The Palimpsest Problem

June 10, 2008

Suppose you’re playing a trivia game, and this question comes up:

“Who was the first Pope?”

Most trivia people, Catholic or not, immediately answer “Peter.” Whether they believe in the Papacy or not, most people recognize that “Peter” is the expected answer. The official list of Popes kept by the Vatican even starts with Peter.

However, among Restorationist Christians (of which I am one), this question is a theological minefield. You see, we don’t believe in “apostolic succession.” That is, we believe that the authority bestowed on Peter and the other apostles by Jesus is transmitted to our day and time not by the succession of men appointed to authority, but by the collection of their very words in the text of the New Testament. In short, we believe that Christianity has always been — and should continue to be — a “rule of law” if you will, as opposed to a “rule of men.”

What difference does this make? For one, it means that there was no “papacy” in Peter’s day, so he couldn’t have been one. What’s more, if we’re right, even if someone had tried to make Peter into what we commonly think of as a “pope,” he would have refused. Furthermore, we see the very concept of a papacy as a Constantian corruption of the true religion of Jesus.

So, for me to say that “Peter is the first pope” (or, in like manner, that Roman Catholicism was the first Christian church) for the sake of a grade in school or points in a trivia contest is gut-wrenching. It goes against the very foundation of my religious existence, which if you know me at all you know is a big deal.

That’s my palimpsest — my button under the surface that triggers in me an ethical dilemma every time I face the “first pope” trivia question. Sadly, I cannot claim that I have always disdained the points to make the point. On this I (far too often) have to throw myself at God’s mercy for a hypocracy I still don’t have the strength to defeat every time.

But that said, we Restorationists are few and far between. There are “official lists” of Popes that include Peter, and if you aren’t a Restorationist, it’s unfair of me to expect you to doubt them.

As we become more and more sensitive to one another’s palimpsests, we must be equally gracious with other people’s ignorance of ours.