St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome | Stephen K. Ray | From "Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church" | IgnatiusInsight.comSt. Peter and the Primacy of Rome | Stephen K. Ray | From Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church

There is little in the history of the Church that has been more heatedly contested than the primacy of Peter and the See of Rome. History is replete with examples of authority spurned, and the history of the Church is no different. As we proceed with this overview of history, we will allow the Scriptures, the voice of the apostles, and the testimony of the early centuries of the Christian community to speak for themselves. In many quarters, over the last few centuries, the din of opposition and uninformed dissent has drowned out the voices of these ancient witnesses. Novel ideas, like a voracious flood, have tried to erode the foundations and the clear historical precedents provided by the Holy Spirit's work in the primitive Church.

History has a clear and distinct voice, but it does not force itself upon us uninvited. History is prudent and waits quietly to be discovered. Conversely, the ingenious inventions of recent theologians and innovators are loud and demanding, bursting upon our ears and minds, our lives and hearts, demanding our immediate attention and loyalties. The riches of history fall quietly aside as the prattling innovators blast their trumpets and loudly parade their followers through new streets, trampling the knowledge of the ages under their cumulative feet.

Here we will allow the voices of the past to speak again--for themselves. And what the reader will find is that the utterances of the past still resound with one voice, with clarity and force. To study those who have gone before us, following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, his apostles, and our Fathers in the faith is to lose interest in much of the clamor of modern notions. We find these theological innovations and ecclesiastical groups poorly devised, if not disingenuous. This is what John Henry Newman, a Protestant clergyman at the time, found as he studied the primitive Church. He concluded: "To be deep in history is to cease being a Protestant." [1] As the Protestant churches continue to fragment and lose the fervor and orthodoxy of their past reform efforts, many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are looking to the past to hear what the early Fathers have to say today. They are beginning to listen to the unobtrusive voice of the early Church, and they are finding it is quite different from what they have been taught. Reading the writings of the early Church allows us to tap into the very heartbeat of the apostolic teaching and tradition of the primitive Church--the very Church bequeathed to us by the apostles.

Sometimes silence is more eloquent than words. This is especially true in Church history. We hear so much about what the Fathers say and so little about what they do not say. This is revealing and should play a significant role in our research. William Webster has written a book that we will refer to several times in our study. Webster is an ex-Catholic who decided to abandon the Church and cast his lot with the Fundamentalist Protestants. His book is entitled Peter and the Rock and asserts that, as the blurb on the back of the book says, "The contemporary Roman Catholic interpretation [of Peter and the rock] had no place in the biblical understanding of the early church doctors." To ascertain whether or not such an assertion is true is one of the main goals of this book. But along with what the Fathers say, we need to hear their silence as well.

While reading Webster's book, I noticed, along with his selective use of the Fathers in attempting to discredit the Catholic Church's teaching on the Papacy, that there are no citations "revealed" in his book in which a Christian, especially a Church Father, explicitly denies the Petrine primacy or the Petrine succession. Webster collects a large number of passages that are supposed to prove that the Fathers oppose Catholic teaching, yet never is there a flat-out denial of the Petrine primacy or the primacy of Rome. This is a silence that speaks volumes! We may find differing interpretations of Peter's primacy, which is what we should expect, according to John Henry Newman, yet we find no denial of that primacy.

I wrote to William Webster and asked him if he knew of any Church Father who denied the primacy of Peter or of his successors. Mr. Webster's response was very telling, and I wish he had been forthright about this matter in his book. His return E-mail stated, "No father denies that Peter had a primacy or that there is a Petrine succession. The issue is how the fathers interpreted those concepts. They simply did not hold to the Roman Catholic view of later centuries that primacy and succession were 'exclusively' related to the bishops of Rome." [2] What an extraordinary admission; what an extraordinary truth. Many of the Fathers were in theological or disciplinary disagreement with Rome (for example, Cyprian and Irenaeus), yet they never denied Rome's primacy. They may have debated what that primacy meant, or how it was to work out in the universal Church, but they never denied the primacy.

The quickest way to achieve jurisdictional or doctrinal victory is to subvert or disarm the opponent. In this case it would have been as simple as proving from the Bible or from tradition that Peter, and subsequently his successors in Rome, had no primacy, no authority to rule in the Church. Yet, as even Webster freely admits, this refutation never occurred. Irenaeus may challenge the appropriateness of a decision made by Victor, but he never challenges Victor's authority to make the binding decision. Cyprian may at times disagree with a decree of Stephen's on baptism, but he never rejects the special place of the Roman See, which would have been the easiest means of winning the debate. The bishop of Rome was unique in assuming the authority and obligation to oversee the Churches. Clement and Ignatius make this clear from the first century and the beginning of the second. If the authority exercised had been illegitimate, or wrongly arrogated, it would have been an act of overzealousness at one end of the spectrum, of tyranny at the other. Yet no one ever stood up and said, "No, you have no authority. Who are you to order us, to teach us, to require obedience from us, to excommunicate us?" If the jurisdictional primacy of Rome had been a matter of self-aggrandizement, someone would have opposed it as they opposed other innovations and heresies in the Church. The silence is profound.

As doctrines develop, as authority develops, as even a family or society develops, there is discussion relating to authority and its exercise. Amazingly enough, this is also true for the canon of the New Testament, which was not finally collected and codified for almost four hundred years after the death of Christ. Does the fact that there were various interpretations of what the New Testament was, or which books it contained--a discussion, by the way, that raised its head again in the teaching of Martin Luther--in any way prove that somehow the New Testament held by the Protestant is uncertain or in doubt because there were various applications or perceptions of that canon in the early years? The faithful Christian may have believed various things about the canon, but he never denied that the Scriptures held a special place. He may have clung to a different collection of books, yet he always understood that there were "apostolic" books. In the same way, early Fathers, especially Eastern Fathers, may have defined the primacy of Peter and the supremacy of his successors in nuanced ways, yet they never denied that the primacy or authority was attached to Peter and his See in Rome.

Authority has always been an object of distrust and, very often, defiance. The nation of Israel refused to hear authority: they rejected the authority of the prophets [3] and rejected their Messiah sent by the Father. [4] The apostles themselves were abused and rejected. [5] Should it surprise us that many in our present day reject and demean the unifying authority God has ordained in his Church? In the primitive Church, as we learn from St. Irenaeus, the greatest theologian of the second century, many groups splintered off from the apostolic Church and "assembled in unauthorized meetings". [6] Rejecting the Church and spurning her shepherd is nothing new to our day.

Christians of many traditions are currently espousing recent Protestant traditions and modern schisms; yet they all claim the early Church as their own--asserting that they are the rightful heirs to the teachings of our Lord, the apostles, and the Fathers of the apostolic Church. Are they? Do they have a legitimate claim to the theology of the early Church? Was the early Church essentially "Protestant" in her theology and polity, or was she Catholic?

Much of the distinctive character of the Church through the centuries has been based on the teaching concerning Peter and his place within the apostolic company and in the Church. Was he chosen for a special position? Did Jesus separate Peter out from the Twelve? Did Peter have authority over the body of Christ, the one sheepfold? Was the position of bishop carried on by his successors? How did the first generations of Christians relate to Peter? These are questions we will try to answer as we proceed with this study.

Holy Scripture must be interpreted, since it is not laid out simply in the form of a Church manual or textbook. One principle of proper interpretation involves studying a topic or passage within its context, both the immediate context and the context of the whole Bible. If this is neglected or done poorly, a plethora of problems arises. Historical context must also be taken into account.

In studying Peter and the subject of primacy, it is especially important to consider who or what makes up the foundation of the Church. The many facets of the Church are like the multiple surfaces of a diamond glistening in the sunlight. These facets are written about from different angles, and the metaphors used--foundations, builders, stones, and so on--are as varied as the gem's surfaces. In grammar school we learn not to mix metaphors. Mixing metaphors makes clear communication difficult and can lead to misunderstandings. This confusion of context is especially pronounced in much of the Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant understanding of the foundation of the Church. However, even George Salmon, no friend to Catholic teaching (in fact he has proven himself a hero to many opposed to the Catholic Church and wrote The Infallibility of the Church to undermine the teachings of the Catholic Church), understood the need to understand properly the metaphors used in Scripture. I provide an extended quotation from Salmon's book to lay the foundation (pun intended) for understanding the biblical and patristic references to Peter and the foundation of the Church.
It is undoubtedly the doctrine of Scripture that Christ is the only foundation [of the Church]: "other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 3:11). Yet we must remember that the same metaphor may be used to illustrate different truths, and so, according to circumstances, may have different significations. The same Paul who has called Christ the only foundation, tells his Ephesian converts (2:20):--"Ye are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone." And in like manner we read (Rev 21:14) :--"The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb." How is it that there can be no other foundation but Christ, and yet that the Apostles are spoken of as foundations? Plainly because the metaphor is used with different applications. Christ alone is that foundation, from being joined to which the whole building of the Church derives its unity and stability, and gains strength to defy all the assaults of hell. But, in the same manner as any human institution is said to be founded by those men to whom it owes its origin, so we may call those men the foundation of the Church whom God honoured by using them as His instruments in the establishment of it; who were themselves laid as the first living stones in that holy temple, and on whom the other stones of that temple were laid; for it was on their testimony that others received the truth, so that our faith rests on theirs; and (humanly speaking) it is because they believed that we believe. So, again, in like manner, we are forbidden to call anyone on earth our Father, "for one is our Father which is in heaven." And yet, in another sense, Paul did not scruple to call himself the spiritual father of those whom he had begotten in the Gospel. You see, then, that the fact that Christ is called the rock, and that on Him the Church is built, is no hindrance to Peter's also being, in a different sense, called rock, and being said to be the foundation of the Church; so that I consider there is no ground for the fear entertained by some, in ancient and in modern times, that, by applying the words personally to Peter, we should infringe on the honour due to Christ alone. [7]

Our current study comprises four interrelated topics. The first two sections examine the life and ministry of the Apostle Peter from biblical and historical sources. The last two sections examine the continuing authority of Peter through the centuries, carried on through apostolic succession and the primacy of Rome. We divide the study in this way:

1. The Life and Ministry of Peter
A. Biblical study: Peter the man, the apostle, the rock: What is his place in the teachings of Jesus and in the New Testament?

B. Historical study: Did Peter travel to Rome, oversee the Church as bishop, and die a martyr's death in the city of Rome?
2. The Primacy of Peter in the Early Church
A. Earliest document study: The primacy of Rome in the earliest non-canonical writings of the Church, authored by Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

B. Early Church study: Peter and the primacy of Rome taught and practiced throughout the first five centuries.
Certainly, it is not possible to compile every passage from the Fathers that pertains to the study of Peter and the primacy. This is true, first of all, because such passages are too abundant and, secondly, because many times the primacy is not demonstrated by written teachings per se, but by the actions of the Fathers in particular historical situations. Some Fathers write of the Petrine primacy and later change their stance as they move away from orthodoxy or from a literal understanding of Scripture or when they enter into a personal conflict with the bishop of Rome. Lately, several books have come out that are hostile to the Catholic Church's teaching on papal primacy (we will discuss these books in the course of our study). A perusal of these books shows that their inability to deal fairly with the issue stems from their tendency to "proof-text", by which they point out things that seem to support their contentions and ignore everything that does not.

Another reason these opponents find it difficult to comprehend the Papacy is a perspective, inherited from the Protestant Reformation, that is essentially anti-sacramental, anti-mediational, and anti-incarnational. God's economy, however, always involves mediation. The people of God, for example, stepped back and demanded that God not speak to them directly, for they were afraid and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die" (Ex 20:19). Take another example--Paul. God could very well have "saved" him directly, but instead the great Paul was sent to the lowly Ananias for baptism and instructions. Paul later went to Peter for approval and to make sure he "was not running in vain", even though he had received revelations and had even been taken up to the "third heaven" (2 Cor 12:2). No Christian baptizes himself; this is done though the mediating agency of another person. Without an understanding of how God works through mediation, it is difficult to understand the fullness of the faith. [8]

It would take volumes to deal thoroughly with every biblical passage, every Father's writings, and every argument against the Papacy. However, we will provide ample material to establish the firm foundation of Catholic teaching and to refute the opposition. In the process we will attempt to be fair with the material, analyzing not only the Catholic position but the interpretation espoused by the opposition. Much can be said about each of these topics and detailed accounts can be read from other sources listed in the bibliography.

In our journey through the Scriptures and the primitive Church, we will consult our first brethren in Christ. We will conclude by looking at the current teaching of the Catholic Church as well as the widespread opposition. Now let us journey back in time to the New Testament period and the generations that followed in the footsteps and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.


[1] John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, in Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 50.

[2] E-mail from William Webster dated August 16, 1997.

[3] Mt 23:37: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"

[4] Jn 1:10-11: "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not."

[5] Paul says in 2 Timothy 1: 15, "You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, and among them Phygelus and Hermogenes." The Apostle John writes in 1 John 2:19, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us."

[6] "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" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3, 3, 2, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev. A. Cleveland Coxe [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985], 1:415 [hereafter ANF]).

[7] George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (London: John Murray, 1914), 338-39.

[8] The objection will arise, "But we have only 'one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus'" (1 Tim 2:5). To this the Catholic offers a hearty Amen! Yet we see, not four verses earlier, Paul commanding Timothy to pray for all men--to intercede (from the Latin intercedere, to intervene or go between, to mediate). Yes, Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant, for such a unique covenant takes a unique mediator (Heb 8:6). But do we assume that, because Christ is the mediator of a better covenant, there is no longer any mediation in the Church? Prayer is mediation. We are mediating God's message to a sinful world when we preach the gospel. No finite human being can mediate an eternal covenant between God and man, but a pastor can certainly mediate God's word, and a simple soul can certainly intercede for the mighty. Mediation is alive and well as we enter into the New Covenant and participate in the mediating work of Christ.

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Stephen K. Ray was raised in a devout, loving Baptist family. His father was a deacon and Bible teacher and Stephen was very involved in the Baptist Church as a teacher of Biblical studies and lectured on a wide range of topics. Steve and his wife Janet entered the Catholic Church in 1994. In addition to running a family business, Steve spends time researching, writing, and teaching about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, and St. John's Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary. He is currently producing a 10-video series for Ignatius Press called The Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation From Abraham to Augustine, filmed on location in the Holy Land. His website is

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