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The Primacy of Peter & the Council of Jerusalem


Regarding the first council of the Church in Jerusalem, note that after the debate about ritual circumcision, it is Peter who resolves the matter. The mere fact that Paul and Barnabas had come to Jerusalem illustrated their confidence in the apostolic authority there. As in any council, there was debate and dialogue; however, in the end it was Peter who stood up and supported Paul in his refusal to impose the Mosaic Law upon the Gentiles– they would not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Citing the work of God’s Spirit in Cornelius and his household, whom they knew and accepted, Peter summarizes the core proclamation of salvation: “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they” (Acts 15:7-11). We are told that the whole assembly was reduced to silence. The issue was resolved. Paul and Barnabas then enthusiastically recounted how God had used them as instruments to reach the Gentiles.

Many distinctions need to be made about Peter. He is certainly much altered after the Christ has suffered, died, and risen. The Holy Spirit on Pentecost grants him a special charism of authority and infallibility. This did not mean that either Peter or his successors would be impeccable and unable to sin. The miraculous truth in the long history of the Church is that even weak and sinful men have seemed changed by the office of Peter. Without such an authority, we would suffer from the same endless fragmentation and deviation from Gospel truth that other religious communities experience. We believe we have Christ’s Rock to preserve and protect the deposit of faith. Given to Peter, this gift of infallibility is for the entire Church. This forum demands brevity, but we see it observed when the Holy Father makes a formal proclamation of dogma as the universal shepherd (the Vicar of Christ) on a matter of faith or morals. Neither the Pope, nor the bishops, nor an ecumenical council can manufacture new beliefs– they define something which has always been taught and believed, but reformulate it in a more concise and solemn way. A papal declaration along these terms is an exercise of his Universal Extraordinary Magisterium.

The unanimous teaching of all the world’s bishops in union with the Pope is called the Universal Ordinary Magisterium. This latter expression of infallibility is much more common. The laity and the religious of the Church also enter into this mystery. The Sensus Fidelium (sense of the faithful) among Catholics who have informed their consciences according to Church teaching and who live out the faith also touch upon this mystery of faith. (Admittedly this latter aspect is usually only mentioned by dissenters these days; however, they cite people who have largely rejected the deposit of faith and the Christian life– the ones to whom it does not really apply.)

The question arises, what is the significance of James’ input? As the bishop of the Jerusalem Church, he rose after Peter and directed that a letter be written and promulgated to the other churches. While a special charge is recorded as given to Peter, the apostolic community also respected the familial relationship of John and James to Jesus. James, John and Peter accompanied our Lord when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. These three also witnessed the Transfiguration. These “sons of thunder” remained close to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter’s unique authority was real and yet the structure by which authority was exercised was much more fluid during the apostolic period. Peter did not remain with the Jerusalem church but traveled elsewhere in exercise of his universal charge. James remained with the Jewish community in Jerusalem and became its bishop. Jerusalem is viewed as the Mother Church and James operated the council since it was within his jurisdiction.

Peter is listed as first among the apostles; he is given the new name Rock and our Lord said that he would build his Church upon this Rock; and he is named the chief shepherd by name. Jesus prays for him by name in order that his “faith may not fail” and that in turn he might “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).

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