Skip to content

The Power and Primacy of the Pope

In ongoing observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief overview of those confessional documents that make up the Book of Concord.

Word was received that Pope Paul III had called for a general council to be held in Italy in May of 1537. In response, Elector John Frederick of Saxony commissioned Luther to prepare articles of faith in the event that Lutherans were summoned there to defend their doctrinal positions. Luther completed his work on several articles, and they were reviewed by Wittenberg theologians before being delivered to the Smalcald League in February of 1537. Luther himself was unable to attend due to illness. Although these articles were not formally adopted at the time, many pastors signed agreement with their content. It was agreed, however, that something official be adopted regarding the power and primacy of the pope prior to the general council being held.
Since Luther was not present, Philip Melanchthon was chosen to prepare a treatise for that purpose. Some have mistakenly referred to “The Power and Primacy of the Pope” as an appendix to the Smalcald Articles, but it would be more accurate to refer to them as a supplement to the Augsburg Confession. Although composed by Melanchthon, the content echoes Luther’s earlier work “Of the Papacy,” and is marked by a clearer tone than Melanchthon typically employed. The final product was formally adopted in the weeks that followed, even though the general council did not end up meeting until 1545 in Trent.
The confession presents three major objections to the papacy. The first deals with the pope’s claim that he is above all other church bishops and pastors by divine right, and that therefore he alone has the right of electing, ordaining, confirming, and deposing all other clergy. The pope also claims the authority to make laws about worship and to change sacraments and doctrine. His official edicts are claimed to be on par with Scripture, and the faithful are therefore conscience-bound to obey him in order to be saved. To refute these claims, Melanchthon rightly explained Matthew 16:15-19, emphasizing that it was the Apostle Peter’s confession, not Peter himself, that would be the “rock” on which the church was built. Christ Himself clearly forbids lordship among the apostles, but instead speaks of a spirit of humility and service. The authority of the ministry lies in the Word of God; it is not of human origin. The pope’s claim of primacy does not even have a historical foundation. The early church placed all bishops on equal footing, and they were often chosen by their own congregations, not by the Roman bishop. Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604) rejected the idea of primacy and the title of universal bishop.
The second objection is that the pope claims to possess authority in the affairs of the state as well as those of the church. Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) He commissioned His followers to go and preach the Gospel to all the world, not to bear the sword in order to possess a worldly kingdom. Popes had placed an emphasis on earthly wealth and physical property at the expense of the spiritual growth of the people.
The third objection is that the pope, placing himself in the position of God, declares that those not accepting of his “divine right” to rule in both the spiritual and secular realms will forfeit their salvation. God’s Word clearly states that those who teach other than what the Bible does should not be followed, even if they hold a position of authority in the church. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8)
The sternest conviction of the papacy, however, lies in the identification of the papacy as Antichrist. In II Thessalonians 2:4 Antichrist is described as one “who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” For this reason, the confession insists that all Christians should abandon this Antichrist and his followers.
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.