The Primacy of Peter
Definition of Terms:
In the early Church, the Primacy of Peter played a significant role. According to historical accounts and early Christian writings, Peter held a prominent position among the Apostles. He was seen as a leader and spokesperson for the early Christian community. One of the most well-known instances highlighting Peter’s primacy is found in Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus tells Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church,” thus designating Peter as the foundation of the Church.
Peter’s leadership and authority were further demonstrated in various instances. He is listed first among the Apostles, delivered important speeches and performed significant miracles, such as the healing of the lame man in Acts 3. The primacy of Peter amongst the Apostles was conferred on him by Jesus, who gave him the Keys of Heaven and the powers of “binding and loosing” (Matt. 16:18-19). While Christ gave authority to all of the Apostles, Peter’s primacy becomes evident in Scripture as:
- Peter heads every list of the Apostles (Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:15-19, Luke 12:41).
- Peter generally speaks for the Apostles (Matt. 18:21, Mark 8:29, Luke 12:41).
- Christ prays especially for Peter that his faith will strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32).
- He spoke for the other apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:18).
- Gives the first dogmatic decree of who Jesus is was given by Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16). Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.'” (Matthew 16:17)
- Only Peter participated in the working of one of Jesus’ miracles (Matt. 14:22-23, walking on the water).
- Jesus delegated Peter and John to prepare for the paschal meal for His Last Supper (Luke 22:8).
After Christ’s death, Peter’s leadership would then become evident in the early Church as well. Peter is repeatedly the focal point during momentous occasions:
- When the angel appeared to Mary Magdalene and the others at the empty tomb, he commanded them, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7). [note the singling out of Peter].
- Peter and John ran together to Jesus’ tomb after Mary Magdalene reported that Jesus’ body was not there. Being younger, John ran ahead of Peter, but John waited at the entrance until Peter arrived and went in first (John 20:1-20).
- Peter heads the election of Mathias to replace Judas (Acts 1:13-26).
- Peter excommunicates the first heretic (Acts 8:18-23).
- Peter leads the first council in Jerusalem and it is upon his advice that the issue is resolved (Acts 15). “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7).
- Peter performs the first miracle of the Apostolic Age and is the first to raise the dead after Christ (Acts 3:6-12, Acts 9:40).
- Paul underlines the priority of Peter: the risen Lord appeared “[first] to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:5)
Early Christian writers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian, also acknowledged Peter’s primacy and his connection to the Church in Rome. They viewed the Bishop of Rome, who succeeded Peter, as holding a position of authority and influence within the Church. Several Church Fathers, prominent theologians and writers of the early Christian Church, expressed their views on the primacy of Peter.
Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225), an early Christian apologist, acknowledged the special position of Peter among the Apostles. He referred to Peter as the “founder” and “prince” of the Church, emphasizing his authority and leadership. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258) famously said, “There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the Word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood.” Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–c. 202) affirmed that the faith and tradition preserved in the Church of Rome were authoritative due to its connection with Peter.
Eastern Church Fathers, whom are widely revered in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, also acknowledged Peter’s primacy. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a prominent Eastern Orthodox Church Father and Archbishop of Constantinople, recognized the special position of Peter among the Apostles and referred to Peter as the “mouthpiece of the disciples.” Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376–444) referred to Peter as the “chief of the apostles.” Maximus the Confessor made even more explicit statements; “Let him first hasten to satisfy the See of Rome… It is futile to try and persuade one like me without instead trying to satisfy and implore the blessed Pope of the holy Church of Rome. For that is the Apostolic See, which has received from the Incarnate Son of God Himself, universal and supreme dominion, authority, and the power of binding and loosing over all the holy churches.”
-Disputatio cum Pyrrho (Written ca. 640 A.D.)
The same can be said for Syriac Church Fathers who lived beyond the influence of the Roman Empire, such as Ephraim the Syrian and Theodore Abu Qurrah. The idea of Petrine Primacy was so wide spread in the early Church that it is undeniable when faced with the evidence.
“You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.”
“And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.”
“Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'”
“Then Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, do You speak this parable only to us, or to all people?'”
“But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.”
“But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.”
“And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.'”
“Then Peter said, ‘Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them—walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. Now as the lame man who was healed held on to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the porch which is called Solomon’s, greatly amazed.”
Church Father Quotes:
Clement of Alexandria
“[T]he blessed Peter, the chosen, the preeminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with himself the Savior paid the tribute [Matt. 17:27], quickly grasped and understood their meaning. And what does he say? ‘Behold, we have left all and have followed you’ [Matt. 19:27; Mark 10:28]” (Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? 21:3–5 [A.D. 200]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“For though you think that heaven is still shut up, remember that the Lord left the keys of it to Peter here, and through him to the Church, which keys everyone will carry with him if he has been questioned and made a confession [of faith]” (Antidote Against the Scorpion 10 [A.D. 211]).
“[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church” (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).
The Letter of Clement to James
“Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the most sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter, the first fruits of our Lord, the first of the apostles; to whom first the Father revealed the Son; whom the Christ, with good reason, blessed” (Letter of Clement to James 2 [A.D. 221]).
Origen of Alexandria
“[I]f we were to attend carefully to the Gospels, we should also find, in relation to those things which seem to be common to Peter . . . a great difference and a preeminence in the things [Jesus] said to Peter, compared with the second class [of apostles]. For it is no small difference that Peter received the keys not of one heaven but of more, and in order that whatsoever things he binds on earth may be bound not in one heaven but in them all, as compared with the many who bind on earth and loose on earth, so that these things are bound and loosed not in [all] the heavens, as in the case of Peter, but in one only; for they do not reach so high a stage with power as Peter to bind and loose in all the heavens” (Commentary on Matthew 13:31 [A.D. 248]).
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]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“The Lord is loving toward men, swift to pardon but slow to punish. Let no man despair of his own salvation. Peter, the first and foremost of the apostles, denied the Lord three times before a little servant girl, but he repented and wept bitterly” (Catechetical Lectures 2:19 [A.D. 350]).
“[Simon Magus] so deceived the city of Rome that Claudius erected a statue of him. . . . While the error was extending itself, Peter and Paul arrived, a noble pair and the rulers of the Church, and they set the error aright. . . . [T]hey launched the weapon of their like-mindedness in prayer against the Magus, and struck him down to earth. It was marvelous enough, and yet no marvel at all, for Peter was there—he that carries about the keys of heaven [Matt. 16:19]” (ibid., 6:14).
“In the power of the same Holy Spirit, Peter, both the chief of the apostles and the keeper of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, in the name of Christ healed Aeneas the paralytic at Lydda, which is now called Diospolis [Acts 9:32–34]” (ibid., 17:27).
Ephraim the Syrian
“[Jesus said:] Simon, my follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on Earth a Church for me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which my teaching flows; you are the chief of my disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples. Yours is that life-giving sweetness which I dispense. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the firstborn in my institution so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures” (Homilies 4:1 [A.D. 351]).
Pope Damasus I
“Likewise it is decreed . . . 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 . . . ’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see, 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
“‘But,’ you [Jovinian] will say, ‘it was on Peter that the Church was founded’ [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division” (Against Jovinian 1:26 [A.D. 393]).
Pope Innocent I
“In seeking the things of God . . . you have acknowledged that judgment is to be referred to us [the pope], and have shown that you know that is owed to the Apostolic See [Rome], if all of us placed in this position are to desire to follow the apostle himself [Peter] from whom the episcopate itself and the total authority of this name have emerged” (Letters 29:1 [A.D. 408]).
Augustine of Hippo
“Among these [apostles] Peter alone almost everywhere deserved to represent the whole Church. Because of that representation of the Church, which only he bore, he deserved to hear ‘I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’” (Sermons 295:2 [A.D. 411]).
“Some things are said which seem to relate especially to the apostle Peter, and yet are not clear in their meaning unless referred to the Church, which he is acknowledged to have represented in a figure on account of the primacy which he bore among the disciples. Such is ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ and other similar passages” (Commentary on Psalm 108 1 [A.D. 415]).
“Who is ignorant that the first of the apostles is the most blessed Peter?” (Commentary on John 56:1 [A.D. 416]).
Council of Ephesus
“Philip, presbyter and legate of [Pope Celestine I] said: ‘We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you . . . you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the apostles, is blessed Peter the apostle’” (Acts of the Council, session 2 [A.D. 431]).
“Philip, the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See [Rome] 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’” (ibid., session 3).
Pope Leo I
“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the apostles, and from him as from the head wishes his gifts to flow to all the body, so that anyone who dares to secede from Peter’s solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery. He wished him who had been received into partnership in his undivided unity to be named what he himself was, when he said: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt. 16:18], that the building of the eternal temple might rest on Peter’s solid rock, strengthening his Church so surely that neither could human rashness assail it nor the gates of hell prevail against it” (Letters 10:1 [A.D. 445).
“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . established the worship belonging to the divine [Christian] religion. . . . But the Lord desired that the sacrament of this gift should pertain to all the apostles in such a way that it might be found principally in the most blessed Peter, the highest of all the apostles. And he wanted his gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as if from the head, in such a way that anyone who had dared to separate himself from the solidarity of Peter would realize that he was himself no longer a sharer in the divine mystery” (ibid., 10:2–3).
“Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others. . . . [So today through the bishops] the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head” (ibid., 14:11).
“Let him first hasten to satisfy the See of Rome… It is futile to try and persuade one like me without instead trying to satisfy and implore the blessed Pope of the holy Church of Rome. For that is the Apostolic See, which has received from the Incarnate Son of God Himself, universal and supreme dominion, authority, and the power of binding and loosing over all the holy churches. This is confirmed by all holy synods, according to the holy canons in the whole world.”
-Disputatio cum Pyrrho (Written ca. 640 A.D.)