The Primacy of Peter According to the New Testament: and the Principle of Historical Fulfillment

Apr 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The following is a guest post written by R. E. Aguirre, General Editor of Paradoseis Journal.


The aim of this short paper is to review the importance and ecclesiological role that Peter plays in the New Testament. Coupled with this insight are numerous interpretive difficulties. However, these interpretive problems find their origin not in the clear testimony of the New Testament but rather in the theological presuppositions brought to the text by the reader. A way through this hermeneutical impasse is to consider how history via the Church’s general opinion concerning the Petrine text has unfolded, perfectly accomplishing the Scriptures.1

St. Peter in Prison – Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Primacy of Peter in the New Testament2

In the Gospel accounts the distinction of Peter among the twelve Apostles is clear and unavoidable. He is the first disciple called by Jesus in Mark 1:16 and Matthew 4:18.3 Peter is always listed first in the “apostolic roll-calls.”4 Remarking on Matthew 10:2 and especially Matthew’s use of “πρωτος Σιμων,” W. C. Allen in the old standard on Matthew5 observes,

It can only mean that Peter was the most prominent amongst the members of the Apostolic band; cf. 16:17-19.6

Peter acts as the spokesman for the twelve.7 He is sometimes already seen in a representative/leadership role,8 frequently plays a unique role (though not always a perfect one9 in foundational ecclesial narratives.10 Peter’s role in the great foundational pericope (Matt 16:13-19) of course in this regard cannot be underestimated.11 This serves as only the briefest account of Peter’s distinctive status as seen in the Gospels.

Nearly all New Testament surveys on the Gospels or monographs on their theologies (especially Matthew) would bear out the notability of Peter’s place in the narratives. It has been said that among the ancient Christians one could not tell an adequate story of Jesus’ life without mentioning Jesus’ use of Peter to draw out important lessons. In the book of Acts, a theological chronicle of the earliest events and history of the post-resurrection Church, Peter plays a prominent leadership role which would have been especially telling to those first century audiences.12 Peter is repeatedly seen as addressing the people13 and exercising the power to “bind and loose” which was given to him by Jesus as recorded in Matthew.14 Peter’s very shadow is seen to be able to heal the sick.15 Remarking on Acts 5:15 and the healing shadow of Peter, P. J. Gloag in the old standard work on Acts,16 states confidently,

It is evident that in the early part of the Acts and especially in this passage a preeminence is given to Peter. Here the other apostles sink into the shade and Peter is brought forward as working miracles, so much so that a miraculous virtue is ascribed…. We do not know how this preeminence can be denied; and certainly we must not permit ourselves, from dogmatic views on the subject, to attempt to explain it away.

Similar to the Gospels, Peter is always listed first in the apostolic listings,17 and regularly seen playing unique rolls in the narrative of the early Church.18 Relating to Peter’s primary position in the listing of Acts 1:13, Joseph Fitzmyer in the prestigious Anchor Bible series19 comments,

Peter is not only the first Apostle named, but becomes in Acts the spokesman for the others. Even when he is paired with John, the latter is always the silent partner (1:15; 2:14, 38; 3:1, 3-4, 6, 11-12; 4:8, 13, 19; 5:3, 8-9, 15, 29;8:14, 20). Peter is the sole actor in 9:32-43; 10:5-46; 11:2-13 and delivers an important address as the Jerusalem “Council” (15:7).

Such unambiguous details concerning Peter in the New Testament writings have led to the common view among the specialists over his captaincy of the early Church.20 All such statements however must be tempered with the fact that the New Testament knows no full blown teaching of “Petrine Papal Primacy,” in the manner in which it was later codified by Catholic dogmatic pronouncements.21 On the other hand, what is undeniable is that the NT evidence assumes some special role of Peter in the earliest primary sources. What has been explosive is how this material is interpreted.22

Principle of Historical Fulfillment

As I have stated above the purpose of this paper was not to give an in-depth defense23 of the Petrine Papal Office as such but simply to bear witness to its indisputable generation across the subsequent centuries as it unfolded beyond the times of the New Testament. This natural understanding and growth of the Church, through patient reflection of the Biblical texts, manifested itself brilliantly throughout the centuries. This awareness is the supreme fulfillment of the exercise of leadership in which Peter was the exemplar of in the New Testament.24

It is my view that the consistent Christian who takes the Word of God seriously cannot help but stand in awe at the way these types of texts were played out in later centuries. Such historical developments are a strong credit to the predictive powers of Jesus Christ our Lord and the illumination of God the Holy Spirit in the minds of the first Christian authors. It is a prime example of what Karl Adam called the “Messianic consciousness” of Christ. The pericope of Matthew 16 in interconnection with the person of Peter will eternally stand as a beacon of the principle of historical fulfillment. The predictive saying over the person of Mary in Luke 1:48 is another classic example. We can forever be stuck squabbling over the minutiae behind the Greek underlying these passages and miss the forest because of a few trees. Or we can stand back, take a deep breath and appreciate the wonderful forest that God has constructed over the course of His History.25

R. E. Aguirre
Reader in New Testament Studies and Church History,
Southern California.
General Editor of Paradoseis Journal

  1. I have called this historical unfolding of New Testament extracts the “principle of historical fulfillment.” In short what it entails is the idea that certain New Testament excerpts presuppose historical actualization. An example is Luke 1:48, a text in which we are assured that every generation thence forth will call Mary “blessed.” The historical issue in this is clear: how has history accomplished this prophecy? The answer could be found in any standard history of dogma which properly explains Mariology. The difference between this principle and the question of ‘development of doctrine’ is the fact that I am emphasizing simply the historical progress as it stands or how it has concretely unfolded. The exploration over whether this progress is valid or not (the question of development of doctrine) is another matter. I do not wish to enter into a discussion over the historical maturation of the Roman Papacy (or the question of its superiority over rival Christian claims, i.e., Protestantism) for this would take me far beyond the intended scope of this paper. The historical record is simple and speaks for itself; for the first thousand years of the Church’s existence the Roman Church gradually gained prominence mainly through the authoritative witness of the patristic fathers, Church Council’s and official pronouncements – all of which were in turn based on the Petrine texts of the New Testament. In the second millennium and beyond into the third, the single largest Christian body in the world (Roman Catholic) continues to hold to the dogma that the Petrine texts of the New Testament are best fulfilled in the office and person of the Bishop of Rome, i.e, the Pope. This is another example of the principle of historical fulfillment. []
  2. For the sake of space and precision I will be concentrating on the data that is given about Peter in the Gospels and Acts, the principle works that highlight the growth (Acts) and the foundational teaching (Gospels) of the early Church. For an excellent yet critical discussion that exposes the presuppositions behind the usual line which argues that in John’s Gospel (in contrast to the Synoptics) Peter is viewed in a negative light when in fact John sees Peter as an intimate colleague of John and indeed its “inspirational founding member of the Johannine community” see Bradford B. Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (SBLAB; SBL, 2007). Also for a positive reading of Peter in the Fourth Gospel see R. Alan Culpepper, “Characters,” in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Fortress, 1983). The cumulative weight for the special recognition of Peter thought the entire New Testament is undeniable; (Matthew) 4:18; 10:2; 14:28-29; 15:15-16; 16:16, 18, 22-23; 17:1, 4, 24, 26; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33, 35, 37, 40, 58, 69, 73, 75; (Mark) 1:16, 29; 36; 3:13-16; 5:37; 9:2; 10:28; 11:21; 13:3; 14:33; 16:1, 7; (Luke) 5:3-11; 6:14; 12:41; (John) 1:35-44; 6:68; 13:6-37; 18:10-27; 20:2-6; 21:2-21; (Acts) 1:13-15; 2:14-38; 3:1-12; 4:8-19; 5:3-29; 8:14-20; 9:32-43; 10:5-46; 11:2-13; 12:5-18; 15:7; Gal 2:7; 1 Pet 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1). []
  3. Protestant commentator John Nolland in the respected NIGTC series, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 179 notes on our text, “That Peter is the first called accords with the prominence he is given in the larger telling of Matthew’s story.” David L. Turner in the recent entry on Matthew in the Protestant Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 136 comments with a keen eye on this text, “It is not coincidental that Peter is the first disciple who responds to the call of Jesus, since Peter is prominent throughout Matthew, especially in 16:13-28.” []
  4. Mk 3:16; 9:2; 14:33 etc; Matt 17:1 etc; Lk 6:14 etc. []
  5. Matthew (ICC; 1902), p. 100. []
  6. A. Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Paternoster, 1910) concurs, “He not only put Peter first, as all do, but he specifically calls him ‘first’ (πρωτος), which would be superfluous, if it did not mean more than first on the list. It indicates the preeminence of Peter.” (p. 147). D. A. Carson writing in the Matthew entry for the conservative Protestant series Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1:237 is characteristically sagacious in noting here that ‘first’ “…probably does not simply mean “first on the list,” which would be a trifling comment…More likely it means primus inter pares (“first among equals”).” R. T. France in his excellent (Protestant) commentary on Matthew, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2007), p. 378 opines on our verse, “In specifying that Peter is “first” Matthew reflects not only that he was the first to be called, but also his prominence throughout the story as leader of the group, which will be strongly underlined in 16:17-19.” Protestant scholar Michael J. Wilkins in The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel: As Reflected in the Use of the Term Mathetes (SNT 59; Brill, 1989), pp. 201-02 states on our passage, “Almost all commentators agree that standing at the head of the list, πρωτος is redundant and superfluous unless it acts as a true adjective and describes Peter himself; i.e., gives him some kind of “first-place.” Wilkins goes on to cite as examples, Albright and Mann, Matthew, p. 117; Allen (which I cite above); A. B. Bruce, “Synoptic Gospels,” p. 158; Carson (which I cited above); Fenton, Matthew, p. 151-52; Grundmann, Matthaus, p. 287; Meier, Matthew, p. 104; Plummer (which I cite above); McNeile, Matthew, p. 131; Tasker, Matthew, p. 106. []
  7. Mk 1:36; 10:28; 16:1 etc. []
  8. E.g. (Matt) 14:28; 15:15; 17:24 (where the tax collectors approach Peter alone for questioning, they understood well that he acted as representative for the Apostles when Jesus was absent); Matt 18:21; 26:33 etc; Mk 9: 2; 16:7 etc; (Lk) 5: 3- 11; 22:32; 24:34 etc; (Jn) 6:68; 10:11; 21:15-19 etc. []
  9. Peter’s faults are well known and they are often manifest in these very critical verses which are meant to highlight his initiatory lead among the twelve (e.g., Mk 8:33; 9:2-13; Matt 14:31; 16:23; Jn 13:6-11 etc). The reason for such disclosure is clear, namely to show that Peter is far from perfect (and to contrast Jesus’ perfection) as well as to juxtapose Peter’s weakness, timidity and misunderstanding (prior to Jesus’ resurrection) with his noticeable strength, courageousness and biblical expositions (post resurrection). []
  10. Mk 8:27-30 etc; (Matt) 14:28-31; 16:17-19; 17:24; 27; etc; Lk 5:1-11 etc; Jn 1:41 (on Peter’s unique position in the early tradition via John 1:41 see Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Massachusetts: Henrickson, 2005), pp. 1:475-79; cf. Jn 13:6-11; 20:2; 21:15-19 (on this pericope in John, Keener (2005), p. 2:1235 remarks, “Peter certainly remains one of the most prominent disciples throughout the Fourth Gospel…It also may provide a model for other church leaders (cf. 1 Pet 5:1-2).” For another excellent discussion of John 21 in correlation with Peter and his leadership role in the early Church see Michael Labahn, “Peter’s Rehabilitation (John 21:15-19) and the Adoptions of Sinners: Remembering Jesus and Relecturing John,” in John, Jesus and History, Volume 1: Critical Appraisals of Critical Views (SBL, 2007). Petrine leadership as the motif behind John 21:15-17 is ably summarized in “The Growth and Making of John 21,” in W. S. Vorster and J. E. Botha, Speaking of Jesus: Essays on Biblical Language, Gospel Narrative and the Historical Jesus (SNT; Brill, 1997). cf. G. S. Sloyan, John (Interp; John Knox, 2009), p. 230. []
  11. For a brief article that summarizes (even Protestant) modern consensus on the “rock” of Mat 16:18 as referring to Peter see R. E. Aguirre, “‘Πετροs’ in the Triple Tradition: Matthew 16:18 in Particular,” Paradoseis Journal 2 (2009). Of special note in this Matthean pericope are the “keys” given to Peter with the power to “bind and loose” which motif has a rich backdrop in the rabbinic literature for governmental powers. This power is also given to the college of the Apostles (Matt 18:18). This corporate authority is beautifully carried out in Acts 15. Since I have explicated in the paper cited above the virtual unanimous consensus in NT scientific literature concerning the identification of the “rock” with Peter here I will only add the testimony of perhaps the most rigorous commentary to be written on Matthew to date, that of the triple volume entry in the new ICC series by W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison. After an excellent and comprehensive discussion surrounding nearly all the exegetical problems surrounding the pericope they conclude that the best view is that which associates “the rock” with Peter (ad loc). []
  12. The entire first half of Acts (1-14) is dominated by the person of Peter plainly with a literary concern on the part of Luke to communicate Peter’s leadership. Consider Peter’s position from texts such as (Acts- 4:8; 5:29; 15:7). From ch 14 on Paul takes center stage with the equally clear literary purpose to transmit the spread of Christianity throughout the then known world. []
  13. Acts 2 etc, which perspicuously involves his principal position in the early Church. []
  14. Acts 5 ff. []
  15. Acts 5:15. []
  16. Acts (ICC; 1870), 1:181-182. Furthermore, contra those scholars (mostly Protestant) that deny that Peter’s shadow actually healed and was only the crowd’s misunderstanding and ignorant opinion that it could, Gloag argues that the Greek implies that Peter’s shadow actually effected healings and cites (Matt 9:21-22; Acts 19:12) as examples where physical objects healed the crowds. But not all Protestant commentators deny the efficacy of Peter’s shadow, see F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 109; G. Schneider, “επισκιαζω” EDNT. 34. []
  17. Acts 3:1; 8:14; etc. []
  18. Acts 1:15; 9:39 etc. []
  19. The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 214. []
  20. The now classic collaborative effort (Protestant / Catholic) concerning the New Testament’s witness to Peter’s “primacy” is that of R. E. Brown, K. P. Donfried and John Reumann, eds., Peter in the New Testament (Minneapolis, 1973). For Catholic academic statements concerning Peter’s preeminence in the New Testament see Heinrich Fries, Fundamental Theology (Catholic University of America Press, 1996); Pheme Perkins, Peter: Apostle for the Whole Church (T&T Clark, 2000); Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2002); Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sac Pag; Michael Glazier Books, 2007); for Protestant evaluations which conclude for Peter’s special role among the Apostles see O. Cullmann, “πετρα,” “Πετρος,” TDNT; S. J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1993), p. 178; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 125 ff. are but a few examples. []
  21. This is not to say that such historical developments were erroneous but that the New Testament writings were not written to prove a full feathered doctrine of Petrine Papacy. Such a concept came in time and with the Spirit’s guidance in God’s people, reflected already in seed form in the New Testament and fully realized through the centuries. For a good succinct discussion of these issues see Daniel J. Harrington, The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today (Sheed & Ward, 2001). []
  22. This is where the age old conundrum comes in, namely to what extant do our theological preconceptions drive our reading of the New Testament (and the patristic literature as well)? An example is an Eastern Orthodox treatment of Peter’s “primacy” in the New Testament which gives a good overview of the NT particulars but gives a radically different conclusion; Peter is not given any special kind of prominence over the other Apostles in the New Testament nor in the earliest patristic records, Veselin Kesich, “Peter’s Primacy in the New Testament and the Early Tradition,” in The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology in the Early Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992). In the Protestant secondary literature as well there exists an immense rejection of any form of Petrine Primacy in terms of the way it is codified in official Roman Catholic dogma based on the New Testament. []
  23. For standard Catholic defenses of Roman Papal Petrine Primacy throughout the ages see for example; Joseph Ratzinger, “Primacy, Episcopate, and Apostolic Succession,” in The Episcopate and the Primacy (Freiberg: Herder, 1962); Kenneth Baker, Fundamentals of Catholicism, Vol. 3: Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology (Ignatius, 1983); Hans Urs von Balthasar, Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); Stephan O. Horn, “The Petrine Mission of the Church of Rome: Some Biblical and Patristic Views,” Communio 18 (1991): 313-21; Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From its Origins to the Present (Liturgical, 1996); Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999); Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (Paulist, 2001); Adriano Garuti, Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Dialogue (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004); Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon 451 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008). []
  24. See further on this historical fulfillment as divinely guided historical contingency most recently in Richard J. Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (Basic Books, 2007). Ecclesiastical historical development in all its forms (theological, governmental, etc) is a valid deduction from the New Testament’s promise to divinely guide the fledgling Church (John 16:13-15). Peter’s responsibility to defend and “feed” this Church is likewise given by the same author (John 21:15-17) and there is no good reason to presume that this mandate was only given to Peter alone since by the time these words were written in the Fourth Gospel most likely the martyrdom of Peter was a past event. Again, the earliest patristic fathers understood this text as referring to those who would later hold the same leadership positions in the Church (the bishops) and their responsibility to guard the flock from heresy, contra Cullmann’s influential work Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr which moved to argue that Peter’s special position among the college of the Apostles did not transfer down to anyone but died out with him. For an early Catholic critique of Cullmann’s position see Otto Karrer, Peter and the Church: An Examination of Cullmann’s Thesis (New York: Herder and Herder, 1962). []
  25. I would like to close with some words of appreciation for the contributors at Called to Communion. They have given us all a great site that is committed to a scholarly and orthodox Catholic standpoint on various issues concerning the Church today. []
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  1. Tim,

    Excellent article. I just wanted to say a word in support of your methodology. So many Catholic / Protestant exchanges focus on the issue of ecclesial/interpretive authority; and rightfully so given the foundational importance of this issue to all other doctrinal discussions. However, I think that for many Protestants (and this applied to me), feeling the logical force of the Catholic arguments against private interpretation often only penetrates one’s mental habits in conjunction with the discovery that Catholic doctrinal positions are the natural outgrowth and development of the biblical data. In short, once one begins to seriously research the claims of the Catholic Church, there if often a simultaneous two-fold shift that takes place. First, on a macro level, one grapples with the general problem of determining orthodoxy from heterodoxy (or mere opinion) on Protestant principals. Second, as one explores Christian history, one discovers the power and consistency of the Catholic exegetical and hermeneutic approach to scripture itself.

    At the beginning of this process, however, there is a tendency among Protestants to pit the “raw data” of scripture against the corpus of Catholic doctrine as we now know it. The implicit Protestant question is “how do you get there (current Catholic doctrines) from here (raw data of scripture)? Yet this dichotomy only holds by cutting out the historical middle; by paying scant attention to how our Catholic forebears understood the raw data, and/or rejecting or minimizing the reality of doctrinal development. Moreover, so long as the dichotomy remains powerfully entrenched in the Protestant mind, many of the “meta-issues” (like ecclesial authority) meet with a sort of implicit mental resistance (“I see in theory what a gift the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church might be – if only it weren’t a patent fact that her doctrines are accretions and perversions of sacred writ”).

    Thus, I have often thought that it would be of great value to take nearly every disputed doctrinal point (Mary, Petrine Office, Purgatory, Veneration of the Saints, Indulgences, Apostolic Succession, etc) and write a sort of trajectory based apologetic. In other words; for each doctrine, start by explaining the “roots” or “seed” of the Catholic position in the OT raw data, followed by explaining its growth/ development in the NT raw data, followed by the confirmatory witness of Christian history (fathers, liturgical practice, councils, etc) in each successive century beginning with the apostolic age up through the final definitive formulations of said doctrine. This would amount to an attempt to show the organic growth and development of revelation within the context of the family of God. Of course this resembles the oak from an acorn paradigm put forward by Newman; but I cannot recall anyone having explicitly elucidated this growth pattern for disputed doctrines one by one. A clear presentation of such doctrinal trajectories rooted in scripture would have certainly hastened my own conversion. That is what excited me about how you listed the Petrine texts and then said:

    It is my view that the consistent Christian who takes the Word of God seriously cannot help but stand in awe at the way these types of texts were played out in later centuries. Such historical developments are a strong credit to the predictive powers of Jesus Christ our Lord and the illumination of God the Holy Spirit in the minds of the first Christian authors

    Pax et Bonum,


  2. Ray,

    Just to clarify, the post is under my name but R.E. Aguirre, General Editor of the Paradoseis Journal, is its author.

    (“I see in theory what a gift the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church might be – if only it weren’t a patent fact that her doctrines are accretions and perversions of sacred writ”).

    This is the quintessential difficulty in converting to the Catholic Church. One has to arrive at the point where one considers the possibility that one might actually be wrong. It’s extremely difficult to honestly entertain this possibility. We can say it and affirm this nominally without much effort, but to actually embrace this reality (that I might be wrong) with uncompromising honesty is something that is nearly impossible it seems.

    One reason is that the tendency of evangelical Protestantism is to internalize the Christian faith such that any questioning of the doctrines I hold is in some way a question of my very salvation. Contrary doctrine, especially on fundamental issues, is often (unconsciously) apprehended as a direct threat not to my beliefs per se but to my status as a Christian destined for heaven. For this reason, all of my subconscious powers work tirelessly to defend what I’ve been brought up to believe at almost all cost.

    This phenomenon is accelerated by the fact that people I love have taught me this faith and that I know many godly men and women with sound mind and love of Christ, obviously fruits of the Holy Spirit, who teach this faith and have mentored me. Considering Catholicism not only entails considering that I’m wrong, but that all of these men and women are wrong too. Whatever else I might be unsure of, (I’m speaking as an evangelical) I know this – that I know Jesus and He lives in my heart. Period. Since the faith is so internalized, questions on doctrine (apparently) amount to a question on the status of Jesus in my heart. After all, how do I say that Jesus lives in my heart and that I’m “saved” if I’m actually following a heretical sect?

    This aint easy.

    We have to bring ourselves to the point of questioning our doctrine in a way that doesn’t question our faith in God. Just because I may have been taught something wrong or may have arrived at a false opinion regarding doctrine, even something crucial, does not mean that I don’t love God and seek Him. In fact, clearing up that error would be exactly the sort of thing someone who loved God would want to do!

    Just rambling now. :-)

  3. Oops,

    That’s what happens when I read an article off of a tiny screen (because it has been forwarded to my Blackberry) – I easily miss the distinction between the article author and the person posting the article.

    So R.E. Aguirre – great article!

    You are no doubt right about the internalization of one’s faith – consideration of all things Catholic is indeed often felt as a very personal threat.


  4. This is a great article because it introduces the reader to, in the language of the author, the forest that many readers often miss for the trees. As a casual reader of the New Testament it wasn’t until I began to contemplate the unique claims of the Catholic Church that I noticed just how prominent Peter is in all of the narratives. I would say that this is still the case for most evangelical readers. The emphasis on the historicity of the narratives – and it’s not a bad emphasis – obscures for many the little details such as that Peter is always mentioned first in the roll-calls, or that Peter is the only apostle whose name is changed by Jesus. For many, the important thing is simply that these things happened, because the historicity of these other details indirectly supports our arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the Gospels are historical, they, like any story, are told in a certain way, and we can’t overlook narrative choices such as the placement of Peter at the beginning of every list, and the narrative similarities between God changing Abram’s name to Abraham, saying he’ll be the father of many nations, and changing Simon’s name to Peter, followed by a statement about building the Church. Aside from the fact that most evangelicals don’t think about these things at all, the Reformed tend to spend so much time arguing how this passage doesn’t support Roman claims that the beauty of the narrative is overshadowed.

    Anyway, I’ll start rambling if I don’t end here. I am just thankful for the way that this article points out some of the obvious things we tend to overlook. At the same time, it does well to admit that these don’t show the Roman doctrines of the papacy in their more fully developed, systematic expressions.

  5. Ray brings up an excellent point on this issue. Epistemically, one of the crucial differences between historic Christians, i.e., Catholics/Orthodox and to some degree High Church Anglicans over against Protestants is the way they relate their hermeneutic of Scripture and their understanding of doctrine with historiography. Historic Christians tend to read these things on a macro level, that is, how the Church has understood and interpreted Scripture and doctrine. Most (not all) Protestants on the other hand start from the opposite pole, from their micro readings of Scripture texts they attempt to formulate doctrine and a reading of ecclesiastical history. If the Church’s historic position on a given doctrine or exegesis of a passage (e.g. John 6) is at odds with their particular exegesis of the text, the historic position has to go.
    An amusing example of this are the various Protestant viewpoints in, Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government which was published by Zondervan back in 04. Protestants from different traditions argue over which ecclesiological governmental form is the correct one based on the New Testament. The Anglican Peter Toon (one of my favorite Protestant scholars) flays the other Protestants for missing the macro issue and continuing to micro manage their particular denominational church governmental structures based on the New Testament alone (and ignoring the subsequent history of the Church). Toon in my opinion gives a masterful defense of the episcopalian form (Bishop/Priest/Deacon).
    It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the ever changing nature of the latest exegetical trends (form criticism, etc). I deem it manifestly riskier to build one’s understanding of Scripture and ecclesiastical history on the latest exegetical fads rather than on the proven grounds of Church history.

    R. E. Aguirre
    Paradoseis Journal

  6. I think this statement from the article bears repeating:

    “All such statements however must be tempered with the fact that the New Testament knows no full blown teaching of “Petrine Papal Primacy,” in the manner in which it was later codified by Catholic dogmatic pronouncements.”

    Orthodox Christians sing of St. Peter at the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29th):

    “Today Christ the Rock glorifies with supreme honor the Rock of Faith and Leader of the Apostles, Peter, together with Paul and the Twelve, whose memory we celebrate with eagerness of faith, giving glory to the One who gave glory to them.”

    We acknowledge that St. Peter was the prince of the Apostles. The question Eastern Christians ask about the Roman Catholic understanding of the development of the papal primacy in the Western Church is this:

    Was the growth of papal claims of authority (which developed beyond the scope of the first Millennium to what we see from Vatican I) developed under the “Spirit’s guidance” as is said in note 21? Orthodox Christians have felt that the way the papal office began to be exercised towards the end of the first Millennium moved away from the models from earlier centuries. Thus, Bishop Nicetas of Nicodemia 1136 AD (in a debate with Anselm of Havelberg, a Catholic bishop who debated Nicetas during a visit to Constantinople):

    “We do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister patriarchates; and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an ecumenical council. But she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office.

    “How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high; and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our churches, not by consulting with us, but at his own arbitrary pleasure; then what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We would be the slaves, not the sons, of such a church. And the Roman seat would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.”

    For another take on the role of St. Peter in the Church, I recommend the work of Meyendorff et al in The Primacy of Peter and also Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck’s book His Broken Body.

  7. Dave Brown:

    What does Nicetas mean when he says that Orthodox Christians (I don’t say “Eastern Christians” since many Eastern Christians are Catholic) acknowledge that Peter has a primacy among the five sister patriarchates? To me, it sounds hollow and patronizing. Like…oh, that’s nice…they acknowledge “a primacy,” like Protestants who “acknowledge” that their elders have “authority” until they disagree with them. If I submit, so long as I agree, the one to whom I submit is me.

    The second quote is just a little ridiculous…over-the-top rhetoric at least. Thunder from on high? Hurling mandates? What is he, Zeus? Is this how you think Pope Benedict fulfills his office? Arbitrary pleasure? Give me a break. I know that this is just how people who disagreed used to talk to each other, but I don’t think it has a place in the discussion today.

    Jesus told Peter “feed my sheep.” Sometimes children and sheep don’t like what they’re fed, but it’s good for them.

  8. The article only briefly adumbrates the core argument for the Catholic doctrine of the papacy. The argument is not that said doctrine is explicit in the early sources, but that it can reasonably be seen as an organic development of what we do find in those sources. Another, more pointed little overview of that argument can be found here:

    That said, what can be reasonably seen as an organic development is not the same as a proof. If there were a proof, Christianity would not remain divided. But in matters of faith, it is a mistake to expect proof. Thus, it is true that the Eastern patriarchates never consistently accepted the papal claims as asserted, for example, by Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century. Many Eastern patriarchs did, of course, if only for ad hoc reasons of their own. But the overall lack of consistency is the most important reason why the Orthodox have never seen the full-blown Catholic doctrine of the papacy as an organic development from any authority they recognized.

    The question nonetheless remains whether they ought to see it as such all the same. I believe a case can be made that they should, but that is for another occasion. We can be sure that no such case will be persuasive to most Orthodox today. It will take more history, guided by the Spirit and probably through the intercession of the Virgin, to change that.

  9. David Pell,

    I could have been more careful to differentiate “Eastern Christians” and “Eastern Orthodox.” But, still, Eastern Catholics are a small minority of Eastern Christians.

    How to define that primacy is still being talked about in the ecumenical dialogue today. Does it mean that the Pope has the right to tell Eastern Christians living in Western countries that they can only ordain celibate men to the priesthood? That is a historic conflict that led to the disillusionment of tens of thousands of Eastern Catholics, many of whom returned to their Orthodox roots. It’s not just a problem of the 19th and 20th centuries, for it still causes problems in Poland and Italy between Eastern Catholics and Roman Rite Catholics. In the US, Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics have to ask for permission to ordain married men to the priesthood. Does primacy mean that all Eastern bishops need to be appointed in Rome and that the Eastern Congregation needs to micro-manage the Eastern Churches?

    But, back to your question. Primacy needs to be in concert with conciliarity. Pope St. Leo was a strong proponent of the Petrine ministry in the Church. Still, his solution at Chalcedon was not a slam dunk. It became recognized as Peter’s voice, but the Council still felt it could evaluate his Tome.

    There’s a change in how East and West related to each other that becomes apparent towards the end of the first Millennium. Seeds of the conflict can be seen much earlier. The Christian East came to a point where it could no longer accept what it saw as a growth in the wrong direction by the West.

    In this respect, Vatican II’s emphasis on conciliarity is a step forward in the ecumenical dialogue. How to reconcile that with Vatican I remains problematic, however.

    Nicetas does reflect a different era, to be sure. And, I don’t think Pope Benedict seeks to rule in that manner. But, things were quite different even just 60 years ago. Some of those attitudes still can be seen in how Eastern Catholics live out their lives in the Catholic Church. Eastern Catholics are forced to accept the intermediary of the Eastern Congregation, a set of canon laws that is essentially Western in character, appointment of Bishops by Rome (except in Patriarchal Churches), and to live under different rules at times if they live in a predominately Western country.

    Orthodox see how the Eastern Catholics have to live their lives in the Western Church and question whether things would really be any different in a reunited Church.

  10. When I knew I was in transit out of Pentecostalism / Protestantism, I had a long, hard look at the Eastern Orthodox position. I read the history of the split running into 1054 and of the subsequent schism of the Church.

    I read of the Roman Bishop being the decision maker for orthodoxy with a history of that function occurring relatively early in the history of the Church, with Peters successors being appealed to and of the manifold difficulties coming out of the East that had to be addressed on a regular basis.

    I read of Athenasius and Augustine, and saw how Augustine appealed to the Roman Bishop as the real arbitor of orthodoxy.

    I went back to Isaiah and read 22:20-23 about the king’s chamberlain (or major domo), and compared that with Matthew 16:17-20. Peter was the chamberlain to Jesus, the King of the Jews.

    Peter was given the task of feeding the sheep. If that is consistent with Adam’s call in the garden, it also involved protecting the sheep, even as Adam was responsible for guarding the garden.

    I re-read Acts and it was obvious that Peter was the main character through nine chapters. Peter was given the revelation that opened the Church to the Gentiles. Peter addressed the first Church council and his words carried the day and maintained the position given him by God which was recognized in the visit to Cornelius and that household. God could evidently save the pagans (and since I am Irish and English, that appeared to be me, thanks be to God).

    The Church, like the king’s palace, had a chamberlain, and it was Peter. He was responsible for feeding and guarding the flock with which he had been entrusted.

    Since I was ever more convinced that God was doing something new that was rooted in the past, it appeared obvious to me that Peter’s role had to be maintained. Peter had not merely a successor, but a series of successors, since Our Lord’s kingship would not end, even if the earthly lives of his chamberlains did. So long as the Church exists, so will Peter’s position, and the Church is there at the end – whenever that occurs.

    I became a Catholic, in part, because of Peter and his successors. I saw where the responsibility lay for much that I could not in truth be responsible for (and the entry of Cornelius and his household was one such momentous an idea).

    While I have noted this previously, it seems to apply here again. When I was a Pentecostal, we appeared as a denomination not to have the authority to address such issues as abortion from a corporate viewpoint. Whoever was in charge did not think that he/they had the authority to make a sweeping pronounciation, because – like it or not – everyone was really in charge (at least of themselves). When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. It is anarchy when everyone submits to themselves.

    There are good Catholics and bad Catholics and because of the Catechism, one can look at one’s positions and determine which side of the divide one resides on. I gave up being the authority because in fact I had no authority, never having been given that authority. When I saw Peter and his successors, I saw that authority and I saw it conveyed to those persons by God, and He did not need a committee – or my permission – to get it done.

    And now I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church. The gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in Heaven.

    That ruled out the Eastern Orthodox.

    It also fulfilled my expectations that scripture might be involved in understanding what was occurring, and it did. It did with Peter, and it did with Mary, and it did with authority, and it did with orthodoxy………

  11. “Orthodox see how the Eastern Catholics have to live their lives in the Western Church and question whether things would really be any different in a reunited Church.”

    Though I can certainly understand and empathize with your point, if I carry it to its logical conclusion it is no different than saying, “Non-practicing Catholics with heretical viewpoints and a desire to follow what the world teaches in practice see how practicing Catholics, who are faithful to Church teachings and try their best through God’s will to seek sanctification, have to live their lives and question, or rather, rightly presume that they would have to do the same thing if they were to fully submit to the authentic sacramental authority of the Church, both intellectually and spiritually”.

    I think that Donald Todd’s comment which immediately follows was excellent and, if I may, I’d like to summarize it as such: in the end, it doesn’t really matter what difficulties that you perceive will follow by accepting the authority of St. Peter and his successors as authentic, sacramental, and ordained by Christ the King. If his authority truly is authentic, then to refuse submission (in love) to it separates one from the Body of Christ no matter what one’s reasoning is.


    I was an anti-Catholic Protestant (multi-denominational, so, I would probably classify myself as more under the Evangelical umbrella since that covers almost everything) who never wanted to become a member of the “Whore of Babylon”. I sought to disprove Catholics using their own history and teachings. In the end I came to realize that there is, in fact, and always has been an authentic, sacramental, authoritative line of succession from the Apostles to modern day. But, still struggling with my fully-baked anti-Catholicism, I refused to submit to the authority of St. Peter and his successors, even though, as you point out, an objective reading of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and history show it to be true. I was determined to become Eastern Orthodox because I wanted to cling to my Protestant-born anti-Catholicism while accepting some form of authority in the authentic Apostolic succession that exists in Orthodoxy (and, of course, because they do have the Eucharist).

    Thank God that it dawned on me at some stage that my desire to not follow where objective Truth and reason was leading me was simply because I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to Protest still, yet receive the Eucharist. My motives were unholy and intellectually dishonest.

  12. But, still struggling with my fully-baked anti-Catholicism, I refused to submit to the authority of St. Peter and his successors, even though, as you point out, an objective reading of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and history show it to be true. I was determined to become Eastern Orthodox because, I wanted to cling to my Protestant-born anti-Catholicism while accepting some form of authority in the authentic Apostolic succession that exists in Orthodoxy (and, of course, because they do have the Eucharist).

    This goes on a lot more than a lot of people would like to admit.

  13. Joe, we were anti-Catholics protesting God’s decision. We were waiting for satanic horns to spring from the brow of the pope. Happily enough, we are no longer servants of that misconception.

    If my reading of Hahn and Cavins and Thomas and host of others, including the Surprised by Truth respondents are any indication, we are not unique, and we are not alone. God found us. Thanks be to God. Or to borrow fm my Pentecostal brothers and sisters (who really got this from the Church): Hallelujah!!

    Welcome home. dt

  14. Just to comment briefly on this, as one of the Eastern Catholic contributors at Called to Communion:

    “Orthodox see how the Eastern Catholics have to live their lives in the Western Church and question whether things would really be any different in a reunited Church.”

    Here are some reasons why this is either a) irrelevant to the fundamental question at hand in this post or b) possibly wrong in its assessment of what would happen if all Orthodox (or a lot more, I should say) were in communion with the West.

    Please note: I use the phrase irrelevant not tritely, or denying that these matters are truly causes of stumbling. They are true offenses to unity, and the West holds the great share of blame because of the Pope’s role as a Leader who is called to strengthen his brethren (and I think that Pope John Paul II takes the blame and initiative to bring about reconciliation in encyclicals like Ut Unum Sint), but on a base level, I see irrelevance.

    1) Possible Irrelevance:
    Liturgical/Spiritual Abuse happens to Western Christians as well as Eastern Christians. We are called to be faithful to Tradition, and that does include how many times we say Lord Have Mercy or whether our Priests are celibate, but it also includes a call to Unity. It includes the God given structure and leadership given to the Pope of Rome. Abusus non tollit usum. I would argue that if you think about what some Western Christians practice liturgically, their shortcomings to Tradition pale in comparison to the “latinizations” of Eastern Catholics. Additionally, the more I consider issues pertaining to latinization the more I see that Orthodox are influenced by the same tendencies. Again, this is not ideal. Most scholars like Fr. Taft and Fr. Zoghby of blessed Memory are right-we need to be more Orthodox as Eastern Catholics, and to me this is the Catholic “end” of the “deal” towards unity.

    But even further, there is a greater source of optimism when I think about the claim that unity will undermine Orthodoxy’s Orthodoxy from this angle:

    2) Possible Error
    Unifying the ~20 million Eastern Catholics with the ~300 million Orthodox is truly a numbers game that favors the idea that the Eastern Tradition can live in harmony as another lung. Combine this simple mathematical consideration with the fact that the Unions of Brest and Uzghorod happened during a different time, ecumenically speaking. The Church has ruled at Vatican II that the sacramental life of the Orthodox is completely valid.

    This understanding was always with the West, though not with all of her representatives, sadly. But as an example of this longstanding respect for the East, we need look no further than a Pope from the earlier days of Schism. Pope Innocent III said this about the horribly tragic Fourth Crusade:

    “Whoever suggested such a thing to you and how did they ever lead your mind astray?…How, indeed, is the Greek Church to be brought back into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for this Apostolic See when she has been beset with so many afflictions and persecutions that she see in Latins only an example of perdition and the woks of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs?”

    Thank God that we’ve moved beyond those days, to the point where the excommunications have been lifted for ~45 years, and we now pray together. But what remains between us?

    The Orthodox shortcoming, as understood by Catholics, is centered upon matters of union and catholicity, not in veracity for the realm of sacraments. Combine that with the Balamand Statement and you can see that the vision of reunion is truly one where Patriarchs are all Truly Leaders of their jurisdictions, where the Successor of Peter holds Primacy (the focus of this article) which is not totalitarian.

    For a glimpse of the feasibility of there being a life for Eastern Catholics that is more similar to the idea of “Orthodox in communion with Rome” vs. “Catholics who like the Eastern Rites”, just look at the Melkites. Their origins trace to 1724–when the Patriarch called for union with Rome, Constantinople joined the voice of some of the faithful in the Middle East and formed a new Patriarchate (was this identical to an “antipope” situation? that would be a great rabbit trail discussion, for another time perhaps), but the point is that the Melkites have a Patriarch. Their Orthodoxy is arguably the most flourishing among the Eastern Catholics, where issues surrounding suppression of married priests etc. are less prominent. But again, in many senses that is irrelevant to the concept of whether we should be in communion, or not.

    May God give us more Tradition, both Western AND Eastern, and in so doing may we grow closer to one another.

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