ECF on the Papacy

Good Afternoon. I read an article a few months back that made me question the historical validity of the Papacy. It still is logical that Christ left the Pope with the keys to the kingdom, but the Early Church Fathers seem to not interpret it as such.

I understand that not all ECF’s held perfect belief, but many Church Fathers quoted by us Roman Catholics seem to actually reject the idea of the Rock of Matthew 16:18, as we believe it. This becomes apparent when commonly quoted Fathers have their statements put into the context of whatever they were writing.

I was wondering if there WERE actually a majority of ECF’s who supported our interpretation of Matthew 16:18, as Vatican I states.

I suggest before you post that you read this article.

It should be made clear that the majority of the ECF’s did recognize the Papacy as having some sort of primacy. The problem arises when we ask if that primacy was the same as having supreme power over the church, and if that primacy was innate to the office, and irrevocable, or not.

You’ll find the Fathers are silent on the idea of supremacy, which would seem to mean they are unfamiliar with it. They also seem to be silent on the idea of revocability, which probably means they never thought it would need to be done.

I had a look at the URL you gave. It appears to be a web page created by a chap, a business man, living with his wife and children and doing apologetics and publishing as a ministry intended to deal with issues related to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Gospel, Church history and the Christian life as part of a defence of the teachings of the Protestant Reformation. It seems to be web site dedicated to fighting against Catholic teaching.

Or, it was understood and didn’t require explanation.

Silence can also mean that “it was a given”.

Primacy was explained but Supremacy not?



  1. the fact of being primary, preeminent, or more important.
    “the primacy of air power in the modern war”

synonyms: greater importance, priority, precedence, preeminence, superiority, supremacy, ascendancy, dominance, dominion, leadership

2.the office, period of office, or authority of a primate of certain churches.

Toe may toe

Toe ma toe


**Tertullian **

“[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; and whatever you shall have bound or you shall have loosed, not what they shall have bound or they shall have loosed” (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).

Cyprian of Carthage (251 A.D.)

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ He says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven.’ And again He says to him after His resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.’ On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, 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; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all 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 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 [A.D. 251]).

John Chrysostom

I would fain inquire then of those who desire to lessen the dignity of the Son, which manner of gifts were greater, those which the Father gave to Peter, or those which the Son gave him? For the Father gave to Peter the revelation of the Son; but the Son gave him to sow that of the Father and that of Himself in every part of the world; and to a mortal man He entrusted the authority over all things in Heaven, giving him the keys; who extended the church to every part of the world, and declared it to be stronger than heaven. “For heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away.” Matthew 24:35 How then is He less, who has given such gifts, has effected such things?

And these things I say, not dividing the works of Father and Son (“for all things are made by Him, and without Him was nothing made which was made”): but bridling the shameless tongue of them that dare so to speak.

But see, throughout all, His authority: “I say unto you, You are Peter; I will build the Church; I will give you the keys of Heaven.”


Even Protestant Scholars admit Peter is the rock. Here are just a few:

Protestant Scholars Agree: Peter is the Rock

Here are five of the more than two dozen quotes I have from heavyweight Protestant scholars regarding the identity of “the rock” in Matthew 16:18.

W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

“[Peter] is not a name, but an appellation and a play on words. There is no evidence of Peter or Kephas as a name before Christian times….Peter as Rock will be the foundation of the future community. Jesus, not quoting the Old Testament, here uses Aramaic, not Hebrew, and so uses the only Aramaic word that would serve his purpose. In view of the background of v. 19…one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the messianic confession, of Peter. “To deny the pre-eminent position of Peter,” Albright says, “among the disciples or in the early Christian community is a denial of the evidence. The interest in Peter’s failures and vacillations does not detract from this pre-eminence, rather it emphasizes it. Had Peter been a lesser figure, his behavior would have been of far less consequence. Precisely because Peter is pre-eminent and is the foundation stone of the Church that his mistakes are in a sense so important, but his mistakes never correspond to his teachings as the Prince of the Apostles.” (The Anchor Bible; Matthew [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1971], 195)

Peter as the Rock will be the foundation of the future community, the church. Jesus here uses Aramaic and so only the Aramaic word which would serve His purpose. In view of the background in verse 19, one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as the faith or the confession of Peter. (Ibid.)

Donald A. Carson (Baptist)

“On the basis of the distinction between ‘petros’ . . . and ‘petra’ . . . , many have attempted to avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Peter is a mere ‘stone,’ it is alleged; but Jesus himself is the ‘rock’ . . . Others adopt some other distinction . . . Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter . . . The Greek makes the distinction between ‘petros’ and ‘petra’ simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine ‘petra’ could not very well serve as a masculine name . . . Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the Rock, the more common word would have been ‘lithos’ (‘stone’ of almost any size). Then there would have been no pun - and that is just the point! . . . In this passage Jesus is the builder of the church and it would be a strange mixture of metaphors that also sees him within the same clauses as its foundation . . .” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], vol. 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Matthew: D.A. Carson), 368)

Oscar Cullman (Protestant Scholar)

“But what does Jesus mean when He says: ‘On this rock I will build my church’? The idea of the Reformers that He is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable in vew of the probably different setting of the story. For there is no reference here to the faith of Peter. Rather, the parallelism of ‘thou art rock’ and ‘on this rock I will build’ shows that the second rock can only be the same as the first. It is thus evident that Jesus is referring to Peter, to whom he has given the name Rock. He appoints Peter, the impulsive, enthusiastic, but not persevering man in the circle, to be the foundation of His ecclesia [church]. To this extent Roman Catholic exegesis is right and all Protestant attempts to evade this interpretation are to be rejected.” (Oscar Cullman, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich), [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968], 6:108).

Donald Hagner (Contemporary Evangelical)

“The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny [that Peter is the rock] in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock . . . seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy” (Word Biblical Commentary 33b:470).

David Hill (Presbyterian)

“It is on Peter himself, the confessor of his Messiahship, that Jesus will build the Church…Attempts to interpret the ‘rock’ as something other than Peter in person (e.g., his faith, the truth revealed to him) are due to Protestant bias, and introduce to the statement a degree of subtlety which is highly unlikely.” (The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972], 261)

Take a look at the Early Church Fathers (and some later pre-East-West-Schism writers that might not chronologically be listed with the ECF’s) I cited in this recent thread which deal w/ St. Peter, the Pope, the keys, and the classic Petrine texts found in the Gospel.

Another thing to note is that even today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:

424 Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church.

(Parargraph #424)


That is not to be understood as contradictory to the straight forward and primary meaning of the text that St. Peter is the “rock” in Mt. 16:18-19. If both views are found in the Catechism, is it that big of a surprise that both are found in the ECF’s? But what where the Fathers trying to express by using the above mentioned interpretation is the question that needs to be ascertained? I think in most cases they are not dealing with the Papacy and Roman Primacy.

Both St. Peter and his faith are the “rock”, in Mt. 16:18-19, but the primary meaning of the text is that St. Peter is the “rock”, as the Catholic Church has always taught.

I’ll grab some of those citations to illustrate:

From the West:

This is attributed to Pope St. Damasus (“Decree of Damasus”), and I accept that following Jurgens:

“…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, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven…”

Source: Jurgens, Williams A. “The Faith of the Early Fathers Volume 1”, The Liturgical Press. Collegeville, Minnesota: 1970. Pg. 404

From the East:

St. Maximus the Confessor:

“The extremities of the earth, and all in every part of it who purely and rightly confess the Lord look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and its confession and faith, as it were to a sun of unfailing light, awaiting from it the bright radiance of the sacred dogmas of our Fathers according to what the six inspired and holy councils have purely and piously decreed, declaring most expressly the symbol of faith. For from the coming down of the incarnate Word amongst us, all the Churches in every part of the world have held that greatest Church alone as their base and foundation, seeing that according to the promise of Christ our Saviour, the gates of hell do never prevail against it, that it has the keys of a right confession and faith in Him, that it opens the true and only religion to such as approach with piety, and shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks injustice against the Most High.”

Source: Chapman, John. “St. Maximus of Constantinople.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 24 Aug. 2013

St. Theodore the Studite (and several other archimandrites) to Pope Paschal:

“Your Supreme Blessedness has doubtless learnt what misfortune our sins have drawn upon our Church. We have become, to speak as the Scripture, the conversation and proverb of all nations, but maybe You have not yet been fully informed by letter. This is why we humble monks and the least among the members of Christ, since our chief is a prisoner, and the first among our fathers are scattered hither and thither, have been able, thanks to your vicinity and to our common agreement in mind and words, to write you this letter, though it be very bold. Listen to us, O Apostolic Leader, set over by God to be the guide of the sheep of Christ, Doorkeeper of the heavenly kingdom, Rock of the faith, on which has been built the Catholic Church. For you are Peter, You are the successor of Peter, whose See You occupy with honour. Cruel wolves have broken into the fold of the Lord and Hell as before has risen up against it.
. . . Come to our assistance, arise and do not repulse us to the end. To You Christ our God said, ‘When thou art once converted, strengthen thy brethren.’ Now is the time and the place. Help us You who have been set by God for that purpose. Stretch out the hand as far as possible. Frighten, we beg You, the monsters of heresy with the flute of Your Divine speech. O Good Shepherd, we conjure You, give your life to your sheep…”

Source: “The Eastern Churches and the Papacy”, S. Herbert Scott, London: Sheed & Ward, 1928. Pg. 305.



From a pre-East-West-Schism Syrian Bishop, Theodore Abu Qurrah:

"'You should understand that the head of the Apostles was St. Peter, to whom Christ said, ‘You are the rock; and on this rock I shall build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.’ After his resurrection, he also said to him three times, while on the shore of the sea of Tiberius, ‘Simon, do you love me? Feed my lambs, rams and ewes.’ In another passage, he said to him, ‘Simon, Satan will ask to sift you like wheat, and I prayed that you not lose your faith; but you, at that time, have compassion on your brethren and strengthen them.’ Do you not see that St. Peter is the foundation of the church, selected to shepherd it, that those who believe in his faith will never lose their faith, and that he was ordered to have compassion on his brethren and to strengthen them? As for Christ’s words, ‘I have prayed for you, that you not lose your faith; but you, have compassion on your brethren, at that time, and strengthen them’, we do not think that he meant St. Peter himself. Rather, he meant nothing more than the holders of the seat of St. Peter, that is, Rome. Just as when he said to the apostles, ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age’, he did not mean just the apostles themselves, but also those who would be in charge of their seats and their flocks; in the same way, when he spoke his last words to St. Peter, ‘Have compassion, at that time, and strengthen your brethren; and your faith will not be lost’, he meant by this nothing other than the holders of his seat.

Yet another indication of this is the fact that among the apostles it was St. Peter alone who lost his faith and denied Christ, which Christ may have allowed to happen to Peter so as to teach us that it was not Peter that he meant by these words. Moreover, we know of no apostle who fell and needed St. Peter to strengthen him. If someone says that Christ meant by these words only St. Peter himself, this person causes the church to lack someone to strengthen it after the death of St. Peter. How could this happen, especially when we see all the sifting of the church that came from Satan after the apostles’ death? All of this indicates that Christ did not mean them by these words. Indeed, everyone knows that the heretics attacked the church only after the death of the apostles – Paul of Samosata, Arius, Macedonius, Eunomius, Sabelllius, Apollinaris, Origen, and others. If he meant by these words in the gospel only St. Peter, the church would have been deprived of comfort and would have had no one to deliver her from those heretics, whose heresies are truly ‘the gates of hell’, which Christ said would not overcome the church. Accordingly, there is no doubt that he meant by these words nothing other than the holders of the seat of St. Peter, who have continually strengthened their brethren and will not cease to do so as long as this present age lasts.’ (pp. 68-69)"


So, it should be obvious that Vatican I was not giving novel interpretations of the Scriptures (classic Petrine texts) when defining the Papacy more (not that the Scriptures were the only mode of Revelation consulted); it was reiterating the what Rome was handed down (evidenced by Pope St. Stephen via Bishop Firmilian’s pen in the mid second century), and what was obviously believed by others abroad; just a sampling from above prove this. The following citations as well as the Gospel evidence should make it clear that the Papacy was by Divine Right. From this point, I argue, that it’s up to the visible head which Christ established (i.e. the Bishop of Rome who holds the succession from St. Peter) and the Bishops in communion with him to further define/ elaborate anything that needed to be further defined; this I argue happened at Vatican I (an maybe Vatican II?)

I think in most cases they are not dealing with the Papacy and Roman Primacy.

Let me amend that line from my first post to say most if not all cases

As far as I can tell, the distinction that the modern Orthodox make between “primacy” and “supremacy” did not exist as such in the early Church. Words and concepts change meaning over time. The ECFs would not have needed to make a distinction, as the meaning was already understood.

For example, the word “man” in the sense that it was used to speak of humanity in a general sense, but over time acquired a more restricted meaning. Now, we say “humanity” instead, and use “man” mostly as a synonym for “male”.

My best guess is that for the ECFs, elaborating on primacy was unnecessary. It would be like a scientist elaborating on why mathematics is useful to prove a theory. It is assumed that mathematics can be used as a method of proof. The scientist could explain it, but it would be superfluous.

If the “rock” alliteration does speak solely to Peter, so what? Why wouldn’t Jesus have spoken to all the Apostles and said, " All of you are subservient to Peter. Furthermore, every bishop who takes Peter’s place is My infallible vicar on earth. The sucessor of Peter will reign over all of my bishops forevermore."
Ive always believed weve stretched that verse a bit.

If you want to use that logic, then we could also ask why Christ didn’t explicitly define the dogmas in the nicene creed.

If something is a dogma of Catholic faith, it doesn’t need an explicit and complete definition by God Himself. If you don’t want to incorporate Tradition in the faith, you’ll be left with Protestantism.

But thats just my line of thinking. Perhaps someone could explain it better than I.

Or it could mean that the concept was completely foreign to them.

The papacy was further defined in facing the forthcoming dismantling of Christianity through schism and protestantism.

The Church is constantly reforming itself and adjusting to its current age, so that She is always there to guide and nurture us, especially in turbulent times.

There is nothing like restoring unity by having one person in charge than a panel overseeing vast geographic, political, and cultural regions. The papacy is acknowledged not only in the West, but in the Americas and Africa, SE Asia, and so on, and nobody is feeling any domination or meddling by him either.

This article is very misleading and is very very wrong.

Below I will touch on the Tertullian sections of the Article to make my point…

The first error in the Tertullian section is where Webster states Tertullian was a layman when in reality he was an ordained Catholic priest. I leave it up to the reader to guess why he would make such a statement.

Mr. Webster compares two quotes from Tertullian.

Quote A:
“Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the ‘rock on which the church should be built’ who also obtained ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and earth? (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics).”

Quote B:
“If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build My Church,’ ‘to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;’ or, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt 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 thee the keys’…and, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound’…In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key; you see what key: ‘Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears: Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you,’ and so forth. (Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which kingdom are ‘loosed’ the sins that were beforetime ‘bound;’ and those which have not been ‘loosed’ are ‘bound,’ in accordance with true salvation…”

Basically, Webster claims Catholics are wrong in reading a pro-papal sense in Quote A. He insinuates Catholics purposely ignore Quote B to prove the Papacy.

The two quotes are from two different Letters, “Prescription Against Heretics” and “On Modesty”. In order to see how wrong Webster is I strongly suggest people read the actual letters so that you could read the quotes in their proper context. Moreover, before one reads the articles one should pay attention to the Title of each letter.

Quote A does in fact support the Papacy and in fact the entire article is a defense of Apostolic Tradition and succession.
Compare this to Quote B which is about Modesty. Mr. Webster claims that Quote B means:

"When Tertullian says that Peter is the rock and the Church is built upon him he means that the Church is built through him as he preaches the gospel. This preaching is how Tertullian explains the meaning of the keys. They are the declarative authority for the offer of forgiveness of sins through the preaching of the gospel. If men respond to the message they are loosed from their sins. If they reject it they remain bound in their sins. In the words just preceding this quote Tertullian explicitly denies that this promise can apply to anyone but Peter and therefore he does not in any way see a Petrine primacy in this verse with successors in the bishops of Rome. "

Now what does his interpretation have to do with MODESTY? NOTHING! Not only does the interpretation have nothing to do with the topic of the letter “ON Modesty” it completely contradicts Tertullians “Prescription Against Heretics” where the main purpose is defend the importance of Apostolic Tradition.

Quote B is simply arguing something Catholicism still teaches. The Pope has no power without GOD. The Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Sorry but I don’t have the time to rebut the entire article.:shrug:

Thanks for clearing that up Scott, that explanation seems to make sense. It’s probably like most people were silent on the issue of the Trinity, until a certain Bishop Arius took issue with it… and therefore it needed to be defined and explained more. I suppose you could take the argument also with the Papacy…

Thanks for clearing that up Scott, that explanation seems to make sense. It’s probably like most people were silent on the issue of the Trinity, until a certain Bishop Arius took issue with it… and therefore it needed to be defined and explained more. I suppose you could take the argument also with the Papacy…

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