the abuse of power,” he said.

Keathley added, however, “Cardinal Ratzinger, the recently elected pope, has taken the name Benedict XVI. He oversaw the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which in centuries past was the infamous Office of the Inquisition. His namesake, Benedict XV, strongly advocated peaceful relations between nations during the chaotic years of World War I. Evangelicals pray that the new pope will similarly promote peace while standing firm on moral issues.”

Christendom had no pope at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Nor did the pope’s authority ever extend to the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy in subsequent centuries.

The papacy’s development spanned several centuries, with the first dates attached to the papacy, as recounted in the Westminster Dictionary of Church History, revolving around Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century.

“The Petrine doctrine of papal supremacy was clearly stated by Pope Leo the Great (440-461) and defended in the writings of certain church fathers, in particular Augustine (d. 430) and Gregory the Great (d. 604), who himself became pope in 590 and whose firm leadership set the tradition of papal guidance in both dogma and church organization,” the Westminster volume states.

By the middle of the 11th century, the election of a pope had become “firmly vested in a college of cardinals,” the Westminister volume notes.

However, the papacy often faced turbulent times, such as “the establishment of rival pontiffs in Roman and France” from 1378-1418, according to the Westminster volume, in a rift initially created by a French king and later resolved by a series of church councils.

Today, Catholic doctrine holds that the pope is “the representative (vicar or vicegerent) of Christ on earth, and that his solemn official pronouncements on matters of faith and morals are infallible, safeguarded from error by God,” the Westminster volume states.

Stephen Wellum, associate professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., noted, “The main biblical text that is appealed to [for papal succession] is Matthew 16. However this text, while acknowledging the foundational role of Peter and the apostles, says nothing about Peter’s successors, the infallibility of those successors or their exclusive authority.

“What the New Testament shows instead is that Peter is the first to make the formal confession of who Jesus is and that he is at best a ‘first among equals,’ but in no way does this text establish papal authority and apostolic succession,” Wellum told BP. “This is certainly borne out in the New Testament where Jesus, among the apostles, did not leave one superior authority over the others, but left a group of 12 who were equal in governing authority, and from them comes the authoritative Scripture which unpacks for us the full revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 1:1-3 and Eph 2:20).

“That is why Baptists argue that the foundation of the church is Christ Jesus Himself, rooted in his inspired, infallible and inerrant Word, and it is that Word which demands our allegiance, loyalty and commitment,” Wellum said.

“Much of the Roman Catholic argument is tied, not to Scripture, but to church tradition,” he added. “But as with all church tradition, it must be evaluated in terms of Scripture itself. As important as the Roman Catholic Church is and as important as the pope is in the Roman Catholic Church, the papacy’s claim to be the vicar of Christ on earth has no biblical support.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, noted in his weblog two days after Pope John Paul’s death: “For evangelicals, the crucial question comes with the institution of the papacy itself. After all, the Reformation of the 16th century required a rejection of papal power and authority, and the Reformers soon came to understand the papacy as an unbiblical office that inevitably compromised the authority and sufficiency of Scripture….

“Furthermore, this office is then invested with claims to spiritual and temporal power that are combined with claims of apostolic succession and serve as foundational pillars for the comprehensive claims of the Roman Catholic Church,” Mohler wrote, noting, “The Protestant rejection of the papacy was no small matter, though some liberal Protestants and careless evangelicals seem to have forgotten why.”

Mohler maintained that evangelicals “simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority. To do otherwise would be to compromise biblical truth and reverse the Reformation.” With the death of Pope John Paul II, he added, “… evangelicals are confronted with a sensitive question: Can we recognize genuine virtues in a man who for over a quarter of a century held an office we must expressly reject?”
With reporting by Jason Hall, Cory Miller and Joan Wetzel.