The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


III -- The Petrine Claims


JOHN'S next important act is to buy a penny Catechism. He has seen what the Gospels say about the Church, and he now desires to see what the Church says about the Gospels.

He is bewildered as he turns the pages. On this he learns that the Catholic Church does not pray to relics; on this he reads what he conceives to be a wilful mistranslation of the apostle James; on that he perceives that the Roman Catholics are not forbidden a knowledge of the Ten Commandments, although they arrange them in a curious and suspicious manner. Then once more he reminds himself that he has not bought the Catechism in order to study secondary matters or to criticize, but to learn what it is that the Roman Church says about itself and its constitution.

He turns therefore to the Apostles' Creed, and finally settles upon question eighty-seven.

"Why is the Bishop of Rome the Head of the Church?

"The Bishop of Rome is the Head of the Church because he is the successor of St Peter, whom CHRIST appointed to be the Head of the Church."

"Now here," says John, "is the root of the whole matter. I understand clearly that there must be a Church, if the Revelation of GOD is to be intelligible. Here then is a plain statement. It may be true or untrue -- I suspect it to be untrue. If it is untrue, I need look no further; and if it is true, I need look no further. If it is untrue, I may as well stop where I am and get along as I best can, for I certainly cannot join a Church that is based on falsehood. If it is true, I cannot possibly stop where I am. It is absurd to say that I can be a member of the Church, if I am not in subordination to and in communion with its head. Everything else is secondary to this -- Anglican Orders, invocation of saints, mariolatry. Here is a clear issue. And now I see that I must turn to the New Testament once more, examine the texts quoted in this Catechism, and see what I can make of them."

Once more therefore he lays his Bible open, provides himself with pen, ink and paper, and begins his study.

It would occupy us far too long if we were to examine all the notes that John makes on the subject (although I append them at the conclusion of this book). Some of them are perhaps, too, a little fantastic; they would be certainly fantastic if they stood without support. in all, they amount to twenty-nine arguments in support of the statement of the Catechism; but, in brief summary, they amount to this:

Simon Peter plainly has some sort of leadership among the apostles. His name occurs first in all lists of the apostolic College,{1} and in one passage the very word "first" is used of him,{2} although he was not the first called, nor the one expressly distinguished by being "the disciple whom JESUS loved."{3} He is treated as the spokesman of the rest by the Jews;{4} he heads every deputation to the Master,{5} he opens debates,{6} he utters the first anathema after Pentecost,{7} he works the first Church miracle,{8} he preaches the first sermon.{9}

"Yes, yes," says John, "he was born a leader of men: he was naturally ardent, strong, enthusiastic, influential. Those arguments prove nothing more than this. Let me examine moreover particularly the texts on which the Papists lay such especial stress. They are of a rather more remarkable nature than the others."

I. "Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation a stone . . ."{10}

"Now this," reflects John, "does not really prove anything. We know that it was our LORD's custom to give names to His apostles; for example, He called James and John 'Boanerges,' or 'Sons of Thunder,' because of their hot, wrathful spirit.{11} Peter then was so-called because he was of a strong, unyielding temperament. The Gospels will give no doubt abundant proof of this."

John therefore examines the Gospels again, and is completely puzzled. He finds four or five facts recorded there that appear to prove the exact opposite. Peter tries to walk on the water, and fails because his faith is too feeble;{12} he is terrified at the thought of his LORD's sufferings, and is bitterly rebuked for his weakness;{13} after swearing that he would sooner die than forsake his Master, and after having been expressly warned on the subject, he three times over denies Him because of the jeers of some servant-girls;{14} after having previously run for his life with the rest from Gethsemane.{15} In other words, he is an impulsive, ardent, inconstant, weak, vacillating man.

"He might well have been called Fire," muses John, "because of his hot zeal; or Water, because of his weakness; but Stone seems the most singular misapplication of a metaphor that I have ever heard of. Yet CHRIST 'knew what was in man':{16} He read hearts and diagnosed characters as only GOD Almighty can do. I do not understand this is beyond me.

John bears his puzzle about with him for a while, and gradually some kind of explanation begins to dawn.

There are two kinds of names, he reflects again, given to people: personal and official. For example, at the grammar-school where he was educated there was a boy nicknamed Cat, because of his odd eyes and his way of walking. That is perfectly intelligible; it is a personal label. But there are other names that are not personal. The King of Spain is called "His Most Catholic Majesty"; King George II of England, with all his predecessors, since the Reformation at least, and all his successors till the present day, was called in the Church of England Prayer-book a "most religious and gracious king"; King Edward VII is named "Defender of the Faith." Now, there have been kings of Spain who were not "most Catholic"; George II was neither religious nor gracious; Edward VII is certainly not a Defender of the Faith in the sense in which the title was originally bestowed upon the nursing Father of the English Reformation.Yet no one proposes that these names should be expunged or retained according to the personal characters or exploits of those who bear them. They are official, not personal labels.

"Very well," reflects John. "Then if Peter is not a personal label fastened upon Simon Bar-jona, must I not consider the possibility whether it is not an official title?"

He turns the pages of the Gospels again.

2. "Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."{17}

"What then is the theory of Papist controversialists?" asks John of himself; and in answer he confesses that it is something after this manner:

Simon is Peter, not because he is a stone by nature, or even by grace, but because in the inscrutable decrees of GOD he is chosen to be the foundation-stone of an institution which CHRIST names His Church. There is only one Church in Christendom which claims to be built upon that apostle; and that the one whose centre is Rome, where Peter ruled and where his body lies. As for the gates of hell, is there any other institution in Christendom which compares with this for immovability, authority and impressiveness? One was built upon the fire of Luther, another upon the piety of Wesley, another upon the lusts of a king and the independent spirit of a nation. These have stood for varying periods, and not one of them for more than four hundred years. And the rain has descended, and the floods come, and the winds blown and beaten upon these houses;{18} and the world that looks upon them already mocks at the cracking walls, the tottering pinnacles, the agitated faces of those who look out of the windows, the efforts of those who under-pin and mortar. The "house divided against itself shall not stand";{19} how much less a house not only divided against itself but, as well, founded originally upon the sands of men's passions and fancies, plastered with untempered mortar{20} fashioned on other lines than those of the heavenly Architect. Can the piety, the agony, the sincerity of its inhabitants keep a home that has not GOD for its Father?

And as for that other, that has stood for nineteen centuries, even by the confession of its foes -- the rain has descended too, a rain of tears and protest and questioning; the floods of revolt have lifted up their voice; whole nations have poured against it, strong nations from the north; the hot winds have stormed from the mouth of hell; the thunder-clouds of men's passionate denunciation and curses have hidden it from the eyes of those who should have been its children; and when the rain has ceased, and the floods ebbed, and the winds lulled, and the clouds passed, it is standing there still, secure from roof to basement, so perfectly polished that enemies have called it unnatural, and friends supernatural; so immovable that men have mocked and called it a prison; so serene that they have proclaimed it must be full of internal strife; so beyond the construction of human art that they have argued that the Man of Sin has surely built it. And it is this house, unfallen and unchanged, that is built upon a man whose name GOD called Rock.

"A grossly unfair, exaggerated, intemperate defence," muses John indignantly to himself. "These Papist controversialists have a taste for rhetoric, but none for justice . . . But what, exactly, is the answer? . . ."


"I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."{21}

"Now here," says John to himself, "is a very extraordinary sentence. The only text comparable to it is that in which CHRIST gives to all His apostles power to remit and retain sins.{22} But I cannot honestly set one by the other; for the second is after all only what all bishops and priests claim for themselves. It appears certainly as if to Peter were committed the keys themselves, and to the others only their occasional use. This is a far more emphatic sentence, and addressed to one man only: whatever the others received afterwards, he received also with them; and he seems to receive something more besides by this unique commission. Now this commission, whatever it was, may have died with Peter; it is possible. Let me see first whether there is any one on earth who claims it. If, on the other hand, it was not a personal privilege, but one committed to all the apostles alike, then I shall find many claimants, and shall be obliged to attempt a decision between them."

John sets to work to consider; and he finds it a simpler matter than he had thought. He looks round upon the heads of various denominations -- the Archbishop of Canterbury, the President of the Congregational Union, General Booth, and the President of the Wesleyan Conference -- and in his imagination he puts to them all what he conceives to be a fair, if rhetorical, paraphrase of the passage, in the form of a question.

"Do any of you," he asks, "claim all that this sentence involves? Do you claim to hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven? I will not be put off by a reference to the loosing power of gospel-preaching. If CHRIST had meant that He would not have used this extraordinarily misleading image. No; I will have a definite answer. Do you claim to unlock or lock heaven at your will with, of course, GOD'S assistance? Do you claim, what is a corollary of this, that all men who wish to enter heaven must, in some sense, make application to you for admittance. In other words, do you claim universal jurisdiction over the entire world, kings, governments, republics? Do you claim then, any of you, that you are lord of the world, father of princes and kings; that your lightest words require attention, and that your heavier sentences bind the conscience; that heaven and earth move with your movements (for all this is involved, it seems to me, in some sense, in these awful words of CHRIST); that, to sum up plainly, He who has the government upon His shoulder,{23} has put the insignia of His kingdom into your hands; that He who is Himself the door,{24} has given you the key?"

John waits, a little excited by his own paraphrase; and then his heart echoes what he knows would be the answer of those he is questioning.

"A thousand times, No! Who is this that speaketh blasphemies?{25} There is no such power on earth! You are derogating from CHRIST's honour. It is He who has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers; if He is the door, He is wide open, and His people enter in through Him alone. Men can do no more than point through Him who is the way,{26} to Him who is the door, for they are both one."

"Even my priests," cries one voice, "can do no more than declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins." And the chorus goes on. "But you have said far more than this. You pretend that one man's action is necessary for the bestowal of GOD's free redemption. You would destroy the freedom of the Gospel; the open access to one Father through JESUS CHRIST His Son. You are an enemy of CHRIST if you believe what you say, and a calumniator if you do not, and in either case a destroyer of the liberty of the children of God,{27} which He purchased for them with His Blood."

"Then this tremendous sentence," answers John in equal indignation, "is no more than rhetoric -- a splendid phrase, sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. If that is so, I demand to know why such words were ever used. Does the Wisdom of the Father, of deliberation or carelessness, employ language that promises so much and signifies so little? If there is no claimant ---"

"Stop, I claim it."

And John turns to see an old man dressed in white standing on the steps of the altar. Above him is a dome with these words written round it in gigantic letters; and beneath him is the body of the Apostle.

"I claim it. I am an outcast from the world, and a prisoner in my own house. I am a sinful man like him from whom my title is descended. I have passions, weakness and temptations as he had. I have no immunity from sin, no safeguard against falling beyond that which may be, found in the mercy of my GOD and the prayers of my people. I may deny my LORD as some say that Liberius did; I may err in my private faith as John XXII did; I may falter, or give an obscure answer as Honorius did. Yet I claim it, and I bear the keys below my triple crown to shew that I bear them in my hand. In the strength of Him who called me Peter, I am not afraid to use them. I may err in all else, but not in that for which I am set here; what I bind is bound in heaven; what I loose is loosed in heaven. For to me it was said through Peter; and though a hundred Popes are gone, Peter stands here still. . . I claim it, I, Pius the Tenth, alias Peter. Does any dispute it with me?"

Then the mild voice ceases; the vision fades, and John is left wondering.


Once more John turns to the Gospel; and reads how JESUS CHRIST stood one morning on the beach, with His disciples round Him, and His faithless lover at His feet; and how three times He pierced that warm sorrowful heart by a question.

If ever a man has forfeited all claim on his Master's confidence, it is Peter who kneels here now. He has been made a stone, and he has yielded like water. He has received the keys, and he has denied that he knows the door. And in token of this he is called by his old name, which he bore before the net of Galilee was transfigured into the net of GOD's kingdom: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?"

And then under a third image three times repeated, mingled with the rebuke, his commission is reaffirmed: "Feed My lambs . . . Feed My sheep . . . Feed My sheep."{28}

He is made then, John considers, shepherd of souls; guide of wanderers; support of the weary. He is to feed CHRIST's flock, and gently lead those that are with young. If the words of the Good Shepherd mean anything, they must mean this.

There are others standing by: John whom "JESUS loved"; James who was the first to die for Him;{29} Andrew who was the first to be called;{30} but it is not to this man or that that the LORD speaks; but to one man more faithless than them all.

There are no exceptions to the flock. Not the Jews only from whom he sprang; or the Gentiles to whom he went; or the Romans who were to lead him whither he would not.{31} It is simply CHRIST's lambs, CHRIST'S sheep.

"You -- the foundation, the porter and the fisherman, who trembled at the onslaught of hell; who ran from your trust at the noise of feet and the glare of torches; who dropped your net and denied three times that you knew Me in Galilee -- you are to be the shepherd of those for whom I laid down My life."

Again John demands whether there is any who claims to hold the crook of universal jurisdiction.

From Canterbury comes the first answer.

"I do not claim it. I claim it only for those of my own race. In England, Yes, a primacy of jurisdiction; in Ireland, Scotland and America a primacy of honour only. For all CHRIST's flock, No."

"Then this is not said to your Grace," answers John.

From other chairs come more indignant denials.

"I do not claim it," cries a voice in Exeter Hall. "Neither this nor anything like it! Thank God we have done with such tyrannical assumptions. We abolished priestcraft and interference between a man's soul and his Maker when we cut off Laud's head, and threw a stool in Edinburgh. Men are not sheep! Our stern old Puritan ancestors died to prove their manhood; and we their stern posterity are ready to die in the same cause. Your priest-ridden lawcourts are filled with our martyrs in that quarrel; in thousands of English homes your suggestion would be scorned. For Englishmen have learned at last that no man has a right to dictate to them the terms of salvation or the clauses of GOD's redemptive contract. We owe no allegiance to either foreign or home prelates -- to none but GOD Speaking in the conscience. We are free, sturdy, self-reliant, Bible-nurtured, determined British citizens; ready to answer to our Maker for what we do and believe. We leave tyranny and catechisms and creeds, together with incense, idolatry and superstition to those benighted Papists and Ritualists still labouring under the medieval yoke which we have cast off for ever. We are men, not sheep. How dare you call us that?"

John turns away.

"This may be worldly wisdom," he says, "but not divine. It was not so that the Good Shepherd spoke. Men are sheep, of whom I am the weakest and most foolish. See how they follow one another through the hedges that GOD's law has planted; how when vice is a fashion it ceases to be vice; how they drink of poisoned waters and eat deadly food; how they follow beaten tracks and think that they have found out a road for themselves; how confident when they think themselves alone; how helpless when they fall!

"Surely they need care and tenderness and guidance and chastisement. Did not the Good Shepherd say so? And is there no one who will give it them? Is there no one who will cease to flatter, and will tell them their foolishness; who will lead them to green pastures and make them to lie down by waters of comfort; who will cry to them when the wolf is coming; who will seek and save that which is lost?{32} And above all, is there no one who will tell them that they are one flock, not many -- that there is "neither Greek nor Jew, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all"{33} . . . who will gather them when they are scattered in the cloudy and dark day,{34} and call to them with a voice that they know -- that there may be, as CHRIST Himself said, one fold and one shepherd.{35}

And again that humble voice comes from Rome:

"Yes, I claim all this; for I am Peter, shepherd of Christians and vicar of CHRIST. It was to me that CHRIST said long ago in Galilee, 'Feed My lambs . . . feed My sheep.' That voice is still in my ears, and I am not ashamed to obey it. When men flatter men, I am not ashamed to call them sheep and treat them so. When men talk of freedom and energy, I tell them that obedience is better still. I am not ashamed to call this food bad, and to bid all that will hear me not to approach it; and that good, and encourage them to feed upon it. I appeal both by love and wrath -- by crook and staff. I draw this frightened creature towards me, and I drive that infected sinner from my flock. I recognize no distinctions of race, colour or birth; they are all CHRIST'S sheep, and therefore all are mine. The English and the Indian alike are committed to me, and I rule them with the same rod within the same hurdles. Other sheep I have -- sheep who are not yet of this fold{36} -- and to them I am as zealous as to those that know me. I stretch out my hands all day long, as I have stretched them for centuries, giving the same call as I did a thousand years ago, knowing that one day they too will hear my voice, as my Master promised. And already they are coming back in thousands from the northern hills where their fathers led them.

"And I do all this through the scorn of men and the howling of wolves, and the forgetfulness or ignorance or obstinacy of those that are already mine, because it was the Good Shepherd who set me here and bade me rule.{37} I am ready to lay down my life for them as He did, and as I have done already myself before Nero, as well as in Clement and Urban and Gregory: for their sake I die daily{38} as Paul did. For I am Peter, waiting till my Master Himself comes back to ask me of the flock, the beautiful flock which He gave into my charge. Is there any who disputes my crook with me? . . ."

John turns away in anguish and longing. He has a hundred questions yet; but he desires as never before to be ruled by one who is not ashamed to rule, and to be guided by one who claims to have the authority. Why! is he not after all, then, CHRIST'S lamb?

But the illusion passes as the chorus of protest breaks out from controversialists.

"My dear sir, have you distinguished properly between Petros and Petra? Have you studied it in the original Greek? Have you considered that CHRIST spoke in Aramaic, and all the questions that flow from that? . . . Have you consulted Dr So-and-So's writings, and reflected on the example of Mr What's-his-name who left the fold about which you talk so finely? -- he didn't find it all so sweet and peaceful as you pretend; you should hear his stories! . . . Have you had a good long talk with Father Somebody-Else, who is a profound scholar, and has studied these questions far more deeply than you ever could or can study? . . . Have you meditated upon the amazing revival of religious life in England during the last seventy years? . . . What do you make of Honorius, Liberius, and all the rest of the pretended shepherds who give the lie by their own words to their own pretensions? . . . Those texts cannot possibly mean what you seem to think they mean. It is utterly unlike the whole teaching and example of CHRIST, who taught not by definition, but by parable and metaphor and dark saying. . . . The Church is built not on Peter -- the merest controversialist can tell you that -- but upon Peter's faith -- upon his confession that JESUS was divine; it was only a personal privilege. Or if not that, it was upon the Faith -- that is the Incarnation . . . For GOD's sake put away these faithless thoughts. Or, if you cannot, at least study hard for several years before you presume to form an opinion. And when you have studied, you will be no more competent than before: for surely you will not presume to put yourself in competition with Dr Pusey, or Dr Chalmers, or Robertson of Brighton, or of five hundred others alive at this moment, and five thousand more yet unborn. My dear sir, pause before you commit yourself irrevocably to this appalling piece of intellectual arrogance."

John shakes himself free.

"I am a simple man," he cries, "whom CHRIST came to save. It is utterly and ridiculously impossible that salvation can depend upon profound scholarship. Some of those difficulties you mention I have considered; others lam going to consider; others I am not going to be such a fool as to consider at all, for, as you say, I am incompetent to do so.

"But I do not care if I am incompetent. It was the incompetent that CHRIST came to teach and save. And therefore in vital and fundamental matters, such as the identity of the Catholic Church, I am as capable of deciding as Dr Pusey or Dr Anybody-Else, for their need is no greater than mine.

"CHRIST said that the sheep would know His voice; and that a stranger they would not follow.{39} Therefore I am going to listen, and I shall be obliged if you will let me alone and give over shouting. Perhaps I may be quite wrong; I don't know yet. But I hear a voice saying, 'Follow Me,' and I must have a little peace and quietness before I can know whether it is the Good Shepherd calling, or whether it is some one imitating His voice.

"Kindly, then, let me alone. I am going to listen, to question my own heart, and to pray.

{1} Matt.x,2; Mark iii,16; Luke vi, 14; Acts 1, 13.

{2} Matt. x, 2.

{3} John xxi, 20.

{4} Matt. xvii, 24.

{5} Mark i, 36; Luke ix, 33, etc.

{6} Acts xv, 7-11; xi, 4, etc.

{7} Acts v, 3, 4.

{8} Acts ii, 6, 7.

{9} Acts ii, 14.

{10} John i, 42.

{11} Mark iii, 17.

{12} Matt. xiv, 28-30.

{13} Matt. xvi, 21-23.

{14} Matt. xxvi, 34, 35, 69-75.

{15} Matt. xxvi, 56.

{16} John ii, 25.

{17} Matt. xvi, 18.

{18} Cf. Matt vii, 27.

{19} Matt. xii, 25.

{20} Cf. Ezec. xiii, 10.

{21} Matt. xvi, 19.

{22} Cf. John xx, 23.

{23} Cf. Isa. ix, 6.

{24} Cf. John x, 9.

{25} Luke v, 21.

{26} Cf. John xiv, 6.

{27} Cf. Rom. xiii, 21.

{28} John xxi, 15-17.

{29} Cf. Acts xii, 2.

{30} Cf. John i, 40.

{31} Cf. John xxi, 18.

{32} Cf. John x, 1-16.

{33} Col. iii, 11.

{34} Cf. Ezec. xxiv, 12-16.

{35} John x, 16.

{36} John x, 16.

{37} Ezek. xxiv, 23.

{38} Cf. I Cor. xv, 31.

{39} Cf. John x, 4, 5.

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