In another Fathers Know Best tract, Peter the
Rock, we showed that the early Church Fathers recognized that Peter
is the rock of whom Christ spoke when he said, "You are Peter and on this
rock I will build my Church." This tract highlights some of the implications
of that fact.
Because Peter was made the foundation of the Church,
there were practical implications: it gave him a special place or primacy among
the apostles. As the passages below demonstrate, the early Church Fathers
clearly recognized this.
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
"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
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; the called,
and elect" (Letter of Clement to James 2 [A.D. 221]).
"[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.
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]).
Ambrose of Milan
"[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon
this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen
the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the
kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation
of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?" (The Faith 4:5 [A.D. 379]).
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]).
"‘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]).
"Simon Peter, the son of John, from the village
of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee, brother of Andrew the apostle,
and himself chief of the apostles, after having been bishop of the church
of Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion . . . pushed on to Rome
in the second year of Claudius to overthrow Simon Magus, and held the sacerdotal
chair there for twenty-five years until the last, that is the fourteenth,
year of Nero. At his hands he received the crown of martyrdom being nailed
to the cross with his head towards the ground and his feet raised on high,
asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his
Lord" (Lives of Illustrious Men 1 [A.D. 396]).
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]).
"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. In the same way, Judas represents those Jews who were Christ’s
enemies" (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 blessednesses 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).
I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors. Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted. +Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004