Thieleman J. Van Braght, Martyrs Mirror

14. Of the False Church’s Succession

Of the Evil Success of the Roman Church, Consisting Only in the Succession of the Persons, and Not of the Doctrine

Here is to be considered the great error of the Romanists, when they without regarding the true succession of the doctrine build on, and parade the succession of the persons, who either from the beginning of the world, or from the time of the apostles have existed throughout, as they pretend up to the present time; surely a very insignificant matter! [“Trust ye not in lying words,” saith the Lord, “saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, arc these” (Jer. 7:4).]

For, if they reckon from the beginning of the world, we have shown, that Cain, who was a murderer, has had his successors as well as Abel, who was slain for the sake of his faith [“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).] and godliness.

And also, if they reckon from the time of the apostles, we have demonstrated that at that time already there were many apostates, yea, adversaries of the Christian religion and the true worship of God; and that more have followed, according to the prophecies and predictions which the holy apostles uttered and left to posterity.

Hence it follows, that neither the antiquity, nor the long or great succession of persons, can assure the truth of any religion or church, since the evil is as ancient as the good, and the erring spirits and evildoers have had, and still have, as great a succession as the true believers and good; unless the antiquity, and the succession of persons be accompanied with the divine truth and piety possessed by the upright ancients in the beginning.

Objection of the Paptists, by Means of Three Passages

But, in order to maintain the aforementioned succession, the Papists are accustomed to say, that they do not reckon the same from the antiquity of some erring spirits who were before, in, or after the time of the apostles; but from the church of Christ itself, and from Peter, whom they styled the prince of the apostles, upon whom Christ Himself, as they asserted, wished to build His church. Bell. lib. I. de pont Rom. cap. 10. Quansuy ex. To this they add as a second argument, that to him and no other, were given, by Christ, the keys of heaven, to open or to close the same according to his pleasure. And, thirdly, that the Lord thrice commanded him—more than the other apostles—to feed His flock, that is, His church. Moreover, that he occupied the Roman throne, and that the popes succeeded him therein. To prove this supremacy of Peter, and, consequently, the succession of the popes in his place, they have, for a long time already, misused three passages of holy Scripture, namely Matt. 16:18, 19; and John 21:15-17; to which we will reply in the following.

Reply to the First Passage

Matt. 16:18, the Lord says: “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

The error of the Romanists consists in this, that they misinterpret the word petra, as though thereby was meant the apostle Peter; but this is a great and palpable error. For the Lord there plainly distinguishes between the name Petros (Peter) and the word petra (rock); saying immediately before: “Thou art Peter,” but afterwards: “and upon this rock;” upon which follows: “I will build my church;” so that the Lord does not promise there, to build His church upon Peter, but upon the rock; which he plainly mentions.

Now it will depend upon the true meaning— who and what is to be understood by this rock. Some maintain the first mentioned meaning, which we have refuted just now, namely, that Peter himself is meant thereby; for which purpose they misapply the passage John 1:42, where this apostle is called’ Cephas [And he (Andrew) brought him (Simon Peter) to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone. John 1 :42.] which, in their opinion, signifies a foundation stone; but this is also an error.

It is true that, according to the explanation of orientalists, those versed in oriental languages, by this word there is to be understood a stone; but what kind of a stone? Not a foundation stone, but a piece, corner, or chip of a stone, upon which no building could ever be founded. The word Cephas, they say, is derived from the Hebrew word Keph, which with them means a corner or edge of a stone; while, on the other hand, the rocks or foundation stones are designated by the name Sela or Zur, [He made him ride on the Ugh places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the fields: and he made him to suck honey out of the “Sela” rock, and oil out of the “Zur” flinty rock. Deut. 32:13.] according to Deut. 32:13. Thus Peter is indeed called a stone in holy Scripture, yet not a foundation stone, but only such a one as is generally built upon a foundation. Christ is properly the foundation stone, as Peter himself declares, when he calls Christ the living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious (I Pet. 2 :4); whereupon he adduces the words of the Prophet Isaiah saying: “Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him” (that is built upon him through faith) “shall not be confounded.” I Pet. 2:6 from Isa. 28:16.

Therefore he admonishes the believers, to build themselves, as living stones, to a spiritual house, upon the foundation which is laid—Christ. Verse 5. Paul confirms this, when he says: “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11). In another place he calls Him the foundation of the apostles and prophets, etc. (namely, upon whom the apostles and prophets themselves were built up, and upon whom they, through their doctrine, built up others also); for he adds: “In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20-22).

It is not inconsistent with this, that the twelve apostles, of whom Peter was one, are called twelve foundation stones, [“The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev.21 :14). In the first place it is questionable (even if it be admitted that by this description of the city of God we are to understand the church of God) whether thereby is meant the church of God as it is here on earth, or the glorified church of God, as it will be afterwards in heaven: for only the former, and not the latter, is to be considered here. In the second place, it is certain that the name “foundation stone” is ascribed here not to Peter alone, but to all the twelve apostles; hence he is here called a foundation not any more than any of the others.] upon which, as John says, the city of God, that descended from heaven, was built. Rev. 21 :14. For, even if it were admitted that by the words, city of God, in this place, there is to be understood the church of God here on earth, this would only prove, that Peter, as well as the other apostles, was one of the twelve foundation stones of the church of Christ; which by no means confirms the proposed objection, that Peter alone is the foundation stone, or foundation, of the church.

Again, the word “foundation stones” here does not signify the foundation itself, since, properly speaking, in nature, the foundation, as the ground or bottom of a building, is something different from the stones built upon it, which are called foundation stones; for, upon the ground or bottom the foundation stones are laid, and upon the foundation stones the building; so that the ground of foundation must support both, the foundation stones and the building. Thus, Christ is the ground, bottom, or foundation of His church; the apostles, through their doctrine, are the foundation stones; and the church is the building erected upon these foundation stones and the foundation. It stands fast, therefore, that they err, who make Peter the only foundation of the church of Christ, and that, consequently the building which they erect thereon, is erroneous and false. [“James, Cephas” (or Peter), “and John, who seemed to be pillars,” etc. Gal. 2 :9. Here James is mentioned before Cephas (or Peter). Again, John and James are called pillars as well as Cephas (or Peter), in order to show that the worthiness or the ministry of one was not more than that of the other, and that they, without distinction, were all equal therein.]

Reply to the Second Passage

The second passage is taken from Matt. 16:19: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” But this does not in the least tend to prove that church discipline or the power of expelling from, and readmitting unto the church, was given, among the apostles, to Peter alone, and to no other of the twelve; for in verse 13 it is written: “When Jesus came into the coasts of Cesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am ?” Whereupon it is related, that Peter (in the name of all) answered: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then follows, verse 19: “I will give unto thee the keys,” etc., which promise, though addressed specially to Peter, extended to all the apostles in general, since the Lord did not ask Peter alone, but the whole of them collectively; upon which, when he (Peter) had answered in the name of all, followed the above mentioned promise.

This is explained still further by the holy evangelist John, who says, chap. 20:19,22,23, that Christ, after His resurrection, standing in the midst of His disciples, breathed on them all, and said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” adding: “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained;” which words are of equal importance with those just quoted from Matthew, concerning the giving of the keys.

Moreover, that the church also has received this power, is expressed in words not obscure at all in Matt. 18:17,18: If he (the sinner) neglect to hear.the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily 1 say unto you, whatsoever ye (understand, according to the sentence of the church, which is here spoken of) shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Who doubts that these are the express words which were previously addressed to Peter, but, of course, are intended for all the apostles, and here for the whole church? We see that the Corinthian church, at the time of Paul, possessed the right of expelling and readmitting, called binding and loosing; for, touching the expulsion of the sinner, it was said to them: “Purge out therefore the old leaven” (namely, the obstinate sinner), etc. I Cor. 5:7. Again: “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” Verse 13. Concerning the readmittance of the one who manifested penitence, they are commanded: “Sufficient to such a man (namely, who repents of his sins) is this punishment (that is, the expulsion from the church) which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (II Cor. 2:6,7).

Besides, that this power of binding and loosing was not given to Peter alone, but to all the apostles, and also to the church, it is entirely different in its nature from that of which the pope of Rome as the imaginary successor of Peter boasts. For the power of which Christ spoke, must be limited by the rule of His Word, Matt. 7:24, 26; Gal. 1:6-8; while on the contrary the power of which the pope boasts is unlimited, has no rule, and extends as far as his pleasure. Bald, in cap. Eccles. Also, dist. 40. cap. S. Papae, etc. It follows then, that to the pope is attributed wrongfully a power which was not given to Peter himself; moreover, that the power which was given him, was common to all the apostles, and also to the church.

Reply to the Third Passage

The third passage (or argument) is taken from John 21:15-17, where the Lord asked Peter three times whether he loved Him, and Peter answered each time: “Yea, Lord, I love thee;” to which the Lord replied, three times: “Feed my lambs;” “Watch my sheep,” etc.

Some among the papists, in order to maintain the supremacy of Peter and, consequently, that of the popes of Rome, have so strained these words, that a certain celebrated author among them did not hesitate to write, that Peter is here appointed a ruler, watchman, and pastor, not only over the church, but over the apostles themselves. Bell. lib. I. de Pont. Rom. cap. 14 & 15. 16. Second S. Velt. etc.

But herein they do violence to the text, since various arguments from the holy Scriptures overthrow this view. For, in the first place, it is certain, that at that time Peter had greatly and grievously gone astray, more than any of the other apostles; since he, contrary to warning and his own solemn promise, had so faithlessly denied, yea, entirely forsaken, the Lord; hence, there is no probability that the Lord exalted him above all the others, and appointed him ruler over them; which would be altogether incompatible with the justice of Christ, and the nature of the case.

In the second place it would not accord with what the Lord had taught His apostles in general, on a previous occasion, when strife had arisen among them, as to which of them, after His departure, should be the greatest; saying: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the youngest; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve” (Luke 22:25,26). Again: “Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ” (Matt. 23 :8, 10).

In the third place, if we examine the proposed argument, we shall find, that neither the threefold question of the Lord: Lovest thou me? nor His threefold injunction :”Feed or watch, my lambs, and sheep,” was directed to Peter any more than to the other apostles.

For, as regards the question, Lovest thou me? what does it signify more than that Peter should examine himself, whether he did love Christ? Very well. What, then, had Peter more than any of the other apostles? or than Paul afterwards had? who said: “For I am persuaded, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39). Again: “The love of Christ constraineth us;” etc. II Cor. 5:14. Yea, every Christian in particular, and all in general, are bound to this love, which is so necessary, that it is written: “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema, Maranatha” (I Cor. 16:22).

Concerning the injunction, Watch, or feed, my lambs and sheep, this is also enjoined upon all true teachers. “Take heed therefore,” says Paul to the elders of the church at Ephesus, “unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter, moreover, has, in this respect, not placed himself above, but beside his fellow ministers, when he, exhorting them says: “The elders which are among you I exhort, which am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ . . . Feed the flock of God which is among you,” etc. (I Pet. 5:1,2). This is further confirmed by the fact, that the Lord did not command Peter only, but all the apostles in general, to go into all the world, to preach and baptize the believers. Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16. Again, He said to them all: “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It follows therefore, that in the matter of watching over, and feeding, the sheep of Christ, that is, in preaching the holy Gospel, and taking care of the church of Christ, Peter possessed no more authority, power, and distinction than the other apostles and apostolic teachers.

It now remains to give a solution, why the Lord thrice asked Peter alone, and none of the others, whether he loved Him, and thrice commanded him to feed His sheep. To this we reply: since Peter only a short time before had thrice forsaken the Lord, it was not more than right, that he should also confess thrice that he loved Him whom he had forsaken; and that, therefore, this question should be put to him three times. Besides, since Peter, by his denial had entirely abandoned, or, at least, had become totally unworthy of his office of teaching and feeding the church of Christ, none of the other apostles would, under any consideration, have recognized or received him therein; hence it was necessary, that the Lord Himself should earnestly, yea thrice, charge him with it, so that no one might come lo doubt the worthiness of his person (since he was now converted), or the validity of his office. Thence follows again the absurdity of those who make the matter in question say more than the Lord Himself has done: namely, that Peter hereby was not reinstated into his office, which he had abandoned; but that he was appointed head of the whole church, yea, even over all the other apostles; as can be seen in lib. I. de pont. Rom. cap. 11. Bellorm.

Thieleman J. Van Braght (1625-1664) was an Anabaptist who is best known for writing a history of the Christian witness throughout the centuries entitled “The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660” (1660).

Thieleman J. Van Braght, Martyrs Mirror