Definition of Terms:
The New Testament text provides a basis for assessing the role of leadership and authority of Saint Peter. Biblical accounts, along with historical evidence such as early Christian writings, archaeological findings, and iconography, support the belief in the successors of Peter having a significant role within the Church. This belief laid the foundation for the development of the papacy, which has continued throughout the centuries. Key points include:
- Biblical foundation: In the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as appointing Peter as a leader among the apostles. In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus states, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This passage suggests that Peter had a foundational role in the establishment of the Church. When taken in the context of Isaiah 22:21-23, it becomes evident that Christ intended to make Peter the steward of His earthly kingdom until He returns. Like stewards of the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel, this position was intended to be handed on to successors.
- Early Christian writings: Early Church Fathers were universal in recognizing the authority of Peter and his successors in the Church of Rome. Clement of Rome (late 1st century), who was a successor to Peter as the Bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthian church, known as 1 Clement. In this letter, he emphasized the authority of the apostles and referred to Peter and Paul as “the greatest and most righteous pillars” of the Church. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century), a prominent theologian, wrote ‘Against Heresies’ and defended the unity of the Church. He spoke of the preeminent authority of the Church of Rome, stating that it was “a powerful principle” due to its apostolic foundation traced back to Peter and Paul. Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) upheld the primacy of Peter and his successors, emphasizing the unity of the Church under the authority of the bishop of Rome. He wrote, “There is one God, and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord.”
- Early Church Councils: Various Church Councils held in the first few centuries of Christianity discussed matters of faith and church governance. The Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 affirmed the primacy of the Church of Rome and recognized its authority in matters of doctrine and ecclesiastical disputes.
- Papal lists of succession: Lists of bishops and popes from the early centuries provide a historical record of the succession of Peter’s authority in the Church of Rome. The “Liber Pontificalis” (Book of Popes) is a collection of biographies of the popes from Peter up to the 9th century. The book provides a chronological list of the popes and includes information about their lives, achievements, and sometimes their martyrdom. Irenaeus, in his work “Against Heresies,” provides a list of the bishops of Rome up to his time, linking them to the apostles. This list serves as an early testimony to the succession of popes. Eusebius of Caesarea’s “Ecclesiastical History” includes a list of bishops and popes up to his time. He based his information on earlier sources and traditions.
- Archaeological evidence: Archaeological finds, such as frescoes, sarcophagi, and Christian iconography, often feature depictions of Peter. He is commonly represented as a bearded man, holding keys or a scroll, or in scenes of his martyrdom. Graffiti found in the catacombs of Rome and other early Christian sites often include symbols, names, and phrases related to Peter. These inscriptions indicate the veneration of Peter among early Christians and provide evidence of his importance in their religious devotion. Funerary inscriptions on early Christian tombs sometimes mention individuals with titles related to the papacy or mention the Church of Rome indicating the presence of a recognized leadership structure.
- Early Christian basilicas: The construction and design of early Christian basilicas can also provide clues about the veneration of Peter and the papacy. Basilicas such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome were built over the supposed burial sites of Peter, emphasizing his importance and serving as centers of worship and pilgrimage.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“I will clothe him with your robe, and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.”
Church Father Quotes:
Irenaeus of Lyons
“The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome] . . . handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus” (Against Heresies 3:3:3 [A.D. 189]).
The Little Labyrinth
“Victor . . . was the thirteenth bishop of Rome from Peter” (The Little Labyrinth [A.D. 211], in Eusebius, Church History 5:28:3).
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, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. . . . ’ [Matt. 16:18]. 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. . . . If someone [today] 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; first edition [A.D. 251]).
Eusebius of Caesarea
“Paul testifies that Crescens was sent to Gaul [2 Tim. 4:10], but Linus, whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21] as his companion at Rome, was Peter’s successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown. Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies, his co-laborer and fellow-soldier [Phil. 4:3]” (Church History 3:4:9–10 [A.D. 312]).
Pope Julius I
“[The] judgment [against Athanasius] ought to have been made, not as it was, but according to the ecclesiastical canon. . . . Are you ignorant that the custom has been to write first to us and then for a just decision to be passed from this place [Rome]? If, then, any such suspicion rested upon the bishop there [Athanasius of Alexandria], notice of it ought to have been written to the church here. But now, after having done as they pleased, they want to obtain our concurrence, although we never condemned him. Not thus are the constitutions of Paul, not thus the traditions of the Fathers. This is another form of procedure, and a novel practice. . . . What I write about this is for the common good. For what we have heard from the blessed apostle Peter, these things I signify to you” (Letter on Behalf of Athanasius [A.D. 341], contained in Athanasius, Apology Against the Arians 20–35).
Council of Sardica
“[I]f any bishop loses the judgment in some case [decided by his fellow bishops] and still believes that he has not a bad but a good case, in order that the case may be judged anew . . . let us honor the memory of the apostle Peter by having those who have given the judgment write to Julius, bishop of Rome, so that if it seem proper he may himself send arbiters and the judgment may be made again by the bishops of a neighboring province” (Canon 3 [A.D. 342]).
Optatus of Milevis
“You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all” (The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [A.D. 367]).
Epiphanius of Salamis
“At Rome the first apostles and bishops were Peter and Paul, then Linus, then Cletus, then Clement, the contemporary of Peter and Paul” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 27:6 [A.D. 375]).
Pope Damasus I
“Likewise it is decreed: . . . [W]e have considered that it ought to be announced that . . . the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see [today], therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it” (Decree of Damasus 3 [A.D. 382]).
Jerome of Stridon
“[Pope] Stephen . . . was the blessed Peter’s twenty-second successor in the See of Rome” (Against the Luciferians 23 [A.D. 383]).
“Clement, of whom the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians says ‘With Clement and others of my fellow-workers whose names are written in the book of life,’ the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter, if indeed the second was Linus and the third Anacletus, although most of the Latins think that Clement was second after the apostle” (Lives of Illustrious Men 15 [A.D. 396]).
“Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord . . . I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church [Rome] whose faith has been praised by Paul [Rom. 1:8]. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. . . . Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact” (Letters 15:1 [A.D. 396]).
“I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails” (ibid., 15:2).
“The church here is split into three parts, each eager to seize me for its own. . . . Meanwhile I keep crying, ‘He that is joined to the chair of Peter is accepted by me!’” (ibid., 16:2).
Ambrose of Milan
“[T]hey [the Novatian heretics] have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven [by the sacrament of confession] even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven’[Matt. 16:19]” (Penance 1:7:33 [A.D. 388]).
Augustine of Hippo
“If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church’ . . . [Matt. 16:18]. Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement, Clement by Anacletus, Anacletus by Evaristus . . . ” (Letters 53:1:2 [A.D. 412]).
Council of Ephesus
“Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: ‘There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod’” (Acts of the Council, session 3 [A.D. 431]).
Pope Leo I
“As for the resolution of the bishops which is contrary to the Nicene decree, in union with your faithful piety, I declare it to be invalid and annul it by the authority of the holy apostle Peter” (Letters110 [A.D. 445]).
“We exhort you in every respect, honorable brother, to heed obediently what has been written by the most blessed pope of the city of Rome, for blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, provides the truth of faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the bishop of Rome” (Letters 25:2 [A.D. 449]).
Council of Chalcedon
“After the reading of the foregoing epistle [The Tome of Leo], the most reverend bishops cried out: ‘This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! So we all believe! Thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo! . . . This is the true faith! Those of us who are orthodox thus believe! This is the faith of the Fathers!’” (Acts of the Council, session 2 [A.D. 451]).
J. N. D. Kelly, Protestant Historian
“[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. . . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).
“the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. . . . [A]n additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message committed was to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are . . . Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).
List of Papal Succession: the First 3 Centuries:
- St. Simon Peter (Died 64 A.D.), one of the Twelve Apostles, crucified under Emperor Nero in Rome.
- St. Linus (Died 76 A.D.) is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:21
- St Cletus (Died 92 A.D.) Buried next to Linus in what is now Vatican City
- St Clement (Died 99 A.D.) Apostolic Father who wrote First Epistle of Clement. Mentioned in Philippians 4:3. Martyred under Emperor Trajan
- St Evaristus (Died 107 A.D.) bishop of Rome when John the Apostle died.
- St Alexander I (Died 115 A.D.). Introduced using salt to exorcise Christian homes
- St Sixtus I (Died 126 A.D.) instituted the Sanctus during the Mass.
- St Telesphorus (Died 137 A.D.) Irenaeus wrote in 189 A.D. that Telesphorus
suffered a “glorious” martyrdom.
- St Hyginus (Died 142 A.D.) Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that the gnostic Valentinus came to Rome during Hyginus’ time as pope.
- St Pius I (Died 154 A.D.) decreed that Easter should only be kept on a Sunday. Excommunicated the Valentinians and Gnostics under Marcion.
- St Anicetus (Died 168 A.D.) According to Irenaeus, it was during his pontificate that Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of John the Apostle, visited Rome to discuss the celebration of Easter. The Christian historian Hegesippus also visited Rome during Anicetus’s pontificate.
- St Soter (Died 174 A.D.) Received a letter still in existance from Dionysius of Corinth praising the Church of Rome for its generosity.
- St Eleutherius (Died 189 A.D.) Hegesippus wrote that he was a deacon under Pope Anicetus and Pope Soter. During the violent persecution at Lyon in 177, the local clergy in Lyon wrote a letter from their prison to Pope Eleutherius. The bearer of this letter to the pope was the presbyter Irenaeus of Lyon.
- St Victor I (Died 199 A.D.) known for his role in the Quartodeciman controversy, where he excommunicated Polycrates of Ephesus.
- St Zephyrinus (Died 217 A.D.) placed Callistus in charge of catacombs.
- St Callistus I (Died 222 A.D.) Buried in Catacomb of Callixtus (rediscovered 1849). Hippolytus of Rome disagreed with Callixtus’s on extending forgiveness of sins
to cover sexual transgressions and he was elected the first antipope.
- St Urban I (Died 230 A.D.) buried in St. Callistus’ Catacomb
- St Pontian (Died 235 A.D.), was banished to the island of Sardinia under Emperor Maximinus Thrax. First Pope to resign to allow election of a new pope.
- St Anterus (Died 236 A.D.) buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus
- St Fabian (Died 250 A.D.) buried in the catacomb of Callixtus
- St Cornelius (Died 253 A.D.) Fought the Novatian heresy with the aid of Cyprian of Carthage and excommunicated Novatian. Buried in Roman catacomb with inscription on his tomb “Cornelius Martyr.”
- St Lucius I (Died 254 A.D.) tombstone is still extant in the catacomb of Callixtus.
- St Stephen I (Died 257 A.D.) upheld re-baptism not necessary for converts
- St Sixtus II (Died 258 A.D.) martyred along with seven deacons
- St Dionysius (Died 268 A.D.) still extant letter to Dionysius of Alexandria
- St Felix I (Died 274 A.D.)
- St Eutychian (Died 283 A.D.) original epitaph in Callixtus catacombs
- St Caius (Died 296 A.D.) tomb & original epitaph found in Callixtus catacombs
- St Marcellinus (Died 304 A.D.)
- St Marcellus I (Died 309 A.D.) banished from Rome Under Emperor Maxentius
- St Eusebius (Died 310 A.D.) buried in the catacomb of Callixtus.
List of Papal Succession: the Second 3 Centuries:
- Miltiades (Died 314 A.D.) during his pontificate Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan (313), giving Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire.
- St Sylvester (Died 335 A.D.) Bishop of Rome during Council of Nicaea.
- St Mark (Died 336 A.D.) buried in the catacomb of Balbina.
- St Julius (Died 352 A.D.) asserted papal authority over the Arian Eastern bishops. Set December 25 as the official birthdate of Jesus.
- St Liberius (Died 366 A.D.) Emperor Constantius was sympathetic to the Arians, and when Liberius disagreed, he sent the pope to prison in Beroea.
- St Damasus I (Died 384 A.D.) Presided over the Council of Rome in 382 A.D., which determined the canon of the Bible. Commissioned St Jerome to translate the Hebrew & Greek Testaments into the Latin Vulgate.
- St Siricius (Died 399 A.D.) first bishop of Rome to reserve title of ‘Pope’.
- St Anastasius I (Died 401 A.D.) instructed priests to stand and bow their head as they read from the gospels. Friends with Augustine, Jerome, and Paulinus. He died in Rome and was buried in the Catacomb of Pontian
- St Innocent I (Died 417 A.D.) closed the canon of the Bible in 405 AD.
- St Zosimus (Died 418 A.D.)
- St Boniface I (Died 422 A.D.) St. Augustine dedicated some of his works to him.
- St Celestine I (Died 432 A.D.) fought Pelagian & Nestorian heresies
- St Sixtus III (Died 440 A.D.) frequently corresponded with Augustine of Hippo.
- St Leo I “the Great” (Died 461 A.D.) in 452 A.D., he persuaded Attila the Hun to turn back from his invasion of Italy. A Doctor of the Church, he issued the ‘Tome of Leo’, which was read during the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
- St Hilary (Died 468 A.D.) legate for Pope Leo I at the Second Council of Ephesus.
- St Simplicius (Died 483 A.D.) combated the Eutychian heresy
- St Felix III (Died 492 A.D.)
- St Gelasius I (Died 496 A.D.) wrote ‘On the dual nature of Christ’
- Anastasius II (Died 498 A.D.)
- St Symmachus (Died 514 A.D.)
- St Hormisdas (Died 523 A.D.)
- St John I (Died 526 A.D.)
- St Felix IV (Died 530 A.D.)
- Boniface II (Died 532 A.D.) first Germanic bishop of Rome.
- John II (Died 535 A.D.)
- St Agapetus I (Died 536 A.D.)
- St Silverius (Died 537 A.D.) deposed by Byzantine general Belisarius and sent into exile on island of Palmarola, where he starved to death in 537.
- Vigilius (Died 555 A.D.) First Pope of The Byzantine Papacy, a period when the Roman papacy required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor.
- Pelagius I (Died 561 A.D.)
- John III (Died 574 A.D.)
- Benedict I (Died 579 A.D.)
- Pelagius II (Died 590 A.D.) strongly promoted clerical celibacy
- St. Gregory I “the Great” (Died 604 A.D.) instituted the Gregorian Mission to
convert pagan Anglo-Saxons in England to Christianity. Instituted liturgical
reforms and the use of the Gregorian chant. A prolific writer, Gregory is a Latin Father and Doctor of the Church. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired him greatly and declared in his Institutes that he was the last good Pope.