"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Defending St. Cyprian against David Wells

From an article on Ligonier titled The Rise of the Papacy by David Wells (my emphasis):

Heresies had abounded from the start, but in the third-century, churches began to take up a new defensive posture against them. Would it not be the case, Tertullian argued, that churches founded by the apostles would have a secure footing for their claims to authenticity, in contrast to potentially heretical churches? This argument buttressed the growing claims to preeminence of the Roman church. However, it is interesting to note that in the middle of this century, Cyprian in North Africa argued that the words, “You are Peter …” were not a charter for the papacy but, in fact, applied to all bishops.
Compare with St. Cyprian (my emphasis):

And he says to him again after the resurrection, 'Feed my sheep.' It is on him that he builds the Church, and to him that he entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, thus establishing by his own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church's) oneness. No doubt the others were all that Peter was, but a primacy is given to Peter, and it is (thus) made clear that there is but one flock which is to be fed by all the apostles in common accord. If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church? This unity firmly should we hold and maintain, especially we bishops, presiding in the Church, in order that we may approve the episcopate itself to be the one and undivided."
Cyprian, The Unity of the Church, 4-5 (A.D. 251-256)

Compare for yourself. Did Wells represent St. Cyprian properly? If that isn't a "charter for the papacy", then what is? Mr. Wells takes a truth and twists it into a lie. The truth -that St. Cyprian recognised the ultimate authority of all the bishops- is emphasized while ignoring the caveat Cyprian himself gives, that the Church was founded on Peter, and Christ "founded a single Chair". He makes mincemeat of St. Cyprian's words! It is men like David Wells at Ligonier that I trusted for years to give me the truth about Church history and theology. I now feel ashamed I did not dig deeper, sooner to learn that much of their claims were outright lies. Honestly, I think Ligonier is better than this sort of hack work. I tried to find an email for David, but couldn't. And of course the article does not allow comments.


  1. At my former Orthodox Presbyterian Center (OPC), there were two ladies who donated a Ligonier subscription to us. I made a monthly habit of picking up a copy and I pretty much took it as gospel. I began to turn on Ligonier about a year ago when they wrote critical pieces on NT Wright.

    The two ladies were your stereotypical church basement ladies who contributed to every potluck and regularly hosted people. Upon learning that we were leaving (we reached out to them personally) they did not return our correspondence.

  2. I reached out to a doctor of the Protestant church while struggling with Catholic/Protestant issues and he held Wells' position. He did not believe in the chair of Peter but instead held a view that the early church consisted of loose ecclesial communities. Some were headed by bishops. Some were headed by elders or pastors. Basically, he was arguing that Protestantism was true in the early church. It's comforting to know that we have Church fathers to rely upon to interpret the very difficult passages of scripture. I used to think that church government was a secondary issue in the faith, but it's really the primary one.

  3. The main point here is that all the apostles had the same power. The primacy of Peter he does not define in terms of power over other apostles but in terms of a "oneness". However it is not altogether clear what "holding to this 'oneness' means".
    Wells does not misrepresent the passage.

    If the primacy of Peter had truly been held by the early church, we would not have to resort to difficult quotes, it should be taught all over the church fathers and it is clearly not

    1. Hi Ggeg,
      I think there are a few things you claim here that arent as obvious as you take them to be. "The main point here..." is one. That the primacy of Peter does not define in terms of power is definitely another.
      And the idea that anything has to be taught "all over the church fathers" to be believed is another assumption. Even still, this actually is all over the church fathers. And, this is not really an obscure or difficult quote. it is actually a pretty straightforward one. He is saying they are all alike... "he assigns a like power to all the apostles" "YET"... It is what comes after that "yet" which is set as a separate thing which is something the others dont have. Whatever that thing is, Peter has it and the others dont. And this isnt just Cyprian saying this.
      The reason Wells misrepresents Cyprian here is that he rightly points out that the bishops all have a like authority, but does not point out the exact distinction Cyprian is making in what Peter has that the others dont. Cyprian could be wrong I suppose, but at least he should be quoted correctly. He obviously thought Peter had something the others didnt, so to use half of his quote to attempt to prove otherwise is disingenuous or perhaps ignorant. What is the "single chair" Cyprian is talking about? If his main point is to say they are all 100% equal in every way, then why a single chair that is the "source of oneness"?
      My point isnt to prove the papacy here, but simply to show Wells was out of line to not mention the other half of Cyprians thinking.