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).