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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 61. Opinions of the Fathers.


A complete collection of the patristic utterances on the primacy of Peter and his successors, though from the Roman point of view, may be found in the work of Rev. Jos. Berington and Rev. John Kirk: “The Faith of Catholics confirmed by Scripture and attested by the Fathers of the first five centuries of the Church,” 3d ed., London, 1846, vol. ii. p. 1–112. Comp. the works quoted sub § 55, and a curious article of Prof. Ferd. Piper, on Rome, the eternal city, in the Evang. Jahrbuch for 1864, p. 17–120, where the opinions of the fathers on the claims of the urbs aeterna and its many fortunes are brought out.


We now pursue the development of this idea in the church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. In general they agree in attaching to Peter a certain primacy over the other apostles, and in considering him the foundation of the church in virtue of his confession of the divinity of Christ; while they hold Christ to be, in the highest sense, the divine ground and rock of the church. And herein lies a solution of their apparent self-contradiction in referring the petra in Matt. xvi. 18, now to the person of Peter, now to his confession, now to Christ. Then, as the bishops in general were regarded as successors of the apostles, the fathers saw in the Roman bishops, on the ground of the ancient tradition of the martyrdom of Peter in Rome, the successor of Peter and the heir of the primacy. But respecting the nature and prerogatives of this primacy their views were very indefinite and various. It is remarkable that the reference of the rock to Christ, which Augustine especially defended with great earnestness, was acknowledged even by the greatest pope of the middle ages, Gregory VII., in the famous inscription he sent with a crown to the emperor Rudolph: “Petra [i.e., Christ] dedit Petro [i.e., to the apostle], Petrus [the pope] diadema Rudolpho.”553553   Baronius, Annal. ad ann. 1080, vol. xi. p. 704. It is worthy of notice, that the post-Nicene, as well as the ante-Nicene fathers, with all their reverence for the Roman see, regarded the heathenish title of Rome, urbs aeterna, as blasphemous, with reference to the passage of the woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, Rev. xvii. 3.554554   Hieronymus, Adv. Jovin. lib. ii. c. 38 (Opera, t. ii. p. 382), where he addresses Rome: “Ad te loquar, quae scriptam in fronte blasphemiam Christi confessione delesti.” Prosper: “Eterna cum dicitur quae temporalis est, utique nomen est blasphemiae.” Comp. Piper, l.c. p. 46. The prevailing opinion seems to have been, that Rome and the Roman empire would fall before the advent of Antichrist and the second coming of the Lord.555555   So Chrysostomad 2 Thess. ii. 7; Hieronymus, Ep. cxxi. qu. 11 (tom. i. p. 880 sq.); Augustine, De Civit. Dei, lib. xx. cap. 19.

1. The views of the Latin fathers.

The Cyprianic idea was developed primarily in North Africa, where it was first clearly pronounced.

Optatus, bishop of Milevi, the otherwise unknown author of an anti-Donatist work about a.d. 384, is, like Cyprian, thoroughly possessed with the idea of the visible unity of the church; declares it without qualification the highest good, and sees its plastic expression and its surest safeguard in the immovable cathedra Petri, the prince of the apostles, the keeper of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, who, in spite of his denial of Christ, continued in that relation to the other apostles, that the unity of the church might appear in outward fact as an unchangeable thing, invulnerable to human offence. All these prerogatives have passed to the bishops of Rome, as the successors of this apostle.556556   De schismate Donatistarum, lib. ii. cap. 2, 3, and l. vii. 3. The work was composed while Siricius was bishop of Rome, hence about 384.

Ambrose of Milan († 397) speaks indeed in very high terms of the Roman church, and concedes to its bishops a religious magistracy like the political power of the emperors of pagan Rome;557557   Ambr. Sermo ii. in festo Petri et Pauli: “In urbe Romae, quae principatum et caput obtinet nationum: scilicet ut ubi caput superstitionis erat, illic caput quiesceret sanctitatis, et ubi gentilium principes habitabant, illic ecclesiarum principes morerentur.” In Ps. 40: “Ipse est Petrus cui dixit: Tu es Petrus ... ubi ergo Patrus, ibi ecclesia; ubi ecclesia, ibi mulla mors, sed vita eterna.” Comp. the poetic passage in his Morning Hymn, in the citation from Augustinefurther on. But in another passage he likewise refers the rock to Christ, in Luc. ix. 20: “Petra est Christus,” etc. yet he calls the primacy of Peter only a “primacy of confession, not of honor; of faith, not of rank,”558558   De incarnat. Domini, c. 4: “Primatum confessionis utique, non honoris, primatum fidei, non ordinis.” and places the apostle Paul on an equality with Peter.559559   De Spiritu S. ii. 12: “Nec Paulus inferior Petro, quamvis ille ecclesiae fundamentum.” Sermo ii. in festo P. et P., just before the above-quoted passage: “Ergo beati Petrus et Paulus eminent inter universos apostolos, et peculiari quadam praerogativa praecellunt. Verum inter ipsos, quis cui praeponatur, incertum est. Puto enim illos aequales esse meritis, qui aequales sunt passione.” Augustine, too, once calls Paul, not Peter, caput et princeps apostolorum, and in another place that he tanti apostolatus meruit principatum. Of any dependence of Ambrose, or of the bishops of Milan in general during the first six centuries, on the jurisdiction of Rome, no trace is to be found.

Jerome († 419), the most learned commentator among the Latin fathers, vacillates in his explanation of the petra; now, like Augustine, referring it to Christ,560560   Hieron. in Amos, vi. 12: “Petra Christus est qui donavit apostolis suis, ut ipsi quoque petrae vocentur.” And in another place: “Ecclesia Catholica super Petram Christum stabili radici fundata est.” now to Peter and his confession.561561   Adv. Jovin. l. i. cap. 26 (in Vallars. ed., tom. ii. 279), in reply to Jovinian’s appeal to Peter in favor of marriage: “At dicis: super Petrum fundatur ecclesia; licet id ipsum in alio loco super omnes apostolos fiat, et cuncti claves regni coelorum accipiant, et ex aequo super eos fortitudo ecclesiae solidetur, tamen propterea inter duodecim unus eligitur, ut capite constituto, schismatis tollatur occasio.” So Epist. xv. ad Damasum papam (ed. Vall. i. 37). In his commentary on Matt. xvi., he combines the two interpretations thus: “As Christ gave light to the apostles, so that they were called, after him, the light of the world, and as they received other designations from the Lord; so Simon, because he believed on the rock, Christ, received the name Peter, and in accordance with the figure of the rock, it is justly said to him: ’I will build my church upon thee (super te),’ ” He recognizes in the Roman bishop the successor of Peter, but advocates elsewhere the equal rights of the bishops,562562   Comp. Epist. 146, ed. Vall. i. 1076 (or Ep. 101 ed. Bened., al. 85) ad Evangelum: “Ubicunque fuerit episcopus, sive Romae, sive Eugubii, sive Constantinopoli, sive Rhegii, sive Alexandriae, sive Tanis [an intentional collocation of the most powerful and most obscure bishoprics], ejusdem est meriti, ejusdem est et sacerdotii. Potentia divitiarum et paupertatis humilitas vel sublimiorem vel inferiorem episcopum non facit. Caeterum omnes apostolorum successores sunt.” and in fact derives even the episcopal office, not from direct divine institution, but from the usage of the church and from the presidency in the presbyterium.563563   Comp. § 52, above. J. Craigie Robertson, Hist. of the Christian Church to 590 (Lond. 1854), p. 286, note, finds a remarkable negative evidence against the papal claims in St. Jerome’s Ep. 125, “where submission to one head is enforced on monks by the instinctive habits of beasts, bees, and cranes, the contentions of Esau and Jacob, of Romulus and Remus, the oneness of an emperor in his dominions, of a judge in his province, of a master in his house, of a pilot in a ship, of a general in an army, of a bishop, the archpresbyter, and the archdeacon in a church; but there is no mention of the one universal bishop.” He can therefore be cited as a witness, at most, for a primacy of honor, not for a supremacy of jurisdiction. Beyond this even the strongest passage of his writings, in a letter to his friend, Pope Damasus (a.d. 376), does not go: “Away with the ambition of the Roman head; I speak with the successor of the fisherman and disciple of the cross. Following no other head than Christ, I am joined in the communion of faith with thy holiness, that is, with the chair of Peter. On that rock I know the church to be built.”564564   Ep. xv. (alias 57) ad Damasum papam (ed. Vall. l. 37 sq.): “Facessat invidia: Romani culminis recedat ambitio, cum successore piscatoris et discipulo crucis loquor. Ego nullum primum, nisi Christum sequens, Beatitudini tuae, id est cathedrae Petri, communione consocior. Super illam petram aedificatam ecclesiam scio. Quicunque extra hanc domum agnum comederit, profanus est. Si quis in Noe arca non fuerit, peribit regnante diluvio.” Subsequently this father, who himself had an eye on the papal chair, fell out with the Roman clergy, and retired to the ascetic and literary solitude of Bethlehem, where he served the church by his pen far better than he would have done as the successor of Damasus.

Augustine († 430), the greatest theological authority of the Latin church, at first referred the words, “On this rock I will build my church,” to the person of Peter, but afterward expressly retracted this interpretation, and considered the petra to be Christ, on the ground of a distinction between petra (ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ) and Petrus (σὺ εἷ Πέτρος); a distinction which Jerome also makes, though with the intimation that it is not properly applicable to the Hebrew and Syriac Cephas.565565   Hier. Com. in Ep. ad Galat. ii. 11, 12 (ed. Vallars. tom. vii. col. 409): “Non quod aliud significat Petrus, aliudCephas, sed quo quam nos Latine et Graece petram vocemus, hanc Hebraei et Syri, propter linguae inter se viciniam, Cephan, nuncupent.” “I have somewhere said of St. Peter” thus Augustine corrects himself in his Retractations at the close of his life566566   Retract. l. i. c. 21.—“that the church is built upon him as the rock; a thought which is sung by many in the verses of St. Ambrose:


’Hoc ipsa petra ecclesiae

Canente, culpam diluit.’567567   In the Ambrosian Morning Hymn: “Aeterne rerum conditor.”


(The Rock of the church himself

In the cock-crowing atones his guilt.)


But I know that I have since frequently said, that the word of the Lord, ’Thou art Petrus, and on this petra I will build my church,’ must be understood of him, whom Peter confessed as Son of the living God; and Peter, so named after this rock, represents the person of the church, which is founded on this rock and has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven. For it was not said to him: ’Thou art a rock’ (petra), but, ’Thou art Peter’ (Petrus); and the rock was Christ, through confession of whom Simon received the name of Peter. Yet the reader may decide which of the two interpretations is the more probable.” In the same strain he says, in another place: “Peter, in virtue of the primacy of his apostolate, stands, by a figurative generalization, for the church .... When it was said to him, ’I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ &c., he represented the whole church, which in this world is assailed by various temptations, as if by floods and storms, yet does not fall, because it is founded upon a rock, from which Peter received his name. For the rock is not so named from Peter, but Peter from the rock (non enim a Petro petra, sed Petrus a petra), even as Christ is not so called after the Christian, but the Christian after Christ. For the reason why the Lord says, ’On this rock I will build my church’ is that Peter had said: ’Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ On this rock, which then hast confessed, says he will build my church. For Christ was the rock (petra enim erat Christus), upon which also Peter himself was built; for other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Thus the church, which is built upon Christ, has received from him, in the person of Peter, the keys of heaven; that is, the power of binding and loosing sins.”568568   Tract. in Evang. Joannis, 124, § 5. The original is quoted among others by Dr. Gieseler, i. 2, p. 210 (4th ed.), but with a few unessential omissions. This Augustinian interpretation of the petra has since been revived by some Protestant theologians in the cause of anti-Romanism.569569   Especially by Calov in the Lutheran church, and quite recently by Dr. Wordsworth in the Church of England (Commentary on Matt. xvi. 18). But Dr. Alford decidedly protests against it, with most of the modern commentators. Augustine, it is true, unquestionably understood by the church the visible Catholic church, descended from the apostles, especially from Peter, through the succession of bishops; and according to the usage of his time he called the Roman church by eminence the sedes apostolica.570570   De utilit. credendi, § 35, he traces the development of the church “ab apostolica sede per successiones apostolorum;” and Epist. 43, he incidentally speaks of the “Romana ecclesia in qua semper apostolicae cathedrae viguit principatus.” Greenwood, i. 296 sq., thus resolves the apparent contradiction in Augustine: “In common with the age in which he lived, he (St. Augustine) was himself possessed with the idea of a visible representative unity, and considered that unity as equally the subject of divine precept and institution with the church-spiritual itself. The spiritual unity might therefore stand upon the faith of Peter, while the outward and visible oneness was inherent in his person; so that while the church derived her esoteric and spiritual character from the faith which Peter had confessed, she received her external or executive powers from Peter through ’the succession of bishops’ sitting in Peter’s chair. Practically, indeed, there was little to choose between the two theories.” Comp. also the thorough exhibition of the Augustinian theory of the Catholic church and her attributes by Dr. Rothe, in his work Die Anfänge der christlichen Kirche, i. p. 679-711. But on the other hand, like Cyprian and Jerome, he lays stress upon the essential unity of the episcopate, and insists that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were committed not to a single man, but to the whole church, which Peter was only set to represent.571571   De diversis Serm. 108: Has enim claves non homo unus, sed unitas accepit ecclesiae. Hinc ergo Petri excellentia praedicatur, quia ipsius universitatis et unitatis figuram gessit quando ei dictum est: tibi trado, quod omnibus traditum est, etc. With this view agrees the independent position of the North African church in the time of Augustine toward Rome, as we have already observed it in the case of the appeal of Apiarius, and as it appears in the Pelagian controversy, of which Augustine was the leader. This father, therefore, can at all events be cited only as a witness to the limited authority of the Roman chair. And it should also, in justice, be observed, that in his numerous writings he very rarely speaks of that authority at all, and then for the most part incidentally; showing that he attached far less importance to this matter than the Roman divines.572572   Bellarmine, in Praef. in Libr. de Pontif., calls this article even rem summam fidei Christiana!

The later Latin fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries prefer the reference of the petra to Peter and his confession, and transfer his prerogatives to the Roman bishops as his successors, but produce no new arguments. Among them we mention Maximus of Turin (about 450), who, however, like Ambrose, places Paul on a level with Peter;573573   Hom. v., on the feast of Peter and Paul. To the one, says he, the keys of knowledge were committed, to the other the keys of power.” Eminent inter universos apostlos et peculiari quadam praerogativa praecellunt. Verum inter ipsos quis cui praeponatur, incertum est.” The same sentence in Ambrose, De Spir. S. ii. 12. then Orosius, and several popes; above all Leo, of whom we shall speak more fully in the following section.

2. As to the Greek fathers: Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil, the two Gregories, Ephraim, Syrus, Asterius, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, and Theodoret refer the petra now to the confession, now to the person, of Peter; sometimes to both. They speak of this apostle uniformly in very lofty terms, at times in rhetorical extravagance, calling him the “coryphaeus of the choir of apostles,” the prince of the apostles,” the “tongue of the apostles,” the “bearer of the keys,” the “keeper of the kingdom of heaven,” the “pillar,” the “rock,” the “firm foundation of the church.” But, in the first place, they understand by all this simply an honorary primacy of Peter, to whom that power was but first committed, which the Lord afterward conferred on all the apostles alike; and, in the second place, they by no means favor an exclusive transfer of this prerogative to the bishop of Rome, but claim it also for the bishops of Antioch, where Peter, according to Gal. ii., sojourned a long time, and where, according to tradition, he was bishop, and appointed a successor.

So Chrysostom, for instance, calls Ignatius of Antioch a “successor of Peter, on whom, after Peter, the government of the church devolved,”574574   In S. Ignat. Martyr., n. 4. and in another place says still more distinctly: “Since I have named Peter, I am reminded of another Peter [Flavian, bishop of Antioch], our common father and teacher, who has inherited as well the virtues as the chair of Peter. Yea, for this is the privilege of this city of ours [Antioch], to have first (ἐν ἀρχῇ) had the coryphaeus of the apostles for its teacher. For it was proper that the city, where the Christian name originated, should receive the first of the apostles for its pastor. But after we had him for our teacher, we, did not retain him, but transferred him to imperial Rome.”575575   Hom. ii. in Principium Actorum, n. 6, tom. iii. p. 70 (ed. Montfaucon). The last sentence (ἀλλὰ προσεχωρήσαμεν τῇ̑ βασιλίδι Ρώμῃ) is by some regarded as a later interpolation in favor of the papacy. But it contains no concession of superiority. Chrysostomimmediately goes on to say: “We have indeed not retained the body of Peter, but we have retained the faith of Peter; and while we retain his faith, we have himself.”

Theodoret also, who, like Chrysostom, proceeded from the Antiochian school, says of the “great city of Antioch,” that it has the “throne of Peter.”576576   Epist. 86. In a letter to Pope Leo he speaks, it is true, in very extravagant terms of Peter and his successors at Rome, in whom all the conditions, external and internal, of the highest eminence and control in the church are combined.577577   Epist. 113. Comp. Bennington and Kirk, l.c. p. 91-93. In the Epist. 116, to Renatus, one of the three papal legates at Ephesus, where he entreats his intercession with Leo, he ascribes to the Roman see the control of the church of the world (τῶν κατὰ την οἰκουμένην ἐκκλησιῶν τὴν ἡγεμονίαν), but certainly in the oriental sense of an honorary supervision. But in the same epistle he remarks, that the “thrice blessed and divine double star of Peter and Paul rose in the East and shed its rays in every direction;” in connection with which it must be remembered that he was at that time seeking protection in Leo against the Eutychian robber-council of Ephesus (449), which had unjustly deposed both himself and Flavian of Constantinople.

His bitter antagonist also, the arrogant and overbearing Cyril of Alexandria, descended some years before, in his battle against Nestorius, to unworthy flattery, and called Pope Coelestine “the archbishop of the whole [Roman] world.”578578   Ἀρχιεπίσκοπον πάσης τῆς οἰκουμένης [i. e., of the Roman empire, according to the well-known usus loquendi, even of the N. T., Comp. Luke ii. 1], πατέρα τε καὶ πατριάρχην Κελεστῖνον τὸν τῆς μεγαλοπόλεως Ρώμης. Encom. in S. Mar. Deip. (tom. v. p. 384). Comp. his Ep. ix. ad Coelest. The same prelates, under other circumstances, repelled with proud indignation the encroachments of Rome on their jurisdiction.



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