Paul’s Autobiographical Defense
While preaching through the book of Galatians, a portion of the chapter became an interesting look into the first century relations between the people of God and the Apostles, and it dawned on me how powerful of a testimony this passage is against the claims of the Papacy from the Roman Catholic Church.
When one reads through or thinks about the book of Galatians, issues lke justification, the entertaining conflict between Paul and the Judaizers, and important discussions of the Mosaic Law come to the forefront of our minds. That is good; those are at the heart of the book. However, we tend to overlook a huge portion of the epistle which includes Paul’s autobiographical defense.
The first two chapters of the book are largely dedicated to Paul defending himself against his accusers (commonly referred to as the Judaizers) through his autobiography. When you reverse engineer the passage, it becomes clear that the arguments against Paul, the ones to which he is refuting, are clearly arguments which sought to diminish his authority. Paul labors in these two chapters to prove that he did receive a ministerial call from the risen Lord Jesus, not from men, that he learned his Gospel from Jesus, not from men. Paul also seeks to prove that while he was not a disciple or student of the Apostles, they themselves considered him an equal.
The passage is so long I included it at the bottom of this post. But what is clear is that Paul tells his story to prove that he is equals with the Apostles, preaching the same message as them, but that his authority and message did not derive from them. He is not under them. And it’s in this presentation that I think a powerful historical argument is made against the Papacy.
Not Your Typical Response
In case any seasoned Roman Catholic apologists ever read this, let me assure you what my argument is not going to be. I am not going to appeal to the end of Paul’s narrative, when he rebukes Peter, in order to prove that Peter was not a Pope. While I think that scene does fit well into the overall point I am making, it alone does not refute the Papacy, and that is not the argument I am making here.
For those who may be uninitiated to this debate, the portion of Scripture I am referencing reads:
“But when [Peter] came to Antioch, [Paul] opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”
Argument Against the Papacy from Paul
The argument Paul is making certainly speaks against any kind of Papacy. One cannot read Paul’s testimony here and assume Peter had a unique authority over Paul. As Paul recounts his second trip to Jerusalem in chapter 2, wherein the Judiazing heresy was first encountered and dealt with, he speaks of the authority of all the brothers over the issue. Peter is not singled out, nor to Peter does the group ever defer.
1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.
But more important than that, Paul goes on to very clearly establish his equality with Peter; he does not see Peter as being in any way more unique or authoritative than himself.
And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.
Can you imagine anyone speaking this way of the Pope? Imagine someone recounting a theological conversation with the Pope, and referring to the Pope as one who “seems influential” to some, and then stating “who he was is makes no difference to me.” Anyone would consider that anti-papacy rhetoric; yet, that is is Paul’s attitude toward an alleged Pope. Be that as is may, the Judaizers were trying to convince the Galatians that Peter, and some of the other Apostles were of a higher rank than Paul (it is likely the concept raised of the “influential” ones was their phrase that Paul adopts to refute). Paul uses this language, not to insult the Apostles or diminish them, but he is certainly trying to make clear that he is their equal, and that he is not impressed or intimidated by their stature. Again, Paul shows no sign of Peter having a unique authority or position over him.
Paul then takes it one step further making it clear yet again that he does not view Peter as a Pope.
On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).
Paul sees himself as being given the same charge as Peter, only to the rest of the world. Paul is “the Peter” to the Gentiles! What Peter is to the Jews, Paul is to the Gentiles. He establishes a direct parallel between Peter’s call and his, only one is primarily to the Jews primarily while the other is primarily to the Gentiles. Thus, the closest we get to a Papacy here is to say there is a Pope over the Jews and a Pope over the Gentiles, but Paul has leveled the playing field between himself and Peter. There is not a hint of Petrine Primacy here, and Paul’s rhetoric is actually contrary evidence to it.
Finally, since Paul goes on to make much of his agreement with Peter and the other Apostles as an argument for his authority, wouldn’t the papacy not come in hand for him? Why does Paul not leverage Peter’s papacy here? If Peter was the Vicar of Christ on earth, and Paul agreed with the Vicar, why did Paul not leverage that powerful argument? I think to ask the question is to answer it.
Argument Against the Papacy from the Judaizers
Not only does Paul provide a historical account which makes no room for Peter’s papal authority, but we can argue from the Judaizers that this is the case also.
As we reverse engineer the letter, we can make confident assertions about the Judaizers and their arguments against Paul and his Gospel. Clearly, they were attacking the authority of Paul. Clearly, they saw Paul as a second-tier leader (at best) and believed his message was skewed. They were claiming apostolic lineage in their teaching, appealing to “influential Apostles” and arguing that Paul’s Gospel was inconsistent with them. Notice two things from this narrative.
First, if Peter was the Pope, and the Christian church understood this, how would this not also be something the Judaizers leveraged. If they believed Paul was out of step with the Pope, the Church’s rock, the Church’s infallible authority, why was this argument not leveraged? The absence of this argument is consistent with the fact that neither they nor the Galatians understood Peter to occupy such a seat.
Second, the Judaizers do find Peter to be more influential than other Apostles, but they do not see his influence as being unique. Who, according to Paul, did they see as being leaders among leaders, Apostles who had a unique role even among the Apostles? Was it Peter, the Pope, alone?
“…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”
Clearly, the men of repute, the uniquely powerful and important leaders that the Judaizers leverage to try and separate the Galatians from Paul is not Peter alone, but Peter, James, and John together. Apparently, the Judaizers see the Papacy as a throne with three seats. Peter alone is not the pillar of the church, but James and John are equal pillars. Scholar F.F. Bruce argues that James being listed before Peter indicates that he likely had the most power and influence over the churches in Judea.
“[B]y the time this letter was written James had moved into the position of supremacy, hence the order of precedence in verse 9” (Ware, Commentary on Galatians, 123).
He also notes the historical evidence which testifies to this,
“The primacy given to James is noted… On Paul’s earlier visit to Jerusalem Cephas was the most important man in the church; Paul went up specifically to meet him, and adds that he also saw James. But all our evidence (as scanty as it is) indicates that James became increasingly influential in the Jerusalem church” (Ibid., 121).
After explaining that his rise in influence was likely due to Peter’s absence because of imprisonment and other ministry obligations, Bruce says,
“James was left to guide the mother-church with a council of elders among whom he was primus inter pares. It is clear from v.12 that even Cephas took James’ directives seriously” (Ibid., 121).
This is all consistent with the later Apostolic council that would meet to discuss the very controversy of Galatians, and while Peter and Paul have important roles in the council, it is James who delivers the closing argument, silences the council, and prescribes what to do next (Acts 15:13-21).
Clearly, the Judaizers saw three men of repute, three pillars, not a singular Pope. And, it could be argued that they, consistent with the biblical and historical data, saw James as more influential than Peter, at least among the Jews.
Why Listen to Heretics?
It might be said that we ought not to glean anything from the Judaizers since they are heretics. Paul clearly identifies them as enemies of the Gospel, and the entire letter is refuting them for being false Christians with a false Gospel. Why should their opinion mean anything in regards to the Papacy? To which I have three responses:
First, their understanding is not refuted by Paul. Paul does not call them to accept the Pope, nor does he rebuke them for thinking that John and James belong with Peter as pillars. Second, the fact that they have false theology is not an indication that they are not reliable historical sources. They were still living in the apostolic church trying to follow most of the Apostles. They can still be a reliable witness to the historical context of the letter. This can be understood from the Catholic perspective too, as it is not uncommon for Catholic apologists to make this same claim for using the Protoevangelion of James to establish historical precedence for Mary’s perpetual virginity. Finally, the Judaizers can be relied on here because they are trying to convince the Galatian Christians to believe their message. The significance here is that if they had a belief about Peter that the early church was in wild disagreement with, they would have tried to persuade them against that just as they are currently doing with Paul. Rather, they leverage Peter in their argument. How could they leverage Peter if they were dealing with Christians who already thought these Judaizers misunderstood Peter’s role? Clearly, the Judaizers had a shared understanding of the role and influence of Peter, along with James and John, and it is this point of contact they seek to utilize against Paul. The text certainly seems to indicate that the Judaizer’s respect specifically for James, Peter, and John, is a reflection of the Christian church of their day, at least of the Jewish portion.
In conclusion, Paul and his Judaizing opponents give important insights into the Apostolic church, and the text strongly speaks against any kind of Petrine Primacy being understood and practiced by the church.
In case you want to read Paul’s entire autobiographical defense, you can read that here:
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. 6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. 7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”