History of the Catholic Church II- The Foundation of the Chair of Peter
By Matthew J. Bellisario 2010
If we are to understand the Christian faith today, we must understand the form and the instruments that Jesus Christ Himself chose to use to proclaim His Gospel throughout the world. Only then will we be able to recognize the true Church today. For there are many “churches” that claim to be that of Christ’s, but they all cannot be authentically so, for they all proclaim their own version of the gospel to be the true gospel. So we will examine the form, the instruments and the historical setting Our Lord chose to use to initially proclaim His Gospel, and then we will examine at how this Gospel continued, and continues to be preached throughout the world.
The time and place that Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came into the world was not by chance. God specifically chose exactly when to take on a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ; come into the world as one of us, preach the Gospel and build His only Church. He chose a time when the Roman Empire was the so called “light” of the world. A time when there was still a strong Hellenistic presence among the Jews in Jerusalem. It was the unique time in history when Christ was able to preach the Gospel to the Jews and the greatest Gentile empire on the earth. The Gospel was preached to the chosen Jews, and all of the great secular groups of Gentiles including those of the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians. We have Our Lord initially preaching in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and then the apostles being sent in his name and by his authority into the known world by Our Lord. “He that receiveth you, receiveth me...” (Matthew 10:40) They went into places such as Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth and Rome. The apostles passed on their authority given to them by Christ, and eventually orderly hierarchies were formed in each of these apostolic Churches, based on this same authority.
In these places where these great Churches were established, the Church would be recognized in what is known as the four sees, where these Churches would be headed, those of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. Soon after Constantine came into power in the early 4th century, there would be a fifth see established in Constantinople known now as the Byzantine Church, which would eventually be recognized as the “New Rome.” This pentarchy was expressly recognized in the records that we have from the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople in the mid sixth century, and has since been the foundation of the major Churches of Christians throughout the world. The primary and unifying chair of all of these churches however was that of the see of Peter, and had been from the beginning.
In order to demonstrate this unifying chair and authority of Saint Peter, given to us in the form of the papacy, we will need to prove that 1: Saint Peter was the head of the apostles by the authority given to him by Jesus, and he was the unifying leader among them. 2: Saint Peter passed on this authority to his successors. 3: Saint Peter’s successors have continued in succession to this present day. It is important to note that we do not believe that Saint Peter or his immediate successors wore tiaras, red slippers and lived in the Vatican as the popes occupying the “Chair” of primacy in later years would do. We also recognize that although Saint Peter and his successors always retained infallibility in regards to faith and morals, and exercised an authority over the one true Church, that it was not always exercised in the same manner of form throughout the ages. For example, St. Peter never penned a document titled an “encyclical” as more modern popes titled such documents. These types of documents however would develop out of the root authority that the chair of Saint Peter had always had. Likewise there would develop a college of Cardinals and different offices in which the authority of Peter could be carried out in mass across several continents at one time, etc. Several factors would play into this development of form in which the “Chair’s” authority would be carried out throughout the Church. The Church coming out from under persecution by the liberation of Christianity allowed by the emperor Constantine, along with the later waxing and waning of the churches and political bodies in Rome and other cities such as Constantinople and Jerusalem would all play their part, as well as many other factors. As the Church pressed on through the sands of time it would have to adjust how it would exercise its leadership, and the manner in which the papal primacy has been exercised has varied from time to time. The root authority of Peter however has been present in the Church from its foundation, and it is this fact that we will prove.
The Primacy of St. Peter
In this essay we will tackle the first of the proofs for the existence of the Chair of Saint Peter. The first being that Saint Peter was the head of the apostles by the authority given to him by Jesus, and he was the unifying apostle among them. There are many proofs as to the primacy of Saint Peter among the apostles in Sacred Scripture. Due to considerations for length of the text, I will only focus on the most obvious of them. I will also refer regularly throughout this essay to one of my favorite Saints and early Scripture scholars, my brother in heaven, Saint John Chrysostom, for commentary on various Biblical verses.
There is a special relationship between Jesus and Peter, and a special relationship between Peter and the rest of the apostles. This is a persistent theme that we see throughout the New Testament. It is important to look at Scripture as a whole and not in isolated passages, as if each stands on its own apart from the others. We must draw from the following passages a central theme in which they are all tied together as if they are woven together in a grand tapestry. First we will start with the central passage that is often referred to in defense of the papacy, and then we will see how its theme reoccurs in principle throughout the other New Testament passages I will present. It was Saint Peter to whom Jesus 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 to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” Jesus did not say that the Church would be built upon Peter and the other apostles, or that the rock that it would be built upon was only Christ, or that the rock was only Peter’s faith, Jesus simply said that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. There is no question as to what the rock in the passage refers to. It is Saint Peter that Jesus is talking about.
But it must also be stated that there is also a mystical type of language being used here that makes Saint Peter almost as if he is one with Christ the “Rock.” The very name given to Simon, “Rock” is significant, and was not a random nickname given to him by Jesus. (John 1:42) Just the fact that Jesus actually changed his name denotes a particular authority, since we see that when God gives a new name to someone it usually corresponds to some form of authority. Granted this in and of itself does not prove that Peter has an authority over the whole Church, but just as God changed the names of Abram to Abraham to denote him as the father of nations, and He changed Sara to Sarah to denote a motherhood over nations, so too an authority is given to Simon, named Peter. The name “Rock” however is significant in giving us a clue as to the type of authority was given to to him. For we know that this symbolic language of the name “Rock”, was always used in the Old Testament Scriptures to denote God, “The Lord is my rock, and my strength, and my savior,” for example. (II Kings 22:2- or 2 Samuel 22:2 for Protestants) We also see a similar example in reference to Jesus Himself in 1 Corinthians 10:4. In Matthew 16:18, Christ makes Peter one with Himself as the “Rock.” Therefore we can say that Christ who is the “Rock” names Simon the “Rock” which Jesus in turn builds the visible Church upon. I think it is also worthy to note that no other apostle was given a new name, save for that of Saul, who was not one of the twelve. It is this Petrine foundation that everything depends upon, since it is the foundation which hell will never prevail against, and the foundation which has the ultimate authority to bind and loose.
Since there are many who think that this interpretation is a modern invention of the Roman West, I think that it is important to see what a voice from the East had to say, that of Saint John Chrysostom. He had this to say on this particular passage of Matthew 16:18. “For the Father gave to Peter the revelation of the Son; but the Son gave him to sow that of the Father and that of Himself in every part of the world; and to a mortal man He entrusted the authority over all things in Heaven, giving him the keys; who extended the church to every part of the world, and declared it to be stronger than heaven.” This is quite a significant statement by Saint John, in that he recognizes that Jesus was referring directly to Saint Peter here, not just his faith, or just Jesus alone. Nor does he endorse any of the modern interpretations of heretics who deny that Jesus was referring to Saint Peter at all. St. Chrysostom also views Peter as being the authority to whom which the other apostles would receive a likewise authority, yet only by extension. To St. Chrysostom, the passing of authority in this passage form Jesus to Peter is unmistakable.
A certain supremacy is given to St. Peter by Our Lord, even though a similar authority would also be given to the other apostles. But their authority would be a similar grafting into St. Peter in much the same way St. Peter’s authority was grafted into and derived from Christ’s. St. Peter is given the heavenly grace to recognize Jesus for who He is in Matthew 16:13, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” and the rest of the apostles followed. We continue to see this focus on Peter in John 21:11-17, “He saith to him: Feed my lambs.” Notice, Jesus did not say this to all of the apostles, nor did Jesus says that he would pray for all of the apostles when he said, “And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” Although Saint Peter fell into denial during the arrest of Jesus, Peter did persevere by the fact that Jesus prayed for him to do so, and as a result he, in a sense, was reinstated by Jesus in John 21. Saint John Chrysostom confirms this interpretation in his commentary on the passage, “He was the chosen one of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the leader of the band; on this account also Paul up upon a time to enquire of him rather than the others. And at the same time to show him that he must now be of good cheer, since the denial was done away, Jesus puts into his hands the chief authority among the brethren...” So we see how the other apostles are later confirmed in their faith by Saint Peter. Saint Leo wrote, “in Peter, the fortitude of all the others is secured, and the help of divine grace is ordered in such a way, that the firmness which is granted to Peter through Christ is conferred by Peter upon the apostles.” We also see a similar direct comparison and grafting of St. Peter into Jesus as the shepherd in the Gospel of St. John. In John 10:7-16 Jesus is the shepherd who later makes Peter the shepherd in John 21. Yet there is only one flock. In John 10:16 Jesus says, “and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” The inseparable bond between Jesus and St. Peter is also unmistakable here.
We shall now briefly visit a few more of the highlights of St. Peter in the Gospels before we move on to the early Church in the book of Acts. It is Saint Peter that is the spokesmen at the Transfiguration of Christ, “And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.” (Mark 9:4) It is St. Peter in Matthew 18:21 who asks Jesus after being told he will be given authority to bind and loose, “Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Peter is always the first in the list of the disciples and is frequently referred to as, “Peter and those with him.” (Mark 1:36 and Luke 9:32)
In Mark 16:7 the angel who proclaims Jesus’ resurrection mentions Peter by name to be told of His resurrection. Peter is the one to walk on water, and no other. (Matthew 14:29) The other apostles often defer to Peter to speak for the entire group. This can be seen in Luke 5:8, Matthew 15:15 and Luke 12:41 among other places. Although it has been mentioned many times before, it is important to note that St. Peter is mentioned more times in the New Testament than all of the other apostles put together. In addition to these, there are countless other references to the unique person of St. Peter in the Gospels which establish a clear leadership position of St. Peter. Finally, it is also important to understand that St. Peter is not called to this position as if he were in charge of a mere human organization, like a CEO. Jesus promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit for an infallible guide. This gift would be clearly given to St. Peter and the Church in the acts of the apostles. (Acts 2)
As we move on to look at the early Church in the Acts of the apostles we see that Saint Peter immediately exercises his authority over the Church when he personally calls for the 12th seat of the apostleship to be filled, which was previously occupied by the traitor Judas. Saint John Chrysostom rightly says of Saint Peter’s authority in his commentary on Acts 1:15, “Both as being ardent, and as having been put in trust by Christ with the flock...” So it was here that we see St. Peter preserving the original number of the Apostolic College.
In Acts 2:14, Saint Peter calls for those around him to hear his words as the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the apostles he declared, “Ye men of Judea, and all you that dwell in Jerusalem, be this known to you, and with your ears receive my words.” Thus St. Peter is the first to preach the Gospel. In Acts 3:6-8 St. Peter heals the crippled man and he walks. Then Peter preached to the multitude and many were converted. We can see his authority again being exercised when he judges Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. We also see a repeated pattern of the apostles taking after Peter and often receiving only later what Peter receives first. Catholic theologian J. Michael Miller C.S.B. writes, “A certain structure is evident in these texts: what is first given to Peter is then shared with the others.”
What is generally considered to be the first Council of the Church, Saint Peter in Jerusalem makes the judgement on circumcision and no one after he makes this final judgement speaks anything else concerning the matter. “And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.” (Acts 15:7) So we see that St. Peter was quite active in the early leadership of the Church, and his leadership was not anywhere challenged. It is also important to recognize that St. Paul went specifically to see St. Peter on his way to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:18) It is quite apparent that St. Paul also recognized how important it was to go and visit St. Peter. I refer again to J. Michael Miller, “By making his visit to Jerusalem, the Apostle to the Gentiles recognized the desirability of having Peter’s authority confirm his work of evangelization.”
Some who oppose the unifying chair of St. Peter will surely bring up the case where St. Paul withstands St. Peter to his face in Galatians 2:11-14, as if this somehow topples the supremacy of St. Peter among the apostles. Galatians 2:11 reads, “But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” What was he to be blamed for? Saint Peter was apparently rebuked for not eating with the Gentiles for the fear of looking bad to the Jews. But what is interesting is that Saint Chrysostom seems to think that this rebuking was done for the sole purpose of benefitting the Jews who were still attached to the works of the law, “I resisted him to the face,” imply a scheme for had their discussion been real, they would not have rebuked each other in the presence of the disciples, for it would have been a great stumbling block to them. But now this apparent contest was much to their advantage;...On account of their vehement attachment to the Law, he calls the present proceeding “dissimulation,” and severely rebukes it, in order effectually to eradicate their prejudice. And Peter too, hearing this joins in the feint, as if he had erred, that they might be corrected by means of the rebuke administered to him.” Saint John then goes on to say in regards to the passage, “But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” Chrysostom says the following, “Neither let this phrase disturb you, for in using it he does not condemn Peter, but so expresses himself for the benefit of those who were to be reformed by the reproof of Peter.” According to Saint Chrysostom, it seems then that St. Peter allowed himself to be chastised for not eating with the Gentiles for the benefit of the Jews around him who were prejudiced against the Gentiles. Even if we are to ignore St. Chrysostom’s interpretation and favor a more scathing interpretation this passage, it would still not present any useful evidence to refute Saint Peter’s role as leader of the apostles. Had St. Peter genuinely grown cold towards the Gentiles, or had succumbed to the pressures of the Jews in relating with the Gentiles, this would in no way jeopardize his role as the leader of the apostles, since even the pope can err in matters of personal acts of morality. It would be no different than John Paul II going to pray with the Buddhists, and then being rebuked for scandalizing Catholics for doing so. It does not fall into any official proclamation of faith or morals concerning the Catholic faith. So we see that this passage of Scripture not a problem for St. Peter’s primacy.
In summary we can readily see that St. Peter was put in a place of primacy among the apostles by Jesus, and that he had a special relationship with Jesus that the other disciples did not have. This is readily witnessed throughout the New Testament, and it is attested to by one of the great theologians of the 4th century, that of Saint John Chrysostom. This essay has provided ample proof that Saint Peter was the head of the apostles by the authority given to him by Jesus, and he was the unifying leader among them. We can therefore move on to proof number two in the next essay.
Gueranger- The Papal Monarchy
Ratzinger-Called to Communion
Durras- A General History of the Catholic Church Vol I
Miller- The Shepherd and the Rock