The presumption of primacy

Richard Bennett Richard is associated with the Berean Beacon ministry, USA
01 August, 2008 6 min read

The presumption of primacy

In a document released on 10 July 2007 (as reported on p.3 of ET’s September 2007 issue) the Roman Pontiff declared that Christian churches outside the Church of Rome ‘are not Churches in a proper sense’. Of course, Joseph Ratzinger had made this claim before as a cardinal, but it was entirely another matter for him to do so as pope. Why? Because the reigning pope claims to exercise supreme authority over the church.

While continuing to woo other churches to dialogue with the Vatican, it now seems evident that this pope is determined to uphold an older tradition – the aggressive stance that produced such evil fruit in the horrendous years of the Inquisition from 1203 to 1808.

His present mindset was indeed already seen in his year 2000 decree, in which he actually cited the arrogant claim of the infamous Mediaeval pope, Boniface VIII. In 1302, in the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam, Boniface stated, ‘Furthermore we declare, say, define, and proclaim to every human creature that they, by necessity for salvation, are entirely subject to the Roman Pontiff.’1

This presumed primacy is the mindset of Vatican hard-liners – those who oversee the strategy and wield the power – among whom are Pope Benedict himself and those who elected him to office. The dominant presupposition of papal Rome is that God has established a totalitarian hierarchy of pope, cardinals, patriarchs, major archbishops, archbishops, metropolitans, coadjutor archbishops, diocesan bishops, coadjutor bishops, and so on.

This is a reductio ad absurdum of the spirit of Diotrephes, who, said Paul, ‘loves to have the pre-eminence’. The biblical organisational structure of the ‘bride of Christ’ is utterly different. In the true body of Christ, those ordained as elders and deacons are still only brothers within the same body, while the one Master over all is Jesus Christ the Lord: ‘for one is your master even Christ and ye are all brethren’.2

Damning doctrine resurfaces

Pope Benedict demonstrates that his nicknames were well chosen when, as a cardinal, the media dubbed him ‘the enforcer’, ‘the panzer’ and ‘God’s rottweiler’. He can call on countless diktats of old to justify his present strategy.

Besides the blasphemous claim in Unam Sanctam, another example is that of the General Council of Florence in 1442. Its official verdict, which is still published in present-day papal documents, proclaims:

‘The Holy Roman Church … firmly believes, professes and preaches that no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews, heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), unless before the end of their life they are received into [the Catholic Church].

‘For union with the body of the Church is of so great importance that the sacraments of the Church are helpful to salvation only for those remaining in it … and no one can be saved, no matter how much alms he has given, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church’.3

The force and substance of this 1442 decree reappear in the 2007 ruling of Pope Benedict XVI: ‘These ecclesial Communities [e.g. Protestant churches] which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense’.

Christ the only Mediator

This hard-line policy lies behind much of present-day official teaching. The Roman Catholic Church formally states: ‘There is no offence, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest’.4

Papal Rome defines the focal point of its hope as follows: ‘Priests have received from God a power that he has given neither to angels nor to archangels … God above confirms what priests do here below. Were there no forgiveness of sins in the [Roman Catholic] Church, there would be no hope of life to come or eternal liberation. Let us thank God who has given his Church such a gift’.5

Scripture, in complete contrast, teaches that salvation is mediated through Jesus Christ alone.6 The instrument of salvation is not a Church but rather individual faith and a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The essential nature of salvation is outlined by the apostle Paul – we are ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’.7 This shows that God’s grace is the efficient cause of justification, and that payment for sin was made by Christ’s atoning death.

To attempt to integrate the Papal Church into the saving work of the Godhead – indeed to make her the centre of that work – is gross blasphemy. In Scripture, salvation is in Christ Jesus alone, ‘to the praise of the glory of his grace’.8

Papal policy, past and present

There is a distinct parallel between the hard-line policies followed during the centuries of papal inquisition and the new policy of the present pope. During the 605 years of the Inquisition, Bible-believers stood remarkably strong in faith and practice. In 2007, trusting in the same Lord Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever, we must stand firm as they did.

Bible-believers of old – confronted by ridicule, indifference and a deluded populace – denounced the pope and his dictates in no uncertain terms, and daily lived out the gospel of grace.9 We must do likewise. The Lord’s glory, his gospel, and his promises are at stake! ‘Wherefore [since we are] receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire’.10

Christ Jesus prepared believers of old to expect condemnations and false charges, and still does today. He promised, ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad … for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you’.11

Those who are falsely denounced as not being ‘proper churches’ are to rejoice because the Lord reigns – and continue to publish abroad his truth and his gospel of grace. Facing up to the hard-line policy of Pope Benedict – the continuing lies, error and blasphemies of the present day – we must persevere, awaiting the power and might of the righteous Lord to vindicate his cause.

Benedict expects to achieve greater control through his hard-hitting decree. What he fails to realise is that such claims to papal monarchy reveal that he rules an enslaved people. The pope’s arrogant pretensions demonstrate that papal dictatorial rule imposes a ruthless unscriptural system of works upon Catholic people for their entire lives.

Our response

The conclusive response to the pope’s decree is the everlasting good news of the living God. The Lord Jesus Christ died in place of the true believer. His life and perfect unrepeatable sacrifice alone are the ransom payment for the believer’s soul. ‘The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many’.12

This was the price demanded by the all holy God in order that his justice might be satisfied at the same time as the believer’s sins are forgiven. As a result of this payment, whoever trusts in Christ Jesus alone is set free from sin – and also from the wiles of the devil and the clutches of a counterfeit church. ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’.13

On the authority of the Bible alone, and through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, sinners turn to God in faith for the salvation that he bestows upon his own – a salvation based solely on Christ’s death and resurrection.

As they believe on him alone, they realise the greatness of the Father’s grace, ‘being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’.14 God’s sovereign grace and forgiveness enable us to respond in faith and place our trust in the one who died in our place. No church, no ecclesiology, can save. We are made right with the all holy God solely by his graciousness in Jesus Christ our Lord.


1. Bull, Unam Sanctam, 18 November 1302 in The Sources of Catholic Dogma tr. by Roy J. Deferrari from the Thirtieth Ed. of Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, tr. revised by Karl Rahner, S. J., 1954 (St Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1957), #469.

2. Matthew 23:8.

3. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, J. Neuner, S. J. and J. Dupuis, SJ, Eds. (New York: Alba House, 1982) #1005.

4. Catechism, Para. 982.

5. Ibid, Para. 983.

6. John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5.

7. Romans 3:24.

8. Ephesians 1:6.


10. Hebrews 12:28-29.

11. Matthew 5:11-12.

12. Mark 10:45.

13. Romans 6:23.

14. Romans 3:24.

Richard Bennett

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to see a presentation on the Inquisition, produced by Richard Bennett.

Richard is associated with the Berean Beacon ministry, USA
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