Was There a First Century Bishop of Rome?

In this episode Trent sits down with fellow apologist Joe Heschmeyer to talk about a claim Protestant apologists (and some Catholic scholars) make about the papacy and its apostolic roots.


Welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Trent Horn:

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answer’s apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. Fancy digs today. We are in the Catholic Answers studio. I get to sit in a comfy chair. I got a nice boom mic here and I have fellow apologist Mr. Joe Heschmeyer. Joe, welcome to the program.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Thanks for having me on. It feels a lot like being at work.

Trent Horn:

Right. This is where we are. Now, I’m a little bit jealous of you because you have got … I’m visiting the Catholic Answers studio only for two days.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

But you get to be out here for a month, getting a month break from Midwest weather, to be here in California, so I’m a little jealous.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, I very conveniently scheduled video stuff during the coldest part of the Midwestern year and then it has been in the 60s, 70s or low 80s every single day since we’ve been here with not a cloud in the sky. It’s unbelievable.

Trent Horn:

And I say, good for you, my friend.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Oscar Wilde said that the shame of youth is that it is wasted on the young, and it’s tempting to feel the same way about California.

Trent Horn:

Right, that the weather’s wasted here? Other people would use it better? What I wanted to talk today is … Well, actually it was funny. I told Joe, Hey, I’m going to be in the studio tomorrow. Let’s talk. And I just want to talk about whatever you’re just jazzed about, something you’re just really excited as talk about. And I just got an advanced copy of your new book. Well, it’s out now and the book has a wonderful self explanatory title, The Early Church Was the Catholic Church. It’s a mystery. What could this book actually be about?

Joe Heschmeyer:

What could the thesis of the book be?

Trent Horn:

So I love it, that we have something because a lot of people, including many Protestants, are more interested in learning about Christian history. And I think many people find their way into the Catholic church. This happened for me, that I looked at all the Christian denominations and thought, all right, well what did the first Christians believe? What did they believe? I would like to be close to what they believe. And so there are many more Protestants who are interested in that. It leads them to Catholicism, and I think there are Protestant apologists who step forward and say, oh wait, wait, not so fast. The early church is not the Catholic church we might think of. And one of the arguments that they raise, it relates to the papacy. They might say, okay, you’ll find some similarities here. But when you think Catholic, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? The Pope.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

Right? The Catholic Pope. But then they’ll say, look, when you go back into the early church, you go back to the first century, they’ll say, well, there wasn’t a Pope. We don’t see anyone talking about a first century Bishop of Rome. And this is a thesis that is a common, not just amongst some Protestant apologists, but even among some Catholic scholars.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah.

Trent Horn:

Father Ino, you’ve got Eamon Duffy who’s a very well respected medieval Catholic scholar. There are JP Meyer, Raymond Brown, plenty of Catholic scholars who, yeah, claimed that there was not just not a Pope in the first and second century or first up to the [crosstalk 00:03:05] Yeah, but that there wasn’t even a Bishop of Rome at all, not even a debate about what was his authority, what was his jurisdiction, but just he didn’t exist is their claim, which is a really radical claim.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

So, that there was just a council of priests who was overseeing the church at Rome. And then the office of Bishop emerged slowly after that with the office of the papacy merging even further after that, which would make one doubt whether the papacy is even a part of the deposit of faith at all. So, that is what I want to talk about today, this idea that in academicy terms, we would say the debate over the mono episcopists [crosstalk 00:03:40] Was the early church … and I think many Protestants have tried to argue for this, that it’s just a Confederacy of believers, little house churches. Was there in every region or every city where there’s a church, was there a single Bishop presiding over the church in that region? Number one, and then number two, was that the king case for the church in Rome? Because as Catholics, it’s not just any Bishop that’s most important. It’s the Bishop of Rome. Was there one in the first century?

Trent Horn:

And I think my view would be very similar to yours. This is an issue that I’ve addressed before on the channel. It was actually something that I addressed in one of my previous videos. If you look online, I have a rebuttal to the strongest argument against Catholicism offered by a Protestant author, Jerry Walls.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yes.

Trent Horn:

And he went on Cameron Bertuzzi’s podcast and he talked about this very issue. And so I went through that, offered a lot of insights, but you’ve done even more research on this than I have. So you’re jazz talk about this. I’m jazzed to talk to you. [crosstalk 00:04:39].

Joe Heschmeyer:

I mentioned Jerry Walls in this chapters. It’s very much in the common discourse right now among Protestants and among Catholics alike.

Trent Horn:

So yeah. So what would be your basic thesis? Let’s just [inaudible 00:04:51] people to understand that you’ll have some Protestants, even some Catholic scholars saying, well, there wasn’t really a single Bishop of Rome, that emerged in a very delayed way that accrued over time. And you’re saying no, that the office of the episcopate, the Bishop, is something we can trace back to the New Testament. And it’s something we can find continuity from the New Testament through the first century and the early second century.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. The positive case would look something like this, that the threefold structure, that there’s one Bishop accompanied by priests or presbyters and deacons is something that goes back to the time of the apostles, goes back to the apostles, goes back ultimately then to Christ. And that it was something that was viewed as an inheritance from Judaism, that Judaism has this three-tiered structure of high priest, priest and Levite. And that very, very early on, we see these connections being made implicitly, but pretty obviously in first Clemons letter in 96 AD more explicitly in the early 200s in one of the ordination rights for a Bishop in which he’s compared to the high priest. Those kind of connections around people’s minds. And that this was something that was understood as St. Ignatius of Antioch says, if you don’t have this three tiered structure, you don’t have the Catholic church, you don’t have a church.

Trent Horn:

And I think that this is huge. For me, I did another video a while back called The Church Father That Protestants Fear the Most. And I asked you, I said, Joe, take a guess. You said, oh, St. Ignatius of Antioch because he’s very, very early. We can date him to early seconds century like 110, 107.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yep.

Trent Horn:

So we’re talking now within one to two generations of the crucifixion, within a generation of the apostles themselves and what he just discusses, that he’s very clear that the authority structure within the church, it’s not the Bible. No discussion about any kind of a fixed or closed canon of scripture that serves as the authority. Rather, he says things like follow the Bishop as Jesus follows the father.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah.

Trent Horn:

And you’re right. I think it’s [crosstalk 00:06:56]. I would say it’s Magnesians, literally the Magnesians where he says that if you do not have Bishop, priest and deacon, you don’t have a church.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Exactly.

Trent Horn:

That’s not the Catholic … and he uses the phrase, the Catholic church. Now to pardon, going back to what you said about the New Testament though, how would you look at the idea that, and this is something, a view that I’ve always held, is that it seems in the New Testament that the offices of bishop, priest and deacon can seem somewhat interchangeable in how the terms are applied. Paul refers to himself with the title as a deacon.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yes.

Trent Horn:

Peter refers himself as a fellow priest that Bishop Greek episcopy overseer. The English word priest that if you’re reading in the New Testament letters, that’s where the title elder might be found is the Greek word presbyteroi, the presbyteroi.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

And then the diakonos is where we get the word deacon.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

So deacon, priest, bishop, or diakonos, presbyteroi, episcopoi, it seems like in the time of the New Testament, these are at least much more interchangeable than by the time of Ignatius.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. That’s certainly true, partly because terminologically, they’re being set still in the same way that … There was an incident when president Biden was vice president, he presided at a gay marriage. And in English, saying the vice president presided, we have no trouble with that.

Trent Horn:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

But someone reading that in translation is going to be very confused. Well, how could the vice president be the one presiding?

Trent Horn:

Yeah, because if you read it literally, it would be the vice presider was the main presider.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Exactly.

Trent Horn:

They would trip over themselves.

Joe Heschmeyer:

With this in Greek, you have overseer, elder, servant. Those are what bishop, priest, deacon, or bishop, presbyter, deacon mean. And so people are confused by that because the Greek sometimes is being used in an official, technical, more specific context, but more often is used in a much looser context. So to give you an example, if you look do a word study on diakonoi, of servant or servants [crosstalk 00:08:53] Exactly. It is literally the root of deacon and it’s sometimes translated as deacon in the New Testament, other times translated as servant. And bizarrely, it’s used to describe Phoebe. It’s used to describe Jesus. It’s used to describe the 12 apostles. It’s used to describe St. Paul. It’s used to describe all sorts of people who weren’t deacons or weren’t only deacons in the case of the ordained. And then it’s not used in Act six to describe the first seven deacons.

Joe Heschmeyer:

And so  you just can’t make the word based argument. It’s not a very strong argument, and the reason is really simple. By the time the New Testament documents are being written, the first documents are probably St. Paul’s letters. Well, we know they’re St. Paul’s letters to churches, [crosstalk 00:09:37] meaning the church predates the New Testament. So you don’t have some New Testament instruction guide on how to build the church from scratch, [crosstalk 00:09:45] because they weren’t building churches from scratch. The churches already existed. And so it’s only [crosstalk 00:09:50].

Trent Horn:

And by the time we have the first New Testament document, we’ll call it, say I Thessalonians, the church has existed for 20 years.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Right.

Trent Horn:

For 20 years the church has gone through one generation before you have the first canonical document in the New Testament. So I mean, 20 years is a long time to have a leadership structure in place.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. And so in first Timothy three talks about the Bishop, singular, and then talks about deacons. And it doesn’t mention elders, but then in I Timothy five, elders are mentioned. So people are left saying, okay, well, does he think elders is just another term for the bishop [crosstalk 00:10:27] or for deacons, or is he describing three offices? And I think someone going just off the text alone wouldn’t be able to conclusively arrive at a conclusion.

Trent Horn:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

And I think case in point, Protestantism has massively different ecclesiologies [crosstalk 00:10:43] that the structure of a Protestant church varies more widely from denomination to denomination than almost any bit of theology or any other [crosstalk 00:10:51].

Trent Horn:

Some Protestants have bishops, other Protestants just have a single pastor.

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