Having completed an exegesis of Matt 16:18, the focus of attention now turns to the writings of the patristic fathers. This chapter will survey the writings of the fathers who hold to a Petrine interpretation of Matt 16:18. As stated in the introduction, the goal of this thesis is to examine the verse on two levels: the exegetical and theological. Since the identity of the “rock” is already established for these writers, most of the emphasis in the next three chapters will rest upon the fathers’ understanding of Petrine succession. Since these theologians affirm that the rock is Peter, does the verse also affirm that Peter’s full, spiritual authority is given to a succeeding line of bishops? As stated in the introduction, the theologians examined will span from the early third century to the mid-fifth century.157 Since Tertullian was the first father to openly challenge a pope’s claim to Petrine authority, the patristic examination will begin with him. The final writer to be examined is the last great pope of the early church, Leo I.
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born at Carthage to pagan parents, with his father serving as a proconsular centurion.159 Tertullian was born about sixty years after the death of the Apostle John.160 Although he seems to have been a native of Carthage, he converted to Christianity in Rome when he was about forty years old.161 For reasons still unknown, Tertullian later became a member of the heretical sect known as the Montanists.162 It is believed that he joined the group around 207.163 One of his more significant works is the piece Against Praxeas; the work decries modalism, and some believe that Tertullian actually wrote the treatise for Callistus (see below), with Praxeus serving as a false name.164
In many of his writings, Tertullian affirms that Peter is the “rock” of Matt 16:18. For example, Tertullian writes the following in his Prescription Against Heretics: “Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called 'the rock on which the church should be built’ … ?”165 Tertullian wrote the Prescription c. A.D. 199, during the orthodox period of his life.166 Here, he clearly equates the “rock” in question to the Apostle Peter. In another treatise, On Monogamy, Tertullian writes: “Peter alone do I find married, and through mention of his mother-in-law. I presume he was a monogamist; for the church, built upon him, would for the future appoint to every degree of orders none but monogamists. As for the rest, since I do not find them married, I must presume that they were eunuchs or continent.”167 Interestingly, this text was written c. A.D. 208, shortly after Tertullian converted to Montanism.168 Even though he remains associated with a heretical sect, Tertullian still affirms a Petrine interpretation of Matt 16:18. Like many of the other patristic writers, Tertullian believed in both apostolic succession169 and the primacy of Roman teaching.170 However, Tertullian does not seem to imply that Peter’s status as the “rock” is conferred to any successors. What seems to concern Tertullian is the preservation of the truth of the gospel, not the establishment of a permanent Roman see with all the authority of an apostolic office. For example, according to Tertullian, Peter ordained Clement to succeed him as bishop of Rome (see ff. 13 below), but that does not appear to mean that Clement inherits Peter’s apostolic office, let alone the position as “rock”; instead, it means that the teachings of Clement may be trusted because he received his teaching from the Apostle Peter himself. Here, then, lies a subtle but important point: the apostle’s teaching flourishes in the words of the disciples who come after him, but the apostolic office and the privileges that come with it appear to remain with the apostle himself. Thus, the teaching of the apostles, not the transfer of an office, concerns Tertullian. Tertullian even seems to distinguish between the two: on one hand, there is the “apostle” (Peter or John, for instance); on the other hand, there is the “apostolic man,” the one trained by the apostle (Clement and Polycarp, respectively). But Tertullian does not indicate that the apostolic man becomes an apostle upon the death of his teacher. Rather, the apostolic man is charged with disseminating the teaching that he has received from the apostle. So, even if it were granted that Clement is the legitimate successor of Peter, and therefore the rightful bishop of Rome, that does not mean that Clement should be viewed as an “apostle” or “rock” in the same manner as Peter. What matters is that Clement is teaching others what he has learned from Peter. With the papacy of Callistus I, however (see below), a claim is made that the bishop of Rome inherits all the rights and privileges afforded to Peter, and that claim stirs great controversy within the Church, particularly in the writings of Tertullian.
Callistus is one of the earliest popes listed as a martyr in the oldest martyrology of the Roman church, the Depositio Martyrum.172 His history is one of intrigue. He was raised as a slave to a Christian who wanted to set him up in banking, but when the business failed, Callistus fled the city of Rome.173 After one day being charged with fighting in a synagogue on the Sabbath and sentenced to hard labor in the mines of Sardinia, Callistus was freed with other slaves and inmates at the behest of the emperor’s Christian mistress, Marcia, and Pope Victor I (189-98).174 Victor’s successor, Zephyrnus, eventually appointed Callistus as his deacon and chose the former inmate to succeed him.175 The pontificate of Callistus lasted for five years. While none of the pope’s writings are extant, the writings of Tertullian are, and an excerpt of his aforementioned letter to the bishop of Rome (De Pudicitia) is presented below.176 Tertullian opens the treatise by addressing the reader as Pontifex Maximus – that is, the bishop of bishops, so it is clear that he is writing to the Roman pontiff.177
‘But,’ you say ‘the Church has the power of forgiving sins.’ This I acknowledge and adjure more (than you; I) who have the Paraclete Himself in the persons of the new prophets… . I now inquire into your opinion, (to see) from what source you usurp this right to ‘the Church.’ If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock will I build My Church,’ ‘to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;’ or, ‘Whatsoever thou shall have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,’ you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build My Church; ‘and I will give to thee the keys,’ not to the Church; and, ‘Whatsoever thou shall have loosed or bound,’ not what they shall have loosed or bound. For so withal the result teaches. In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key… . For in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will certainly appertain, either to an apostle or else to a prophet… . and thus from that time forward, every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted ‘a Church’ from the Author and Consecrator (of the Church). And accordingly ‘the Church,’ it is true, will forgive sins: but (it will be) the Church of the Spirit, by means of a spiritual man; not the Church which consists of a number of bishops.178
Apparently, Tertullian is accusing Callistus of using Matt 16 to affirm his own authority. Again, these are Tertullian’s words, not Callistus’. But if Tertullian’s words accurately reflect the beliefs of Callistus, then the pope viewed himself as a leader who not only succeeded Peter but who also exercised authority in the same manner as Peter. Tertullian clearly rejects Callistus’ claim to such authority. Moreover, it appears that Tertullian takes issue with the application of Matt 16:18 to later bishops, not only to those of Rome, but to bishops generally.179 Essentially, there is no real difference between the clergy and the laity for Tertullian at this point, since authority belongs to those who possess the Spirit, not to bishops.180 It should be noted that these remarks were probably written between A.D. 217-222, after Tertullian’s conversion to Montanism. According to Tertullian, Jesus made Peter the rock of the church because Peter was a true, spiritual Christian. For this same reason, Jesus gave Peter control of the “keys of the Church” (an allusion to Matt 16:19). In this text, Tertullian seems to imply that through Peter the “power of the keys” is passed to the Church as a whole, meaning to every Christian.181 This has led some theologians to read Tertullian as having a “typological” interpretation of Matt 16:18.182 In other words, while it is true that Peter is the “rock” in question, he remains the type of every true and spiritual Christian.183 In some sense, then, all Christians can be called “rocks” if they affirm spiritual truth (although in this case, “spiritual truth” might be referring to Montanist teaching). Callistus’ actions, though, have proven to Tertullian that this pope is not a spiritual man.
Again, it is worth noting that during the orthodox period of Tertullian’s life (and even in the time shortly following his conversion), he seemed to have a much more “singular” notion of Petrine authority; that is, Tertullian readily affirmed that Peter alone was the “rock” of Matt 16:18. Furthermore, prior to his conversion, Tertullian maintained that true teaching could be trusted to come from Rome because of the nature of apostolic succession. After his prolonged affiliation with Montanism, though, Tertullian did begin to view the Peter of Matt 16:18-19 as “representative of the entire church or at least its spiritual members.”184 Certainly, then, the claim cannot be made that the Montanist Tertullian affirmed the supremacy papal office and its use of Petrine authority.
Gregory of Nyssa was the younger brother of Basil the Great, and the third son to his parents.186 Whereas Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus readily took up monastic life, Gregory did marry.187 After the death of his wife, he took up the monastic order188 and became consecrated as the bishop of Nyssa c. 371.189 He, like his brother, was an ardent defender of the Nicene faith in the struggle against Apollinarianism and Arianism, and their zeal (combined with the efforts of Gregory of Nazianzus) contributed greatly to Nicea’s acceptance in the East.190
“We celebrate the memory of Peter, who is the chief of the apostles, and together with him the other members of the Church are glorified; for upon him the Church of God is established. Indeed this man, in accordance with the title conferred upon him by the Lord, is the firm and very solid rock upon which the Saviour has built his Church.”192 Because of his faith, Peter became the rock of the church. Nothing in Gregory’s remarks leads the reader to the conclusion that anyone other than Peter is the “rock” in question. Gregory does not link Matt 16:18 with any idea of Petrine succession. While Gregory holds Peter in high regard, his writings show no indication that Peter has passed along his apostolic office to the Bishop of Rome.
Seven days after the death of Liberius (September, A.D. 366), Damasus was proclaimed pope.194 As one of the most aggressive advocates of the primacy of Rome in the early church, Damasus not only promoted the cult of martyrs by restoring their tombs and decorating them with his own inscriptions, but he also authorized his secretary, St. Jerome, to compose a Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate.195 He relentlessly opposed the heresies of Apollinarianism (which denied that Jesus had a human soul) and Macedonainism (which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit).196 He tirelessly promoted the primacy of Rome, frequently referring to it as the “Apostolic See” and insisting that a creed’s test of orthodoxy be papal approval.197 He unabashedly writes the following in a decree:
Although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decision 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’ … 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. The second see, however is Alexandria, consecrated on behalf of blessed Peter by Mark … The third honorable see, indeed, is that at Antioch, which belonged to the most blessed Apostle Peter, where he first dwelt before he came to Rome, and where the name Christians was first applied, as to a new people. 198
For the first time in this examination, we have the actual words of the pope himself. First, he affirms the primacy of Rome. He maintains that the Roman church has not been singled out for primacy by man, but by Jesus himself. When Jesus turned to Peter and told him that he was the “rock,” that title was not only meant for Peter but for the whole Roman church as well. This effectively answers the question of whether Damasus uses Matt 16:18 to defend his status as successor to Peter. The pontiff uses Eph. 6:27 to describe the superiority of the Roman church: she is a church without “stain or blemish or anything like it.” Her teachings are therefore beyond reproach. Although he recognizes two other sees in Alexandria and Antioch, he clearly places them below Rome in terms of authority. Thus, Damasus unflinchingly uses Matt 16:18 to affirm Petrine succession and authority for the bishop of Rome.
Eusebius Hieronymus was born at Stridon, a town near Aquileia, of Catholic parents.200 Jerome studied at Rome, where he was baptized, and then traveled to Gaul, where he devoted himself to an ascetic life with friends at Aquileia.201 He later decided that he was not made for a hermit’s life and went to Antioch, where he became a presbyter.202 Next, Jerome spent some time in Constantinople, and from 382-385, he was back in Rome, where he served as secretary to Pope Damasus.203 At the request of Damasus, he began a translation of the Bible into Latin. After many years, Jerome completed his magnum opus, the Vulgate, which eventually became the standard Bible of the entire Latin-speaking church.204
Like the other theologians examined thus far, Jerome has a Petrine understanding of Matt 16:18. Other than the popes themselves, he is the first church father to readily grant the pope full Petrine authority from Matt 16:18. In a letter to Pope Damasus, Jerome states the following:
I think it is my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ … Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built!205
Clearly, Jerome not only associates Peter with the “rock” of Matt 16, but he also goes so far as to call the “chair of Peter” the “rock” of the church. For Jerome, then, the papacy is a permanent see instituted by Christ. Therefore, the bishop who succeeds Peter inherits his chair and his authority. Jerome affirms his conclusions in another work, Against Jovinianus. In that work, he states: “The Church was founded upon Peter; although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.”206 Again, Jerome understands “rock” to be Peter. Although all the apostles later received keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:18), the church was founded upon one man in order that it might be shown to be a unified body. So, in some ways, the church is grounded in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5) and founded upon one apostle, Peter.
In his treatise Against the Pelagians, Jerome states: “What has Paul to do with Aristotle? Or Peter with Plato? For as the latter was the price of the philosophers, so was the former chief of the Apostles: on him the Lord’s Church was firmly founded …”207 Again, Jerome affirms a Petrine reading of the text. Other than the popes, Jerome is the most outspoken advocate for the transfer of Petrine authority to the bishops of Rome. He frequently links the “rock” of Matt 16:18 with both Peter and those who occupy “his chair.”
Leo was elected to the papacy while only a deacon, and he is one of two popes in Christendom to be called “the Great” (the other being Gregory I).209 So forcefully did Leo argue for the pope’s universal and supreme authority over the church, that his own pontificate constitutes a major turning point in the history of the papacy.210 He remained convinced that Jesus had made Peter and his successors the rock upon which the church was to be built; therefore, the bishop of Rome, the heir to the chair of Peter, must be the head of the universal Christian church.211 In 452, Italy was invaded by Attila and the Huns, who sacked the city of Aquileia; the road to Rome stood open to them because them was no army between them and the capital city.212 Leo the Great left Rome and marched to meet Attila, who was known as the “Scourge of God.”213 According to the legend, when Leo confronted Attila, Peter and Paul marched with him, daring the Hun to attack; no one knows what was said, but Attila decided not to retreat.214
The excerpt that follows is from a sermon that Leo gave on the anniversary of his fifth year in the pontificate. He expresses the manner in which Peter is still at work through the Roman see. He states:
The dispensation of truth therefore abides and the blessed Peter persevering in the strength of the rock, which he has received has not abandoned the helm of the church, which he undertook. For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the rock … we might know the nature of his association with Christ. And still today he more fully and effectively performs what is entrusted to him and carries out every part of his duty and charge in Him and with him, and through whom he has been glorified. And so if anything is rightly done and is rightly decreed by us, if anything is won from the mercy of God by our daily supplication, it is his work and merits whose power lives and whose authority prevails in the See.215
For Leo, when Jesus gave Peter the title “rock”, that was not a title or office that only remained during the course of Peter’s lifetime. The “rock” of the church has a perpetual ministry. As long as there is a church, there will be a ministry of Peter. Therefore, Peter and the church are cosmically linked. When the church functions, Peter is functioning. If the church issues a decree, then the decree has come from Peter. Peter is still spiritually active within the church. This is how Leo can assert that Peter is still carrying out his duty as rock. Previous popes had simply made claims to be the heirs of Peter, but with the influence of Leo, popes would increasingly regard themselves as standing in the place of Peter, exercising unique and unparalleled authority over all Christendom.216
From the time of Callistus I to the time of Leo the Great, Roman pontiffs were formulating their own ideas about what it meant to be a successor of Peter. Some bishops, such as Callistus, seemed to view themselves as heirs to the throne of Peter. Since he was the rock of the church, and they were his successors, they believed that they could exercise the rights and privileges that came with the apostolic office. With Damasus, though, the Roman See is beginning to assert its authority over all other churches, and Roman primacy is clearly on the rise. But it is in Pope Leo I that the bishop of Rome truly clarifies the church’s relationship to Peter. The title of “rock” for the church is not merely an office that was given to Peter for the remainder of his earthly ministry; for Leo, the office of Peter is permanent, and all of his successors not only have the right to exercise Petrine authority over all of Christendom, but they, in fact, serve as the living voices of Peter as they work and perform the daily tasks of ministry.
Though the popes unflinchingly claimed Petrine authority, writers such Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa did not go that far. Though he affirmed that Peter was the rock of Matt 16:18, Tertullian decried the fact that Callistus is trying to exercise Petrine authority from his office. Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa upholds a Petrine interpretation of the verse, but he does not use that fact to establish papal succession. In the end, it can be safely said that the popes from the early third century to the mid-fifth century were fairly comfortable seeing themselves as heirs to Peter’s office and authority; on the other hand, the patristic writers (with the exception of Jerome) cannot be said to wholeheartedly concur with the position of their popes.
158 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 819-21.
159 Henry Wace and William Piercy, eds., A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, 2nd ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 940.
160 Stephen Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 168.
161 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1984), 74.
162 Louis Berkhof describes Montanism in the following manner: “Montanus appeared in Phyrgia about the year A.D. 150, and therefore his teaching is often called the Phrygian heresy. He and two women, Prisca and Maximilla, announced themselves as prophets. On the basis of the Gospel of John, they held that the last and high stage of revelation had been reached. The age of the Paraclete had come, and the Paraclete spoke through Montanus now that the end of the world was at hand. The revelations given through Montanus were mainly concerned with those things in which it seemed that the Scriptures were not sufficiently ascetic… . They unduly exalted martyrdom and absolutely forbade flight from persecution. Moreover, they revealed a tendency to exalt the special charisms in the Church at the expense of the offices and officers” (The History of the Christian Doctrines, 6th ed. [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997], 54).
163 Ibid., 76.
164 Ibid., 77.
165 Tertullian of Carthage, Prescription Against Heretics, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Early Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (ANF), eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 253. See also De Praescriptione Haereticorum, Corpus Christianorium: Series Latina (CIL), ed. R. F. Refoul, vol. 1 (Turnholti: Typographi Brepols, 1953), 203.
166 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 941.
167 On Monogamy 8. ANF 4:65; CIL 2:1239.
168 ANF 4:59. See ff. 1.
169 Tertullian writes the following in his Prescriptions: “But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,— a man, moreover, who continued stedfast [sic] with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter… . For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man.” Prescription Against Heretics 32. ANF 3:258; CIL 1:212-213.
170 See ff. 33 of the Introduction
171 Richard P. McBrien, The Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1997), 43.
172 Ibid, 43.
175 Ibid., 44.
176 It is conceded that the claims of Callistus are not coming directly from the pope himself but through the writings of Tertullian. The information, then, is second-hand. At the very least it can be said that Tertullian believes that Callistus is using the Petrine claim to substantiate his authority.
177 On Modesty 21. ANF 4:99; CIL 2:1326-27.
179 Oscar Cullman, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 166.
180 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1978), 200.
181 Michael W. Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), 43.
182 Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 57-58.
184 Karlfried Frhlich, “Saint Peter, Papal Primacy and the Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300,” in The Religious Roles of the Papacy, ed. Christopher Ryan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989), 15.
185 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 588.
186 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:904.
187 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 185.
189 Cross and Livingston, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 588.
190 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 417.
191 See the writings of Basil the Great in Appendix B.
192 English translation from Joseph Berington and John Kirk, eds., The Faith of Catholics: Confirmed by Scripture and Attested by the Fathers of the First Five Centuries of the Church, vol. 2 (New York: Fr. Pustet, 1885), 21. See also Gregorius Nyssenus, Encomium in Sanctum Stephanum Protomartyrem, ed. O. Lendle, vol. 2 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 104.
193 McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 62.
194 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 246.
198 Decree of Damasus 3. English translation taken from William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970), 406-407. See also Damasus, Decretum De Libria Recipiendis et Non Recipiendis, Patrologiae cursus Completus: Series Latina (PL), ed. J. P. Minge, vol. 19 (Paris: Garnier Freres, 1846), 787-793.
199 Cross and Livingston, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 717.
200 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 460.
201 Cross and Livingston, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 717.
202 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 202.
203 Cross and Livingston, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 717.
205 Letter 15.2. See NPNF 2, 6:18. See also Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi: Epistulae 1-LXX, ed. Isodorus Hilberg, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinarum (CSEL), vol. 54 (Vindobonae: F. Tempsky, 1910), 63-64.
206 Against Jovinianus 1.16. NPNF 2, 6:366.
207 Against the Pelagians 1.14a.C. NPNF 2, 6:455. CIL 80:18.
208 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 644.
209 McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 75.
211 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 243.
215 Sermon 3. NPNF 2, 12:117. See also CIL 138:12-13.
216 McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 75.