Peter’s Pentecost Sermon: A Limitation on Who May Minister . . . ?

by Pheme Perkins

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 156-58. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Pheme Perkins received her B.A. from St. John’s College in Annapolis and her M.A. and Ph. D. from Harvard University. She was at the time Associate Professor of Theology at Boston College and served as Associate Editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Her publications include articles on Gnosticism.

Methodological Prolegomenon

When he faced the question of how Scripture was to be used in theological arguments, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the true sense of Scripture, quem auctor intendit, is the literal sense, not the spiritual.(1) He goes on to insist that nothing necessary for salvation is contained only in the spiritual sense: nihil sub spirituali sensu continetur fidei necessarium quod scriptura per litteralem sensum alicubi manifeste non tradit.(2) In short, the intentio auctoris is to be discovered through literal interpretation of Scripture and is the controlling norm for theological use of Scripture.(3)

From a modern, literary perspective, E. Hirsch argues that the intention of the author is the only hermeneutical principle which can give us the meaning of any text. Unless we agree that the author’s intention controls the meaning of a text, interpretation is subject to the individual whims and peculiarities of the various modern “relativisms”. (4) The only reliable way of arriving at an author’s meaning is to do the kind of patient, historical-critical and literary analysis which has characterized the best modern biblical scholarship. Hirsch points out that our clues to an author’s intention are found in the use made of the linguistic and literary conventions of that time.(5) One cannot include unconscious or socio-cultural motivations as part of an author’s meaning if there is no evidence in the work that he or she was aware of them .(6) These principles apply to biblical interpretation as much as to that of any other text. Any claim to present the literal - and hence theologically normative - meaning of Scripture must meet them.

The Declaration’s Use of Acts 2:14

The Declaration refers to Acts 2:14 as evidence that ministerial priesthood should be restricted to men: “the proclamation of the fulfillment of the prophecies in Jesus was made only by Peter and the Eleven (Acts 2:14).”(7) It implies that the intent of Luke is to limit proclamation to men. But the criteria for the use of Scripture in theological argument require that one show that such a limitation is the conscious intent of the author. Unconscious assumptions do not qualify. A very literal reading of Acts 2:14 would hardly give such an impression. One might argue that since Peter is the only one of the Twelve to speak, he alone can authorize proclamation. Or one might claim that Luke mentions the other Eleven because he does not wish to exclude them. In either case, the rest of Acts shows such an interpretation to be a dubious reading of Luke’s intent. The Twelve and those directly commissioned by them are not the only ones to take up proclamation, as the cases of Barnabas, Paul and their many associates show. Although Paul does not belong to the Twelve, his ministry is just as legitimate as theirs.

Commentators have found it impossible to identify from Acts the basis for those who succeeded to Peter’s tasks within the Jerusalem church.(8) That difficulty suggests that Luke did not intend to address himself to the question of ministerial succession. Rather - as all exegetes recognize - he focuses on Peter and Paul as the key figures in the divinely ordained spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome.(9) The Twelve have a special eschatological role corresponding to the twelve patriarchs. No one succeeds to that office.(10) In Acts 2:14, Luke is simply presenting Peter as spokesman and preacher in the Jerusalem church.(11) Nothing is implied about ministerial succession or fitness for ministerial office. Nor does the passage place limits on who may preach the gospel, as the later descriptions of Barnabas and Paul make clear.


We can only deplore such lax methodology in an important document. St. Thomas is surely right to insist that theologians respect the intent of the sacred author. Luke did not intend to settle questions of ministerial succession. Indeed, the Biblical Commission report amply demonstrates the difficulties inherent in any claim that the New Testament can be invoked to decide the issue. It should be clear that just as one cannot presume that an author who does not address the question would be against the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, so one cannot take the author’s silence to imply consent. What the lack of clear biblical evidence does imply - as Aquinas has made clear - is that the issue does not involve “truth necessary for salvation.” It is open for reflection and revision as the Spirit may direct the Church.


1. S.T. Ia1,10.

2.S.T. Ia1,l0 ad1.

3. See the discussion of Aquinas in M.D. Chenu Toward Understanding St. Thomas (Chicago: Regnery, 1964), pp. 153f.; P. E. Persson, Sacra Doctrina: Reason and Revelation in Aquinas (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp. 41-90; B. Smalley, Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1964), pp. 236-42.

4. See E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale, 1967), pp. 1-31; idem, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976), pp. 74-92.

5. Hirsch, Validity, pp. 68-126.

6. Ibid., pp. 51-61.

7. Declaration, par. 15.

8. See R. Brown, K. Donfried, & J. Reumann, eds., Peter in the New Testament (New York: Augsburg/ Paulist, 1973), pp. 55f.

9. Ibid., pp. 40-54.

10. Ibid., p. 40, n. 91.

11. Ibid., p. 41.

Contents of “Women Priests” book Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page