I’ve been asked to defend the Catholic belief that Peter was the first pope. This article is in response to my friend Raymond the Brave's assertions and to the article he posted, which in turn is a re-posting from the site “Ex-Catholics for Christ.” Below I’ve attempted to address this question as comprehensively as possible, and address fully and honestly the contrary evidence provided. I hope to correct some common misconceptions regarding how the Catholic Church has historically understood the papacy and Peter’s role in founding it, and to provide convincing answers to many common Protestant challenges. I hope also to demonstrate, with full quotations, that many of the common texts that opponents cite from Scripture and the Church Fathers against the papacy are excerpted inappropriately out of their proper contexts — which in many cases, shown in the full context, refute the very argument they are trying to make.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (RSVCE).
- Misunderstanding the Question: What is the Papacy?
- Why does the question matter?
- Who is the pope?
- What authority did Jesus give the Apostles?
- Was Peter the leader of the Apostles?
- Did Jesus give Peter a primacy of authority among the Apostles?
- Did Peter act as leader of the Apostles?
- Was Peter a bishop?
- Was Peter in Rome?
- The Scriptural Argument
- The Historical Argument
- The Archaeological Argument
- More than one Bishop?
- One bishop (monoepiscopacy)
- Apostolic succession in Scripture
- Apostolic succession in the early Church
- Did Peter’s primacy of authority extend to his successors?
- Development of the Papacy
- The Papacy in the Earliest Age
- The Quartodeciman Controversy
- Church Councils
- The Church Fathers
- Has the succession of bishops of Rome been unbroken?
- Final objections
- Final conclusion
Misunderstanding the Question: What is the Papacy?
Was Peter the first pope? It seems a basic enough question, one that most Protestants are raised up to reject with a knee-jerk. The idea of the Apostle Peter of the New Testament, the simple fisherman, the man too humble to allow Jesus to wash his feet (John 13:8), adorned with the lavish trappings of the modern papacy, the jewelled tiara, the sumptuous vestments, speaking from an elevated throne — seems utterly ridiculous. But to dismiss the question at that does the truth a great injustice: for this is not what the Catholic Church claims.
The fundamental problem that many Protestants struggle with in understanding the papacy is that they project a modern understanding of that office onto the first-century Church. Was Peter the first pope, with the same understanding of that office, the same traditions, the same external trappings, as modern popes such as Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis? No, probably not. But what does the Catholic Church understand the papacy to be? The author of our original post bandies about such words as “tyranny” and “dictatorship” — and it’s true that in the past, there have been holders of the papal office who were wont to abuses of wealth or temporal power. But what, fundamentally is the papacy? Why does the office exist? The Catholic Church believes that Jesus appointed Peter as the pastor of His entire flock on earth (cf. John 21:15–18), and since He did not intend to leave his people as sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34), intended for this unique role of Peter to extend to men who would follow in his footsteps.
So when we ask, “Was Peter the first pope?” the question we are really asking is, “Did Jesus appoint Peter to a special pastoral role in His Church?” We will attempt to answer this question from Scripture. Secondarily, we will ask whether this role was meant to continue to others after Peter’s death.
Why Does the Question Matter?
Was Peter really the first pope? The author of the original article asks:
Before we answer this historical question students of the Bible and church history should be encouraged to ask, why would certain “ecclesiastical parties” want everyone to give an affirmative yes to this question?
It is a basic question: why should anyone care? Why should the Catholic Church teach such a doctrine, and expect others to accept it? Why should I devote so much of my time and so many words to supporting this idea? Why should it matter, especially to Protestants, whether a man who lived two thousand years ago held or didn’t hold any particular office?
The most basic answer I can give: Because as Christians, we should seek the truth. If it is true what the Catholic Church claims — if Jesus appointed the Apostle Peter the pastor over His flock, and intended that pastorship to be carried on by Peter’s successors — then every Christian, as a member of Jesus’s flock, should follow His appointed shepherd.
Our author offers a different answer to this question:
Because if this can be substantiated and unequivocally be found in Scripture, then it might give the pope of Rome his dictatorial and tyrannical authority, which he has enjoyed for many centuries.
But this reflects the misunderstanding addressed above. In answering the question of whether Jesus appointed Peter and his successors pastors of His Church, we should put aside the thought of “dictatorial” and “tyrannical” abuses over the ages, and approach first the early centuries of the Church. We should ask more basic questions: Is the idea of Peter as pastor of the whole Church scripturally sound? Is this what the earliest Christians understood? For the question of whether the papacy has been corrupted over the centuries is foreign to the original question, “Was Peter the first pope?”
Why would Jesus appoint a pastor of His universal Church? Many Protestants have a problem with the idea of Jesus founding the Church as One Body (1 Corinthians 10:17) and appointing a single leader over it; and yet as I will demonstrate below, Scripture strongly indicates that in Peter, he did just that. And speaking generally, the reasons for appointing a pastor — or shepherd — are three: for guidance, for protection, and for unity.
A shepherd guides his flock on straight paths, and leads them toward the pasture of the goal. He looks out for his sheep, that they do not go astray, and tends to their needs. He also protects his sheep from danger, from attackers, from pitfalls, from their own wanderings. And he keeps his sheep together in one flock, for their safety and for their good, that all of them may reach their promised land.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He promised that “there [would] be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). And yet in the years since the Protestant Reformation, any sense of unity under a single shepherd has been lost in Protestant Christianity. There are today more than 40,000 distinct Protestant denominations, most of which can agree together on little more than the basic, historic tenets of Christianity, if even on that. False doctrine, heresy, and schism rock and rend churches daily and lead countless sheep astray. Today, when even basic Christian mores are eroding away, the need for guidance, protection, and unity in the Body of Christ is greater than ever before.
And yet the Catholic Church claims, and has held since the earliest times, that Jesus provided us with just such a shepherd in the person of the Apostle Peter. The prophet Jeremiah foresaw that God would “give [us] pastors according to [His] own heart, and they shall feed [us] with knowledge and doctrine” (Jeremiah 3:15, Douay-Rheims Bible [hereafter DR]). Ezekiel foretold that the people of God “[would] have one shepherd” (Ezekiel 37:24, DR), a promise of the coming Messiah. And yet these prophecies referred to earthly leadership, the return of an earthly kingdom. And our Lord is with us always — but where is our earthly shepherd? Could it be without meaning, in the light of all these promises, that Jesus charged Peter to “shepherd His sheep” (John 21:15–18)?
If it is true that the Catholic Church is the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” founded by Jesus, and it is true that He appointed Peter as that Church’s pastor, then we all who follow the Lord have an obligation to heed the guidance of His anointed shepherd, and seek a return to unity with the rest of the one flock of God. If it is true that the pope is the pastor of all Christians, then Jesus desires us all to be held in the arms of “one flock, one shepherd.”
Who is the “Pope”?
If one is going to reject Catholic claims, one must first understand what the Catholic Church actually claims — else one is only rejecting a straw man and a caricature. As we have argued above, the central question when we ask whether Peter was the first pope is whether Jesus appointed Peter as the pastor over His one flock. But then, why do we ask if he was the “pope”? What is this title, where did it come from, and why do we use it today?
Who is the “pope”? The original article purports to demonstrate that Peter was not the first pope, but what is the Catholic Church actually claiming when she says that Peter was the first pope? We readily acknowledge that Peter would probably not have recognized the title “pope” during his lifetime. The term “pope” — Latin papa or Greek παππάς (pappas), meaning “papa,” an affectionate term for “father” — was originally applied, in the East, to any priest, and in the West, to any bishop*, as can be found in the letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, whom even the Roman clergy addressed as “blessed papa” (cf. Epistle II in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5). But over the centuries, the term came to be applied in the West exclusively as an honorific title for one man: the bishop of Rome.
The pope is the bishop of Rome. The primacy and authority that the Catholic Church claims the pope holds rests not in the title “pope,” but in his office as bishop of Rome and successor of Peter. So the more appropriate question to ask is not “Was Peter called the ‘pope’?” but “Was Peter the bishop of Rome?” But we must build up this: we must first answer other questions: Did Jesus give Peter a role of primacy among the Apostles? Was Peter in Rome, and if he was, did he hold the office of bishop? And if he did, did the authority that he held extend to his successors in that office?
* Our author in fact acknowledges this:
One must also appreciate that from the third to the tenth century, all Catholic bishops were addressed as pope or papa. Even today, Italians still call the pope, “papa.”
So, the bishop of Rome was called the pope … and yet he wasn’t the pope?
What Authority Did Jesus Give the Apostles?
For these first questions, we may turn to the most authoritative of our evidence: to Scripture itself, the written Word of God. And even more basically than whether Peter held a primacy of authority among the Apostles, let us first ask: What authority did Jesus give to the Apostles in general, and what was the nature of that authority?
I have already addressed this question in another post to some extent. Here, let me summarize:
- He gave them the authority to do what He did: “And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity” (Matthew 10:1) — the authority to perform miraculous signs and wonders in His name.
- He gave them the authority to speak in His name: “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him Who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).
- He gave them the authority to be His representatives: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him Who sent Me” (Matthew 10:40).
- He gave them the authority to celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of Him: And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
- He assigned them a kingdom: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28–30). This again implies a grant to the Apostles of some authority from on high, that which the Father had assigned Jesus, to rule and to judge.
- He gave them the authority to bind and loose in heaven and on earth: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). What does this mean? According to the Jewish Encyclopedia , “binding and loosing” were rabbinical terms that meant to make binding and authoritative doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements in the assembly, to pronounce or revoke an anathema upon a person, and by the authority of Jesus, to forgive or to retain sins (cf. John 20:23). It was the “power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, that received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice.” Even many Protestant scholars support this definition (see Johannes Wilhelm Kunze, “The Power of the Keys,” in S.M. Johnson, C.C. Sherman, and G.W. Gilmore, eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge [New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls, 1908], vol. VI: 323–329).
- He sent them in His parting from this earth to go and teach with authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:18–19) It is because (“therefore”) all authority had been given to Jesus that the Apostles had the authority to go and do everything He did.
With this understanding of apostolic authority in mind, let us now turn to the question of whether Peter was the leader of the Apostles.
Was Peter the Leader of the Apostles?
It is often claimed (and not just by Catholics) that Peter was the “chief apostle” or the “leader” of the Apostles. Is this true? All four Evangelists (that is, Gospel-writers) seem to have thought so. In the Gospel accounts, where most of the other Apostles appear as supporting characters, it is indisputable that Peter had a major role. In all four accounts combined, if the number of mentions by name each Apostle received is tabulated, Peter’s prominence is unrivaled:
|Simon Peter (Cephas)||100+ times*|
|James son of Zebedee||17 times|
|John son of Zebedee||17 times|
|Thomas (Didymus)||10 times|
|Bartholomew (Nathanael)||9 times|
|Matthew (Levi)||7 times|
|James son of Alphaeus||4 times|
|Judas (Thaddaeus)||4 times|
|Simon (the Zealot or Cananaean)||3 times|
|Judas Iscariot||20 times|
* This is an unscientific count, done by the number of times the names appear in a word search of the Gospels, picking out the times those names refer to someone else (e.g. John the Baptist, Simon of Cyrene, James son of Alphaeus). Counting the Book of Acts, Peter appears an additional 55 times, John son of Zebedee 9 times, James son of Zebedee twice, the other James four times, and no other of the Twelve more than once.
The Gospel of Matthew refers to Simon Peter as the πρῶτος (prōtos) disciple, the “first” (Matthew 10:2); in every named list of the Twelve in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, Peter is listed first (Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13), despite not having been the first called (cf. John 1:40–42). Peter is most often the disciple to speak or interact personally with our Lord (e.g. Matthew 14:28–33, 15:15–20, 17:1–4, 18:21; Mark 8:29–33, 11:21; Luke 5:8, 9:20, 24:14; John 13:6–11, 13:36–38, 18:10–11), often speaking for the rest (e.g. Matthew 19:27, Mark 9:5, 10:28; Luke 8:45, 9:33, 12:41, 18:28; John 6:68) or approached by outsiders as the leader of the band (e.g. Matthew 17:24).
All the Apostles, it would seem, abandoned Jesus in the immediate hours after His arrest in Gethsemane, but it is only Peter who is presented as having insisted upon his faithfulness to the Lord beforehand, and it is only Peter whose denial is explicitly foretold and focused upon. In all four Gospels, upon Jesus’s arrest, the perspective then shifts — the “camera” follows Peter and not any other of the Twelve (Matthew 26:69–75, Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–62; John 18:16–18, 25–27). It is likewise only Peter whom John the Evangelist, after the Resurrection, sets apart to highlight his reinstatement by Jesus and His forgiveness for his denial (John 21:15–19).
Paul, too, sets Peter apart from the rest of the Twelve:
And he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:5)
Finally, following Jesus’s Resurrection, the angels themselves set Peter apart as someone standing ahead of the rest of the Apostles, addressing the women:
But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7).
It would seem apparent, then, that by the testimony of the Evangelists themselves, Peter was the foremost and the leader of the Apostles. But was this merely because of his prominence, his outspokenness, a dominant personality or a quick tongue? — or did Jesus appoint Peter leader of the apostolic band? Did Jesus give Peter a primacy of authority among the Apostles?
Did Jesus Give Peter a Primacy of Authority among the Apostles?
First, what is it that we mean by primacy? Primacy means the first place or foremost position. A primacy of authority does not mean an “absolute” or “dictatorial” rule: merely that this is an authority that stands ahead of the rest. Jesus gave the above apostolic authority to each of the Apostles. Did He give Peter any extraordinary place over and beyond what He gave the rest?
“And on this rock I will build My Church”
It is apparent that He did, on at least several occasions. In the most commonly cited passage, Jesus sets Peter apart with a triple blessing:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17–19)
Now, I have already written about this passage at greater length than I can here, delving more deeply into an exegesis of the Greek (see “On This Rock: An Analysis of Matthew 16:18 in the Greek”). But let me here address a few claims of the above article:
Rome believes that there are Aramaic and Hebrew manuscripts for the New Testament. However, if this is true, then they are as elusive as Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction, for no scholar, religious or secular, has ever found one fragment.
This is, in fact, not something that the Catholic Church believes or claims. The source of this misstatement is probably a quotation from Irenaeus of Lyon (c. A.D. 180), who stated:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. (Against Heresies III.1.1)
Now, it is plain to everybody that the Gospel of Matthew that is now extant is not in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. Nonetheless, many of the Church Fathers, following Irenaeus, have believed that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek, the Aramaic original no longer surviving. Whether this is true or not is a matter for textual scholars, and is not really relevant to the question at hand.
What is plain, and nearly universally recognized, is that Jesus did not speak Greek, but Aramaic. In the Gospels, the Evangelists, especially Mark, record a number of memorable Aramaic words and phrases which our Lord uttered among us, quoting His actual words in His original tongue, for special emphasis or dramatic effect: for example, “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), “Ephphatha” (Mark 7:34), “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34). So regarding the author’s claim:
Now on the surface it all appears rather simple. The Lord makes Peter the church on which He will build on. But when one reads the whole Bible, problems soon occur. First, the Greek word for Peter is petros, meaning a small stone. Second the Greek word for rock is petra, meaning a large stone.
First of all, this claim, often cited among Protestants, is untrue. πέτρος and πέτρα did not, in fact, mean a “small stone” and a “large stone.” While in classical Greek, there may have been some distinction between the meanings of the two words, that distinction was never between “small” and “large,” but between a massive, unmovable rock (πέτρα) and stone as a monumental building material, similarly unmovable (πέτρος). By the first century A.D. when the Gospels were written, the words were generally used interchangeably (cf. e.g. Rev. Caleb Clark [a Protestant pastor], “Exposition of Matthew 16.18,” in The Biblical Repository and Classical Review, third series, no. 3 [July 1845], LIX:413–421, at 417).
Second, as I have pointed out before, the grammatical rules of Greek required that Peter’s name (which, by the writing of the Gospels, had been his name in Greek for decades) be the masculine Πέτρος; yet Jesus in this passage is comparing Peter and his statement of faith to the πέτρα, the rock upon which they were standing. The way the passage is rendered in Greek is the only way it could have been rendered to maintain the wordplay — called paronomasia, a common rhetorical device in Greek — and any Greek listener would have understood it that way. Even most knowledgeable Protestant scholars of Greek recognize this (cf. , , , , etc.).
Third and most important: in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, the words for “Peter” and “rock” were one and the same: Kepha (כיפא). John the Evangelist (John 1:42) and the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:5, Galatians 1:18) both acknowledge that this is what the Lord actually called Peter in His own tongue (not “Peter”) by their transliteration of Peter’s name as Cephas. When Jesus made the pronouncement of Matthew 16:18 in Aramaic, He would have used the same word twice: You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build My Church.
Concerning John 1:42, our author makes the claim:
Please also note that in John 1:42, Jesus calls Peter “a” stone. Not “the” stone.
I’m not sure to what he is referring (apparently the King James Version of the text?). The Greek of that verse (N.B. That link is an English interlinear that you can follow along with) most literally reads:
He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter) (John 1:42, NASB).
Our author further claims:
Some may also be interested to learn that the meaning of the Aramaic word for Peter (Cephas) is sand. Not the best foundation to build upon.
In fact, this is untrue. Did our author not just now acknowledge that in calling him “Cephas,” Jesus called Peter “a stone”? Kepha means a rock or stone, as Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud, and Midrashic Literature (London: Luzac; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903) informs us:
I would prefer to think that our author has made a mistake and is not acting in bad faith here. Perhaps he thinks a “shore” is made of “sand,” and generalizes from that? But no, most shores in the world are made of rock, as this word plainly means — as Peter (Πέτρος) means in the Greek, and John himself confirms (“Cephas … means Petros,” John 1:42).
So it would appear that a careful play on words has just taken place. Jesus is not making Peter the church/rock, but rather He is the Rock Himself, with Peter being a small stone.
Indeed, a careful play on words has taken place. No, Jesus has not made Peter “the Rock” or “the Church,” but He has proclaimed that Peter is a rock suitable to be a foundation for His Church. Yes, Jesus alone can be said to be the Rock, but as Paul tells us elsewhere:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19–22).
But at last, putting aside all of this needless quibbling over words: it really is irrelevant. No matter how one interprets Jesus’s proclamation to Peter in Matthew 16:17–19, the indisputable fact is that Jesus set Peter apart from the other Apostles and imparted blessings to him alone. In response to Peter’s singular confession of Jesus as Christ — and using singular pronouns and verbs, and otherwise parallel grammar — Jesus addressed Peter alone to give three separate blessings:
- You (Peter) are “Rock,” and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.
- I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven [mirroring “the gates of hell”].
- Whatever you (Peter) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [linked implicitly to the “keys”].
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom”
And in fact, not only is this impartation of the keys given directly to Peter alone, but this proclamation is a direct reference to Old Testament prophecy, whose context makes absolutely clear what is taking place here:
Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him: … I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house (Isaiah 22:15, 19–23).
The imagery of opening and shutting by means of the key to the gates of the house of David is directly evoked by Jesus’s language of binding and loosing by means of the keys to the gates of the kingdom of heaven in such a way that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. Even many Protestant exegetes widely acknowledge the reference of Matthew 16:19 to this passage — cf. the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and the Cambridge Paragraph Bible of the Authorized English Version (ed. F.H. Scrivener, 1873), all of which include Isaiah 22:22 as a cross-reference; and this fascinating reference I found in my Logos collection:
The key figuratively depicts the responsibility of a position and the power to make decisions in that position — i.e., to open and close doors. So to place the key on someone’s shoulder denotes giving that person the power and responsibility of a certain position. In our text-verse (Isaiah 22:22), Shebna, the treasurer of Hezekiah, is warned that Eliakim will carry “the key to the house of David.” This is a figurative way of expressing what was already said in the 21st verse: “I will … hand your authority over to him.”
The idea contained in both these passages is expressed in Isaiah 9:6, where it is said of the Messiah: “the government will be on his shoulders.” The word keys is used figuratively again when Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). (“Isaiah 22:22: Key on Shoulder” in James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, The New Manners & Customs of the Bible [North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998], 355).
In fact, the HALOT translates the word סֹּכֵ֣ן (soken) — translated steward in the RSVCE and ESV and treasurer in the KJV, as an administrator, the overseer of the house of the king, the highest official in the kingdom. In this context, it demonstrates a clear grant of messianic authority (a government that would otherwise be on the Messiah’s shoulder) to a deputy or servant who would rule over the kingdom in the king’s absence. That this position would become a throne bears the implication of a successive office, one to be carried forward by appointed successors. And most strikingly, this official would be called a father to the inhabitants of the kingdom — a spine-tingling evocation of what this office, to the successors of Peter, would in fact be called: papa, or father.
Here it may be expedient to address several objections our friend has raised regarding our Lord’s actions toward Peter in the Gospels.
James and John were given special places of position with Jesus in the future Kingdom, yet Peter wasn’t consulted once nor did Jesus refer them to him.
I am confused by this objection. This claim seems inconsistent with the Gospel accounts on several different points. In neither of the accounts of requests for special positions for the sons of Zebedee does Jesus respond favorably. Also, in both accounts “the ten” (including Peter) are onlookers to the request, and are “indignant at the brothers.” In Mark’s Gospel James and John ask:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. (Mark 10:35–41)
In a nearly identical account in Matthew’s Gospel, it is their mother who asks (Matthew 20:20–24).
Our friend also raises:
We also read in John’s Gospel, how certain Greeks went to Philip to have him introduce them to Jesus. Philip then went to Andrew (not Peter) to speak with Jesus.
I don’t recall it ever being claimed that Peter was Jesus’s personal secretary, or the gatekeeper through whom all interaction with our Lord had to take place. In the passage in question:
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus (John 12:20–22).
This seems to have been a case of mere convenience, of whomever was nearest to the Lord at the moment bringing Him the message.
Why wasn’t Peter the first to see the resurrected Christ?
Because the women were? Apparently, though, Peter was next:
And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:33–35).
Our friend again:
And at the end of this Gospel, Peter is rebuked by Jesus again, but this time for asking what John’s future fate would be.
I didn’t remember this “rebuke,” so I looked again:
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:21–23)
This doesn’t come across as a “rebuke” to me. In any case, whoever said Peter was above rebuke (see below)?
If anybody is to be considered as “Papal” material, it would not be Peter (a man who tried to kill Malchus, deny Jesus three times and preach a false gospel in Gal. 2) but Paul the Apostle. Yet even he was more modest and humble than most modern-day preachers are, whether Protestant or Catholic.
Whoever said Peter, or any of the Apostles, or any one of us, was of “material” to be what God called us to be, before He worked in our lives? Was Peter of the “material” to be an Apostle at all, a rough and uneducated fisherman and a “sinful man” (Luke 5:8)? God took Peter, even in all his flaws and failings and “little faith,” and made a mighty man of God of him; and in him we see ourselves, and all His grace to us, and have hope that He can use us, too. This argument presumes that God only calls us because of some merits of our own — but such is clearly not the case — thank God.
“Strengthen your brethren”
In another, less often cited passage, a dispute has broken out among the Apostles at the Last Supper, about “who was to be regarded as the greatest” — certainly a question of import to this discussion. In this context, Jesus commands his disciples concerning the principle of servant leadership:
A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24–27)
Opponents of the papacy and of church hierarchy in general often point to these statements as evidence that there were to be no authoritative leaders among the group; but Jesus says quite the opposite: “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” The clear implication is that there will be one who is greatest — who will become as the youngest — and there will be a leader — who will be one who serves.
Jesus continues, as quoted above:
“You [all] are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you [all], as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28–30)
Addressing the group in the plural, Jesus assigns to each of the Apostles an authoritative role, a throne in His coming kingdom.
But then, in His very next statement, He singles Peter out:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31–32).
Even among the Twelve, whom He has just said will each sit on thrones in His kingdom, Peter must stand out as a leader, who must strengthen [his] brethren during the coming trial. In the very same statement, in the very next verses, Jesus singles out Peter again — to prophesy that he would deny Him.
And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me” (Luke 22:33–3).
Peter especially, even above the rest of the disciples, would be put to the test (Luke 22:40) — because “to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).
“Feed my sheep”
For all the quibbling that can be made over Matthew 16:17–19, perhaps the clearest and most important statement of the authority that Jesus entrusted to Peter occurs in John 22, at Peter’s reinstatement. Jesus takes Peter aside, in the presence of the other other Apostles, and speaks to him:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
The only “these” to whom Jesus could be referring are the other Apostles. Why should it be of any consequence that Peter love the Lord more than these, unless he was to stand out among them in a special role?
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–18)
For each of the three times Peter denied Jesus, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him; and three times He commands Peter to “tend His sheep.” And Jesus in fact uses two different words here in the Greek for “feed” and “tend,” which are indicative of what it is He is asking Peter to do. The first time and the third time He asks him to “Βόσκε (boske) His lambs,” meaning to tend to the needs of animals, herd, tend, or especially to feed. But the second time He asks him to “ποίμαινε (poimaine) His sheep,” meaning to serve as tender of sheep, herd, tend, lead to pasture, and particularly when applied to people, to watch out for other people, to shepherd — or to pastor. This verb is commonly applied, in both the New Testament and the Old Testament Septuagint, to the pastoring of the flock of Christ. From this same word is ποιμήν (poimēn), the word for shepherd or pastor (cf. Ephesians 4:11), derived.
When David was anointed king of Israel, the Septuagint uses this verb:
“You shall be shepherd (ποιμήν) of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2).
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, the Septuagint voices these words:
And I will give you shepherds (ποιμένας) after my own heart, who will feed (ποιμανοῦσιν) you with knowledge and understanding (Jeremiah 3:15)
This messianic prophecy declares not only a single shepherd — for surely Jesus is our Good Shepherd (John 10:11–18) — but an order of shepherds keeping the Lord’s flock. And most compellingly, in Peter’s own epistle, he applies this same verb in his exhortations to his “fellow presbyters”:
So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend (ποιμάνατε) the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd (ἀρχιποίμενος, lit. arch-shepherd) is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1–4)
Just as the Lord charged Peter to shepherd His flock, Peter exhorts his brother presbyters, by the same authority, to shepherd the flock of God that is in your charge. Very plainly then, the role to which Jesus especially appointed Peter, among his fellow Apostles and the whole flock of God, was a pastoral one.
Did Peter Act as Leader of the Apostles?
So if we believe that Jesus entrusted to Peter a primacy of authority ahead of the rest of the apostolic band, we next need to ask: Do we find Peter exercising such leadership?
In fact, very clearly, we do. In addition to the plainly preeminent role Peter played in the Gospels, we find him, from the very beginnings of the Church on earth, assuming the charge over the flock which Jesus had given him:
In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry … (Acts 1:15–17).
Here, presiding over the flock in the upper room, Peter takes the initiative, led by prophecy and the Holy Spirit, of choosing a successor for the fallen Judas Iscariot. And then, on the day of Pentecost, it is Peter alone who stands up for the Twelve, who receives the verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who speaks for Christ and preaches the first proclamation of Jesus’s Resurrection and salvation, leading more than three thousand into the kingdom (Acts 2:14–41). Some time later, it is Peter who heeds the prompting of the a Spirit to offer healing to the beggar at the Gate Beautiful, and brings forth another bold sermon to the people (Acts 3:1–4) and a ready defense before the Sadducees and high priests (Acts 4:5–22). One can draw no other conclusion from these passages that that Peter was divinely used by God in a role of leadership in the early Church through the Holy Spirit.
We next see Peter acting for the Church, as the administrator of the Church’s finances, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). As more and more believers were added to the Lord, it is Peter to whom the people gather and cling as if he were the representative of Christ Himself:
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. (Acts 5:14–15)
It was to Peter alone that the Lord gave the revelation that salvation was for Gentiles as well as Jews; and he brought the Gospel to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10). Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34–35). When Peter was criticized by the circumcision party, he recounted these events: “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:16–17) And when they heard his testimony, they ceased their dissent immediately: “they were silenced; and they glorified God” (Acts 11:18).
Peter in the second half of the Acts of the Apostles
Peter was very plainly the leader of the Church in these early chapters of Acts — mentioned by name, as cited above, some 55 times, to the other Apostles who, besides John, hardly get a second mention. Some opponents seek to make much of the fact that in the latter half of the book, Paul eclipses Peter as the dominant character in the narrative. But this is to be expected, since Luke, the author, was a known companion of Paul (cf. Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24). Indeed, at several points Luke’s account shifts into the second person: he seems to have been an eyewitness to the events (e.g. Acts 16:10–18, 20:5–16, 21:1–18, etc.)
So what became of Peter? Our friend seeks to make several arguments concerning Peter’s decline from prominence in Acts. In Chapter 8, he points out:
“Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost” (8:14,15). Here the church sent Peter and John. Peter didn’t send himself.
Along these same lines, in Chapter 9:
“But Barnabas took him [Paul], and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (9:27). Again the apostles are spoken of as a group, not one person in total command.
Our friend seems to misunderstand what is being claimed by saying Peter had primacy. No one supposes that Peter was a one-man-show or a dictator, or even the only leader in the Church. Peter was one Apostle among Twelve, among other presbyters and deacons in the Church, who met and loved and shared together. But just as he was during Jesus’s earthly ministry, Peter was recognized to be the foremost.
In Chapter 12:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:1–5)
Our friend asks:
Interesting to note that James, the brother of John … was chosen BEFORE Peter to be killed. If Peter was “supreme” why not go for him first?
This seems a strange argument. Why was Stephen “chosen” before any Christian to be killed (Acts 7)? Are we meant to gather from this that Stephen was the most important early Christian? Stephen was “chosen” because he was outstanding and outspoken, because “full of grace and power, [he was doing] great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8); he threatened the status quo and angered the ruling parties, and so was persecuted. Above all, he was “chosen” because God chose him to become a martyr for the faith. Such was also the case for James the Greater: being a “Son of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), he no doubt was also bold and outstanding, with a quick tongue and a quick temper: he angered Herod; he got caught; and God rewarded him with a martyr’s crown. That was God’s plan for James. But God had other plans for Peter, a mission yet to fulfil.
Following the death of James and Peter’s arrest, Peter was visited by an angel, who miraculously freed him from prison (Acts 12:6–19). As Peter was escaping:
He went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are mad.” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking; and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell this to James and to the brethren.” Then he departed and went to another place. (Acts 12:12–17)
Here our friend argues:
Upon Peter’s escape from prison he calls for James and then the brethren to be made aware of his safety. James was clearly the main leader in Jerusalem.
This too seems a strange argument, given Peter’s indubitable prominence up until this point in the book — and the fact that this is only the second time that the other James has been mentioned at all — or, if you accept the Protestant argument, that this James is not the same as the other James who was among the Twelve (cf. Acts 1:13), his very first, passing mention.
No, it would appear rather that James was Peter’s deputy, another leader in the Church who would have stepped forward in Peter’s absence. And in fact, this is in keeping with the early traditions of the Church of Jerusalem: For after Peter “departed and went to another place” (i.e. he departed from Jerusalem), James the Just was chosen bishop of Jerusalem. According to tradition, Peter was also the first bishop of Antioch (cf. Galatians 2:11, Apostolic Constitutions VII.46; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III.36.2) before founding the Church at Rome; it is possible that that he went either to Antioch or to Rome at this time. Wherever he went, it is all the more fitting that Peter should have contacted James before his departure.
The Council of Jerusalem
We now come to the one of the most pivotal events in Acts: the Council of Jerusalem, which would resolve the growing dispute between the Apostles and the Judaizers, or “circumcision party” (cf. Acts 11:2), over the question of whether Gentile Christians should be required to be circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses.
In Galatians 2, one of the earliest of Paul’s epistles (c. A.D. 54), Paul describes a contentious confrontation concerning this issue between himself and Peter, James, other leaders of the Church of Jerusalem. Scholars have differing opinions about how this event relates to the council recorded in Acts 15, of an apparently more congenial nature:
And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me; but on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:6–10)
But our friend raises several questions about this. He asks:
Why is it that James, the Lord’s half brother, is mentioned before Peter in superiority in Galatians 2:9?
I fail to see how the position of James’s name in a sentence implies any sort of “superiority,” especially when Peter has already been mentioned earlier in the sentence, and Peter, James, and John are all acknowledged as “men who were reputed to be pillars.”
Continuing with the passage:
But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11–14)
Our friend asks:
Why did Paul have to rebuke Peter in front of the entire church?
Paul answers this question for himself: “because he stood condemned” — in other words, because he was wrong. No one ever claimed that Peter was perfect; in fact, he was one of the most human, and humble, of the Apostles. No argument for Peter’s primacy supposes that Peter couldn’t be wrong or didn’t make mistakes or was beyond reproof.
Now we come to the account of the Council of Jerusalem itself. First, the council is gathered:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the presbyters about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the presbyters, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1–5)
Our friend asks:
Here is the first church conference in Scripture and we note how the church sent Paul and Barnabas on their way. They didn’t go up on their own authority. They were sent.
I don’t really understand what point our friend is trying to make. Yes, Paul and Barnabas did not go on their own authority; they were sent by the Church, apparently at Antioch (cf. Acts 14:26–28, 15:35), along with “some of the others.” This is an official, authoritative council of the Church that is taking place; every church was to send representatives.
The apostles and the presbyters were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15:6–12, ESV)
I have heard opponents claim that Peter “didn’t seem to be in a position of authority” at the Council of Jerusalem — but it is quite apparent that he was. It was only after there had been much debate that Peter stood up and spoke; and after his pronouncement, all the assembly fell silent. How can this be understood apart from the fact that Peter spoke with authority, and the council heard his words and heeded them?
Our friend next asks:
Why is it that [Peter] doesn’t close the church’s first meeting in Acts 15, but James does?
Returning to the scriptural account:
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written …. Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:13–15, 19–20)
As we have discussed above, James was appointed bishop of Jerusalem following Peter’s departure (Acts 12:17). If he “closed” the council, it was because the council met under his see and jurisdiction; he was the one presiding, the speaker and moderator, directing the proceedings of the council. This does not indicate that James’s authority extended beyond his own diocese or over any of the gathered bishops or representatives. The key point to note here is that James’s “judgment” is the opinion of Peter — it was Peter’s authority that carried the day.
It is evident, then, that from the dawning moments of the Church at Pentecost, forward through the Council of Jerusalem and beyond, Peter held a position of prime authority in the Church. What was the nature of that authority? Certainly Peter was an Apostle, one who was “sent,” but arguments for the papacy rest on Peter’s having been a bishop. Let us now ask whether Peter was, in fact, a bishop.
Was Peter a Bishop?
In fact, this is a simple question to answer from Scripture. The office of bishop — Greek ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), Latin episcopus, of which the word “bishop” is a direct cognate in English — meaning “overseer” (ἐπί “over” + σκοπος “seer” [cf. scope]) — was not plainly defined in Scripture until Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy 3); but we find, from the opening chapter of Acts, that Peter describes the office of Apostle as one of oversight (ἐπισκοπή [episkopē]):
In those days Peter stood up among the brethren, and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry. For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘His office (ἐπισκοπή) let another take.’” (Acts 1:15–17, 20–21)
As the Church spread, the Apostles appointed leaders wherever they went. New offices were soon established, those of presbyter and bishop. As Paul writes to Titus:
This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)
Presbyters — Greek πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi) — were literally “elders.” But it is evident from Paul’s comments here that in the very early days of the Church, the offices of presbyter and bishop were roughly synonymous:
For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain…. (Titus 1:7)
And Peter, writing around the same time (A.D. 60s), informs us that he is a presbyter:
So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. (1 Peter 5:1)
As we have seen above, Peter exhorted his “fellow presbyters” to “pastor the flock of God”. But there is more, slipping through the verbal cracks of some recent translations:
Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight (ἐπισκοποῦντες) not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3, NASB)
Peter instructs presbyters to exercise oversight — ἐπισκοποῦντες (episkopountes), the participial form of the word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos). In other words, he instructs them to be bishops (“overseers”).
So yes, by his own declaration, Peter was a bishop.
Was Peter in Rome?
But was Peter in Rome? Our friend alleges, as many opponents do, that Peter was never in Rome. The reason, they say, is that they cannot find it in Scripture. But this, I would suggest, is “sola scriptura” run amok. Whatever arguments may be made regarding sola scriptura and church doctrine, the fact is that Peter was a real, historical person who existed outside the pages of Scripture. Just as there were many other things Jesus did that were not recorded in Scripture (John 21:25), there are no doubt many things that Peter and the other Apostles did that are not recorded in these writings.
Most Protestants acknowledge as much. I have frequently heard even Protestants relate the traditions regarding the martyrdoms of Peter and the other Apostles — that Peter was crucified upside down, by his request, deeming himself unworthy to suffer in the same way as his Lord. But if they accept this story, they have no grounds for rejecting the claim — present in this same story (for Peter is said to have been crucified in Nero’s circus) — that Peter died in Rome.
The Scriptural Argument
The fact is, however, that Scripture strongly supports Peter’s having been in Rome. I have written at length on this matter before (see “Biblical Testimony to St. Peter’s Ministry and Death in Rome”), so here I will summarize.
Peter writes us, in the closing of his first epistle:
By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you that are in Christ (1 Peter 5:12–14).
The opponent reads this and triumphantly declares, “See! Here is proof that Peter was not in Rome at all, but in Babylon!” In fact, our friend here does the same:
“The church that is at BABYLON, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son.”
But not so fast. From the earliest times, readers of Peter’s letter have understood his reference to “Babylon” to be a figurative reference to Rome, which like Babylon, was capital of a great empire, a center of extravagance and excess, and an oppressor to the people of God. As St. Jerome recounted in his Lives of Illustrious Men (A.D. 391):
Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the churches to be read by his authority as Clemens in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes [c. A.D. 200] and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis [c. A.D. 100], record. Peter also mentions this Mark in his first epistle, figuratively indicating Rome under the name of Babylon. “She who is in Babylon elect together with you saluteth you and so doth Mark my son.” (De viris illustribus 8)
Of course, the reference is much clearer in the Revelation, where “Babylon the Great” very plainly refers to Rome, and every first century reader would have understood that. But our friend also wishes to take issue with this:
The Catholic Church likes to say that Babylon is the code name for Rome. Yet when Bible believers point out to them Babylon is listed again in Rev. 17 – the whore of Rome – they quickly dismiss this by claiming that this is ancient Rome.
I’m not entirely sure I understand his objection here. Is he agreeing that “Babylon” is Rome, or rejecting it? Even opponents generally agree — in fact, insist, that “Babylon the Great” is Rome, and the Catholic Church has always accepted this. Turning to the Revelation:
And [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly. (Revelation 17:3–6)
Our friend continues:
However, that won’t do! John the apostle who had travelled far with the Gospel, when shown this beast by the angel in Revelation 17:6, looked at it with “great admiration.” Why would he have admired it, if he had lived under Roman occupation ALL OF HIS LIFE?
I am confused by this. Apparently, he is arguing that the beast could not be Rome, because John, who lived under Roman oppression, would not have looked upon Rome “with great admiration”? This seems a strange objection. Even if one were under severe persecution unto death, I can tell you that the ancient city of Rome would have appeared most magnificent! But that is not what the Revelator is even saying here. Our friend, reading the King James Version, misunderstands. The text, even in the KJV, reads that John “wondered with great admiration”. To “wonder” is to look with awe, astonishment, surprise, at something astounding or miraculous — which seeing a woman arrayed in purple and scarlet, seated upon a seven-headed, ten-horned beast would certainly be.
In fact, the angel’s explanation of the scene all but confirms the beast’s identity as Rome:
But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. … This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition. (Revelation 17:7–14)
The ancient city of Rome, it was famously known, spans seven hills, called in Latin montes, “mountains.” The description of a beast “seated on seven mountains” would have been an explicit reference to Rome to any first-century reader. The “seven kings” were Roman emperors who ruled in close succession during a period of unrest and persecution, and would also have been readily understood as a reference to Rome. For a deeper discussion of their identity, see Jimmy Akin’s excellent video series: [Part 1] [Part 2]
Further arguments in favor of “Babylon” being Rome are the presence of Mark by Peter’s side — who was known to have been in Rome with Paul at roughly the same time (cf. Colossians 4:10–11, Philemon 23–24 and see my other post for a lengthier discussion). Silas (Silvanus), too, a constant companion of Paul, would naturally have been in Rome.
Our friend continues:
So the reader is presented with three options:
- Peter died in Jerusalem?
- He died in Babylon?
- Or he went to Rome and died there? This of course being the most unlikely and difficult to prove, for Scripture is silent on this.
I don’t know why anyone would conclude from these Scriptures that Peter died in Jerusalem. Regarding the actual city of Babylon, it would have been a most unlikely destination for any evangelistic enterprise: the city, having been in decline for many years since the relocation of the capital to Seleucia, and then sacked by the Persians, lay in ruins, according to contemporary accounts (see my other post for a more detailed discussion).
Regarding Rome being “the most unlikely and difficult to prove,” and “Scripture [being] silent on this,” I will leave that for the reader to judge.
“Another man’s foundation”?
Another common objection against Peter’s having been in Rome is the fact that Paul does not mention him in his epistle to the Romans. But an argument from silence proves nothing. There is no necessity in believing that Peter remained in Rome constantly during his ministry there. It is apparent from Paul’s letter that Peter was not in Rome at that time; but nothing in his letter precludes Peter’s having been there. Indeed, there was evidently a thriving Christian community there, judging by Paul’s letter. Somebody had been ministering there.
Our friend, however, raises another possible objection:
I would also refer the reader to a verse that most Catholic apologists conveniently miss, when trying to propagate their false notion that Peter was in Rome with Paul:
“And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, NOT WHERE CHRIST WAS NAMED, lest I should build on ANOTHER MAN’S FOUNDATION” (Rom. 15:20.)
It is quite clear from the above Scripture that Paul would not and did not visit and lay a foundation to a new or existing church, if an apostle or evangelist had already been there.
But I would argue that our friend is misunderstanding the context of this quotation. The full passage reads:
In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation, but as it is written,’“They shall see who have never been told of him, and they shall understand who have never heard of him.”
It has been Paul’s ambition, up until this point, to bring the gospel to lands that had not yet heard the gospel of Christ. He has not wanted to build upon another man’s foundation, but to reach the lost who had not yet heard His name. But Paul continues:
This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints (Romans 15:17–25)
Paul’s desire to minister to areas unreached by the gospel has hindered him from coming to Rome. But now that he no longer has work to do in those untouched regions, he may at last come to enjoy the Romans’ company. The implications of this passage are in fact quite the opposite of how our friend wants to take it. Paul strongly implies that Rome has been reached by the gospel and that another man has indeed laid a foundation there. He gives every indication that another Apostle had been ministering in Rome before him.
“You will stretch out your hands”
Our friend raises another argument from silence:
The Apostle John, who outlived all the apostles, never mentions “pope” Peter’s death, burial or even “succession.”
It seems a strange thing to expect. Does John inform us about the doings of any others of the Apostles or the goings-on in any other churches than his own? For that matter, does he even inform us about his own? John’s epistles, unlike Paul’s, are devoid of any personal greetings or references. His Gospel is concerned with the life and ministry of Christ, and contains few references to proceeding events.
But in fact, John’s Gospel does contain a definite reference to the martyrdom of Peter:
[Jesus said to Peter, ] “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19)
And this is not even a hidden or veiled reference: John points at it: “This he said to show by what death [Peter] was to glorify God.” So these words were supposed to have demonstrated to the reader in what manner Peter was to die. And indeed they did: To a first-century reader, to “stretch out one’s hands” was an explicit description of crucifixion. And this was not merely a prophecy, since by the time John penned his Gospel, Peter and all the rest of the Apostles had been deceased for decades. John tells us that Peter was crucified. And crucifixion being the Roman method of execution, this is a certain statement that Peter died within a Roman jurisdiction (which, of all the places mentioned above, the ruined city of Babylon in Mesopotamia would not have been).
The Historical Argument
Where Peter ended his life is a matter of historical fact. As such, historical sources can provide us valuable evidence regarding it. Opponents often make the assertion that there is “no historical evidence” that Peter was ever in Rome, but such is simply not true.
From the very earliest writings of the Church, numerous writers attest to Peter’s ministry, episcopate, and martyrdom in Rome. What is more, this testimony is unanimous. Not a single early writer places Peter’s death in any other place but Rome.
I have discussed these historical sources in greater detail in another post (see Early Testimonies to St. Peter’s Ministry in Rome). But here are a number of the earliest, clearest, and most important testimonies.
Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome penned his Epistle to the Corinthians to encourage the Corinthian Church to resolve a succession dispute in her leadership. It has traditionally been dated to c. A.D. 95 or 96, but a strong case can be made to date the letter as early as c. A.D. 70, within a few years of Peter’s death (see Thomas J. Herron, Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians). In either case, it reflects the earliest testimony to Peter’s and Paul’s deaths in Rome.
At this point in the letter, Clement recounts how envy and jealousy have led to many evils for the people of God — for examples, the murder of Abel, the selling into slavery of Joseph by his brothers, the persecution of David by Saul. And then he turns to “the noble examples of our own generation”:
But, to cease from the examples of old time, let us come to those who contended in the days nearest to us; let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles: Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered not one or two but many trials, and having thus given his testimony (μαρτυρήσας [martyrēsas]) went to the glorious place which was his due. Through jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance; seven times he was in bonds, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the East and in the West, he gained the noble fame of his faith, he taught righteousness to all the world, and when he had reached the limits of the West he gave his testimony (μαρτυρήσας [martyrēsas]) before the rulers, and thus passed from the world and was taken up into the Holy Place,―the greatest example of endurance. To these men with their holy lives was gathered a great multitude of the chosen, who were the victims of jealousy and offered among us (ἐν ἡμῖν [en hēmin]) the fairest example in their endurance under many indignities and tortures. (Epistle to the Corinthians 5–6)
Clement is very careful throughout the course of his letter to maintain the distinction between the first person and second person pronouns — we, the Greek ἡμεῖς [hēmeis], i.e. the Romans, and you, the Greek ὑμεῖς [humeis], i.e. the Corinthians. Clement has just paired Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdoms together, and declared that they both died among us, that is, among the Romans.
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested c. A.D. 107, and over the course of his journey to the capital Rome to face his trial and certain martyrdom, he penned a series of letters to Christian Churches along his way in Syria, Asia Minor, and ahead to Rome. In his Epistle to the Romans, his tone changes to one of praise and exultation at his coming victory in death with Christ. In one of the most poignant passages from all of ancient literature, he urges the Romans:
I am writing to all the Churches, and I give injunctions to all men, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if you do not hinder it. I beseech you, be not “an unseasonable kindness” to me. Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb, and leave no trace of my body, that when I fall asleep I be not burdensome to any. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not even see my body. Beseech Christ on my behalf, that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments. I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free, I am even until now a slave. But if I suffer I shall be Jesus Christ’s freedman, and in him I shall rise free. Now I am learning in my bonds to give up all desires. (Epistle to the Romans IV, from Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912], 231)
Here again Ignatius places Peter and Paul as a pair, and implies that the Romans have had personal contact with them as Apostles, who enjoined them with authority.
Dionysius of Corinth
The Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (see more below) preserves a document, no longer extant, by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (c. A.D. 171), testifying that Peter and Paul both had ministered in Corinth prior to going to Rome, where they met their deaths at the same time (i.e. in the same persecution):
And that they both were martyred at the same time Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, affirms in this passage of his correspondence with the Romans: “By so great an admonition you bound together the foundations of the Romans and Corinthians by Peter and Paul, for both of them taught together in our Corinth and were our founders, and together also taught in Italy in the same place and were martyred at the same time.” And this may serve to confirm still further the facts narrated. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II.25.8, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926], 183)
Irenaeus of Lyon
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, writing c. A.D. 180, likewise, in giving an account of the penning of the Gospels (in the same passage cited above for the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew), testifies that Peter and Paul together “laid the foundations of the Church of Rome”:
For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the Apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. (Against Heresies III.1.1)
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria, writing between c. A.D. 190 and 200, likewise gave an account of Mark, the founder of the see of Alexandria:
Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter publicly preached the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equites, and adduced many testimonies to Christ, in order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken, of what was spoken by Peter, wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark. (Commentary on First Epistle of Peter, translation of Cassiodorus)
Tertullian of Carthage
Tertullian, writing c. A.D. 180-200, in his argument against heretics, appealed to the apostolic foundations of the Churches around the Mediterranean, and especially to Rome:
Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the Apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. … Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of Apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! [i.e. crucifixion] Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John [the Baptist]’s! Where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! (Prescription against Heretics 36)
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius, the great historian of the early Church, penned his Ecclesiastical History in the A.D. 290s. In compiling his history, he had access to all the documents of the ancient Church, including many documents which no longer survive today:
In the same reign of Claudius the Providence of the universe in its great goodness and love towards men guided to Rome, as against a gigantic pest on life, the great and mighty Peter, who for his virtues was the leader of all the other Apostles. Like a noble captain of God, clad in divine armour (Ephesians 6:14–17, 1 Thessalonians 5:8), he brought the costly merchandise of the spiritual light from the east to the dwellers in the west, preaching the Gospel of the light itself and the word which saves souls (John 1:9), the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven. But a great light of religion shone on the minds of the hearers of Peter, so that they were not satisfied with a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with every kind of exhortation besought Mark, whose Gospel is extant, seeing that he was Peter’s follower, to leave them a written statement of the teaching given them verbally, nor did they cease until they had persuaded him, and so became the cause of the Scripture called the Gospel according to Mark. And they say that the Apostle, knowing by the revelation of the spirit to him what had been done, was pleased at their zeal, and ratified the scripture for study in the churches. Clement [of Alexandria] quotes the story in the sixth book of the Hypotyposes, and the bishop of Hierapolis, named Papias, confirms him. He also says that Peter mentions Mark in his first Epistle, and that he composed this in Rome itself, which they say that he himself indicates, referring to the city metaphorically as Babylon, in the words, “the elect one in Babylon greets you, and Marcus my son.” (1 Peter 5:13) (Ecclesiastical History II.14.6–15.2, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926], 143–145).
Eusebius here, in addition to recording the arrival of Peter in Rome during the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41 to 54), preserves documents now lost from Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 190–200) and Papias of Hierapolis (c. A.D. 95–120).
A short while later, Eusebius records another important testimony to Peter and Paul’s deaths in Rome:
In this way then was [Nero] the first to be heralded as above all a fighter against God, and raised up to slaughter against the Apostles. It is related that in his time Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified, and the title of “Peter and Paul,” which is still given to the cemeteries there, confirms the story, no less than does a writer of the Church named Gaius, who lived when Zephyrinus was Bishop of Rome (A.D. 199–217). Gaius in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Montanists, speaks as follows of the places where the sacred relics of the Apostles in question are deposited: “But I can show you the trophies of the Apostles, for if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church.” (Ecclesiastical History II.25.5–6, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926] 181–183.)
Here is direct testimony not only to the deaths of Peter and Paul, but to their places of burial, and to the veneration of those places as early as the late second century. This evidence will feature again prominently below.
Universality and Unanimity
Each of these testimonies is valuable and revelatory in itself, but perhaps the most important aspect of them are that they are universal: It is not only partisans of the Church of Rome who testify to Peter and Paul having ended their days there, but learned and authoritative men from churches all around the Mediterranean, who would have had nothing to gain by supporting such a claim, if it were not universally known and attested: from Gaul, Carthage, Alexandria, Palestine, Syria, Asia, and Greece, as well as Italy. What is more: Their testimony is unanimous: No other writer anywhere, at any time, claims something different, that either Peter or Paul ended their days in some other place than Rome.
The Archaeological Argument
As if the historical evidence were not compelling enough standing on its own, the concrete and tangible evidence of archaeology has confirmed and verified it. I have already presented this evidence in detail in my series on the Tomb of St. Peter, but here I will summarize:
- In c. A.D. 200–210, Gaius of Rome testified that the Apostle Peter was buried in Rome on the Vatican Hill and the Apostle Paul by the Ostian Way (see Eusebius’s quotation above).
- In c. A.D. 312, the Roman emperor Constantine began construction on the Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican in veneration of St. Peter’s tomb, with the tomb itself as its centerpiece. (He likewise built the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls on the Ostian Way over the tomb of St. Paul.)
- Over all the ages of the Church, the tomb under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica was venerated as that of the Apostle Peter.
- In 1940, Vatican archaeologists uncovered the remains of an ancient pagan necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter had originally been buried in the necropolis and Constantine, in building his basilica, had simply piled dirt over the rest of the cemetery, up the level of St. Peter’s grave, and in the process perfectly preserved it. Over the next decade archaeologists carefully excavated it.
- They discovered several graffiti in the cemetery, contemporaneous with the construction of the original basilica and presumed to have been made by Constantine’s workmen, referencing the proximity to St. Peter’s tomb and petitioning for the Apostle’s prayers.
- Beneath the high altar of the basilica, they uncovered the remains of Constantine’s marble memoria in which he had encased St. Peter’s tomb. Within the memoria they found a mid–second-century monument (called the tropaion [τρόπαιον], or “trophy,” in reference to Gaius’s testimony), built over an earlier inhumation grave. (Inhumation, i.e. burial, was a distinctly Christian funerary form.)
- In the area surrounding this central grave, a number of other graves had been clustered adjacent to the primary one in an apparent attempt to bury decedents as close as possible to the original occupant. Archaeologists dated the original grave to the mid– to late–first century — consistent with the date the Apostle Peter is believed to have died, c. A.D. 67.
- On one side of the tropaion was a thick wall covered in heavy graffiti. Marked on the Graffiti Wall were inscriptions and monograms representing the names of God, Christ, Mary, and Peter, intertwined with the messages and prayer petitions of pilgrims.
- Discovered within a hidden receptacle in the Graffiti Wall were a collection of bones, representing the skeleton of a man of sturdy build in his seventies, that had been wrapped in sumptuous, gold-threaded purple cloth. The bones had at one time been buried and unearthed, and were encrusted with dirt consistent with that of the central grave of the tomb.
- The skeleton, when compared by an anthropologist with other bones believed to belong to St. Peter, was declared to be consistent with the other remains, and fit the known facts of Peter’s life and times. In 1968 Pope Paul VI declared that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered and identified.
At the very least, the archaeological findings beneath St. Peter’s Basilica indicate a first-century grave that had been venerated by the Christian community of Rome as that of St. Peter since around the time he is known to have died. This represents a constant tradition, held since the late first century onward, of Peter’s ministry and death in Rome. What is equally compelling: no other historical tradition ever claimed that either Peter or Paul was buried anywhere but Rome, and no other archaeological site has ever presented a valid claim to being the grave of the Apostle Peter.
Between the scriptural, historical, and archaeological evidence supporting the claim that the Apostle Peter ministered and ended his life in Rome, and the complete lack of any opposing evidence, the conclusion is a virtual certainty that Peter died in Rome. Most secular historians, and even many Protestant historians, have accepted Peter’s life and death in Rome as solid fact.
Peter was, by his own testimony, a presbyter or bishop. He ended his ministry and life in Rome. Peter was, therefore, a bishop of Rome.
More than One Bishop?
In the earliest days of the Church, just as bishops and presbyters were synonymous, many churches had multiple presbyters or bishops. Opponents argue that this casts doubt on the claims on the papacy; for if Peter was not the sole bishop of Rome, how could he have had a sole and perpetual successor?
It is apparent that in the earliest days of the Church, having multiple presbyters or bishops in a local church was common. In Acts, Paul spoke to the “presbyters of the church” at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), calling them also “bishops” (Acts 21:28). He addressed his Epistle to the Philippians to “all the saints … with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). He exhorts Titus to “appoint presbyters in every town” (Titus 3:5) — but after this, he shifts to the singular. “A bishop, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 3:7). When he instructed Timothy, he referred to the office of bishop only in the singular: “If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Therefore a bishop must be above reproach …” (1 Timothy 3:1–2).
One strong argument for dating Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians to the early A.D. 70s is that in Clement’s time, too, no distinction had been made between bishops and presbyters, and the Church at Corinth appears to have yet had multiple presbyters:
We consider that it is not just to remove from their ministry those [bishops] who were appointed by [the Apostles], or later on by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favourable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. Blessed are those presbyters who finished their course before now, and have obtained a fruitful and perfect release in the ripeness of completed work, for they have now no fear that any shall move them from the place appointed to them. (Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, XLIV.3–5, in Kirsopp Lake, ed. The Apostolic Fathers, 83–85)
One Bishop (Monoepiscopacy)
By the turn of the second century, however, a shift had taken place: In each of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters to the various churches along his journey (c. A.D. 107), he exhorts Christians to remain faithful to their one bishop. A clear and definite hierarchy had developed: one bishop, with several presbyters in submission to him, and deacons serving them all. The quotations I could give are numerous, but I will choose a few of the most important:
See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an agapé without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans VIII, in Lake, 261)
Here, most plainly and poignantly, we see the established hierarchy: the one bishop as the guarantor of unity, orthodoxy, and catholicity, with presbyters serving under him, and deacons serving the church. The only valid Eucharist, agapé, or baptism is one where the bishop is present. Wherever is the bishop, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Likewise let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the bishop is also a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of Apostles. Without these the name of “Church” is not given. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians III, in Lake, 215)
Another vivid analogy: the bishop is a type of the Father, the presbyters as the council of God and the college of Apostles. Without such a structure in place, it cannot be called a “Church.”
Forasmuch then as I was permitted to see you in the person of Damas, your godly bishop, and the worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and my fellow servant the deacon Zotion, whose friendship I would enjoy because he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ … (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians II, in Lake, 199)
Here, Ignatius actually names the bishop, presbyters, and deacon, giving us the clearest picture out of any of his letters of the leadership of a local church.
Now it becomes you not to presume on the youth of the bishop, but to render him all respect according to the power of God the Father, as I have heard that even the holy presbyters have not taken advantage of his outwardly youthful appearance, but yield to him in their godly prudence, yet not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, to the bishop of all. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians III, in Lake, 199)
Clearly by this time the roles of bishop and presbyter (“elder”) have become distinct by this time: the bishop can be a young man — if this were not the case from the beginning; tradition attests that Timothy and Titus were both bishops.
So by the early second century, leadership of a local church by a single bishop was firmly established and apparently universal as well as mandatory. Why did such a development take place? I have heard opponents complain that this is plainly “unscriptural” — but this is the most vivid early example of how the early Church viewed Scripture: not as a rigid, restrictive code of law to which all Christian practice had to submit — not as a sola scriptura rule of faith — but as a living source of truth and revelation, the Word of God and Truth breathed out once and for all: a firm foundation on which to build a Church. The Apostles had instructed them to ordain bishops and presbyters. As the necessity arose, they allowed that structure to develop. What necessity? Certainly situations such as what happened in the Corinthian Church demanded a more definite and stable form of leadership; and certainly as the Church grew, and more and more presbyters were needed to meet the needs of the people of God, a stronger system or organization was required.
What does it mean for the arguments of the papacy that there were in the beginning multiple bishops or elders? It makes no difference at all. The following is the likely pattern the Church would have followed:
- Jesus ordained and sent out His Apostles.
- The Apostles, as they won converts and founded churches, ordained new presbyters and bishops everywhere they went (cf. Titus 1:3–5).
- In Rome, every bishop and presbyter would have been ordained by Peter or Paul — or both. As the Apostles and bishops died, the council of those remaining (cf. 1 Timothy 4:14) ordained new ones — such that the new generation of bishops was ordained by the bishops whom Peter and Paul had ordained.
- During the time that multiple bishops ruled in Rome, the see of Rome nonetheless held a collective primacy over other sees by virtue of its founding by the Apostles Peter and Paul (cf. 1 Clement).
- When, within the first or second generation of Christians, the Church shifted to leadership by a single bishop, the one bishop selected would have been (1) one of the council of presbyters existing up until that time in Rome, (2) who could easily trace his spiritual lineage to Peter and Paul: he could mark the man who ordained him, and the man who ordained him, and the Apostle who ordained him. He would, in a real and literal sense, be the successor of Peter and Paul. The remainder would remain as presbyters in service to the one bishop.
Apostolic Succession in Scripture
We have established above that Jesus gave definite authority to his Apostles, intending them to be His representatives on earth, to shepherd His flock, to “bind and loose” in His name. These Apostles were to continue in His authority even after He returned to the Father. That leaves us with a basic question: Did He intend for this authority to end with the Apostles themselves?
It is commonly asserted by Protestants that these powers ended with the death of the last Apostle; but there is a problem with this: this is nowhere indicated in Scripture. I have yet to hear a well reasoned and supported case, from Scripture, why this would have occurred. It begs a question: If Jesus invested specific authorities in His Apostles, for the purposes of founding, building up, and pastoring a Church, why should that authority no longer be needed after they were gone?
Numerous analogies can be drawn from Scripture between the priesthood of the Old Covenant — the Aaronic priesthood, whose succession was passed down among the sons of Aaron (Numbers 25:13), and the high priesthood of Jesus (cf. Hebrews 3:1, 7:24, etc.), which fulfilled all the Old Covenant promises. Connections can be drawn, too, between the Davidic kingship (2 Samuel 5:2), also a successive and hereditary office, of which Jesus is also the fulfilment (cf. 1 Kings 9:5). Peter tells us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9) — we living out the priestly, kingly, and prophetic anointing of Jesus Himself as Christians. Jesus Himself tells us that “He is with us always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). All of this suggests that the authority of Jesus was to continue on in this world, with us, His people.
Now, many Protestants argue that Jesus’s authority is now received by all His people, by “those who believe” (cf. Mark 16:17–18); that His people are a “priesthood of all believers,” sharing in the royal priesthood of our Lord — and certainly this is true, as the Catholic Church has always affirmed (CCC 1268, 1591, etc.) A common argument I’ve heard is that through the Holy Spirit, or through the Holy Scriptures, every believer has the same authority as the Apostles — though perhaps I am exaggerating? I could spend another post of this length on this question of authority alone; many people have written whole books on it. But for the sake of the topic at hand, I will leave it at this: There are a number of practical reasons to think that Jesus intended the Apostles, and the bishops and presbyters whom they ordained, to be set apart with a special authority over and beyond that enjoyed by all believers. Here are just a few:
- “Binding and loosing” — if understood in the traditional Jewish sense — were incredibly potent powers, with implications of ruling over an assembly backed by divine authority, including disciplinary powers such as excommunication and readmittance and doctrinal powers of “permitting” and “forbidding.” For purely practical reasons, this is an authority that would have been reserved only for the appointed leaders (“overseers”) of an assembly.
- The frequent imagery of shepherding a flock used by Jesus, Peter, Jeremiah, and others implies the pastoral authority of those appointed to the task. Everyone was not intended to be his own shepherd. “His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ …” (Ephesians 4:11–12)
- In emulation of the Old Testament priesthood, of which Jesus was the fulfilment, the Apostles were also called out to be a special priesthood. Even in the Old Testament, the people of God were called “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and yet the Levites were called out from among them to serve as priests (Deuteronomy 21:5). The authorities that Jesus imparted to the Apostles were priestly authorities: (1) to minister to the people of God and (2) resolve disputes among them (cf. Matthew 18:15–20), (3) of which “binding and loosing” was a crucial authority (Matthew 18:18), held previously by the Pharisees and Sadducees (priests); (4) to re-present his priestly sacrifice of the Eucharist (Luke 22:19). The Apostles understood their work to be that of a new priesthood. The Apostle Paul himself declares that he has been given grace “to be a minister in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Romans 15:16).
These are all services and roles that would have needed to continue in the Church — powers and authorities specifically delegated by Jesus to the Apostles, that the bishops and presbyters that followed in their footsteps would need to carry out. And this is how, from the earliest days of the Church, the ordination of bishops and presbyters was understood:
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders (πρεσβυτέριον [presbyterion], i.e. “presbytery”) laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)
Timothy, one with episcopal authority (“oversight”), received this gift by the laying on of hands by the presbytery. That this is episcopal authority is evident by his enumerated duties: commanding, public reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching (1 Corinthians 12:28–29, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11), setting an example for believers (Philippians 3:17); looking out for the salvation of others (“oversight”) (Hebrews 13:17). He also has the authority to ordain new bishops and deacons (1 Timothy 3). But he was not to be hasty in ordaining new bishops and presbyters:
Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands … (1 Timothy 5:22).
In Paul’s instructions to Timothy, he also expresses concern for the passing on of the faith:
What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2).
These “faithful men who will be able to teach others” are no doubt the ones whom he is to ordain as bishops, for a bishop is to be “apt teacher” (1 Timothy 3:2). In this concern with passing on the Christian truths to faithful men who will be able to teach others also — i.e., the next generation of faithful men — we see the basic idea of what the Church would come to call apostolic succession.
Apostolic Succession in the Early Church
Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in c. A.D. 180 against the growing problem of Gnostic heresies, shares with us the absolute necessity that this passing on of truths came to play in the Church:
Faithfully and strenuously shalt thou resist [the heretics] in defence of the only true and life-giving faith, which the Church has received from the apostles and imparted to her sons.
For the Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God; to whom also did the Lord declare: “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and Him that sent Me” (Luke 10:16). We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith (1 Timothy 3:15) (Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book III preface through chapter 1).
It is interesting to note that here Irenaeus takes 1 Timothy 3:15, where Paul describes the Church as the “the pillar and bulwark of truth,” and applies it to the Scriptures — effectively equating the Church and the Scriptures.
When, however, [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing …
Superficially, this sounds very much like Protestant criticism of the Catholic Church: that we claim the truth cannot be extracted from Scripture by those who are ignorant of tradition. This was, in the second century, the claim of the heretics: that Scripture alone was not sufficient. But Irenaeus continues:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.2).
Irenaeus does not argue from a position of sola scriptura either. When the heretics reject arguments from Scripture, the Christian then argues back with that tradition which originates from the Apostles, preserved by means of the succession of presbyters. This is the “entrusting of truths to faithful men”, which Paul exhorted to Timothy, in action. The heretics, however, reject this too, insisting they have “secret knowledge” (γνῶσις [gnōsis]). How, then, can anyone know the truth?
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3.1).
For Irenaeus, it was not by Scripture alone that the truth can be demonstrated, nor by Tradition alone, but by Scripture and Tradition guaranteed and verified by Apostolic Succession. The only way to verify that one’s Church held the the true doctrine, the proper understanding, the correct interpretation of Scripture, was to appeal to the succession of faithful bishops: for example, one could trust one had the true, orthodox belief if one’s bishop — say, Irenaeus, who had been taught and ordained in the faith by Polycarp, who had been taught and ordained by the Apostle John, who had been taught and ordained by Jesus — could be demonstrated to have received his teachings from approved, faithful men, going back to the Apostles themselves. The heretics could claim no such apostolic lineage: their innovations could not be proven by any authoritative tradition.
Such is the model of authority that developed in the early Church. Thus, it is clear that in terms of both doctrinal authority and pastoral authority, the early Church depended upon the succession of faithful bishops to ensure the purity, integrity, orthodoxy of the faith, and to ensure a peaceful, secure, and Spirit-ordained continuity of leadership.
But was this state of affairs what was intended by Jesus and the Apostles? Thankfully, in addition to the weighty evidence of Scripture, we have very early testimony (c. A.D. 70s? c. A.D. 95?) testifying that Jesus and the Apostles themselves taught this doctrine of apostolic succession:
Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. (Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians XLIV, in Lake, 83–85)
This evokes echoes of the succession of Matthias to the ministry of Judas:
And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24–25).
And this is the foundation of apostolic succession.
Did Peter’s Primacy of Authority Extend to His Successors?
We have established above how the doctrine of apostolic succession functioned in the early Church — how new bishops succeeded to the ministry of those who had died, thus ensuring the passing on both of true doctrine and authoritative leadership. But the question remains: Did the primacy that Peter exercised in life among his brother Apostles and bishops extend to his successors in his episcopal office? Such is the basis of the papacy, so this is a point of the utmost importance.
Much of the confusion and opposition toward the papacy among Protestants proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding. Opponents presume that by apostolic succession, Catholics believe some tangible, supernatural power was passed from Peter to his successors. This is not the case. Apostolic succession is about the passing on of an office. Just as there are certain powers that are part of the office of, say, the president of the United States, there are certain powers that go along with the office of bishop — and in particular, the office of the bishop of Rome.
Why would the office of the bishop of Rome be any different than any other episcopate? Because of the preeminent authority of its founder and patron, and secondarily because of its location at what was then the capital of the empire. Observe, by analogy, the ordering of an academic procession, in which professors take their places in order of the founding dates of their institutions, the oldest universities leading. Because Peter was the foremost Apostle, his successors in office carry that same preeminence of authority.
Here, Irenaeus again sheds light:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3.3)
It is by pointing to the tradition, not just of any church, but of the very great, very ancient, universally known Church at Rome, that we can confound the heretics. Why is it very great, very ancient, and universally known? Because it was founded and organized by the two most glorious Apostles — not only by Peter, but by Peter and Paul. On account of the firm foundation left by such great Apostles, it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church: not because of any personal merits or qualities of the current holder of the office, but because of the apostolic tradition there preserved and handed down.
Development of the Papacy
We have shown that (1) Peter was the de facto leader of the Apostles during Jesus’s earthly ministry, (2) Jesus entrusted to Peter a certain pastoral role among the other Apostles, and (3) Peter consciously exercised such a role in the early days of the Church. We also have demonstrated that (4) Jesus imparted to all the Apostles, and to Peter in particular, certain powers and authorities to carry out their appointed work, (5) that in order for this work to continue, these authorities would not have perished with the Apostles but would have continued with the leaders they appointed to follow in their footsteps, and (6) this is in fact how the early Church understood the doctrine of apostolic succession and authority, by the succession of bishops. Furthermore, we have shown that (7) Peter himself was a bishop, (8) Peter founded and ended his days in the See of Rome, and (9) on account of his preeminence as an Apostle, the See of Rome was, even after Peter’s death, held to carry the highest authority in the Church. This, all taken together, is the basic foundation of the Catholic Church’s understanding of the papacy.
But this is not the end of the story. This, the opponent will argue, does not justify the papacy as it exists today. The institution of the papacy, the Church’s understanding of it, and its role in the Church and in the world have developed over the centuries. Protestants struggle with the concept of the development of doctrine — expecting it all to be plainly laid out in Scripture, or else it is “unscriptural” and therefore unjustifiable — but the fact is plain that the early Church never held such an understanding, or else she would not have stood by while it happened. The truths of the Christian faith as revealed by Jesus are unchanging; but the external forms and trappings of the Church, the anointed vessel by which those truths are delivered and administered to this world, are always growing, always developing, and always reforming.
Whole books have been written on the history of the papacy; but I will do my best to give a few brief snapshots to illustrate the path history has taken.
First, a couple of minor points:
Amazingly, Gregory the Great (590-604 AD) rejected outright the title of “pope,” but his successor, Boniface II, cherished it (Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. II, 660).
After pursuing the references and articles in the Catholic Encyclopedia both to Gregory the Great and to Boniface II, I have no idea what our friend is talking about. Gregory the Great most certainly accepted the title of “pope.” And there’s no indication that Boniface II “cherished” the title more than anybody else. For example, from the register of Gregory the Great’s letters:
To the most blessed Lord pope Gregory, Licinianus, bishop. (Book II, Letter 54)
From John, Bishop of Ravenna to Pope Gregory (Book III, Letter 57)
Gregory, for what it is worth, preferred to call himself Servus Servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God, a title which has since become an official papal style.
Pope Damasus (366–384 AD) was the first to call himself pope (Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV, 614).
Similarly, I can find no trace at the provided reference for the statement that “Pope Damasus was the first to call himself pope.” As I have shown above, the title “pope” was originally applied to any bishop in the West, or to any priest in the East. I do not know where these assertions are coming from.
The Papacy in the Earliest Age
Our friend presents, as evidence against the papacy, the views of Jesuit theologian John McKenzie — views that are in fact not against the papacy. I would suggest that our friend misunderstands. (I will take on good faith that this is a faithful transcription, since I do not have access to McKenzie’s book):
The position of Peter in the apostolic group was one of pre-eminence; this is a commonplace in Catholic theology, and it has within recent years been set forth very clearly by the Protestant scholar, Oscar Cullmann.
In other words, this Protestant scholar Oscar Cullmann supports and has set forth clearly that Peter was preeminent in the apostolic group — a thesis which otherwise undermines the rest of our friend’s article.
It is also beyond dispute that to call Peter the “Pope” of the apostolic college is to imply a position of which the New Testament knows nothing.
Our friend apparently believes this statement is a rejection of the papacy, but I have acknowledged this from the get-go. Just because Peter was not called the “pope” does not mean that he was not the foremost Apostle of the early Church and the bishop of Rome.
Here again the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of Paul are our best witnesses; in these Peter appears as a leader, but not endowed with supreme jurisdiction. We cannot define the position of Peter exactly in any of the terms which we use; and the New Testament has left his position undefined in its own language.
In other words, the New Testament does not say. Peter definitely appears as a leader, but the New Testament does not define the position of Peter in its own language, in any of the terms we use to describe the papacy today. This is a fact. It is not in itself an argument against the papacy, unless you adopt a Protestant attitude and expect every article of Church discipline to be laid out neatly and explicitly in Scripture (in fact, even for Protestants, it is not).
The thesis of the primacy is weakened if one attempts to find in Peter the jurisdiction which has long been exercised by the Roman Pontiff for some 1,700 years. This is a long time, and it takes one back very near to the apostolic Church; but Peter lacks that position in the New Testament which he ought to have if he or anyone else thought of him as Pope” (The Power and the Wisdom: An Interpretation of the New Testament, 1965, 179–180).
The thesis of the primacy is weakened, McKenzie says, if one attempts to find Peter exercising the same jurisdiction later pontiffs have. So don’t expect to find that — it’s not there. This does not mean that Peter was not prime and preeminent among the Apostles — he most certainly was, as I have shown above, and as even Protestant scholars agree. In the Apostolic Age, when the Apostles of Jesus still lived and taught, a certain truth, orthodoxy, and unanimity still reigned; they were all “in one accord” (Acts 1:14): there was no need for any exertion of such an authority, when all bishops looked directly to Peter for guidance. The full flowering of the conception of papal primacy that we hold today developed only over time. But its seeds are clearly evident in the New Testament, in the proclamations of Jesus and the life and ministry of Peter.
Though extant writings of the Church in the first and second centuries, beyond the word of Scripture, are sparse, several important testimonies to the early primacy of the Church of Rome and her bishops survive.
We find the first clear evidence of the idea that Peter’s See of Rome held a primacy over other Churches, even a form of universal jurisdiction (that is, the notion that the Church of Rome had any business in the affairs of other Churches) in the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. The Corinthian Church had deposed its presbyters, the ones who had rightfully been ordained by the Apostles, and the Roman Church exerted her authority to encourage the Corinthians to reinstate their legitimate leaders. The Roman Church had an interest in ensuring the stability and integrity of the Church at large and the observance of Apostolic Tradition.
The traditional date of Clement’s letter of c. A.D. 97 is predicated on the presumption that this is when he would have been sole bishop of Rome. Though a valid argument can be made that Clement was not the sole bishop of Rome at time of the writing of his letter, this argument in fact supports an even earlier date for the letter, as early as c. A.D. 70. Such an early date would suggest that both the doctrines of apostolic succession and of Roman primacy were almost certainly apostolic in origin.
The writings of Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107), the very next important writer of the Church whose works survive, also contains important testimony to the perception in the wider Church of the Church of Rome — as something preeminent and presiding.
Examine first, by way of comparison, his greetings to the other churches along his way — cordial and laudatory, no doubt:
Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church, worthy of all felicitation, which is at Ephesus in Asia,—blessed with greatness by the fulness of God the Father, predestined from eternity for abiding and unchangeable glory, united and chosen through true suffering by the will of the Father and Jesus Christ our God,—abundant greeting in Jesus Christ and in blameless joy. (To the Ephesians)
Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to her who is blessed in the Grace of God the Father by Christ Jesus, our Saviour, in whom I greet the Church which is in Magnesia on the Maeander, and bid it in God the Father and in Christ Jesus abundant greeting. (To the Magnesians)
Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church of God the Father and the Beloved Jesus Christ, which has obtained mercy in every gift, and is filled with faith and love, and comes behind in no gift, most worthy of God, and gifted with holiness,—the Church which is in Smyrna in Asia—abundant greeting in a blameless spirit and in the Word of God. (To the Smyrnaeans)
But for all this, these are modest words compared to the exultant praise he has for the Church of Rome:
Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to her who has obtained mercy in the greatness of the Most High Father, and of Jesus Christ his only Son; to the Church beloved and enlightened by the will of him who has willed all things which are, according to the love of Jesus Christ, our God, which also has the presidency in the country of the land of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy in its holiness, and preeminent in love, named after Christ, named after the Father, which also I greet in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father; to those who are united in flesh and spirit in every one of his commandments, filled with the grace of God without wavering, and filtered clear from every foreign stain, abundant greeting in Jesus Christ, our God, in blamelessness.
Not only is the Church of Rome, in Ignatius’s words, “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, [and] worthy in its holiness,” but it also presides and is preeminent in love. These descriptions cannot easily be explained away.
Again, the clearest and boldest testimony comes from St. Irenaeus:
[We confound the heretics] by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with the Church of Rome — not a matter of the submission of one’s authority to another, but of a necessary guide or beacon, necessary to ensure the unity and integrity and orthodoxy of the faith. And this is first and foremost because it was founded and organized by the two most glorious Apostles..
The Quartodeciman Controversy
Beginning in the mid–second century, a controversy arose even among orthodox Christians, over the method for determining the date of Easter. The Churches of Asia Minor had adopted the tradition of celebrating the Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan, according to the calendar of the Jews, on whatever day of the week it should fall; while the Churches of the West, in accord with Rome, celebrated our Lord’s Passover on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) closest to the Jewish date, in celebration of His Resurrection. The Roman custom has prevailed until today, in no small part due to the exertions of successive Roman Pontiffs.
The controversy reached a head in the A.D. 190s, when Victor, bishop of Rome, excommunicated the Asian bishops of the Church for their quartodeciman (from quartodecimus, “fourteenth”) practice. This event is in itself indicative of Roman primacy: The fact that the bishop of Rome had the authority to excommunicate bishops of an entirely different region from the universal Church, and that not only the Asian bishops recognized this as lawful and valid, but also bishops in Gaul, Africa, and Greece, demonstrates the singular, universally acknowledged primacy of the bishop of Rome in the second century. (These matters are discussed in Book V of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History chapters 23 through 25.)
St. Irenaeus again provides us with invaluable evidence. In response to Victor’s order of excommunication, Irenaeus wrote to Rome urging reconciliation. In doing so, he recorded an account of how his teacher Polycarp had visited Rome during the time of Anicetus (bishop of Rome c. 157–168) and spent some time in the city. Though the two men differed in their modes of celebrating Easter, and neither could convince the other of his practice, they nonetheless communed together, Anicetus even allowing Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in the Church of Rome. But why should Polycarp have ventured to Rome to consult with Anicetus at all, unless it were in some sense the central Church of Christendom?
The ecumenical councils of the Church are also an important concern in considering the primacy of the papacy. If the pope of Rome indeed acted as the prime bishop, then surely this role would be visible in these gatherings of bishops from around the universal Church.
Here our friend raises the objection:
It must also be stated that all the church councils from Nicaea (4th century) to Constance (15th century) affirmed that Christ and Christ ALONE was the Foundation and the Rock to which the church rests.
This evinces a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of our friend. The Catholic Church has never believed that anybody — not even Peter — was a “Rock” in any sense that could conflict with Christ being the Church’s sole foundation. Peter was a mere man; every pope subsequent has been a mere man. But as Scripture itself tells us:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19–22).
Christ Jesus is the cornerstone, the Rock upon whom all our faith is based. But Jesus Himself chose to build His Church upon the foundation of the Apostles. As we see again in the Revelation:
And [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:10, 14)
So yes, every single council of the Church ever has affirmed that Christ alone is the the Foundation and Rock upon which the Church is built. But Christ built the Church upon Peter and the other Apostles, and those men who have followed in their footsteps as bishops.
But concerning the councils: the primacy of the Roman bishop is indeed visible in and through them. For example, the second ecumenical council, the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), declared:
Canon 3. The bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honor after the bishop of Rome, because the same is New Rome.
This was a contentious point, in that it gave to Constantinople a place of honor that city had not historically had, and presumed to claim for Constantinople a rank based on its political position, where Rome’s primacy rested primarily on its succession from St. Peter. As such, the Church of Rome rejected this canon. But the canon nonetheless declared and affirmed the universally recognized truth of the primacy of the Roman bishop.
Since the canons of subsequent synods are not so clear as this, allow me to quote from an historical account. At the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), the orthodoxy of the teachings of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was at issue. Pope Celestine was not himself present at the council, but had sent his legates. And along with them he sent, by letter, his sentence of condemnation upon Nestorius’s teachings:
At the close [of his letter] the Pope said that he sent three deputies, that they might be present at the transactions, and carry out what he had already decided in reference to Nestorius, and that he did not doubt that the assembled bishops would agree with the same. … The members of the Synod greatly rejoiced at the Pope’s letter, and exclaimed: “That is the true judgment, thanks to Celestine the new Paul, to Cyril the new Paul, to Celestine the watchman of the faith.”
… One of the papal legates, the Presbyter Philip, who was rather more prominent than his colleagues, now thanked the Synod for [assenting to the pope’s sentence], “that the holy members had adhered to the holy head, knowing well that Peter was the head of the Catholic faith, and of all the Apostles,” and asked that the decisions of the Synod already adopted might be laid before them, so that the legates might confirm them, in accordance with the commission of the Pope. This was agreed to, and the session then ended. (Karl Josef von Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, trans. Edward Hayes Plumptre, vol. 3 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1883], 62–64)
At the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), the pope’s advice through his legates played a similarly paramount role, as the council confirmed in its letter to Pope Leo at the council’s end, requesting his assent to their decrees:
[The] golden chain leading down from the Author of the command to us, you yourself have stedfastly preserved, being set as the mouthpiece unto all of the blessed Peter, and imparting the blessedness of his Faith unto all. Whence we too, wisely taking you as our guide in all that is good, have shown to the sons of the Church their inheritance of Truth, not giving our instruction each singly and in secret, but making known our confession of the Faith in conceit, with one consent and agreement. And we were all delighted, revelling, as at an imperial banquet, in the spiritual food, which Christ supplied to us through your letter: and we seemed to see the Heavenly Bridegroom actually present with us. For if “where two or three are gathered together in His name,” He has said that “there He is in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), must He not have been much more particularly present with 520 priests, who preferred the spread of knowledge concerning Him to their country and their ease? Of whom you were chief, as the head to the members, showing your goodwill in the person of those who represented you. (Letter XCVIII, Council of Chalcedon to Leo, in Letters of Leo the Great, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 12, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe and ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 72)
Concerning this point of “Peter speaking through Leo, our friend raises an unusual misunderstanding:
Rome also adheres to a strange eastern religious view, which seems to border on the lines of reincarnation, for it states that Peter’s spirit somehow speaks through living popes, and it was Leo I (A.D. 449) who first introduced this view into the Catholic Church (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 744).
There is no idea akin to “reincarnation” here. The passage he cites from Schaff implies nothing of the sort:
At the second session, on the 10th of October, Dioscurus having already departed, the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan symbol, two letters of Cyril (but not his anathemas), and the famous Epistola Dogmatica of Leo to Flavian, were read before the council amid loud applause — the bishops exclaiming: “That is the faith of the fathers! That is the faith of the apostles! So we all believe! So the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who believes otherwise! Through Leo, Peter has thus spoken. Even so did Cyril teach! That is the true faith.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church 3:744)
“Through Leo, Peter has thus spoken” is a famous quotation from the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). Leo did indeed do much more to advance our understanding of the papacy than any other pontiff up until that time — but this is not what our friend has taken it to be. What is meant by this statement is that through the office of the papacy, the holder of the office carries the authority of Peter, and Peter, still living and interceding for his Church in Christ, is in some spiritual way with each of his successors.
And I think that’s enough of councils; the point is made. Suffice it to say: Every ecumenical council of the Church required the approval of the bishop of Rome, and every canon and decree of every council required his approval to be accepted and valid. For this reason, since the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, there has never been another accepted ecumenical council in the East.
The Church Fathers
There are numerous, numerous quotes from the Church Fathers which can be presented to demonstrate early and definite understanding and support, in both the West and East, for the primacy of Rome in the successors of Peter. Our friend, however, has presented us with a slew of quotations of his own with which we must contend. Nearly all of these quotations are taken out of their proper contexts; I will aim to demonstrate the proper context and belief of each author.
First, a note: Yes, there were some points on which not all of the Church Fathers were unanimous, even with regard to some which touch upon the papacy. But the Church Fathers were not infallible. They were not Apostles or inspired authors. They were fallible men like you or me, writing by their own understandings and intellects. The Church Fathers, in some ways, however, are the bearers of the Apostolic Tradition. Some of what they report was handed down directly from the Christ through the Apostles.
To address some general objections from our friend:
Please also note that the following “fathers” such as Cyprian, Origen, Cyril, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine never acknowledged that the keys the Lord gave Peter in Matthew 16:19 would be successive. The early Church understood this commission to be solely for Peter alone; and subsequently no transfer of power or authority was ever practiced in the early Church.
Yes, in fact, every one of these Fathers acknowledged the succession of the power of the keys in the episcopate of Rome, by the mere fact that they supported the papacy — which is predicated on this very premise. As the below quotations will demonstrate, many of them affirmed this very fact.
I don’t know how our friend can boldfacedly declare that “no transfer or power or authority was ever practiced in the early Church”: the whole of this study, both above and below, contradicts this claim.
I also don’t understand why he places “Church ‘Fathers'” in quotation marks.
Church ‘fathers’ such as Irenaeus, Polycarp, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Hilary and Ambrose never acknowledged or taught that Peter was the first pope.
These men may not have affirmed that Peter was called the first “pope,” but every one of them acknowledged, understood, and taught that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and the foundation of the Church.
The ‘fathers’ were far from united on Peter’s “supremacy.”
Arguments can be made that the Fathers disagreed about certain finer points regarding their understanding of the role of Peter and the papacy. For example, yes, there were differing understandings and interpretations of Matthew 16:17–19. But they were all in agreement that Jesus had appointed Peter to a unique and preeminent pastoral role in the Church.
Here we have [a Jesuit] with [his view] on this, Juan Maldonatus who said the following:
“There are among ancient authors some who interpret ‘on this rock,’ that ‘on this rock’ or ‘on this confession of faith in which thou hast called Me the Son of the living God,’ as Hilary, Gregory Nyseen, Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. St. Augustine, going still further away from the true sense, interprets ‘on this rock’ that is ‘on myself Christ, because Christ was the rock.’”
Our friend gave me a bum steer here, pointing me to the Catholic Encyclopedia. This is in fact a quote from Maldonado in the anti-Catholic tract The Infallibility of the Church by George Salmon. Salmon does not give a citation to where the quote may be found in Maldonado’s works, so we are left with only this, taken out of whatever be its context. But to the criticism: It is irrelevant how various Church Fathers interpreted Matthew 16:17–19. What is relevant is their overall understanding of the primacy of Peter and his successors — to which nearly all of them held.
So for an overview of how the “fathers” universally understood this doctrine to be, please see the following breakdown, taken from [William Shaw] Kerr:
- Forty-four for it meaning the faith Peter confessed.
- Sixteen for it being Christ Himself.
- And eight for it [being] all the apostles.
Such tabulations are subjective and devoid of any meaning without complete data (what Fathers? where?). Just as there are multiple levels of exegesis, many of the Fathers expressed different interpretations depending on the context and the precise questions being asked. I would dispute the numbers of the list, which are almost certainly incorrect by any but the most adversarial reading. And once again, they are irrelevant.
Kerr then goes on to quote Catholic Archbishop Kenrick:
“From this it follows either that no argument at all, or a feeble one, can be drawn in proof of the primacy of Peter from the words on this rock will I build my church. If we ought to follow the greater number of the fathers on this question then certainly it is to be held that we should understand by the rock the faith professed by Peter and not Peter professing the faith” (William Shaw Kerr, A Handbook on the Papacy [New York: Philosophical Library, 1953], 47, 48)
If only more bishops in Rome were as honest as this, how different their church and the world would be!
Archbishop Kenrick was an opponent of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, but ultimately accepted it after it was defined dogmatically. By this argument, he was not rejecting the papacy, but a particular interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture. The interpretation of Matthew 16:17–19 was a key element of the debate over papal infallibility. As I have demonstrated amply above, the doctrine of the papacy rests on much more than this one passage of Scripture. The Church does affirm, with the many Fathers who do, that the “Rock” of that passage referred to both Peter’s confession of faith, and Peter himself, because of that faith:
Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve (cf. Mark 3:16; 9:2; Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5); Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Christ, the “living stone” (1 Peter 2:4), thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakeable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it (cf. Luke 22:32). (CCC 552)
Now we turn to a series of specific quotes our friend has given from various Church Fathers, as supposed arguments against Peter having been the leader and pastor of the Church.
Origen was a prolific writer and theologian of the third century of the Church, a native of Alexandria. On account of a number of controversial views Origen was reputed to have held, he was never canonized as a saint by either the Orthodox or the Catholic Church.
Our friend’s quote:
Origen: “But if you think that the whole Church was built by God upon Peter alone, what would you say about John, the son of thunder, or each of the apostles? Or shall we venture to say that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Peter but shall prevail against the other apostles and those that are perfect? Are not the words in question ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ and ‘upon this rock I will build my Church’ said in the case of all and each of them?” (Com. in Matt. xii, Migne PG 13:1000.)
Yes, Origen did say this, and taken out of its context, it does sound kind of oppositional to the idea of the papacy, doesn’t it? But what Origen really means to argue, quite rightly, is that the promises of God apply to all of us. He accepts very truthfully that there was a sense that these proclamations applied only to Peter or only the Apostles. But he continues in this same chapter:
Many then will say to the Saviour, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God;” but not all who say this will say it to Him, as not at all having learned it by the revelation of flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven Himself taking away the veil that lay upon their heart, in order that after this “with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord” they may speak through the Spirit of God saying concerning Him, “Lord Jesus,” and to Him, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was…. (Commentary on Matthew XII.11, trans. John Patrick, in Allan Menzies, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9 , 456)
The fact that Origen is making use of a large metaphor, drawing parallels between the gifts to the Apostles and the gifts to all Christians, is evident even topically, by the headers applied to the text by the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers:
- “The Promise Given to Peter Not Restricted to Him, But Applicable to All Disciples Like Him.”
- “Every Sin — Every False Doctrine is a Gate of Hades.”
- “In What Sense the Keys Are Given to Peter, and Every Peter. Limitations of This Power.”
The full context makes clear that Origen is not rejecting the power of the episcopacy at all, let alone of Peter:
But when those who maintain the function of the episcopate make use of this word as Peter, and, having received the keys of the kingdom of heaven from the Saviour, teach that things bound by them, that is to say, condemned, are also bound in heaven, and that those which have obtained remission by them are also loosed in heaven, we must say that they speak wholesomely if they have the way of life on account of which it was said to that Peter, “Thou art Peter;” and if they are such that upon them the church is built by Christ, and to them with good reason this could be referred; and the gates of Hades ought not to prevail against him when he wishes to bind and loose. (Commentary on Matthew XII.14, in Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 9, 459)
And Origen, even more clearly, rejects the understanding our friend wishes to express later in the work:
But since it was necessary, even if something in common had been said in the case of Peter and those who had thrice admonished the brethren, that Peter should have some element superior to those who thrice admonished, in the case of Peter, this saying “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the heavens,” has been specially set before the words, “And what things soever ye shall bind on earth,” etc. And, indeed, if we were to attend carefully to the evangelical writings, we would also find here, and in relation to those things which seem to be common to Peter and those who have thrice admonished the brethren, a great difference and a pre-eminence in the things said to Peter, compared with the second class. For it is no small difference that Peter received the keys not of one heaven but of more, and in order that whatsoever things he binds on the earth may be bound not in one heaven but in them all, as compared with the many who bind on earth and loose on earth, so that these things are bound and loosed not in the heavens, as in the case of Peter, but in one only; for they do not reach so high a stage, with power as Peter to bind and loose in all the heavens. (Commentary on Matthew XIII.31, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9, 494)
Cyprian of Carthage (c.200–258)
St. Cyprian was a native of Carthage and bishop of that city from c. A.D. 248 until his martyrdom in 258. His writings are especially important as detailed records of his pastoral ministry, caring for his own flock and dealing with the Church at large, during the times of the Novationist heresy and persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Valerian.
Our friend’s quotations:
Cyprian: “To all the apostles after His resurrection He gives equal power and says, ‘As the Father sent Me so I send you.” (De Unitate 4).
“Certainly the rest of the apostles were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship of dignity and power” (De Unitate 4).
Well, if this isn’t the crassest example of cherry-picking I’ve seen in quite a while. The very passage from which our friend has taken these quotes out of context refutes the argument he is attempting to make — against the whole entire thesis of the treatise. Yes, it is true that the Lord gave all the Apostles the same authority and made them equal in rank; no one has ever argued otherwise. But this does not change the fact that He appointed Peter to a unique pastoral among His brother Apostles. Here is the full quotation:
If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, Feed my sheep. And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained (John 20:21); yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 4, trans. R. E. Wallis, in Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, 422)
That He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one: that is, Peter himself. Cyprian continues, in the very next passage:
Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” (Song of Songs 6:9) Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?” (Ephesians 4:4) And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the [universal] episcopate itself to be one and undivided. (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 4–5, in ibid., 422)
In fact, there is an earlier edition of this text, in which Cyprian argues even more strongly for unity under Peter. Protestant scholars have argued that the text is corrupted by Catholic interpolations, but given the care with which the Church has transmitted other sacred and patristic texts, this seems a specious and unproven argument.
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ He says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven.’ And again He says to him after His resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.’ On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
This text is given by Bryan Cross of Called to Communion in “The Chair of Peter.” Its origin and authenticity are discussed in his footnote, and more fully in Dom John Chapman’s book Studies on the Early Papacy
And even if one doubt the authenticity of this document, Cyprian makes this point crystal clear in numerous other places in his writings:
There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on the Rock [super petram, i.e. on Peter] by the voice of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever gathers elsewhere, scatters. (Epistle XXXIX.5 [ANF] [XL.5 in Migne PL 4:336])
For additional resources on Cyprian’s views towards the papacy, see PhilVaz’s article, “St. Cyprian on the Church and the Papacy,” and Bryan Cross on “The Chair of St. Peter” and “St. Cyprian on the Unity of the Catholic Church.”
Hilary of Poitiers (c.300–c.368)
St. Hilary, a native and bishop of Poitiers in Gaul, was an ardent opponent of Arianism, called the “Hammer of the Arians” and the “Athanasius of the West.”
Our friend brings the quote:
St. Hilary: “Upon this rock of the confession is the building up of the Church…. This faith is the foundation of the Church” (De Trinitate vi, 36. P.L. 10:186-7.)
First of all, I wasn’t even sure why our friend quoted this. Where is the objection?
But for this, I discover, our friend has done great violence to this passage from Hilary. It’s actually a quite lengthy (and beautiful) defense of Christ’s Divine nature against the Arians, in which he gives great praise to Peter’s confession of faith:
A belief that the Son of God is Son in name only and not in nature, is not the faith of the Gospels and of the Apostles. If this be a mere title, to which adoption is His only claim; if He be not the Son in virtue of having proceeded forth from God, whence, I ask, was it that the blessed Simon Bar-Jona confessed to Him, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God? … If Christ be the Son of God only in this titular way, what was the revelation made to Peter, not by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven? What praise could he deserve for making a declaration which was universally applicable? What credit was due to Him for stating a fact of general knowledge? If He be Son by adoption, wherein lay the blessedness of Peter’s confession, which offered a tribute to the Son …? The Apostle’s faith penetrates into a region closed to human reasoning. What then is this truth, which the Father now reveals to Peter, which receives the praise of a blessed confession? … Peter is praised not merely for his tribute of adoration, but for his recognition of the mysterious truth; for confessing not Christ only, but Christ the Son of God. It would clearly have sufficed for a payment of reverence, had he said, Thou art the Christ, and nothing more. But it would have been a hollow confession, had Peter only hailed Him as Christ, without confessing Him the Son of God. … And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built. But the perceptive faculties of flesh and blood cannot attain to the recognition and confession of this truth. It is a mystery, Divinely revealed, that Christ must be not only named, but believed, the Son of God. Was it only the Divine name; was it not rather the Divine nature that was revealed to Peter? …
This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation; even the knowledge that we must not imagine a false Christ, a creature made out of nothing, but must confess Him the Son of God, truly possessed of the Divine nature. What blasphemous madness and pitiful folly is it, that will not heed the venerable age and faith of that blessed martyr, Peter himself, for whom the Father was prayed that his faith might not fail in temptation; who twice repeated the declaration of love for God that was demanded of him, and was grieved that he was tested by a third renewal of the question, as though it were a doubtful and wavering devotion, and then, because this third trial had cleansed him of his infirmities, had the reward of hearing the Lord’s commission, Feed My sheep, a third time repeated; who, when all the Apostles were silent, alone recognised by the Father’s revelation the Son of God, and won the pre-eminence of a glory beyond the reach of human frailty by his confession of his blissful faith! … The very reason why he is blessed is that he confessed the Son of God. This is the Father’s revelation, this the foundation of the Church, this the assurance of her permanence. Hence has she the keys of the kingdom of heaven, hence judgment in heaven and judgment on earth. Through revelation Peter learnt the mystery hidden from the beginning of the world, proclaimed the faith, published the Divine nature, confessed the Son of God. He who would deny all this truth and confess Christ a creature, must first deny the apostleship of Peter, his faith, his blessedness, his episcopate, his martyrdom. And when he has done all this, he must learn that he has severed himself from Christ; for it was by confessing Him that Peter won these glories. (On the Trinity VI.36–37, trans. E. W. Watson et al., in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 9a , 111–112)
Ambrose of Milan (c.340–397)
St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was another staunch opponent of Arianism, was the teacher of St. Augustine, and was one of the most influential bishops of the fourth century, standing up even to emperors.
Our friend raises:
St. Ambrose: “Faith is then the foundation of the Church, for not the human person of St. Peter but of faith is it said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (De Incarn., v. 34, Migne PL 16:827.)
Again, I wasn’t sure why our friend quoted this. Of course faith is the foundation of the Church, not the human person of St. Peter. This the Church has always affirmed — for Peter was a mere man, but his faith was a gift from God. But as I dug into the original source, I find, again, that our friend has grossly drawn this quote out from its proper context:
This, then, is Peter, who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather, before the rest of men. And so he is called the foundation, because he knows how to preserve not only his own but the common foundation. Christ agreed with him; the Father revealed it to him. For he who speaks of the true generation of the Father, received it from the Father, did not receive it from the flesh.
Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ But his confession of faith conquered hell. And this confession did not shut out one heresy, for since the Church like a good ship is often buffeted by many waves, the foundation of the Church should prevail against all heresies (On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord [De Incarnationis Dominicae Sacramento] 33–34, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation vol. 44 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963], 230).
For good measure, then, to demonstrate that St. Ambrose did fully affirm the primacy of Rome in the successors of Peter, here are a few more important quotes:
“The law of Thy mouth, O Lord, is good unto me, I keep Thy commandments” (Psalm 119:72, 73). Thou hast Thyself said that Thou art one with the Father. Because Peter believed this, he received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and without anxiety for himself forgave sins. (On the Holy Spirit III.17.125, trans. Romestin et al., in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 10 , 152)
Moreover, that thou mayest know that it is after His Manhood that He entreats, and in virtue of His Godhead that He commands, it is written for thee in the Gospel that He said to Peter: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” To the same Apostle, again, when on a former occasion he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” He made answer: “Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock will I build My Church, and I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Could He not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on His own authority, He gave the kingdom, whom He called the Rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church? Consider, then, the manner of His entreaty, the occasions of His commanding. He entreats, when He is shown to us as on the eve of suffering: He commands, when He is believed to be the Son of God. (On the Faith IV.5.57, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 10, 269)
Thou saidst to Peter when he excused himself from having his feet washed by Thee: “If I wash not thy feet, thou wilt have no part with Me” (John 13:8). What fellowship, then, can they have with Thee, who receive not the keys of the kingdom of heaven, saying that they ought not to remit sins? And this confession [i.e. that they ought not to remit sins] is indeed rightly made by them, for they have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” (On Repentance I.7.32–33, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 10, 334).
John Chrysostom (c.347–407)
John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, is one of the most important Eastern Fathers. He was given the epithet Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos), meaning “golden-mouthed,” on account of his eloquence in preaching. The output of his surviving homilies is voluminous. Apparently because he was an Eastern Father, he is supposed by many anti-Catholics to be opposed to the papacy and other Western “pretensions,” but this is in fact far from the case. Our friend has give a good handful of quotations from Chrysostom which we must now examine.
Nearly all of these quotes give great honor to the Apostle Paul. Our friend apparently believes that this lowers the status of Peter or calls into the question the primacy he is supposed to have held, but they do nothing of the sort. There is no need of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Both men are great men of God, called to specific missions and roles; and both together form the foundation of the Church of Rome. Chrysostom plainly had a great love for Paul as a preacher and a special relationship with him, as he writes in the preface to his homilies on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
As I keep hearing the Epistles of the blessed Paul read, and that twice every week, and often three or four times, whenever we are celebrating the memorials of the holy martyrs, gladly do I enjoy the spiritual trumpet, and get roused and warmed with desire at recognizing the voice so dear to me, and seem to fancy him all but present to my sight, and behold him conversing with me. But I grieve and am pained, that all people do not know this man, as much as they ought to know him; but some are so far ignorant of him, as not even to know for certainty the number of his Epistles. And this comes not of incapacity, but of their not having the wish to be continually conversing with this blessed man. For it is not through any natural readiness and sharpness of wit that even I am acquainted with as much as I do know, if I do know anything, but owing to a continual cleaving to the man, and an earnest affection towards him. … [So] let us hold our eyes open to the bright shining of the Apostle’s words; for this man’s tongue shone forth above the sun, and he abounded more than all the rest in the word of doctrine; for since he labored more abundantly than they, he also drew upon himself a large measure of the Spirit’s grace (1 Corinthians 15:10) (Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Argument, trans. J.B. Morris et al., in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 11, 335–336).
These same sentiments are reflected in the quotes given below.
Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Chrysostom said, our friend raises:
[Paul was] “the chief and leader of the choir of the saints” (Hom. in Rom. xxxii, Migne PG 60:678.)
Chrysostom does indeed have words of great praise for Paul — but again, our friend is taking this quotation out of context, omitting its equal application to Peter. Chrysostom does not mean in any way to denigrate the dignity of Peter — rather, Peter’s and Paul’s glory are “two crowns” for the city of Rome. Commenting on Paul’s prayers for the Church, expressed in the closing of his epistle to the Romans:
Who is there then to pray over us, since Paul hath departed? These who are the imitators of Paul. Only let us yield ourselves worthy of such intercession, that it may not be that we hear Paul’s voice here only, but that hereafter, when we are departed, we may be counted worthy to see the wrestler of Christ. Or rather, if we hear him here, we shall certainly see him hereafter, if not as standing near him, yet see him we certainly shall, glistening near the Throne of the king. Where the Cherubim sing the glory, where the Seraphim are flying, there shall we see Paul, with Peter, and as a chief and leader of the choir of the Saints, and shall enjoy his generous love. For if when here he loved men so, that when he had the choice of departing and being with Christ, he chose to be here, much more will he there display a warmer affection. I love Rome even for this, although indeed one has other grounds for praising it, both for its greatness, and its antiquity, and its beauty, and its populousness, and for its power, and its wealth, and for its successes in war. But I let all this pass, and esteem it blessed on this account, that both in his lifetime he wrote to them, and loved them so, and talked with them whiles he was with us, and brought his life to a close there.1 Wherefore the city is more notable upon this ground, than upon all others together. And as a body great and strong, it hath as two glistening eyes the bodies of these Saints. Not so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the city of Rome, sending out these two lights into all parts of the world. From thence will Paul be caught up, from thence Peter. Just bethink you, and shudder at the thought of what a sight Rome will see, when Paul ariseth suddenly from that deposit, together with Peter, and is lifted up to meet the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17). What a rose will Rome send up to Christ! (Is. 35:1) what two crowns will the city have about it! what golden chains will she be girded with! what fountains possess! Therefore I admire the city, not for the much gold, not for the columns, not for the other display there, but for these pillars of the Church (1 Corinthians 15:38). (Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans XXXII, trans. J. B. Morris et al., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 11, ed. Schaff, 561–562)
Also, I do not wish to niggle, but our friend quoted this passage as claiming that Paul was “the chief and leader of the choir of the saints”; but the definite article (“the”) is plainly not there, either in the English or in the Greek: Ἐκεῖ Παύλον ὀψόμεθα μετὰ Πέτρου, καὶ τοῦ τῶν ἁγίων χοροῦ κορυφαῖν ὄντα καὶ πρωτοστάτην [There we shall see Paul with Peter, and of the choir of the saints chief and leader]. The Greek words here used for “chief” (κορυφαῖος [koruphaios, often latinized to coryphaeus]), lit. head man (also, the standard word for the leader of the chorus in a Greek drama), and “leader” (πρωτοστάτης [prōtostatēs]), lit. standing first — have to do with standing at the head of a row or standing first in a line.
Homilies on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians
[Paul was]: “the apostle of the world” (Hom. in Ep. I ad Cor xxi, Migne PG 61:171).
I could not find this quotation in either the Greek or any English translation of it. I did find this on the same page where that should have been, though, which further undermines our friend’s argument (thanks for pointing it out):
“Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the Apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5). Observe his skilfulness. The leader of the choir (κορυφαῖος) stands last in his arrangement: since that is the time for laying down the strongest of all one’s topics. Nor was it so wonderful for one to be able to point out examples of this conduct in the rest, as in the foremost champion and in him who was entrusted with the keys of heaven. But neither does he mention Peter alone, but all of them: as if he had said, Whether you seek the inferior sort or the more eminent, in all you find patterns of this sort. (Homily on the First Epistle to the Corinthians XXI.3, trans. H. K. Cornish et al., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 12, ed. Schaff , 120)
Here, note that Peter alone is the κορυφαῖος (leader of the choir).
Homilies on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians
[Paul]: “He had the care not of one household but also of cities and of peoples and of nations and of the whole world” (Hom. in Ep. II ad Cor xxv, Migne PG 61:571.)
This is an accurate quote, but in the context it is a comment upon Paul’s care and solicitude for “all the Churches,” not about some position of superiority or supremacy. Paul worried about all the Churches. The Greek words Chrysostom uses here are the language of housekeeping and home economics: Paul was taking care of all the Churches. And there was plenty of care to go around for all the Apostles.
“Anxiety for all the Churches.” This was the chief thing of all, that his soul too was distracted, and his thoughts divided. For even if nothing from without had assailed him; yet the war within was enough, those waves on waves, that sleet of cares, that war of thoughts. For if one that hath charge of but a single house, and hath servants and superintendents and stewards, often cannot take breath for cares, though there be none that molests him: he that hath the care not of a single house, but of cities and peoples and nations and of the whole world; and in respect to such great concerns, and with so many spitefully entreating him, and single-handed, and suffering so many things, and so tenderly concerned as not even a father is for his children — consider what he endured. (2 Corinthians 11:29) (Homily in Second Epistle to the Corinthians XXV.2 [11:27–29], trans. J. Ashworth and T. B. Chambers, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 12, ed. Schaff , 395)
Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew
Chrysostom: “This is, upon the rock of the confession. Paul was equal in honour to Peter” (Hom. in Matt. liv).
Once again, we find, our friend has ripped an inappropriate quote from an inappropriate context. And in the referenced homily, I cannot find any phrase about “Paul being equal in honor to Peter” at all. This quote, in the original context of the referenced passage:
What saith the mouth of the apostles, Peter, the ever fervent, the leader of the apostolic choir? When all are asked, he answers. And whereas when He asked the opinion of the people, all replied to the question; when He asked their own, Peter springs forward, and anticipates them, and saith, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” What then saith Christ? “Thou art Simon, the son of Jonas; thou shalt be called Cephas.” … He added, “And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;” that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were now on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd. “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” … Then He mentions also another honor. “And I also will give thee the keys of the heavens … that whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in Heaven.” How then is it not “His to give to sit on His right hand, and on His left” (Matthew 20:23), when He saith, “I will give thee”? … For those things which are peculiar to God alone (both to absolve sins, and to make the church incapable of overthrow in such assailing waves, and to exhibit a man that is a fisher more solid than any rock, while all the world is at war with him), these He promises Himself to give. (Homilies on Matthew LIV.2–3, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 10 , 332–333)
A little while later, he says:
And if they who had enjoyed the benefit of many miracles, and had had part in so many unutterable mysteries, were offended by the mere hearing of it; or rather not these only, but even the leader of them all, Peter; consider what it was likely the common sort should feel, being first told that He is the Son of God, then seeing Him even crucified and spit upon, and that without knowledge of the secret of those mysteries, or participation in the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Homilies on Matthew LIV.4, in ibid., 334)
Rather than decrease the honor to which the Fathers raised Peter, this passage increases it.
Homilies on the Gospel of John
Our friend next quotes:
[John] “is the pillar of the churches throughout the world, who hath the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Hom. in Joan i, Migne PG 59:480).
As our friend has pointed out elsewhere, the “power of the keys” was a grant to all the Apostles. And so what if John is a pillar of the whole Church? Through His Gospel, he has certainly been a pillar for all Christians of every time. Is this somehow meant to strip Peter of the role he was called to play?
For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence, this man comes forward to us now; not as an actor of a play, not hiding his head with a mask, (for he hath another sort of words to speak,) nor mounting a platform, nor striking the stage with his foot, nor dressed out with apparel of gold, but he enters wearing a robe of inconceivable beauty. (Homilies on the Gospel of St. John I.2, trans. G. T. Stupart, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 12, ed. Schaff , 23)
[John and Peter received] “the charge of the world” (Hom. in Joan i, Migne PG 59:25.)
I could not find this second quote, either in the Greek or in any English translation.
Homilies on the Incomprehensible Nature of God
Our friend raises:
Chrysostom would give Paul the much-deserved credit that today’s Catholic Church often denies him:
[Paul was] “the teacher of the world, the planter of the Church. If therefore he receives a greater crown than the apostles and be greater then they, it is manifest that he shall enjoy the highest honour and pre-eminence” (Hom. viii, Migne PG 48:772.)
I was not aware that the Catholic Church was denying St. Paul any credit. He rightly is hailed as one of the two pillars of the Church of Rome and receives a feast day together with Peter. This homily of Chrysostom is indeed the highest praise I’ve seen given to Paul or anyone. But in the context, it is rather an argument against heretics who apparently argued that God neither granted reward or passed judgment on those who pass on from this life. Paul is Chrysostom’s example of an ideal man who has received the highest crown from the Lord:
Another source might help you to see that He has the power to grant heavenly honors. So we shall bring forward the man who is better than all men, we shall show that Christ granted this man a crown. Then what excuse will you heretics have to deny in the future that Christ has the power to reward?
Who is the one who is better than all men? Who other than the tentmaker (cf. Acts 18:3), the teacher of the entire world (cf. 1 Timothy 2:7), the one who coursed over land and sea as if equipped with wings, the chosen instrument (cf. Acts 9:15), the attendant of Christ the bridegroom, the one who planted the Church [φυτουργός, lit. gardener] (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6), the wise builder (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10), the preacher (cf. 1 Timothy 2:7), the one who ran the course and who fought the good fight (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7), the soldier (cf. 2 Timothy 2:3), the trainer of athletes, the one who left memorials of his own virtue everywhere in the world. He was snatched up to the third heaven before his own resurrection (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2), he was caught up into paradise, he shared in the ineffable mysteries of God, he heard and spoke such things as human nature cannot speak, he enjoyed a richer grace and manifested it in many more labors (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23).
To learn that he toiled more than all others, listen to him as he says: “I have labored more than any of them” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:15). But if he endured more labors than all, he will receive a richer crown. “For each will receive his own reward in proportion to his labor” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:8). If he will receive a crown greater than the other apostles (and no one of the apostles was his equal, but he was greater than they), it is clear that he will enjoy the loftiest honor and privilege. (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily VIII, trans. Paul W. Harkins, in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 72 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999], 220–221)
The many appellations of praise which Chrysostom applies are nearly all of them direct quotations from Paul’s own letters, which the Apostle applied to himself. Paul was indeed worthy of the highest praise. That Paul was, in Chrysostom’s judgment, “the greatest of the Apostles,” need not reflect on the unique role Peter played as pastor of the Church — perhaps not so great, but a necessary calling.
Homilies on the Greeting to Priscilla and Aquila
Our friend presents:
“Where Paul was, there also was Christ. He is the light of the Church, the foundation of the faith, the pillar and ground of the truth” (Hom i in Rom. xvi, Migne PG 51:191.)
Chrysostom has still more words of high praise for Paul. But in this context he praises Priscilla and Aquila, the couple with whom Paul stayed for two years while in Corinth (Acts 18), and continued his association with throughout his career (cf. Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19), by the great respect and honor Paul showed them by his proximity and friendship with them.
Behold here a man and woman, and they excelled in the workplace and practiced a trade, and demonstrated a more accurate spiritual insight to those living in monasteries. Whence is this evident? From those things … to which Paul next bore witness. For after he said “Greet Priscilla and Aquila,” he added their qualification of worth. What sort is this? He does not say that they were wealthy or distinguished or well born. What then? “My fellow-laborers in the Lord” (Romans 16:3). Nothing could equal this in a reckoning of excellence. Their worth is evident not only because of this but also because he stayed with them, not just one day, or two or three, but two entire years: in this their virtue can be seen. …
For [just as Christ commanded] “In whatsoever city or household you go, ask who is worthy in it and stay there” (Matthew 10:11, Luke 9:4), so this couple was worthy of Paul. If they were worthy of Paul, they were worthy of the angels. Boldly would I call that home both heaven and Church. For where Paul was, there also was Christ. “Do you seek proof,” he says, “of Christ speaking in me?” (2 Corinthians 13:3). And where Christ was, there also angels continuously resorted.
Those who have previously represented themselves as worthy of the ministry of Paul, reflect upon who this couple was, observe these folk who dwelt together with him for two years, their aspect and walk and glance and fashion of dress and goings in and out, and all other particulars practiced in their daily lives. Think how great it was to see Paul, dining and rebuking and exhorting and praying and weeping, coming in and going out.
For if we have only fourteen epistles and carry them everywhere on the earth, what living epistles would those have been who had the source of the epistles, the tongue of the whole world, the light of the Church, the foundation of the faith, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) — what would they not have been who lived together with such a messenger? For if his clothing was fearsome to such powerful demons (Acts 19:12), how great a gift of the Spirit was drawn by living with him? To behold the bed of Paul, to see the coverlet, the sandals — would not it suffice them as a basis for constant amazement and contrition? For if the demons shuddered upon seeing his clothing, much more were believers who lived with him stung to repentance when they saw the same. (First Homily on the Greeting to Priscilla and Aquila, adapted from translation by Catherine Clark Kroeger, in Priscilla Papers vol. 5, no. 3 [Summer 1991], 16–20, at 16–17)
None of this praise, for either Paul or Priscilla or Aquila, in any way overshadows the unique role of Peter in the Church.
Eulogy on the Holy Martyr, St. Ignatius
Finally, I leave you with one more quote, from a eulogy given by Chrysostom to the people of the Church of Antioch, his native city:
For as in the care of armies, the wiser of the generals have on their hands the more leading and more numerous regiments, so, accordingly, in the care of cities. The more able of the rulers are entrusted with the larger and more populous. And at any rate this city [Antioch] was of much account to God, as indeed He manifested by the very deeds which He did. At all events the master of the whole world, Peter, to whose hands He committed the keys of heaven, whom He commanded to do and to bear all, He bade tarry here for a long period. …
According to tradition, as stated above, Peter was bishop of Antioch before moving on to Rome. But he was master of the whole world.
And when [Ignatius] arrived at [Rome], even that he instructed in Christian wisdom. For on this account God permitted him there to end his life, so that this man’s death might be instructive to all who dwell in Rome. For we by the grace of God need henceforward no evidence, being rooted in the faith. But they who dwelt in Rome, inasmuch as these was great impiety there, required more help. On this account both Peter and Paul, and this man after them [Ignatius], were all slain there, partly, indeed, in order that they might purify with their own blood, the city which had been defiled with blood of idols, and partly in order that they might by their works afford a proof of the resurrection of the crucified Christ. (Homilies on St. Ignatius and St. Babylas: Eulogy on the Holy Martyr, St. Ignatius IV, trans. W. R. W. Stephens and T. P. Brandram, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 9, 138–139)
There is no doubt, even among the literature of the Eastern Fathers, that Peter and Paul died at Rome.
St. Jerome, a priest, confessor, translator, theologian, and historian, was one of the most learned scholars of the ancient world, and is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin from its original languages, what became known as the Vulgate. Of Jerome, our friend raises:
Jerome: “But you say that the Church is founded upon Peter although the same thing is done in another place upon all the apostles, and all receive the kingdom of heaven, and the solidity of the Church is established equally upon all, nevertheless among the twelve one is therefore chosen that by the appointment of a head an occasion of dissension may be taken away” (Adv. Jovianum 1:26, Migne PL 23:258.)
Here is a somewhat clearer translation of the quote:
But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism. (Against Jovianus I.26, trans. W. H. Fremantle et al., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 6 , 366)
Yes, all of this is true. The Church is founded on all the Apostles (Ephesians 2:20), and they all received the power of the keys (Matthew 18:18). They all, as Apostles and bishops, are equal in rank with Peter. But this does not change the fact Jesus founded the Church on Peter in a special way apart from the rest. All the Apostles are equal in rank, but Peter is the hinge on which the unity of the Church turns. The context of this argument is a Christological argument against the heretic Jovianus; it has no bearing upon Jerome’s views toward the papacy.
For a more important statement on Jerome’s views toward the papacy, we should turn to a more relevant source: a letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus himself:
Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, “woven from the top throughout” (John 19:23), since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ (Song of Songs 2:15), and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover “the sealed fountain” and “the garden inclosed” (Song of Songs 4:12), I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a Church whose faith has been praised by Paul (Romans 1:8). I appeal for spiritual food to the Church whence I have received the garb of Christ (i.e. Baptism, cf. Galatians 3:27). The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for “the pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46). “Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together” (Matthew 24:48). Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats (Matthew 13:22, 23). In the West the Sun of righteousness (Malachi 4:2) is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven (Luke 10:18), has once more set his throne above the stars (Isaiah 14:12). “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:15), “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), ye are “vessels of gold and of silver.” Here are vessels of wood or of earth (2 Timothy 2:20), which wait for the rod of iron (Revelation 2:27), and eternal fire.
Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built (Matthew 16:18)! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten (Exodus 12:22). This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails (Genesis 7:23). … (Letter XV to Pope Damasus, trans. W. H. Fremantle et al., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 6 , 18).
These are among the highest praise of any for the see of Rome and the successor of Peter, and they reflect the position in which Rome was held in Jerome’s day. In a Christian world rocked by heresy, especially in the East, it was to Rome to which all Christians looked for the unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Just as I follow no leader but Christ, Jerome says, so I communicate with no other but the chair of Peter. It was only in communion with Rome that the paschal lamb can rightly be eaten — that is, where the Eucharist of the Lord is valid and assured. Just as Peter was the pastor of the flock and the source of unity and protection in the days of the Apostles, so the pope of Rome was in the troubled fourth century.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa (modern-day Algeria), is one of the most important theologians in Western Christianity, especially with regard to the doctrines of original sin and grace. He was an ardent opponent of Pelagianism and other heresies and a leading voice for the orthodox faith. From Augustine, our friend adds:
Augustine would also add the following:
“When apostle is said, if it be not expressed what apostle, none is understood save Paul” (Contra duas Ep. Pelag., iii, 3. PL 44:589.)
This is a statement about a commonplace of medieval literature, not any reflection of the relative positions of Paul and Peter. Just as in the common parlance of medieval theology, “the Philosopher” came to refer to Aristotle, Paul was always “the Apostle.”
But unbelief makes children of the devil; and unbelief is specially called sin, as if it were the only one, if it is not expressed what is the nature of the sin. As when the “apostle” is spoken of, if it be not expressed what apostle, none is understood but Paul; because he is better known by his many epistles, and he laboured more than they all. For which reason, in what the Lord said of the Holy Spirit, “He shall convict the world of sin,” He meant unbelief to be understood; for He said this when He was explaining, “Of sin because they believed not on me,” and when He says, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they should not have sin.” (Against Two Epistles of the Pelagians III.4(3), trans. R. E. Wallis, in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 5 , 403)
A few quotes from Augustine expressing his support for the primacy of Rome:
For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing the figure of the whole Church, the Lord said: “Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these… (Letter LIII.1.2, To Generosus, in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 1 , 298)
In the Roman Church, the supremacy of the Apostolic Chair has always flourished. (Letter XLIII.3.7, To Glorius, et al., in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 1 , 298)
Number the priests from the See of Peter itself. / And in that order of Fathers observe who succeeded whom: / That itself is the Rock against which the gates of hell will not prevail. (Psalmus contra partem Donati [Psalm against the party of Donatus] vv. 238–240, Migne PL 43:23–32, at 30, my translation)
Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313–386)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem was bishop of Jerusalem. He was an important theologian of the fourth century and a defender of the Nicene faith. He is most famous for his series of twenty-three Catechetical Lectures, delivered to catechumens anticipated baptism.
Our friend, however, has conflated Cyril of Jerusalem with Cyril of Alexandria, attributing the quote of the former to the latter.
[Peter and Paul were] “the presidents of the Churches” (Catech. vi, 15, Migne PG 33:562.)
Indeed they were. But this has been acknowledged above: both Peter and Paul were the leaders of the Church of Rome, the foundations on which she was built. The full context of the quote:
That goodly pair, Peter and Paul, the rulers [προστάται, lit. those who stand before] of the Church, being present, set matters right again; … for it was Peter, he who bears with him the keys of heaven … for it was Paul, he who was caught up into the third Heaven, and into paradise, and who heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (Catechetical Lectures VI.15, “On Heresies,” trans. R. W. Church, in A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford; London: J. H. Parker; J. G. and F. Rivington, 1838), 68)
A few more short quotations from Cyril:
The Lord is loving to men, and swift to pardon, slow to vengeance; let no one then despair of his own salvation. Peter, the chiefest and first of the Apostles, before a little maid thrice denied the Lord; but when remorse touched him he wept bitterly; and to weep shews a heartfelt penitence. Wherefore, not only received he forgiveness for the denial, but was spared his Apostolic dignity. (Catechetical Lectures II.19, “On the Power of Repentance for the Remission of Sin,” in ibid., 24)
And when all were silent, (for it was beyond man’s reach to learn,) Peter, the leader of the Apostles, and chief herald of the Church, uttering no refinement of his own, nor persuaded by man’s reasoning, but having his mind enlightened from the Father, says to Him; Thou art the Christ; nor only so, but the Son of the living God. (Catechetical Lectures XI.3, “On the Son of God, as Only-Begotten, Before All Ages, and the Creator of All Things,” in ibid., 111)
A witness of the resurrection of Jesus is Tabitha also, who was in His name raised from the dead; for how shall we disbelieve that Christ is risen, when even His Name has raised the dead? The sea also bears witness to the resurrection of Jesus, as thou hast heard before. The draught of fishes also testifies, and the fire of coals and the fish laid thereon. Peter also bears witness, who had erst denied Him thrice, and who then thrice confessed Him; and was commanded to feed His spiritual sheep. (Catechetical Lectures XIV.23, “On the Resurrection, Ascension, and Exaltation of Christ,” in ibid., 178)
In the power of the same Holy Spirit, Peter also, the chief of the Apostles, and the bearer of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, healed Aeneas the paralytic in the Name of Christ at Lydda, which is now Diospolis, and at Joppa raised from the dead the charitable Tabitha. (Catechetical Lectures XVII.27, “On the Holy Ghost,” in ibid., 233)
Cyril of Alexandria (c.376–444)
St. Cyril of Alexandria was patriarch of Alexandria (i.e. archbishop) was a chief opponent of Nestorius and the Nestorian heresy at the Council of Ephesus. Among his epithets are Pillar of Faith and Seal of all the Fathers. But our friend raises:
Cyril of Alexandria: “Calling, I suppose, nothing else the rock, in allusion to his name, but the immovable and firm faith of the disciple on which the Church of Christ is founded and established” (De SS. Trinitate, dial. iv, Migne PG 75:856.
I could not find this passage at the cited location, nor was I able to locate an English translation of this dialogue. But the quote itself is contrary to our friend’s thesis: Peter is the disciple on which the Church of Christ is founded and established. His faith is immovable and firm. This is what the Church believes.
He raises again:
Cyril would also say, much to the horror of today’s Catholic apologists:
[Peter and John] “were of equal rank with each other as apostles” (Ad. Nest., Migne PG 77:112.)
I have already acknowledged above that Peter and John and all the Apostles were of equal rank and received the same authority. This does not preclude Peter from having a primacy among them and serving in a special pastoral role. I do not see any Catholic apologists cringing in horror. In the context of Cyril’s argument, he says only, in opposition to Nestorius, that Peter and John having equal rank does not equate them as men: they are distinct persons from one another.
If we examine into the nature of things, we shall observe that things which are in equality of dignity, have not for this reason parted with their individual existence: nor yet will the having equal degree in point of glory, suffice to union, as for example, Peter and John were both of them Apostles and holy and adorned with equal honours and might through the Spirit by Christ the Saviour of us all. For they along with the rest heard, Ye are the light of the world, and again, Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. Shall we therefore say that from their equality of rank or sway accrues to them that they too should be counted as one man, and this is sufficient for unity, I mean unity of their persons? And how will not such an opinion be with reason conceived of as foolish exceedingly? Why then dost thou feign that thou art right in the Faith, saying that One is Christ Jesus the Lord, and then, severing into two persona and hypostases the One, dishonourest the mode of the True Union through which the Christ is One and Alone, and unlearnedly callest equality of honour connection? (Five Tomes Against Nestorius II.1, trans. P. E. Pusey, in A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, vol. 47 [Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1881], 45–46)
Cyril tells us elsewhere:
And when Jesus beheld him, He said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona, thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a stone. He after a Divine sort looketh upon him, Who seeth the hearts and reins; and seeth to how great piety the disciple will attain, of how great virtue he will be possessed, and at what consummation he will leave off. For He Who knoweth all things before they be is not ignorant of ought. And herein does He specially instruct him that is called, that being Very God, He hath knowledge untaught. For not having needed a single word, nor even sought to learn who or whence the man came to Him; He says of what father he was born, and what was his own name, and permits him to be no more called Simon, already exercising lordship and power over him, as being His: but changes it to Peter from Petra: for upon him was He about to found His Church. (Commentary on the Gospel according to John II.43, trans. P. E. Pusey, in A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, vol. 43 [Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1874], 151)
And therefore the blessed Peter, even though he was pre-eminent among the holy disciples, when the Saviour was once setting forth His suffering on the Cross and telling them that He must be outraged by the insults of the Jews, rebuked Him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall never be unto Thee. And yet the holy prophets had plainly declared not only that He would suffer, but also the nature and extent of what He would endure. (Commentary on John XVI.12,13, in vol. 2, trans. T. Randell, in A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, vol. 48 [Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1885], 449–450)
Cyril thus confirms that even in the East, Peter was held to be the prime, the preeminent, the leader of the Apostles, upon whom Jesus built His Church. Numerous other quotations can be given from the Eastern Fathers supporting this understanding. For example:
- In Defense of the Papacy: 9 Reasons True Christians Follow the Pope
- The Early Church in Jerusalem Followed the Pope: 7 Quotes from History
- Constantinople: 25 Quotes from the Eastern Fathers on the Petrine Ministry
- Rome is the Apostolic Throne: 24 Quotes from Alexandria, Antioch, and Cyprus
Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 540–604)
St. Gregory the Great was born into a wealthy and powerful Roman family, but gave away all his wealth and estates to support the poor of his city. He lived a monastic life for a number of years before becoming pope in 590, in which office he served until his death in 604. In a Roman city and empire in decline, he stepped forward to bring order and security. He reinvigorated the Church’s missionary efforts, sending Augustine of Canterbury to return the gospel the Britain, instituted liturgical reforms, for which he was known as the Father of Christian Worship, and was one of the strongest and most active popes of all time, for which he is always called the Father of the Medieval Papacy. His extensive writings, including over 800 surviving letters, show a sincere pastoral love and concern.
Our friend offers from Pope Gregory:
With the rather interesting quotes from above, may we now cite one more interesting statement taken from pope Gregory I:
[Paul] “obtained the principate OF THE WHOLE CHURCH” (Reg., lib. iv, cv. 28. Migne PL 79: 303.)
This and many other of the quotes seem to come from Isaac Barrow’s Enchiridon Theologicum Anti-Romanum (at least he describes it for what it is), also known as the Treatise of the Pope’s Supremacy (Oxford, 1836). The only quotations of it I could find were to that book from other anti-Catholic websites, and I couldn’t readily find a complete English translation of the work. So below is my own translation.
First, it seems rather absurd to put forward the testimony of one of the strongest popes in history, who did more to extend papal power than all but a few of his predecessors, as opposition to the papacy. Clearly the man who exercised the principate of the whole Church believed that this belonged to his office by succession. If “Paul obtained the principate,” then certainly this only adds to the dignity of the papal office.
But we see from the full context of the quote that Gregory, like the other above authors, is not attempting to make an argument against the papacy at all, but is illustrating, pastorally, an important point about forgiveness and grace: Since so great a sinner as Paul, who “breathed out threats and murder” against the saints of God, can be so greatly forgiven and used of God for His kingdom, then every one of us sinners can hope for the same forgiveness and overflowing grace.
The conversion of the blessed Paul has been made a proverb of the sinner. Let therefore each sinner hear the conversion of the blessed Paul, and not despair the multitude of his offenses. Saul was indeed breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord, and everywhere was afflicting the elect, keeping watch over the vestments of those stoning the protomartyr Stephen (Acts 9), and so was stoning him by the hands of all, he who was handing over to be stoned all those he obtained. But he who stood out as so great a persecutor of Christ, having been converted to Christ, was made the head of the nations, because he obtained the principate of the whole Church. Accordingly, since we observe so great a converted sinner honored by the Lord with so sublime a dignity, we also trust to be able to find remission for our sins. Our proverb therefore, that the persecutor is taken up to proclaim the gospel, contains this mystery: that the converted sinner can not only hope for forgiveness from the Lord, but that by striving courageously he might also be strong enough to reach out for the crown. (Expositions on the First Book of Kings [i.e. 1 Samuel] IV.28, Migne PL 79:303–304, my translation)
Gregory Rejects the Title “Universal Bishop”?
One of the most powerful quotes of any regarding the papacy comes from Gregory, but it requires some explanation: the context is one frequently misunderstood and used against the papacy in the arguments of opponents. Gregory declares:
For to all who know the Gospel it is apparent that by the Lord’s voice the care of the whole Church was committed to the holy Apostle and Prince of all the Apostles, Peter. For to him it is said, Peter, lovest thou Me? Feed My sheep (John 21:17). To him it is said, Behold Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat; and I have prayed for thee, Peter, that they faith fail not. And thou, when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31). To him it is said, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind an earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven (Matthew 16:18). (Register of Epistles V.20, trans. James Barmby, in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 12b , 170–171)
Taken by itself, this seems especially strong support for the papacy: Gregory has stated, in the sixth century, all three of the major scriptural foundations for the office of the papacy we understand today. But in the interests of honesty and transparency, and because this is an argument that frequently arises, although our friend did not wield it here, I will continue the quote:
Lo, he received the keys of the heavenly kingdom, and power to bind and loose is given him, the care and principality of the whole Church is committed to him, and yet he is not called the universal apostle; while the most holy man, my fellow-priest John, attempts to be called universal bishop. I am compelled to cry out and say, O tempora, O mores! (Epistle V.20)
Gregory here is objecting to the title “universal bishop,” it is frequently claimed, contrary to the pretensions of the modern papacy! But this argument ignores the context of the situation. What is actually taking place here?
First, who is this John? This is John IV, patriarch of Constantinople, also known as John the Faster. What has he done that has upset Gregory so? He has claimed for himself the title “archbishop and ecumenical patriarch” (ἀρχιεπίσκοπος καὶ οἰκουμενικὸς πατριάρχης) in the proceedings of a synod at Constantinople that were forwarded to Rome:
Be it known then to your Fraternity that John, formerly bishop of the city of Constantinople, against God, against the peace of the Church, to the contempt and injury of all priests, exceeded the bounds of modesty and of his own measure, and unlawfully usurped in synod the proud and pestiferous title of oecumenical, that is to say, universal. (Epistle IX.68, trans. Barmby, in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 13 , 19)
Why does Gregory object to this? First, because it is unhistorical, unprecedented, and unfounded in either Scripture or Tradition. Constantinople did not even exist as a city until A.D. 330; it was not an apostolic see or an historical patriarchate and its only claim to any authority was due to the city’s status as imperial capital. For the archbishop of Constantinople, “ecumenical patriarch” was a “new and vain title,” apparently serving no purpose but self-glorification. Gregory continues:
Lo, all things in the regions of Europe are given up into the power of barbarians, cities are destroyed, camps overthrown, provinces depopulated, no cultivator inhabits the land, worshippers of idols rage and dominate daily for the slaughter of the faithful, and yet priests, who ought to lie weeping on the ground and in ashes, seek for themselves names of vanity, and glory in new and profane titles. (Epistle V.20)
Is Gregory’s objection one of jealousy? Does he feel his own prerogative has been encroached upon? No, he continues:
Do I in this matter, most pious Lord, defend my own cause? Do I resent my own special wrong? Nay, the cause of Almighty God, the cause of the Universal Church. (Epistle V.20)
Indeed, no pope ever accepted this “vain title.” What, then, is Gregory’s deeper objection?
Certainly, in honour of Peter, Prince of the apostles, it was offered by the venerable synod of Chalcedon to the Roman pontiff [i.e. Pope Leo the Great]. But none of them has ever consented to use this name of singularity, lest, by something being given peculiarly to one, priests in general should be deprived of the honour due to them. How is it then that we do not seek the glory of this title even when offered, and another presumes to seize it for himself though not offered? (Epistle V.20)
As Gregory understood this title, “universal bishop,” it would deprive all priests in general of the honor due to them. Why is this? He explains:
For if one, as he supposes, is universal bishop, it remains that you are not bishops. (Epistle IX.68)
To Gregory, the term “universal bishop” seemed to imply that there is only one bishop, excluding all other bishops. As Adrian Fortescue wrote:
The pope expressly disclaims the name “universal” for any bishop, including himself. He says that the Council of Chalcedon had wanted to give it to Leo I, but he had refused it. This idea rests on a misconception, but his reason for resenting the title in any bishop is obvious throughout his letters. “He understood it as an exclusion of all the others [privative quoad omnes alios] so that he who calls himself oecumenic, that is, universal, thinks all other patriarchs and bishops to be private persons and himself the only pastor of the inhabited earth” (Horace Cardinal Giustiniani, Council of Florence). (“John the Faster,” in Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 )
Does Gregory’s objection, then, not exclude the possibility of his own office of the papacy having a universal jurisdiction? — meaning that the pope had the authority to intervene in the affairs of dioceses throughout the universal Church? He has already stated that “the Lord committed the care of the whole Church” to the Apostle Peter and his successors. How is this different than his understanding of John’s “ecumenical” pretensions?
Two things must be noted: first, Gregory knew no Greek, and understood John’s claims only through their Latin translation. And second, the Catholic understanding of the pope’s eccesiological role is not that of “universal bishop.” Fortescue continues:
With regard to the issue, one should note first that Gregory knew no Greek. He saw the words only in a Latin version: Patriarcha universalis, in which they certainly sound more scandalous than in Greek. How he understood them is plain from his letters. They seem to mean that all jurisdiction comes from one bishop, that all other bishops are only his vicars and delegates. Catholic theology does not affirm this of the pope or anyone. Diocesan bishops have ordinary, not delegate, jurisdiction; they receive their authority immediately from Christ, though they may use it only in the communion of the Roman See. It is the whole difference between diocesan ordinaries and vicars Apostolic. All bishops are not Apostolic vicars of the pope. Nor has any pope ever assumed the title “universal bishop”, though occasionally they have been so called in complimentary addresses from other persons. The accusation, then, that Gregory’s successors have usurped the title that he so resented is false. (Ibid.)
This point is the epitome of all that has been discussed above: just as all Apostles were equal in rank, all bishops are equal in rank. There is no higher order of bishop than the episcopate itself: the pope of Rome, even though the prime bishop, is still only a bishop. All bishops receive their authority immediately from Christ. Every bishop has ordinary authority over his own diocese: that is, he is the pastor over his own flock, and the highest authority in his own local church, under ordinary circumstances. A bishop is not an Apostolic vicar — that is, he is not merely a representative or delegate of the pope. The pope’s authority is often described as being that of “first among equals,” that is, the preeminent bishop among bishops, and though this would have to be qualified — the pope, as successor of Peter and pastor of Christ’s flock, does possess a particular authority in the Church at large — it is a reasonable description. Though Gregory objected to being called “universal bishop,” he would not have objected to being called “pastor of the universal Church.”
Has the Succession of Bishops of Rome Been Unbroken?
Our friend raises the objection:
It is very difficult to find early Christians even discussing the “primacy of Peter,” let alone an alleged unbroken Apostolic chain to the incumbent pope of the day.
I hope the above has disproved the former: that it is quite simple to find early Christians discussing the primacy of Peter. Regarding the unbroken apostolic succession from Peter to the present pope, this too is easily demonstrable.
Our ever-helpful friend and brother St. Irenaeus provides us with an early account of the bishops of Rome from the beginning until his present day: (c. A.D. 180)
The blessed Apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of (2) Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded (3) Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, (4) Clement was allotted the bishopric. … To this Clement there succeeded (5) Evaristus. (6) Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, (7) Sixtus was appointed; after him, (8) Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then (9) Hyginus; after him, (10) Pius; then after him, (11) Anicetus. (12) Soter having succeeded Anicetus, (13) Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3.3)
Relevant to this, our friend raises the objection:
Irenaeus taught that Linus was in fact the first bishop of Rome.
As the above passage indicates, no, in fact, he did not. This objection stems from a misunderstanding: the Apostles, who committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate, were in fact bishops themselves, as the subsequent passage will confirm.
Irenaeus’s view was the most popular one and subsequently was ratified by the apostolic constitution in A.D. 270.
I have no idea what he is talking about, or to what apostolic constitution he is referring.
A strong case has been made (see H. Turner, “Apostolic Succession,” in H. B. Swete, Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry , 115-120, 207, especially 118) that an even earlier list survives, that of Hegesippus, recorded in the time of Anicetus (bishop of Rome c.157-168), and preserved in the Panarion (“All Heresies”) of Epiphanius:
For the bishops at Rome were, first (1), Peter and Paul, the Apostles themselves and also bishops — then (2) Linus, then (3) Cletus, then (4) Clement, a contemporary of Peter and Paul whom Paul mentions in the Epistle to the Romans. … The succession of the bishops at Rome runs in this order: (1) Peter and Paul, (2) Linus and (3) Cletus, (4) Clement, (5) Evaristus, (6) Alexander, (7) Xystus, (8) Telesphorus, (9) Hyginus, (10) Pius, and (11) Anicetus, whom I mentioned above, on the list. And no one need be surprised at my listing each of the items so exactly; precise information is always given in this way. (Epiphanius, Panarion I.27.6.2,7)
These independent lists confirm one another. So we have a verified “unbroken chain” from the Apostles until the time of Eleutherius (bishop of Rome c.174-189). From there, Eusebius continues the succession forward to his time:
In the tenth year of the reign of [Emperor] Commodus [A.D. 189] (14) Victor succeeded Eleutherus who had served in the episcopate thirteen years. (V.22.1)
Such were the events of the time of Victor. When he had held his office ten years, (15) Zephyrinus was appointed his successor in the ninth year of the reign of [Emperor] Severus [A.D. 201]. (V.28.7)
But indeed when [Emperor] Antoninus had reigned for seven years and six months he was succeeded by Macrinus [A.D. 217]; and when he had continued in office for a year, again another Antoninus received the Roman government. In the first year of the latter [A.D. 222], Zephyrinus, the bishop of the Romans, departed this life, having held the ministry for eighteen entire years. After him (16) Callistus was entrusted with the episcopate; he survived five years and then left the ministry to (17) Urban. (VI.21.1-2)
Such was the state of affairs when (18) Pontianus succeeded Urban, who had been bishop of the church of the Romans for eight years…. (VI.23.3)
[Emperor] Gordian having succeeded to the Roman government after Maximin [A.D. 238], Pontianus, when he had been bishop of the church of Rome for six years, was succeeded by (19) Anteros; who exercised his ministry for a month, and was succeeded by (20) Fabian. (VI.29.1)
When [Emperor] Philip had reigned for seven years he was succeeded by Decius [A.D. 249]. He, on account of his enmity towards Philip, raised a persecution against the churches, in which Fabian was perfected by martyrdom at Rome, and was succeeded in the episcopate by (21) Cornelius. (VI.39.1)
But in the city of the Romans, when Cornelius brought his episcopate to an end after about three years, (22) Lucius was appointed his successor; but he exercised his ministry for less than eight entire months, and dying transmitted his office to (23) Stephen. (VII.2.1)
When Stephen had fulfilled his ministry for two years, he was succeeded by (24) Xystus [II]. (VII.5.3)
When Xystus had presided over the church of the Romans for eleven [months], he was succeeded by (25) Dionysius, namesake of [Dionysius] of Alexandria. (VII.7.1)
But a short time before this, (26) Felix succeeded in the ministry Dionysius, bishop of Rome, who had completed nine years. (VII.30.23)
At that time Felix, who had presided over the church of the Romans for five years, was succeeded by (27) Eutychianus. This person did not survive for even ten entire months; he left the office to (28) Gaius our contemporary. And when he had presided for about fifteen years, (29) Marcellinus was appointed his successor, the same whom the persecution has overtaken. (VII.32.1)
Marcellinus is the last pope whom Eusebius names — which dates his work to between A.D. 296 and A.D. 304. In A.D. 313, Constantine’s Edict of Milan ended the persecution of Christianity by the Roman government. From this time forward more complete records survive. We have exact dates for the episcopates of every subsequent pope forward to the present.
St. Augustine, writing in A.D. 400, continues the succession up until his time:
For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing the figure of the whole Church, the Lord said: “Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” The successor of Peter was (2) Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these: — (3) Clement, (4) Anacletus, (5) Evaristus, (6) Alexander, (7) Sixtus, (8) Telesphorus, (9) Iginus, (10) Anicetus, (11) Pius, (12) Soter, (13) Eleutherius, (14) Victor, (15) Zephirinus, (16) Calixtus, (17) Urbanus, (18) Pontianus, (19) Antherus, (20) Fabianus, (21) Cornelius, (22) Lucius, (23) Stephanus, (24) Xystus, (25) Dionysius, (26) Felix, (27) Eutychianus, (28) Gaius, (29) Marcellinus, (30) Marcellus, (31) Eusebius, (32) Miltiades, (33) Sylvester, (34) Marcus, (35) Julius, (36) Liberius, (37) Damasus, and (38) Siricius, whose successor is the present (39) Bishop Anastasius. (Letter LIII.2, trans. J. G. Cunningham, in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 1 , 298)
And we have similar such lists all throughout history, all consistent with each other and with other documented records.
To go even a step further, to ensure that there should never be any doubt about the propriety and validity of the episcopal succession, it has been the practice since the earliest times for at least three validly-ordained bishops to participate in the consecration of a new bishop.
And even if there were ever any doubt at all concerning the order of succession, one thing can be stated with certainty: the people always need a bishop. At the death of one bishop, another bishop would always be appointed. Thus, there can be no doubt that the succession of bishops continues unbroken from the Apostles until today.
The same encyclopaedia makes the non-biblical claim that the pope is “lord of heaven, earth and hell” (Vol. VI, 48).
Our friend suggests this is a quotation from the Catholic Encyclopedia, but I can find no record of any such statement in any edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia or any Catholic publications. The only references to this phrase that I can find, through Google, either reference our Lord Jesus Christ, or have been applied to the pope of the Catholic Church by anti-Catholics.
The reader may be interested to know that Peter only wrote two epistles, which contained 8 chapters and 166 verses. (Some Catholic “scholars” even doubt he wrote the second epistle.) Yet Paul wrote 13 epistles, possibly 14 (that being Hebrews) and his chapters total 87, with 2,023 verses. If Peter was the first pope, why is it that Paul dominates the New Testament with his writings?
This is entirely irrelevant. Jesus left us no writings at all, and yet we proclaim Him Lord of All. All the Apostles, as servants of God, had different gifts and different callings (1 Corinthians 12:27–31). St. Paul’s calling was as a missionary, preacher, teacher, and writer. St. Peter had a different calling as pastor. Yet God uses us all for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
Regarding doubt concerning the authorship of the Second Epistle of St. Peter: There has always been doubt concerning the authorship of Second Peter. Both Origen (c. A.D. 210–250) and Eusebius (c. A.D. 290s) considered it of doubtful authenticity; no earlier writer was aware of it at all. It was accepted into the New Testament canon with considerable hesitation. In the modern era, it was Protestants who again raised doubts about Second Peter’s authenticity, beginning with Luther and Calvin. The criticism of Lutheran scholar J. S. Semler (1725–1791) led to its modern perception among many scholars as pseudepigraphal.
“Pope Boniface VIII in his Bull Unam Sanctum, cites John xxi. 17 as authorising HIS SUPREMACY NOT ONLY OVER THE CHURCH BUT OVER KINGS” (William Shaw Kerr, A Handbook on the Papacy [New York: Philosophical Library, 1953], 55)
The bull Unam Sanctam is a complicated subject (one that I, frankly, am unprepared to discuss), and it did have implications for both spiritual and secular power. But the above quote is a gross distortion of what the document actually said and claimed (here is an English translation, and a good article in the Catholic Encyclopedia). Such a complaint has no business in an article considering the basic question of the existence of the papacy and our Lord’s intentions for it.
The title and fable that Peter was the first pope, with all its lavish sacraments and power, has slowly and gradually been woven into Vatican history over the centuries.
In fact, not only is this “fable” true, but it has required very little “gradual weaving” — it is a central feature of the tapestry. And for a “former Catholic,” our friend seems to lack a basic understanding of Catholic doctrine. Doctrine regarding the Sacraments has no relation at all to the doctrine of the papacy. (Also, the Sacraments are “lavish”? Extravagant in God’s mercy and grace, perhaps…)
When taking a broader look at Scripture, one should understand that all the disciples, and especially the apostle Paul, were also given the keys/authority to present the Kingdom of God to a lost world. And this commission has been given to all believers, vicariously; for all believers, according to the apostles Peter and John, are royal priests (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6)
Yes, certainly this is true, as the Catholic Church has always affirmed. All the Apostles were invested with authority, and even with the power of the keys — the power of binding and loosing. And yet Jesus took Peter aside separate from the other Apostles and gave a separate commission of the keys to him (Matthew 16:17–19) as the Apostle upon whom, even more than all the rest, he would build His Church.
May I leave the reader with these wise words from a former Jesuit George Tyrrell:
“Sooner or later the historical lie of the Papacy must be realized by every educated Romanist.” (Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell, Vol. II , 383)
In fact, more than a century later, “educated Romanists” are still supporting the papacy as ardently as ever. It bears pointing out what Tyrrell, who was a “former Jesuit” only because he was expelled from the order and excommunicated from the Church for his modernist teachings, actually considered the “lie” of the Papacy. He did not reject, as our friend does, the belief that Peter was the first pope or that he had a primacy of honor. What he rejected was “the whole medieval development of the Papacy so far as claiming more than a primacy of honor for the Bishop of Rome” (ibid.). And as I have demonstrated above, such “development” was not “medieval” at all, but was present in some form since the very beginning.
I hope these examples, and refutations of seemingly contradictory evidence, have established conclusively (1) that in the understanding of the Apostles and of Scripture, the Apostle Peter was appointed by Jesus to a special pastoral role among his brother Apostles and over the entire flock of Jesus Christ; (2) that Peter ended his days, together with Paul, as bishop of the city of Rome, and this fact was universally acknowledged in the Church; and (3) that in the understanding of the early Church and the Church Fathers, this pastoral role was handed on to Peter’s successors as bishops of Rome, and this succession continues unbroken to this day. If you, the reader, have any additional challenges or objections, I would be glad to address them to the best of my ability. May God bless you and the peace of Christ be with you!
[May 8, 2014. Last updated November 20, 2014.]