The Primacy of Peter and Apostolic Succession
Of immense importance to the question of leadership of the church today is the issue of the Apostle Peter and doctrine of apostolic succession. It has already been demonstrated that Peter was not the first bishop of the first church. We cannot, however, deprive him of the critical leadership role that he played in the early church, nor dismiss the frequent references in the early church back to the successive bishops in Rome that derived their customs and rule of faith from Peter and Paul themselves. Irenaeus in particular, draws a detailed lineage back to these two apostles in Rome. He says:
tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles… From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolic tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another God beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
This text is one of the earliest and most critical in establishing the idea of apostolic succession and primacy of Rome. There is however, a significant error in this line of reasoning. It is the fact that this text, like the other comparable Ante-Nicene "succession" texts, have nothing to do with apostolic succession, as it is taught by Romanism today. As a matter of fact, they contradict the whole contemporary concept of apostolic succession. In order to understand this, we need to look at where the office of apostle comes from, as well as the intent of these early church texts.
Apostolic Succession: Who died and made you an apostle?
The crux of the problem lies in a single semantical distinction of "apostle" and "bishop". If we look in the New Testament at the usage of the word "apostle" we see that it is applied to not only the twelve, but to Paul numerous times, to Barnabas (Acts 14:14) and possibly Andrionicus and Junias (Romans 16:7). Many early church fathers call the seventy that Jesus sent out "apostles" (Matt. 10:1-22) Paul mentions "super-apostles" in the Second letter to the Corinthians (who are actually false apostles) and the Book of Revelation mentions that the church of Ephesus wisely tested those who claimed to be apostles, and found them wanting. Where does an apostle come from? Scripture declares that only God can make a true apostle. The original twelve where picked by Jesus. Matthias, who replaced Judas, was selected by casting lots, so that God would be the ultimate arbiter (Acts 1:24-26). Paul declares that as an apostle, he was "not sent by men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (Galatians 1:1. See also 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col. 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1). The fact that his apostleship was from God, completely independent of any type of succession is proven by the fact that, after he was called he says
I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:16,17)
There was no way that he could have had an apostolic office passed on to him from the original apostles. He was completely unknown by the twelve in Jerusalem. His office came from God. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that any individual was ever selected by man for the office of apostle. If you couldn’t say that you were chosen by Jesus Christ, then you couldn’t claim the office. There was no "dynastic" succession for the office. In Acts 12:1,2, we see that Herod seized James, brother of John, and put him to death. It must be noted that there is no move to fill his "apostolic" office. Why? Because apostleship is not conferred on others by men. The only example of succession is the previously mentioned Matthais, which was done to fulfill a specific prophecy, and that was done by lot. By the early third century, we see in Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics that some heretics claimed to be "new apostles", which Tertullian mocks as an impossibility. (Chapter XXXII).
Now, compare this with the office of "bishop" (Gr. "episcopoi"). The Bible offers significant parameters on what qualifies one for being a bishop or overseer. It is a position that one can "desire" and aspire to. (1 Timothy 3:1). The qualifications are practical, numerous, and clearly defined. When the apostles had made their missionary circuit, they returned to all of the churches they had started to ordain elders (presbyteros) in all of the churches. The pre-eminent of the presbyters was the episcopoi, bishop or overseer. In Paul’s speech to the elders of Ephesus, he uses the verb for "shepherd" (pastor) to describe the elders’ and overseers’ function in their churches (Acts 20:28). Very early in church history, we see the government of each assembly set up on the basis of Bishop-Presbyter-Deacon, with each role being filled by godly men of character, normally appointed by the existing elders, with the consent of the whole congregation. It is critical to see at this point that the office of apostle, and the office of bishop are not interchangeable. The very cornerstone of the apostolic rule of faith is built upon the presumption that the true faith was entrusted to the apostles, and they in turn appointed bishops and elders in the churches they established. The elders and bishops, by apostolic command, are to have successors, while there is no apostolic command to create a lineage of apostles. If you look very carefully at the text above, you will see that Irenaeus is promoting, in his exact words, the doctrine of "succession of bishops". The reason why this is so important is because if there was such a thing as apostolic office passed down from the original apostles, those apostles would have the divine right to declare any arbitrary doctrine they wanted as "apostolic truth". There is no way that the church could reject it as novelty, because it was, after all, now part the apostolic tradition. This, in a nutshell, is what perpetuates the Mormon church. The leader of their quorum claims the right of apostleship, and they have, on numerous occasions, spoken completely new dogma into being. They have proven that they can even create dogma that their own former apostles and even their own scriptures contradict, yet, the office of the living apostle takes priority.
What does the Roman church teach? Do they teach that the Gospel was entrusted once for all to the apostles, and handed down to the bishops? Or do they maintain that they have the office of apostle within their hierarchy? So there is no doubt about their claims, cited here is the declaration from the most recent Council, Vatican II (ca. 1965). In the dogmatic statement on the church, Lumen Gentium, we read:
Just as the role that the Lord gave individually to Peter, first among the apostles, was permanent and meant to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles office of nurturing the church is permanent, and was meant to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore this sacred synod teaches that by divine institution bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles
Clearly the Roman church believes that the apostolic office remains within their domain, and is past down by succession. Such confusion between the biblical and historical concept of the succession of bishops and apostolic succession has caused untold amount of novel doctrine to be declared "dogma" by the Roman church. When the Popes declared the two Marion doctrines (Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Assumption into Heaven) in 1854 and 1950, each Pope invoked the "authority of Jesus Christ, Peter and Paul, and by our own authority" to define these beliefs as essential for the catholic faith. Despite the fact that none of the early church fathers would have subscribed to such outlandish ideas, the Popes in question in fact made Mary’s sinlessness and her reign as Queen of heaven part of the apostolic rule of faith.
Along similar lines we may see in our lifetime another exercise of the "infallible" office of apostle to dogmatically affirm more Marian doctrine. There is a significant amount of pressure on the Pope to formally define Mary’s alleged role as "Mediatrix" and "Co-Redemptrix". The groups that are hoping to get these definitions want the Pope to affirm that all grace is transferred through Mary, and that her intercessory role is essential for our salvation. Based on Conciliar statements from Vatican II, and recent statements by Pope John Paul II, I suspect that these dogmas will be affirmed. The Roman church seems to be marching closer and closer to affirming the Sethian Triad of Father-Mother-Son instead of the historic doctrine of the Trinity. I have read recent publications from significant Roman Catholic theological institutions that have suggested that Mary, by virtue of the fact that she was "overshadowed" by the Holy Spirit, has a special "union" and identification with the Holy Spirit today. That brings her a few shades closer to ontologically being part of the Godhead. Such a declaration might be the best thing for our times, since the sincere believers would then hopefully see the vast dichotomy between the historic Christian church and Romanism.
Looking historically at the role of Peter and his office in the church is a task rarely undertaken by non-Roman Catholic authors. Because there is so little non-partisan information on the issue, it is common in secular historical works to find the early bishops of Rome referred to as "Popes" (Latin "Papa"). This is very inaccurate, since the title was first used by Phrygian heretics, then by adopted by various bishops throughout the church. It was not until the 10th century that the expression was used uniquely by the bishop of Rome. Did the early church view the apostle Peter as the head of the church? Was he the "rock" according to Matthew 16:18? Was Rome, by apostolic command, to have primacy amongst the churches? Looking at the earliest sources, we can find that the church’s opinion of Peter and Rome is somewhat misrepresented by today’s Roman Catholic apologists. Taking for example, Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians (97 AD.). Clement was the third bishop of Rome from Peter. The occasion of the letter would provide an excellent opportunity to assert Papal primacy, since the Corinthian church was in disarray. It’s elders had been ousted by a younger, ambitious group of men. Since it is clear that, if the primacy of Rome was true, this would be evidence, Romanist apologists have even manufactured "quotes" from this letter, to prop up their argument. For example, Dr. Scott Hahn, former Protestant minister-turned Catholic apologist, on his tape series on "Answering Common Objections" says that:
Clement of Rome, writing to Corinth regarding disunity "But if any disregard this word spoken by Him, Peter through us..." Before the first century was up, Lightfoot admits that Papal authority was dominant in the church through Clement the third Pope.
Unfortunately, there is nothing even close to what Dr. Hahn is citing in the letter. The letter is completely devoid of anything that would come close to suggesting Roman or Petrine primacy. Hahn’s statement is completely fabricated. Lightfoot likewise makes no such concession. What the letter does, suggest, however, is that the presbyters of Rome, would desire that the Corinthian church maintain the succession that was started in their church, by, in this case Paul. Consequently, Clement’s letter makes it’s appeal to the Apostle Paul, the founder of the church, rather than any move to dictate directions from the "chair of Peter". He says
Take up the epistle of Paul! What did he write to you when the gospel was first being preached? Truly under the inspiration of the Spirit he wrote to you regarding himself, Cephas and Apollos, for parties were being formed by you. (Ch. 47).
By citing this very verse from 1 Corinthians 3, Clement dissolves any possibility that Peter could be head of the church. The whole concept of Petrine primacy simply did not exist. Looking through the rest of the earliest writings we see that the idea of Roman or Petrine supremacy is absent from any writing or teaching of the first bishops and apologists. The Didache (100 AD) is silent on the issue, despite the fact that it discusses the role of bishops and prophets at length. The Epistle of Barnabas is silent. Ignatius discusses the need to be in submission to the bishop, but there is no clue of a "bishop of bishops". Mathete’s Letter to Diognetus does not allude to anything "Roman". Polycarp was known to have conflict with Anicetus of Rome, but, as according to the apostolic pattern, they mutually agreed to recognize each other’s practices as valid. (see page 26). There was, as yet, no "Roman primacy" nor "Pope" in Rome .
In the later half of the Second century, we have one of the most revealing pictures of the status of the Roman church found in the candid remarks of Justin at his trial. Justin was asked where he was teaching in Rome, and he replied to his inquisitor:
I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian bath; and during the whole time (and I am living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than this. And if any would come to me, I would communicate to him the doctrines of truth. (Martyrdom of Justin)
Justin says he was unaware of any other meeting in Rome while he was there. In all fairness, I suspect that if he went to the catacombs, he probably would have found a congregation, as well as several other small house churches. The point is, however, that 130 years after the church began, the leading Christian apologist of the day didn’t know of the supposed successor of Peter in Rome. Although I believe there was an overseer in the church at Rome at that time, it is not likely that he could have had the role that Roman Catholics ascribe to him today if he was unknown to the Christians in Rome and churches throughout the empire.
Moving to the latter part of the 2nd century, we have the statements from Irenaeus previously cited regarding the succession of bishops ( page 94). When he wrote the letter, I have no doubt that the church of Rome was a benchmark of orthodoxy. However, this does not necessarily prove Petrine Primacy. As mentioned in the Irenaeus’ biography, he had no hesitation in rebuking Victor, bishop of Rome for trying to assert his paschal custom over that of the Eastern churches. Even more telling, however, is a small insight that we can get from Irenaeus regarding a certain practice that was in Rome. In Against Heresies XXV, he briefly mentions a heretical sect that had come to Rome many years earlier. He says:
Marcellina, who came to Rome during the episcopate of Anicetus, and holding these doctrines, she led many astray...they possess images, some of them painted...while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at the time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images...and have other ways of honoring these images, after the same manner of the heathen.
According to Irenaeus, there was a heretical sect that entered Rome very early in the churches history that had images of Christ and crowned and honored them "like the heathen". This plainly and incontrovertibly proves that the practice of honoring images (even of Christ) was rejected by the universal church from the earliest days. Irenaeus says that many Christians in Rome were "led astray" by these practices. The same might be said for many "Roman" believers today. All that has changed is the degree to which the heathen practice has spread.
If we were to go right through all of the Christian literature of that century, the idea of the primacy of Rome would be conspicuously absent. The Shepherd of Hermas, the writings of Taitian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria and other 2nd century fragments would reveal no "Rome-centered" theology. Clement’s definition of church unity, based on the Bible, rather than a church leader or place, has already been cited (see page 34-35).
In the third century, we have substantial amounts of writing from Tertullian. Tertullian, of course separated himself from the orthodox church to join the Montanist movement. Although he would therefore be considered a "hostile witness" with respect to the development of the church at Rome, and therefore somewhat biased, I am going to include his remarks regarding Petrine primacy. In On Modesty :XI Tertullian writes:
If, because the Lord has said to Peter, "Upon this rock will I 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?…What, now, (has this to do) with the Church, and) your (church), indeed, Psychic? For, in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondently appertain,
Tertullian objected to the idea that a church could claim divine prerogative merely because the said they had some type of lineal connection to Peter. Tertullian’s opinion was that the promises to the church were for those who were spiritually competent. Divine judgment was the Lord’s, not man jurisdiction. The church, he concluded, consisted of those who were spiritually joined to the Lord, not merely that of a "number of bishops".
In this statement we find the foreshadowing of virtually all of the controversy that would surround the question of Roman primacy for the next few centuries. The question is whether God is apathetic towards questions of character and orthodoxy. Are the ordinances and the offices in a church still valid, regardless of whether that church has become completely heretical, or even if the antichrist himself were leading it? Most of the church fathers in the first three hundred years would affirm that the validity of a church does rest to a degree on it’s orthodoxy and holiness. Tertullian, being a contemporary of Callistus, the alleged embezzling, heretical bishop of Rome, would likewise agree. Hippolytus also split with Rome on the same principle, since he could not stomach what Callistus was doing to the church. Origen was alive during Callistus’ bishopric as well. He wrote several times on the verses in Matthew that would eventually be used to support Petrine primacy. He said in his Commentaries chapter 11 that:
But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? ….For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only, "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," etc; but in the Gospel of John the Savior having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit," etc. …..And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. For all bear the surname of "rock" who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from it the spiritual draught.
Origen’s assessment is that the promises to Peter are for everyone who confess Christ as Lord, just as Peter did. In Chapter 14 of the same commentary Origen says that all who make the confession of Christ’s Lordship are "Peters" and can "bind and loose" accordingly. He then says:
But when one judges unrighteously, and does not bind upon earth according to the Word of God, nor loose upon earth according to His will, the gates of Hades prevail against him; but, in the case of any one against whom the gates of Hades do not prevail, this man judges righteously….. But if he is tightly bound with the cords of his sins, to no purpose does he bind and loose. ….and if any one who is not a Peter, and does not possess the things here spoken of, imagines as a Peter that he will so bind on earth that the things bound are bound in heaven, and will so loose on earth that the things loosed are loosed in heaven, he is puffed up, not understanding the meaning of the Scriptures, and, being puffed up, has fallen into the ruin of the devil.
According to Origen, character counts. The promise that the "gates of Hades will not prevail" is not a blanket promise to a church at a certain geographical location, as many Romanists assert today, but it is a promise for those who are righteous before God. Apparently, the issue came to a head with the split over heretical baptism and Cyprian of Carthage’s condemnation of Stephen of Rome. (See page 27). Cyprian’s letter on Unity, written before Stephen’s bishopric during the Novatian controvesy, is considered a proof text by many Catholic scholars as to the primacy of Rome in the 3rd century. This is problematic since there are actually two recensions of the same letter. In the one preserved at Rome, there is a statement that declares that:
Certainly the other apostles were what Peter was, but Primacy is given to Peter, that it might be shown that the church is one and the chair is one.
Some scholars have thought this to be a forgery or interpolation. The majority of scholars today allow that it may have been in Cyprian’s first version of the letter, but he himself amended the letter afterwards, to remove any undue distinction to Rome above the other churches. Following is section four from Cyprian’s amended letter.
The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, "I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." … yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.
Cyprian consequently, at least for the latter part of his ministry, rejected the premise that the Roman church had primacy among the apostolic churches. Particularly in light of the events surrounding the conflict with Stephen of Rome, several years later, it is highly unlikely that Cyprian would hold to the primacy of Peter. Stephen had ruled that heretics who wanted to enter the catholic church would be received as if they had been in the church all along. Whatever baptism they had received, apparently whether it had been with the Montanists, Sethians or other Gnostics, was considered valid. Moreover, Stephen demanded that all other bishops follow his lead, even though there was no apostolic precedent in recognizing heretical baptism as valid. Cyprian publicly chided Stephen for making such rash assertions as to his authority, as well as his doctrinal errors. Cyprian even convened a council in Carthage to address some of Stephen's errors. In the document "Concerning the Baptism of Heretics" the combined council of African bishops (87 total) unanimously declared their contempt for Stephen's audacity and presumption. They agreed that :
Neither does any of us set himself up as a 'Bishop of Bishops", nor does by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since each bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can be no more be judged by another than he can judge another.
One of Cyprian’s fellow bishops, Firmilian, (bishop of Caesarea) wrote a scalding letter to Cyprian regarding Stephen’s viewpoint. Firmilian agreed with Cyprian and the other bishops that Stephen’s decision to recognize the validity of heretical baptism was divisive to the church, and Stephen of Rome was in very great error. Firmilian said regarding Stephen:
16. But what is the greatness of his error, and what the depth of his blindness, who says that remission of sins can be granted in the synagogues of heretics, and does not abide on the foundation of the one Church which was once based by Christ upon the rock, may be perceived from this, that Christ said to Peter alone, "Whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." And again, in the Gospel, when Christ breathed on the apostles alone, saying, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit they are remitted unto them, and whose soever sins ye retain they are retained." Therefore the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles, and to the churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination… And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so 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; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority… Stephen, who announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter, is stirred with no zeal against heretics, when he concedes to them, not a moderate, but the very greatest power of grace
It is clear that there was nearly unanimous recognition that character and orthodox beliefs were critical to the question of what was truly part of the church and what was not. It is also clear that the church universally rejected the novel claim by Stephen to primacy over the rest of the bishops. Stephen’s most significant supporters, of course, were from Rome, who helped try to persuade the other bishops throughout the empire that Stephen was correct. A number of the bishops from the Council of Carthage eventually capitulated and sided with Stephen.
Some seventy years later when the question was raised at the Council of Nicea, it was ruled that certain groups would be allowed to enter the church without being re-baptized, but that the followers of Paul of Samsota (who had a deficient view of the Deity of Christ) would have to be re-baptized. This ruling from the Council suggests that Cyprian, at least to a degree, was right, inasmuch as he was calling for the re-baptism of those whose beliefs previously were outside the parameters of the apostolic rule of faith.
The larger question of the primacy of Peter is still one that is germane to the question of church unity and leadership today. As we saw from the above texts, the whole concept of the primacy of Peter was unknown in the first two centuries, and when it was introduced (Callistus and Stephen having the dubious honor of promoting it), it was rejected by all virtually all of the writers and apologists of the day. Today, those facts are being re-written in attempt to back-date the papacy. Much is being made of the verses from Matthew where Jesus renames Peter and states "upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). As demonstrated above, however those verses were construed, it did not insinuate a "Rome-centered" church in the first several centuries of the Christian church. Even some of the Roman Catholic church’s greatest theologians and "doctors" from the first centuries did not see a case for Petrine primacy in those verses. Augustine for example, deals with those verses many times in his writing. In Tractate CXXIV, 24, he says:
he (Peter) represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by divers temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falleth not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, "On this rock will I build my Church," because Peter had said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins.
Augustine advances the accepted position that the "rock" that the church was built on was Peter’s confession of Christ’s lordship. Christ himself is the rock. Moreover the power of "binding and loosing" is vested to the whole church, not merely Peter of his "successors".
Augustine confirms this in his Commentary on Psalm 61, where he cites the verse from Matthew regarding building the church upon the "rock", then affirms that this "rock was Christ". Likewise in his "Sermon 26" on Matthew 14, he says:
For seeing that Christ is the rock (Petra)…"Therefore," he saith, "Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock" which thou hast confessed, upon this Rock which thou hast acknowledged… For men who wished to be built upon men, said "I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas," who is Peter. But others who did not wish to be built upon Peter, but upon the Rock, said, "But I am of Christ."
Augustine also explains this verse in his commentary on 1 John 5:1-3:
"Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church." What meaneth, "Upon this rock I will build my Church"? Upon this faith; upon this that has been said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Upon this rock," saith He, "I will build my Church."
There can be no doubt that Augustine understood the text from Matthew to be indicated that the Lordship of Christ was the rock upon which the church would be built, rather than the man, Peter. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) made a similar case in his Homily LIV on Matthew 14:23.
What then saith Christ? "Thou art Simon, the son of Jonas; thou shalt be called Cephas."…."And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;" that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were now on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd. "And the gates of hell" shall not prevail against it."
Again in Homily LXXXII, Chrysostom declares that Christ " has built His church upon Peter’s confession". These are far from isolated instances. As a matter of fact the majority of references to the verse from Matthew in the early church either affirm that the "rock" is Christ, or Peter’s confession of Christ. St. Hilary of Poitiers, in his work On the Trinity , Book V, says that:
Next, the Father’s utterance, This is My Son, had revealed to Peter that he must confess Thou art the Son of God, for in the words This is, God the Revealer points Him out, and the response, Thou art, is the believer’s welcome to the truth. And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built. …. This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation
Accordingly all who make this confession have the power of "binding and loosing". Hilary also says, later in the same book that " Thus our one immovable foundation, our one blissful rock of faith, is the confession from Peter’s mouth, Thou art the Son of the living God."
One could go on. Gregory, in his epistle XXXVIII to Queen Theodelina, encourages her to "make your life firm on the rock of the Church; that is on the confession of the blessed Peter". Jerome, another contemporary of Augustine, is frequently cited by Roman Catholic scholars for his letter to Damasus of Rome, where he states that
As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built!
Yet, in his letter to John (Section CXLVI), he reverses himself as to who the "rock is:
Let us hear the words of the great Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Let us hear the Lord Christ confirming this confession, for "On this rock," He says, "I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." Wherefore too the wise Paul, most excellent master builder of the churches, fixed no other foundation than this… For no other foundation can a man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ."
In conclusion to this point, we can positively say that the case for Petrine primacy is very weak indeed. Historically, James, was the first bishop of the first church, and we are told by the early church fathers that even Peter, while in Jerusalem, was subordinate to him,. The whole concept of a papacy, besides being a myth, has clearly opened the door for widespread disorder and falsehood, as proven by the folly of Callistus and Stephen. While the churches were autonomous and made every effort to maintain communion, (ie. Polycrates and Anicetus, see page 26) there was unity, although not conformity. It is when arrogant men are filled with the grandiose plans of absolute control and conformity that problems arise. Furthermore, the central "infallible" teaching authority of church is an easy target for demonic deception. If the papacy has ultimate control over the teaching of the whole church, novel doctrine in that one fountainhead will assuredly pollute the entire stream. Who can now reverse the adoption of images, which the fathers condemned, if the Pope approves of them? How can the church recant the novel Marian doctrines, if the Pope has declared them "infallibly? The autonomy of the separate apostolic churches provided the checks and balances that helped maintain the apostolic truth.
In the post-apostolic church, the principle of inter-dependence and autonomy were fully realized. Letters still in existence from church to church show a mutual respect for each other, and there is no evidence of one church ruling over another. It wasn't until the 3rd century that there is evidence that the Church of Rome tried to claim supremacy over the other churches, (the notorious bishop Callistus being one of the first to make such a claim to authority) but every such claim was universally rejected by all other churches, since it was known by all that every apostolic church was endowed with equal authority.
The idea that Rome had pre-eminence amongst the churches was universally rejected by the entire church, excepting, of course, Rome. What finally made the Roman church into the head of the visible Christian church? Besides the obvious benefit of being the church located in the capital city of the Empire, the Roman church had significant help from a very dubious source. Up to the 8th century, the Roman church was still struggling to assert it's authority over kings, as well as the churches throughout Christendom. Her success was mixed. Then, in the ninth century, there was "discovered" a number of documents from the second, third, and fourth centuries referred to today as the Pseudo- Isodorian Decretals. These letters were from the "Popes" of these centuries, affirming their superiority over the other churches, as well as over secular government. One of the documents was a written record of the transference of almost all the land of Italy from Emperor Constantine to the papacy! The papacy paraded these around as proof of the antiquity of the papacy, as well as the popes claim to secular authority and ecclesiastical authority. The western world was convinced. Unfortunately, it was not until the 15th century that it was proven that these documents were all a forgery. They had apparently been produced by the servant of Nicholas I in the 9th century for the very purpose of helping him expand his dominion. In reality, there were no "popes" in Rome at that time in question. There was a bishop of Rome, but he did not wield power in the sense that the papacy would like us to believe.
One of the most amazing aspects about the ascendancy of the papacy is that the church of Rome promotes the pope as the "Pontifex Maximus" or, Supreme Pontiff. The title Pontifex Maximus is mentioned numerous times by the early church fathers (particularly by Tertullian), but it was not applied to a Christian bishop. The early church fathers say that the Pontifex Maximus was the "King of Heathendom", the evil high priest of the pagan mystery religion of Rome. It is certainly not likely that Christ appointed Peter "Pontifex Maximus" of Rome.