Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bishop of Rome in the Early Church

Numerous issues and disputes prevent reconciliation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. Among these issues and disputes none is more crucial than the role the Roman Church and its bishop ought to play in the Christian Communion as a whole.

The Roman Catholic Church claims that this primacy belongs not to the Church of Rome, but the Bishop of Rome, or Pope, who is held to be the apostolic successor of St. Peter, the prince of the apostles. This primacy is believed by Roman Catholics to carry with it the authority to exercise universal authority over the Christian Communion as a whole. Additionally, since the first Vatican Council held from December 1869 to October 1870, the Roman Catholic Church has declared that, when speaking Ex Cathedra, the Bishop of Rome is able to make infallible decrees, binding on the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome.  

The Eastern Orthodox Communion acknowledges that the Church of Rome did indeed hold primacy in the pre-schism Church, and many Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that if the Church of Rome reunited with the Eastern Orthodox Communion, this primacy would be restored. It should here be noted that Eastern Orthodox Christianity typically sees primacy as first belonging to the Roman Church and second to its bishop. While there is disagreement among Orthodox Christians regarding what exactly this primacy entailed, they are in agreement that it is not the universal supremacy Roman Catholicism claims it to be.

Better minds than mine have debated the issue of Roman Primacy from both sides of the dialogue for centuries, and thus I likely won't have much, if anything to add to the discussion, but I will offer my unique perspective on the matter. I hope that because I am not yet heavily invested in either tradition I will be able to offer a more fair and impartial consideration of the issue. I welcome any insights, criticisms, and corrections you are willing to offer. 

St. Peter and the Apostles

The Roman Catholic claim of Papal Supremacy is founded primarily on the Apostle Peter and his role among the Apostles and early Church. The first argument typically offered by Roman Catholic apologists is Matthew 16:18-19, wherein Christ claims that He will build his Church upon "Petros" or the rock which seems to indicate Peter. There has been much debate over the true meaning of these verses. Some have highlighted that in Greek, believed to be the original language of the New Testament gospels, two different conjugations of the the word for "rock" are used. From here it is argued that two different metaphorical rocks are being sopken of in this passage. I personally don't find this reality significant for two reasons. First, both uses of the Greek for "rock" seem to indicate Peter. Second, Christ would have spoken Aramaic, a language that has only one word and conjugation for "rock."  

Another area of dispute lies in understanding what exactly Christ is saying to Peter in verse 18. Some, including Early Church Fathers, have argued that when Christ says to Peter "you are a rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church" He is referring to Peter's confession and not Peter himself. While I agree that Peter's confession plays an important role in this conversation, it seems silly to claim that in calling Peter a rock he is referring solely to his confession. If this is so, why did Christ not instead say "your confession is a rock"? Further, why would Peter's name change if it was solely his words and not he himself to which Christ referred? It seems clear that Christ's words refer to the person Peter at least in some sense.

Even acknowledging that Christ is in some sense indicating the man Simon-Peter as the rock in verse 18, there exist two legitimate criticisms of the Catholic interpretation and use of this passage. First, I believe a legitimate interpretation of Christ's statement is "because of your confession of faith you are a rock," and thus anyone else who makes a similar confession is also a rock. At this point the Roman Catholic may object, asking "If that is the case, why is it only Peter's name that was changed?" To this I would reply that Peter's name may not have been changed because he was granted a special authority, but rather as a special recognition that he was the first to make such a confession.

Even though I believe there are criticisms of the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 worth consideration, I am also comfortable accepting that Peter held a special role among the apostles and in the early Church, and, as stated previously, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy recognize this role. If one grants that Peter was a leader among the apostles and first Christians some may consider the case closed. However, there remain several key questions to consider before considering the matter settled, including a determination of what Peter's leadership entailed, whether he passed on this leadership role, whether the Bishop of Rome and he alone is the successor of Peter in this role, and what this role would entail.

From the perspective of those outside the Roman Catholic Church, the claim of universal jurisdiction and papal infallibility were inventions originating around the time of the Schism and dogmatized at the first Vatican Council, respectively. Rome, however, claims that these Papal roles are legitimate developments tracing back to the very origins of Christendom. In light of this claim, it seems the first place to look in order to solve this question are the writings of the Early Church Fathers themselves. Below I will consider what I believe to be the passages that best support the Roman Catholic case, being that universal Papal jurisdiction and infallibility have existed since the establishment of the Church. These passages will be followed by a personal analysis of said passages:

St. Cyprian of Carthage
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], 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 [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] 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 [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).  
Here Cyprian clearly speaks to the Primacy of Peter, which being agreed upon by both East and West is not an issue. What is significant to the disagreement is Cyprian's concluding questions which make the crucial implication that unity with the Chair of Peter is essential. If one understands "the Church" as Roman Catholics, being one, single, universal body headed by one supreme bishop, then the Roman Catholic case seems bolstered. However, if one understands "the Church" as Eastern Orthodox understand the term, meaning one of several bodies of believers headed by the chair and successor of Peter who is that regional church's bishop, then the passage takes on a radically different meaning. Instead of seeing Cyprian's implication as the necessity of being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, one may instead interpret his implication as the necessity of being in communion with one's regional bishop, who is one of several successors of Peter. This interpretation harmonizes with the statement of the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who referencing Matthew 16:18-19, states "As Roman Catholic scholars now concede, the ancient Christian father Cyprian used it to prove the authority of the bishop—not merely of the Roman bishop, but of every bishop" Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (NY: Abingdon Press), p. 78.

What the Roman Catholic apologist often omits is that St. Cyprian, who was the Bishop of Carthage, saw himself as sitting in the chair of Peter, believing that all bishops are his successors. His additional statements seem to further refute the idea that he viewed the Bishop of Rome as the modern Roman Catholic Church:

"For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another." (The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian, The Judgment of Eighty-Seven Bishops on the Baptism of Heretics, 250 AD) 

I admit that, in light of the Eastern Orthodox perspective, it seems odd that St. Cyprian would state that "there is but one Church and one chair." However, I do not believe that this statement explicitly affirms the Roman Catholic position. Rather, Cyprian may intend to state that there is but one Church under each bishop, to which the adherent is subject and Christians should not divide themselves from this unity. To the Alexandrian, there is only one church to which they should submit, being the Church of Alexandria, and the same would go for the Antiochian, Athenian, Corinthian, and so on. Given his other statements, and his own understanding of Petrine succession, I believe this is a more reasonable interpretation.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

"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 preeminent authority [propter potentiorem principalitatem] – that is, the faithful everywhere – inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those who are everywhere." 

In claiming that "every Church should agree with this Church," that is, the Church in Rome. Irenaues seems to make the Roman Catholic case for papal infallibility. If it is indeed true that all churches must necessarily agree with the Church in Rome what else can this mean but supremacy? 

This passage has been controversial due to how the Latin phrase "conveniere ad" has been translated. While it is possible to translate "conveniere ad" as "agree with," it is also possible to translate said phrase as "assemble at." In fact, the English word "convene" which is derived from the Latin "conveniere" means "to come together" or "to cause to assemble." Thus a possible translation of this passage is not that every Church should agree with the Church of Rome, but that all Churches should come together or assemble in Rome. For more on this topic I recommend this link, which better explains the Latin Vulgate.
Beyond controversies of translation, it is interesting that Irenaeus points not to the Bishop of Rome, whom Roman Catholics argue holds primacy, but to the Church of Rome, which, according to Irenaeus, it holds due to its faithfulness and not any special, unchanging authority. This emphasis harmonizes with the claim that Rome holds primacy not due to its unique succession, but because of its honorable and political standing in Christendom. Honorable because it was established by, as Irenaeus states, "the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul" and because it was often an example of fidelity to Christian doctrine; political because Rome was the seat of the Roman Empire in terms of power and culture. Christians in Rome would have no doubt additionally been praised for their faithfulness under oppression.
St. Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna
"We exhort you, honorable brother, to submit yourself in all things to what has been written by the blessed Bishop of Rome, because St. Peter, who lives and presides in his see, gives the true faith to those who seek it. For our part, for the sake of peace and the good of the faith, we cannot judge questions of doctrine without the consent of the Bishop of Rome." [Letter 25:2 to the Priest Eutyches in PL 54:742D-743A]

I personally find this quote to be the most persuasive of the lot. Here St. Peter Chrysologus commands that one should submit to all the writings of Rome's bishop because of St. Peter the Apostle, which implies succession from the Prince of the Apostles. Further, Chrysologus states that decisions regarding doctrine cannot be made without first receiving consent from the Bishop of Rome.

While I do think this quotation lends some support to the Roman Catholic position, it is important to highlight what is not being said and the historical context in which Chrysologus was living. To the former, he makes no mention of infallibility or supremacy so it is unclear as to whether he commands obedience to Rome because of these attributes, or because that particular bishop and his successors, up to that point, have shown themselves to be worthy of submission. In other words we can ask whether the Bishop of Rome is to be followed because he follows church teachings, or because he possesses some special, infallible authority not held by other bishops.

If Rome was seen as a bastion of orthodoxy during the period in which Chrysologus wrote it provides further reasons for why he would give such a command. He may be saying something akin to "Rome has been unwavering in its Christian faith for the past few centuries, and it holds hierarchical primacy among the churches, therefore it is essential that we seek council with Rome before we make any judgments." This view would be one perfectly acceptable to Eastern Orthodoxy.   
My objective here has not been to prove the opposition's case, as I recognize that the authors of these quotations could very well have viewed the Bishop of Rome in a way similar to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Rather, I wish to highlight alternative interpretations to quotations that Catholic pop-apologists so often think are a knock out proof of their position. Contemporary historical consensus among both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox historians seems to be that the early Christian Communion was governed in a much more collegial fashion than the contemporary Catholic Communion, but the Bishop of Rome may yet have held more authority than some Eastern Orthodox Christians are willing to concede.

Although the critic can point to many actual and potential problems stemming from Papal Supremacy, there are many apparent benefits to such a leader. Roman Catholics can much more clearly indicate what their church believes regarding certain moral and doctrinal matters, such as contraception. The unity experienced under the Pope also seems to have allowed for an efficiency of sorts, which may be seen as both a positive and negative attribute. When disputes arise the Roman Church a council is assembled in relatively quick fashion. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Communion seems to have been planning their next council for the past 500 years or so, or they claim that another council isn't necessary.

In the end the only question we ought be concerned with in our pursuit for truth is whether the authority held and occasionally exercised by the Bishop of Rome, as claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, has a legitimate historical and theological basis. In light of the above the position seems at best debatable, if not altogether erroneous.

For further information regarding this topic I recommend this audio resource from the Orientale Lumen Conference, where Catholics and Orthodox Christians gathered to discuss the topic "Rome and the Communion of Churches: Bishop, Patriarch or Pope?”


  1. The primacy of the bishop of Rome cannot be deductively or exhaustively proven from the historical data. That said, it is a plausible interpretation of the data, and, in my opinion, the most plausible interpretation.

    Here is a bit more on St. Cyprian on the bishop of Rome:

    and here as well:

    May Christ unite us!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Devin. From my discussions with my Orthodox peers it seems that Papal primacy isn't so much the issue. In fact, prominent Orthodox scholars like Met. Kallistos Ware and Fr. John Meyendorff have conceded that the bishop of Rome held an office of primacy among the early Christian community; the question is whether the modern Roman Catholic interpretation and exercise of Papal primacy is legitimate.

    My main question regarding this subject is: At what point should one concede that, although the information seems ambiguous on the matter, A seems more correct than B? To answer this question I think it is essential to look not only at what early Christians said about Rome and its bishop, but instead look at how the Church was governed, what sort of theology was prevalent (view of original sin, Mary, Purgatory, Hell, the atonement), how the liturgy was performed, etc. Even Fr. Taft, an Eastern Catholic, has stated that if the Pope of Rome had a supremacy of sorts in the early Church it was exercised in a much different way. Church governance was much more localized, collegial.

    I recommend listening to the recordings from the Orientale Lumen Conference.