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The spotlight of the New Testament moves away from Peter and onto Paul about midway through Luke’s history of the early church. Since Peter is the “apostle to the Jews,” his early central role is eclipsed as the Gospel moves out into the wider Roman Empire. Still, the gospels themselves guarantee the eternal commemoration of the grace of God in the life of the impetuous fisherman from Galilee.
The earliest decades of the church passed without any particular focus upon Peter. But as ecclesiastical structures developed and controversies tore at the fabric of the church, arguments regarding authority were put forward in an effort to safeguard orthodoxy. One of these early arguments led, over the course of centuries, to the concept of “apostolic succession.” Men who were defending orthodox positions would appeal to the consistency of their belief over time in the churches founded by apostles. (Unfortunately, the argument eventually became a double-edged sword as un-Biblical and non-apostolic beliefs became grounded upon alleged “tradition.”)
With the rise of apostolic succession came the natural discussion of which apostle would give the greatest authority to those who could, in some fashion, argue that their “succession” went back to him. Around the middle of the third century, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, coined a phrase that would take on far greater meaning than he ever intended. When defending the bishop of Rome, Cornelius, in his struggle against the Novationists in the middle of the third century, Cyprian emphasized the unity of the church found throughout the world in the bishops of the church (and in the particular case of the Novationist schism, in the bishop of Rome, Cornelius). He expressed that unity by referring to the cathedra Petri, the “chair of Peter.” This phrase is repeated endlessly in Roman Catholic materials, though only rarely in the context in which Cyprian used it.
His emphasis, which was fully understood by all his contemporaries, was upon the fact that all bishops, whether Cornelius in Rome, Cyprian in Carthage, or Firmilian in Caesarea, sit upon the “chair of Peter.” Thus, the “chair of Peter” was a pan-ecclesial concept demonstrating the unity of the church across the world. It did not, in Cyprian’s original or later use of it (when he crossed swords with Stephen, a later successor to Cornelius), refer primarily to the bishop of Rome. Cyprian made it very clear in following years that he did not see Stephen as the sole occupant of the chair of Peter, and his strong rebukes of Stephen and North Africa’s rejection of Stephen’s meddling in its affairs demonstrate an attitude far removed from modern Rome and her claims to universal supremacy.
It is in Stephen’s contentious battle with Cyprian that we first encounter the use of the famous “Petrine promise” in Matthew 16:18–19. In the correspondence between Cyprian and Firmilian we read:
“I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches” (Epistle LXXIV, A.D. 256).
It is ironic, in light of modern Roman claims regarding the “ancient and constant faith of the universal church” (the phraseology of Vatican I in defining the authority and infallibility of the papacy), that the first appearance of a claim by a Roman bishop based on Matthew 16 is found within a condemnation of his actions.
The contention between Stephen and North Africa was resolved solely by Stephen’s death and Cyprian’s martyrdom. But Cyprian’s concept of the chair of Peter would remain ingrained in the thinking of the North African church.
During the next century, the first of the great “ecumenical” councils took place, though none was under Rome’s direct control or even at the command of her bishop. But as the focus of the Roman Empire shifted from Rome to Constantinople, the power and function of the bishop of Rome (the only “apostolic see” in the West) continued to grow, and along with it, the claims made on its behalf by its own bishop. And yet, in North Africa, the Cyprianic concept of the “chair of Peter” remained intact, as seen in these words of Augustine:
“Before His passion the Lord Jesus, as you know, chose those disciples of His, whom He called apostles. Among these it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given the privilege of representing the whole church. It was in the person of the whole church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, ‘To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 16:19). After all, it isn’t just one man that received these keys, but the church in its unity. So this is the reason for Peter’s acknowledged preeminence, that he stood for the church’s universality and unity, when he was told, ‘To you I am entrusting,’ what has in fact been entrusted to all” (Sermon 295.1).
The fact that Augustine did not see the bishop of Rome as possessing unlimited power and authority was illustrated in glowing colors by his rebuke of Pope Zosimus for demanding that the North Africans reverse themselves in their condemnation of the heretic Pelagius. Zosimus’ predecessor, Innocent, had added his agreement to the actions of two councils in North Africa that condemned Pelagius and his cohorts. But Zosimus, upon assuming the role of bishop of Rome, reversed Innocent and proclaimed Pelagius orthodox. In two strongly worded letters, he upbraided the North Africans as “whirlwinds” and deemed their investigation of Pelagius “inept.” Most important, he included in his letters claims of absolute “apostolic authority,” speaking of the “apostolic seat” upon which he sat, Peter’s authority, and insisting that “So great is our authority that no decision of ours can be subjected to review.” But invoking the name of Peter to North Africans had little effect, as they not only refused to bow to Zosimus’ commands, but re-asserted their condemnation, obtained the emperor’s support, and forced Zosimus to make a complete about-face.
The movement to localize the “chair of Peter” in Rome and to make the bishop of Rome the sole successor of Peter gained great ground, at least in the West, during the fifth century. The continued decline of Rome as a center of political authority added to the prestige of the bishop of Rome. In the middle of the century, however, an event took place that, though it did not seem especially important at the time, would take on great significance in later centuries—the Council of Chalcedon, and the role taken by Pope Leo.
When this great council met to consider the issue of the relationship of the divine and human in Christ, Leo sent a letter to the council along with his Tome, a work in which he laid out the orthodox view of the nature of Christ. This work had failed to have the desired effect at the earlier Council of Ephesus, but Leo continued to press his position. The letter, delivered by his legates, asked that Leo be allowed to preside in absentia and that no debate be permitted since his Tome already had settled the matter. So amazed were the council fathers that they did not even read the letter until the 16th session, long after all the debate had taken place.
The most important event at the council, at least from a historical vantage point, took place when Leo’s position in the Tome finally came into the debate. The true authority at Chalcedon was Cyril, not Leo, and many suspected Leo of unorthodoxy well into the course of the deliberations. When his work finally was cleared of suspicion in the minds of the majority, a cry went up, mainly to guard against remaining objections from the Illyrian bishops: “Peter has spoken through Leo!” This one phrase would be picked up over and over again through the centuries, and especially in modern polemics, as evidence of a complete and utter embrace of Roman supremacy based upon Peter’s authority, passed down through his successors in Rome. And yet, no one at the time understood it that way. The very fact that they were debating the issue was in contradiction to Leo’s own instructions. Also, their council’s eventual conclusions were in no way a rubber-stamp approval of Leo’s Tome; rather, they were a compromise based more upon Cyril than Leo. And yet, that one incident would become magnified by the centuries so that it is said today that Peter speaks solely through the bishop of Rome.
From this foundation, the process of recreating Peter in the image of the bishop of Rome accelerated. Combining these events with various forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine and the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals led to the formation of the modern Roman dogma of the pope as the personal, authorized, apostolic successor of the apostle to the Jews, Peter. Sadly, this has resulted in the subjugation of Peter’s actual words, found in the gospels and in his epistles, to the later “speaking of Peter” in the tradition of the Roman Church.