Q&A: When Did The Roman Catholic Church First Claim Peter’s Primacy?

“When did the RCC begin to claim that Peter was the first pope of Rome?”

Cyprian and 80+ overseers that met with him at the Council of Carthage discussed Stephen’s claim to be the bishop over all bishops. They rejected his claim …

For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops,4675 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. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V)

In a letter to Cyprian, a bishop Firmilian of Caesarea in Cappadocia, says …

And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter … (Cyprian Epistle LXXIV)

So at least by AD 250 or so Stephen claimed to hold a succession from Peter. That claim was rejected even then.

Note 1: The reason that Carthage held a council to deal with Stephen’s claims is because Rome was the nearest apostolic church to Carthage. Carthage was in Stephen of Rome’s jurisdiction. Firmilian, writing to Carthage from Caesarea, was much less respectful concerning Stephen than Cyprian was. That may have been merely personality, but I suspect it has more to do with Firmilian not considering Stephen his “superior” in position.

Note 2: By 250 it is possible that even eastern bishops would have given honor to the bishop of Rome as “first among equals.” I doubt it’s true, but it’s possible. By the fourth century, it was certainly so, but by then Rome’s authority was based more on the fact it was the capitol of the empire than on any apostolic tradition they still held.

Is Peter the Head of the Church?

Then you asked, “How about the claim that Jesus made Peter the head of the church?”

Solid claim except for the terminology, in my opinion. Jesus in the head of the church, not Peter. The early church did, however, consider Peter to be the first among the apostles, and they did reference Matthew 16 in saying that.

The problem is tying that leadership to Rome. Yes, Peter was in Rome. However, Cyprian’s Treatise on Unity states that he believes Peter’s leadership passed to all the bishops together. Orthodox churches would say that it is Antioch that received a succession direct from Peter.

Anyone who reads the early Christian writings without bias is going to see that the issue was the apostles. They were the lone authorities for the church, and the apostolic churches—not just one apostolic church—carried their tradition and were to be consulted. The original plan was for the apostles to transmit their teaching to the churches by means of the overseer and elders (or just elders in some cases) and these church leaders would pass it on (unchanged because you cannot improve on the apostles) to their successors.

It worked pretty well for a while, but by the fourth century, emperors and politics were so much a part of the succession of bishops that any handing down of truth cannot be trusted. A little historical and biblical research verifies this. The Catholic and the Orthodox both have statements—the RCC in Vatican II—saying that the faith is to be preserved unchanged, but both also have statements explaining why they are allowed to change it.

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4 Responses to Q&A: When Did The Roman Catholic Church First Claim Peter’s Primacy?

  1. Hi Paul. I’ve become very interested in the early church and it seems to be driving me toward Rome. Right now I’m taking time to look into as much as possible. There are a couple of things I would like to bring up.

    1. Didn’t Cyprian also write these things?
    “You wrote, moreover, for me to transmit a copy of those same letters to Cornelius our colleague, so that he might lay aside all anxiety, and know at once that you held communion with him, that is, with the Catholic Church.” (Letter to Antonianus about Cornelius the Pope)

    “Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men.” (To Antonianus about Cornelius the Pope)

    “After such things as these, moreover, they still dare—a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics—to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source.” (To Pope Cornelius talking about heretics)

    Cornelius was pope before Stephen. So Cyprian said these things before he had a disagreement with Rome. So did he change his tune only after a conflict came? That’s not surprising, but it can also not be used as “proof” that he didn’t believe in the primacy of Rome. He apparently did until he disagreed with it.

    2. The quote you gave from Cyprian’s letter to Firmilian seems out of context. The issue at hand was whether returning heretics should be re-baptized, not who was the successor of Peter. The full quote from your source runs thus:

    “And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority.”

    It looks like he’s not questioning Stephen’s claim to the succession of Peter, but that Stephen “should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches.” Basically Cyprian didn’t agree with a decision of Stephen. That’s nothing new. People have disagreed with the pope from very early years (Irenaeus disagreed with Victor). But that doesn’t mean they rejected his rightful authority as successor of Peter.

    3. Even all this aside, does Cyprian speak as the authoritative voice for the entire church? If he does, that would make HIM the pope. Since we all know he doesn’t, at best he’s historical evidence but not the final word. At that point we compare him with other authors. What do they say?

    The primacy of Rome seems to predate Cyprian, the most blatant being Irenaeus which Ben quoted above. At that time and after, no one seemed to disagree with Irenaeus, which is significant. Even if Cyprian rejected the pope (which I’m not sure he did), that only shows that one man rejected the pope, not that the entire church rejected the pope.

    This is all just food for thought and some things on my mind.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Thank you for your comments, mustfollow. Let me clarify a couple things.

      1. In the first quote you give, we read, “held communion with him, that is, with the Catholic Church.” The “catholic church” here is simply a reference to the church as a whole. It is not a specific “Catholic Church” versus some other church. In the 250’s, every church descended from the apostles was part of the catholic churches except the Montanists, an influential but short-lived sect, already falling out of vogue in the mid-3rd century. It could be argued that fellowship with Bishop Cornelius of Rome represented fellowship with the catholic churches in general, but that argument would only carry weight if Antonianus was from some other church than Rome. The Novatian split happened in Rome, and Antonianus lived in Rome. You can find these facts even in the title of the letter.

      2. The second quote you give concerns agreeing that Cornelius should be bishop and not the schismatic Novatian, so it’s irrelevant to what I wrote.

      3. The third quote refers to Rome as the throne of Peter and the chief church where priestly unity takes its source. This means what it says. It just doesn’t mean, “The bishop in Rome has authority over all Christians everywhere or even over all churches everywhere.” The prestige of Rome as a leading or perhaps even the leading preserver of the truth of the apostles cannot be denied. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian say the same long before Cyprian. Rome as a church was formed by the work of both Paul and Peter, and Peter almost surely was an elder there until the end of his life. Great prestige was tied to that. However, to interpret that to mean “everyone church needs to agree with the bishop of Rome and the church of Rome no matter what happens into the future” is a jump that is not only unjustified by what Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian say, but it contradicts things they say.

      4. On your #2. That argument is valid enough, though I don’t think it would be very hard to find a good quote from Firmilian showing that he rejects Stephen’s claim. I don’t need one, though, since the whole Council of Carthage rejects Stephen’s claim to be a “bishop over bishops.”

      5. Referencing the quote from Irenaeus, I refer anyone who actually cares to the context of what Irenaeus said, which can be found at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html. Start with that chapter and read the next four. Should take no more than 5 minutes. You will find things like:

      “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”
      “Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches”

      In other words, “I’m listing the succession in Rome because it has huge authority because of Peter and Paul. I would love to list all the churches, but we really don’t have room for that.”

      When he’s done making Rome’s list, he says:

      “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles … but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna … departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic churches testify.”
      “Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.”

      The point of listing the bishops at all?

      “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.”

      Rome was indeed acknowledged as the most important church in the west (Irenaeus wrote from Europe, and both Tertullian and Cyprian from Carthage). However, that was only as long as they preserved apostolic truth. Apostolic succession was an argument that a church held the truth, not a promise of authority when it stopped holding to the truth.

      How do we know? Because everyone rejected or corrected Rome when it tried to enforce its authority over other churches. Cyprian is just on example. Polycrates, then Polycarp, then Irenaeus twice, then Cyprian and EIGHTY-SEVEN North African bishops. Quite the rebellion, if it was a rebellion.

  2. Ben says:

    Paul,

    I must give you a lot of credit for venturing into Church history, where many Protestants fear to tread.

    It appears that what Cyprian was trying to do was usurp the recognized authority of the pope by gathering a large number of bishops to disagree with Stephen’s decision on the matter of the validity of baptism by heretics and/or schismatics. Ironically, Stephen’s ruling on the matter benefits modern Protestants, while Cyprian was taking a more hard-line approach. Is a Trinitarian baptism (Matt. 28:19) legitimate if done outside of communion with the Church of Rome? Pope Stephen declared that it technically counts, with rebaptism unnecessary and wrong for those willing to rejoin the Church, while Cyprian argued the case for rebaptism. The orthodox Christian position to this day agrees with Pope Stephen.

    Peter being the first pope is a somewhat different issue than this issue regarding Cyprian of Carthage. Regarding the primacy of Peter, Rome, and the Pope, I still have yet to see a good Protestant response to Irenaeus, who predates Cyprian:

    “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 succession of 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, early Church father, ca. 180 A.D. in his famous work Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, para. 2

    You said: “Anyone who reads the early Christian writings without bias is going to see that the issue was the apostles. They were the lone authorities for the church, and the apostolic churches—not just one apostolic church—carried their tradition and were to be consulted.” The apostles did indeed have authority, and they were given the authority to bind and loose (Matt. 18:18), but ONLY PETER WAS GIVEN THE KEYS of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19, and also note Isaiah 22:22). Jesus is indeed the head of the Church, but He chose to work through Peter and the succeeding popes.

    The matter regarding Cyprian, Stephen, and Firmilian is actually often used by Protestants in an attempt to argue for sola scriptura. The matter is best summed up at this link:

    http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/did-the-early-christians-subscribe-to-sola-scriptura

    But I’ll take the liberty to quote from it a little bit for the purpose of addressing your point:

    “It was St. Stephen, the bishop of Rome from A.D. 254 to 257, who preserved orthodoxy by teaching the validity of any Trinitarian baptism. He asserted his authority as Peter’s successor to make this decision and enforce it under threat of excommunication.
    St. Stephen’s decision must be the most underrated in Christian history, because we place our hope for Christian unity in our common baptism. Where would we be today if St. Cyprian and Firmilian had prevailed? Mainline Protestantism requires one to believe that Stephen indeed made a wise and scripturally sound decision on the issue of heretical baptism, but that he grossly misunderstood his authority as Peter’s successor to make and enforce that same decision. This is a difficult combination to reconcile.
    St. Cyprian is a venerated saint for good reason—he loved God and his Word. From our post-Reformation perspective, it is easy to see St. Cyprian as the hard-liner in this debate. But his stance on the issue of baptism was motivated not by moral rigidity but by compassion. People who had been baptized by heretical clergy were truly distraught that they could not receive baptism in the one true Church. St. Cyprian shared their distress, and he wanted to give them an assurance of the forgiveness of their sins. But on this particular issue, he was wrong. That one as devout as St. Cyprian could make such a serious mistake should give pause to all thoughtful Christians.”

    -Ben

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