The Ante-Nicene Development of Papal Primacy

Written by I. Shawn McElhinney

St. Peter’s precise whereabouts between the Council of Jerusalem (approx. 48-49 AD) and his death in Rome are pretty much unknown. Tradition tells us that he did visit many of the church communities and eventually settled in Rome. The precise date of the latter is uncertain although it is likely that he was settled in Rome by the early ‘60s. His first epistle is generally dated from the period of 60-64 AD and the term "the church which is at Babylon" (1 Pet. 5:14) is generally considered to be a code word referring to the church at Rome. The evidence that St. Peter died in Rome is ample enough that even the late controversialist Dr. George Salmon agreed with this much of Rome’s claims. If the early consensus for St. Peter dying as a martyr in Rome was deemed insufficient as a fact of history, then "there are few things in the history of the early Church, which it would be possible to demonstrate". Modern scholarship as well as recent archeological discoveries have fortified this tradition. It is true after the first few centuries that some legend and embellishment was added to the mix; however the essence of the Roman claim of Primacy was (and is) not based on these later additions. This claim has been based upon the Prince of the Apostles (Peter) and the Church’s greatest missionary (Paul) dying as martyrs in Rome (the former by crucifixion and the latter by decapitation) during the reign of Emperor Nero.

The lack of any evidence for the papacy in the mid-first century is by no means problematic, as there is a lack of evidence for a Christian presence in Rome during that same period. The Christians of this period (many of whom had known the Apostles) possibly did not record facts and dates because of a belief that there would not be a posterity to record them for. If there was little information in Christian quarters at this time being circulated the absence of any non-Christian references to a Christian presence in Rome in the mid-first century should not be a surprise. The persecutions of Nero had decimated the Christian population in Rome drastically. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (circa 93 AD) in writing about the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate spoke of the "tribe of Christians" as "even now not extinct" (Antiquities xviii 3.3). These words hardly indicate a numerical Christian presence in Rome at the time. The first non-Christian evidences of a Christian presence are spoken about in Rome starting around the late first century. This is also the same period from which the first traces of the Roman Church and its priority among the other Christian communities are to be found. It is in this light that the first evidences of the Primacy of the Roman See needs to be taken into account if we are to properly trace out its development.

The papacy undeniably has undergone development historically. In this section though we will look at the papacy from how it manifested itself in the pre-Nicaea period. This is being done to aid in properly understanding the later developments of papal authority by assessing the seeds of what would later be called papal jurisdiction and (by implication) papal infallibility. The Primacy of the Roman See is a well-established fact of Church history that was even attested to by Orthodox scholars Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff and Fr. Alexander Schmemann. They did not concede everything on the matter that the Catholic Church claims of course. However, it is important to notice how what they do say is perfectly consistent with the development of doctrine paradigm. This is concerning the Catholic doctrine of primacy of the Roman See as well as Rome being the final court of appeal in the early Church. In discussing the topic of St. Peter’s Primacy, we will start with Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff. Fr Afanassieff was a professor of canon law and church history at the Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. The quotations from him and Fr. Alexander Schmemann were taken from an Orthodox source titled The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church (edited by JohnMeyendorff):

As we study the problem of primacy in general, and especially the primacy of Rome, we must not be ruled by polemical motives: the problem is to be solved to satisfy ourselves and Orthodox theology. The solution of the problem is urgent, since Orthodox theology has not yet built up any systematic doctrine on Church government. And although we have a doctrine concerning Ecumenical Councils as organs of government in the Church, we shall see presently that our doctrine is not enough to refute the Catholic doctrine of primacy...
The epistle is couched in very measured terms, in the form of an exhortation; but at the same time it clearly shows that the Church of Rome was aware of the decisive weight, in the Church of Corinth's eyes, that must attach to its witness about the events in Corinth. So the Church of Rome, at the end of the first century, exhibits a marked sense of its own priority, in point of witness about events in other churches. Note also that the Roman Church did not feel obliged to make a case, however argued, to justify its authoritative pronouncements on what we should now call the internal concerns of other churches... Apparently Rome had no doubt that its priority would be accepted without argument. [1]
In speaking of the Epistle of Clement, the mid twentieth century non-Catholic scholar T.G. Jalland’s work ‘The Church and the Papacy’ will be referenced:
It might not be unreasonable to infer [from a passage in 1 Clement 63] that the Roman church was already conscious of some degree of external responsibility, such as does not appear to have been realized by the geographically neighbouring churches of Thessalonica or Philippi…If it is true to say of the Roman intervention that ‘the authority is implicit, it being left to subsequent generations to make explicit the reasons which prompted an instinctive action’ (Lowell Clark, First Epistle of Clement pg. 20), we are still left with the question as to the source from which the instinct itself was derived. Instincts are usually traceable to habits of past generations. Was the source in this case merely the habituation of the Roman people to the government of others: or was it not rather, as the whole tone of the epistle would suggest, some custom which could claim a sanction apostolic or even Dominical in origen? [2]
The earliest records we have speak of the Roman Church (as opposed to the Roman Bishop personally) exercising a unique function or authority. Some have claimed that the reason for this was because there was "no monarchial episcopate" in Rome until the mid to late second century. As records from the earliest period are scarce, it should not surprise us that the evidences of Roman intervention in the earliest period are not abundant as this does nothing to tell against the Primacy of the Roman Bishop. While the congregations in various parts were poor, scattered, and persecuted, it should not surprise us that the Church, rather than the bishop, would be the object of respectful allusion. After all, the power of the bishop derived from his position. When converts were few (which seems to have been the case from the time of the fall of Jerusalem until the early second century) the local church was more of a distinct unit. And perhaps most importantly, in the earliest period the "bishop himself would with the greatest likelihood be living in some obscurity due to his exposed position in time of persecution" (Msr. Knox: Essentials of Spiritual Unity).
These are all points that seem to be conveniently overlooked by those who employ the "mutually destructive mentality" approach spoken of earlier. (This is most notable with Reformed Protestants and the really polemical of the Anglican and Orthodox apologists.) The reason this approach is mutually destructive is because the Roman Church was explicitly exercising its authority with an increasing frequency long before the Canon of Scripture was settled and long before there were any Ecumenical Councils. If the first century of Church history in any way tells against the papacy, than the first four centuries tell against the Canon of Scripture since the matter was still being disputed in some areas until the early fifth century synod of Carthage in 418. The historian Sir Nicholas Cheetham had the following to say about Pope Clement’s Epistle (from his study A History of the Popes):
Clement asserted the primacy of the Roman church in no uncertain tones when he rebuked the Christians of Corinth for lapsing into dissidence and schism. The Epistle chiding them for their quarrels and usually attributed to him has the authentic papal ring, both authoritative and paternal. [3]
St. Clement’s Epistle is the earliest source we have that witnesses to the priority of the Roman church. However, it is perhaps the witness of St. Ignatius of Antioch, which is of even greater importance as it was the first direct evidence from an outside source and an Eastern one at that. St. Ignatius of Antioch is an important link in the chain of establishing the priority of the Roman Church in antiquity. According to some of the early Fathers (including the church historian Eusebius of Caesaria), St. Ignatius was the second successor to the See of Antioch (succeeding St. Evodius) and was appointed by the Apostle Peter himself. Later on he was a coworker or disciple of the Apostle John. Fr. Afanassieff made the following observations about his Epistle to the Romans written about 15 years after St. Pope Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians:
We find the first direct evidence about the priority of the Roman Church in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Speaking of the Church of Rome, Ignatius uses the phrase 'which presides' in two passages...The Roman Church 'presides' in love, that is, in the concord based on love between all the local churches. The term 'which presides' [Greek given] needs no discussion; used in the masculine it means the bishop, for he, as head of the local church, sits in the 'first place' at the eucharistic assembly, that is, in the central seat. He is truly the president of his church...
[Ignatius] pictured the local churches grouped, as it were, in a eucharistic assembly, with every church in its special place, and the church of Rome in the chair, sitting in the 'first place.' So, says Ignatius, the Church of Rome indeed has the priority in the whole company of churches united by concord...In his period no other church laid claim to the role, which belonged to the Church of Rome. [4]
Dr. Ludwig Ott also expounded upon this position in his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:
The doctrine of the primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and instructions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the Primacy recorded in the Gospels has been gradually more clearly recognized and its implications developed. Clear recognition of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches appear at the end of the 1st century…St. Ignatius elevated the Roman community over all the communities using in his epistle a solemn form of address. Twice he says of it that it is the presiding community, which expresses a relationship of superiority and inferiority. [5]
The Protestant scholar Dr. Adolph Harnack also confirmed this position:
Ignatius is our first external witness in regard to the Roman Church. After making allowances for exaggeration of language in his letter to the Romans, it remains clear that Ignatius assigns a de facto primacy to the Roman Church among its sister churches and that he knew of an energetic and habitual activity of this church in protecting and instructing other churches. [6]
Taking into account the phenomenon of development, the notion of primacy needs to be established first. The Church of Rome enjoyed a Primacy over the other Churches from the earliest period for which we have records with indications that this priority was not an innovation. Dr. Harnack claimed that "The Roman Church from the end of the first century possessed a de facto primacy in Christendom" (Mission und Ausbreitung pg. 398). When even a liberal Protestant scholar such as Dr. Harnack makes such a concession as this, it is clearly an issue that is beyond dispute. Thus, having established the seed of the doctrine, let us now briefly trace its development.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons gave the Roman claim to primacy its strongest early endorsement. St. Irenaeus was an Asian bishop and disciple of St. Polycarp (the latter was a younger contemporary of St. Ignatius of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John). According to the historian Sir Nicholas Cheetham:

Irenaeus, another Smyrniot who had accompanied Polycarp on his mission to Rome and subsequently became bishop of Lyons in the years following the savage persecutions of Christians in that city, produced a slashing denunciation of the heretics in five books. Although himself an Asiatic, he asserted the primacy of Rome over the other churches…Irenaeus defined what was to become the Roman claim of centralism…it was there [Rome] that all the traditions and experiences of the church were gathered, examined, and reconciled. Stability in doctrine and practice came from Rome, which opposed its steadying influence to unsettling currents from the East, to Greek intellectualism, and the emotionalism of Asia. Only Rome could impose unity on a universal church. [7]
Protestant scholar John Lawson’s work The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus had this to say about the Bishop of Lyons and his view of the Roman church and its primacy:
[W]hat church can compare with Rome? She is the life-work of the two greatest Apostles, known of all and knowing all, she is a supreme witness to the unified voice of the Church. If it is necessary for each and all to consent to the voice of the whole Church, how necessary is it for all to consent to Rome? To S. Irenaeus Rome was most certainly an authority none must question, as she cannot be imagined as ever in error. The word ‘infallible’ to some extent begs the question, for the use of it imports into the discussion the results of later definition. It is nevertheless a word which is difficult to do without. With this proviso we may say that Irenaeus regarded Rome as the very corner-stone and typification of a whole structure of ecclesiastical infallibility. [8]
For additional testimony, the Protestant scholar Dr. T. G. Jalland will again be referenced (courtesy of B.C. Butler). It is important to note that from the earliest records we have (late first century to early second century) there was a noticeable degree of traffic to Rome by a whole host of different personages. These people were both orthodox and heterodox. They traveled the roads of the Empire in no small degree to presumably present their philosophies to Rome for approval. This trend only increased throughout the subsequent centuries. Dr. Jalland raises some questions that bear reflecting upon concerning this unmistakable (and interesting) trend:
How can we explain this second century drang nach Rom? May there not have been, common to [the orthodox and the heterodox alike], that in some way or another, the Roman see had an inherent right to pronounce an opinion on their doctrine, and moreover their decision, i.e. whether favourable or adverse, would seriously affect the prospects of success in obtaining for their teaching general acceptance by the Church at large?. . . If the attitude of the Roman see was unfavourable . . . the teacher responsible for the condemned doctrine . . . usually stayed on in Rome . . . and in extreme cases managed to procure the election of a rival bishop of Rome. . . Thus, in a negative no less then in a positive direction there are strong indicators that de facto if not de jure the Roman see was being treated as the universal referee and its doctrine as the norm. [9]
Fr. Afanassieff made the following notations about the famous passages of Irenaeus’ work (in speaking of St. Irenaeus of Lyons work Against All Heresies, where he refers to the priority of the Roman Church). The notations confirm the observations of Dr. Lawson and Dr. Jalland about the role of the Roman See as being pre-eminent from the earliest of times:
This passage in Irenaeus [from Against Heresies 3:4:1] illuminates the meaning of his remarks about the Church of Rome: if there are disputes in a local church, that church should have recourse to the Roman Church, for there is contained the Tradition which is preserved by all the churches.
Rome's vocation [in the pre-Nicene period] consisted in playing the part of arbiter, settling contentious issues by witnessing to the truth or falsity of whatever doctrine was put before them. Rome was truly the center where all converged if they wanted their doctrine to be accepted by the conscience of the Church. They could not count upon success except on one condition -- that the Church of Rome had received their doctrine -- and refusal from Rome predetermined the attitude the other churches would adopt. There are numerous cases of this recourse to Rome... [10]
We see the development of a doctrine in its early stages precisely as we would expect to see them if the doctrine of Roman Primacy was legitimate. Like all doctrines, it would develop only from the cauldron of controversy when challenged. The challenges would come either by loyal sons confused as to the exact scope of the endowment (St. Cyprian comes to mind here) or by heretics who explicitly or implicitly denied it. Shortly after Irenaeus wrote the passages spoken of by Fr. Afanassieff (within 10-20 years in fact) there was an incident where his theology would be put to the test involving not a doctrinal matter but one of discipline. In framing the subject, Eusebius of Caesaria’s Church History will be cited on the matter (Book V Chapter 24):
But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him…
"Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead? All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith…
For those greater than I have said 'We ought to obey God rather than man'." He then writes of all the bishops who were present with him and thought as he did…Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. AND THEY BESOUGHT HIM TO CONSIDER THE THINGS OF PEACE, AND OF NEIGHBORLY UNITY AND LOVE. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom. [11]
It is interesting that the authority Pope Victor is assuming here is not what is being questioned but instead it is his use of it. In appealing to Pope Victor, notice the approach used by Bishop Polycrates. He appealed to a tradition [custom] of the East for the manner in which they celebrated the Easter feast. In doing this Bishop Polycrates was not claiming to be making an appeal here to his own authority ala what Protestants to varying degrees do today. It is also interesting that Bishop Polycrates referenced Acts 5:29 in this dispute which was what Peter and the Apostles said to the High Priest when they were questioned by him before the entire Sanhedren. There is a strong possibility that Polycrates was drawing a parallel between Pope Victor I and the Jewish High Priest. It is also worth noting the words of St. Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons who mediated between the two parties here and notice how he approached this dispute in speaking to Pope St. Victor on the matter:
Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which thou now rulest. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus… NONE WERE EVER CAST OUT ON ACCOUNT OF THIS FORM; but the presbyters before thee who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter…But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church. [12]
Sir Nicholas Cheetham noted that from the beginning of his reign "Victor was chiefly concerned with asserting the growing authority of Rome in matters of doctrine and discipline" (A History of the Popes, pg. 12). Perhaps the most interesting take on this matter is from the liberal Protestant scholar Dr. Adolph Harnack who made the following observations on the matter:
[Victor] ventured by an edict (one might say a pre-emptory edict) with reference to the arrangement of ecclesiastical feasts to proclaim the rule of the Roman practice as a general rule of the Church and to announce that any local church would be excluded as heretical from the fellowship of the one Church, if it did not adopt the Roman arrangement. How could Victor have ventured upon such an edict (still less to put it into actual effect, even if he had the strength to do so) unless it was established and recognized that in the decisive question of faith it was eminently the function of the Roman church to determine the conditions of the "common unity"? How could Victor have made such an unheard-of demand to the independent local churches, unless, as Bishop of Rome, he had been recognized as the guardian of the "common unity"? [13]
In a footnote Harnack added "Irenaeus too seems to object not to Victor’s behaviour as such, but his behaviour in this instance". What should be rather obvious now is that there were no recorded claims by anyone that the Bishop of Rome did not have the authority to act in the manner that he did. No evidence can be brought up in these or any other recorded instances where the prerogatives of Rome were questioned. If the jurisdictional primacy of Rome had been an innovation then someone would have opposed it, as the Fathers were not slow in doing with innovations in the Church when they cropped up from time to time. However, the Primacy of Rome and the claims of its bishops was no secret or innovation. If it was, then not one single patristic opponent of the decisions of Rome ever claimed that Rome lacked the authority to render the decisive judgment on matters of doctrine or discipline. This is significant, because there were Fathers who had both doctrinal and disciplinary disputes with the Roman See from time to time - including some of its staunchest supporters (such as Irenaeus and Cyprian). To again cite the work of Sir Nicholas Cheetham on the period of the late second and early third centuries:
The government of the church in Rome had been monarchial, as opposed to collective, since its earliest days. Whether or not the famous Tu es Petris text (Matthew xvi. 18) was in fact introduced into the Gospel during the third century, the tradition of Peter and Paul was radiating from its Roman centre with increasing strength. [14]
Another interesting element that applies to the subject of Roman primacy and jurisdiction was the actions of the then-Montanist heretic Tertullian (this was a few years after the latter’s fall). Shortly after Pope Callistus I released a decree lessening the penance burdens on those guilty of serious sins, the African heretic had a few choice words to say about the incident. He mockingly referred to Pope St. Callistus (r. 217-222) as "the Pontifex Maximus’ issuing a ‘pre-emptory edict" to grant a "largesse". (These terms were associated with the Roman Emperor and his official acts.) It would seem that Tertullian by the biting sarcasm used in De Pudicitia (c. 220 AD) was noticing in the actions undertaken by Pope Callistus a form of authority being assumed over the whole Church. Why else would he (by this time a Montanist in Africa) even care what the Bishop of Rome said or did unless the actions of the Pope were ones which had far ranging consequences??? Dr. Harnack applies a very interesting interpretation of the evidence, which is worth considering:
Callistus was the first who emphasized the consequences [of the supposition that Paul and Peter founded the church at Rome]. If Tertullian names him scornfully ‘pontifex maximus’, ‘episcopus episcoporum’, ‘benedictus papa’, and ‘apostolicus’, these [appellations] are so many allusions to the fact that Callistus has already claimed a primacy for himself, or rather that he has annexed to his person as bishop the primacy which the Roman church possessed…From the motivation, in so far as Callistus appealed (for the first time in history) to Matt. xvi. 18ff to justify his action; and from Tertullian’s opposition, for Tertullian treats this edict not as directed locally to Rome, but one which is pregnant with consequences for all of Christendom. [15]
Rome’s judgment that a doctrine or practice was acceptable or that it was unacceptable seems to be something that even non-Catholics on other continents (Tertullian was in Africa) took into serious consideration. This trend started from the period of the late second-early third century (and quite possibly even earlier then that). However, it should be pointed out that Dr. Harnack’s assertions that Pope St. Callistus I was the first to explicitly use the argument about Rome’s foundation upon Peter and Paul cannot be proven. (B.C. Butler felt that Victor might have been the first.) Nor can it be proven that Callistus was the first to base the Roman claim on Matt. 16:16ff. To claim that this is the case is to argue from silence, which is an ineffective way of establishing an argument. For that matter, it cannot be proven that Callistus even based his decision on the Petrine promise (though it seems probable that he did). Be that as it may, Victor and Callistus (and later Pope St. Stephen I) all appear to have acted as if they had authority over their fellow bishops, even those that were quite a ways from them geographically. Victor’s actions were directed towards the Asian churches while the actions of Callistus and Stephen met with opposition from Africa. If not for a form of Apostolic authority, what could they have based their claims to authority upon and why was the claim of authority itself not challenged??? Catholic author Stephen Ray summed it up quite tersely when he noted that "[I]f the jurisdictional primacy of Rome had been a matter of self-aggrandizement, someone would have opposed it as they opposed other innovations and heresies in the Church. The silence is profound" (Upon This Rock pgs. 12-13 as cited in the authors essay The Tinkling Cymbal of Mr. Critic circa. 2000).

In every case, it was the prudence of the Bishop or his use of the authority he was claiming that was called into question but not the validity of the claims themselves. St. Irenaeus of Lyons it is clear had no problems with the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome. His problem was with what he felt was Pope Victor I being too dictatorial in the application of his authority over the churches in matters of discipline. Tertullian at the time of his disagreements with Pope Callistus was no longer a member of the Church; so his is more of a "hostile witness" if you will. It is nevertheless significant in pointing out the importance that non-Catholics attached to the pronouncements of the Roman Church from as far back as the early third century. Like St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian it is quite clear had no problem with the Bishop of Rome exercising a wide span of authority. In the case of St. Cyprian he had urged Pope Stephen (before falling out of favour with him) to send to Gaul, excommunicate the Bishop of Arles, and supply a successor (cf. Epistle 68, 3). So it seems that Bishop Cyprian’s problems were not with Pope Stephen exercising a wide span of authority (as Arles was in France about fiven hundred miles from Rome) but only when the Bishop of Rome opposed his (Cyprian’s) positions. However, before the controversy with Stephen (and even afterwards) Cyprian is still an effective witness, both in a positive as well as in a negative way, of the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome. In speaking of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Fr. Afanassieff makes the following observations, which bear noting:

According to Cyprian, every bishop occupies Peter's throne (the Bishop of Rome among others) but the See of Peter is Peter's throne -par excellence-. The Bishop of Rome is the direct heir of Peter, whereas the others are heirs only indirectly, and sometimes only by the mediation of Rome. Hence Cyprian's insistence that the Church of Rome is the root and matrix of the Catholic Church [Ecclesiae catholicae matricem et radicem]. The subject is treated in so many of Cyprian's passages that there is no doubt: to him, the See of Rome was -ecclesia principalis unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est- [the Principal Church from which the unity of the priesthood/episcopacy has its rise]. [16]
St. Cyprian says almost the exact same thing in his own words when speaking of the temerity of the Novatian schismatics of his time to appeal to the Church of Rome as this interpretation of Fr. Afanassieff’s. It is further interesting to note what Cyprian himself stated about the faith of the Church of Rome and how it factors into what the Church of Rome has always claimed for herself:
After such things as these, moreover, they still dare--a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics--to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. [17]
How could faithlessness have no access to the Church of Rome??? It is a rather strange statement unless it referred somehow to the Church of Rome having some sort of special function in the church. The decisions of Rome predetermining the attitudes and actions of the other churches is evidence of a form of universal jurisdiction being utilized a long time before Nicaea. This is even admitted by the renowned Orthodox scholar Fr. Alexander Schmemann (albeit by implication). The following quote is from the book Primacy of Peter again this time on the topic of universal primacy. Fr. Alexander Schmemann was dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary for over twenty years where he taught church history and liturgical theology. His observations are very revealing and (this author has found in dialogues with Orthodox apologists) to be one hundred percent on the money as far as how Orthodox controversialists view the primacy of Rome:
Finally we come to the highest and ultimate form of primacy: universal primacy. An age-long anti-Roman prejudice has led some Orthodox canonists simply to deny the existence of such primacy in the past or the need for it in the present. But an objective study of the canonical tradition cannot fail to establish beyond any doubt that, along with local 'centers of agreement' or primacies, the Church has also known a universal primacy...
It is impossible to deny that, even before the appearance of local primacies, the Church from the first days of her existence possessed an ecumenical center of unity and agreement. In the apostolic and the Judaeo-Christian period, it was the Church of Jerusalem, and later the Church of Rome -- "presiding in agape," according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. This formula and the definition of the universal primacy contained in it have been aptly analyzed by Fr. Afanassieff and we need not repeat his argument here. Neither can we quote here all the testimonies of the Fathers and the Councils unanimously acknowledging Rome as the senior church and the center of ecumenical agreement.
IT IS ONLY FOR THE SAKE OF BIASED POLEMICS THAT ONE CAN IGNORE THESE TESTIMONIES, THEIR CONSENSUS AND SIGNIFICANCE. It has happened, however, that if Roman historians and theologians have always interpreted this evidence in juridical terms, thus falsifying its real meaning, their Orthodox opponents have systematically belittled the evidence itself. Orthodox theology is still awaiting a truly Orthodox evaluation of universal primacy in the first millennium of church history -- AN EVALUATION FREE FROM POLEMICAL OR APOLOGETIC EXAGGERATIONS. [18]
It is certainly possible (and most likely probable) that there are multiple ways of interpreting the evidences that are complementary of one another in some form or another. However, interpreting the evidence in a juridical manner is not necessarily a falsification of the real meaning of universal primacy. (Though in and of itself such an analysis would be an incomplete one.) That Orthodox apologists belittle the evidence is an understatement but this admission by a renowned Orthodox scholar such as Fr. Schmemann is significant. The foundation and underlying logic for this universal primacy was explained in the following manner by Russian Orthodox convert Vladimir Soloviev:
All Orthodox Christians are agreed that the apostolic power of binding and loosing was not conferred upon the Twelve as private individuals or in the sense of a temporary privilege, but that it is the genuine source and origin of a perpetual priestly authority which has descended from the Apostles to their successors in the hierarchy, the bishops and priests of the Universal Church. But if this is true, then neither can the two former attributes connected particularly with St. Peter in a still more solemn and significant manner be individual or accidental prerogatives; the less so, in that it was with the first of these prerogatives that our Lord expressly connected the permanence and stability of His Church in its future struggle against the powers of evil.
If the power of binding and loosing conferred on the Apostles is not a mere metaphor nor a purely personal and temporary attribute, if it is on the contrary the actual living germ of a universal permanent institution comprising the Church's whole existence, how can St. Peter's own special prerogatives, announced in such explicit and solemn terms, be regarded as barren metaphors or as personal and transitory privileges? Ought not they also to refer to some fundamental and permanent institution, of which the historic personality of Simon Bar-Jona is but the outstanding and typical representative? The God-Man did not establish ephemeral institutions. In His chosen disciples He saw, through and beyond all that was mortal and individual, the enduring principles and types of His work. What He said to the college of the Apostles included the whole priestly order, the teaching Church in its entirety. The sublime words which He addressed to Peter alone created in the person of this one Apostle the undivided sovereign authority possessed by the Universal Church throughout the whole of its life and development in future ages.
The fact that Christ did not see fit to make the formal foundation of His Church and the guarantee of its permanence dependent on the common authority of all the Apostles (for He did not say to the apostolic college: "On you I will build My Church") surely goes to show that our Lord did not regard the episcopal and priestly order, represented by the Apostles in common, as sufficient in itself to form the impregnable foundation of the Universal Church in her inevitable struggle against the gates of hell. In founding His visible Church Jesus was thinking primarily of the struggle against evil and in order to ensure for His creation that unity which is strength, He crowned the hierarchy with a single, central institution, absolutely indivisible and independent, possessing in its own right the fullness of authority and of promise: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it". [19]

While no one would deny that this function was not as explicit in apostolic times as it would be later, the passage from Matthew is a prophecy of future events. While there is an ample NT cumulative witness to the primacy of the Apostle Peter among the original twelve, it was not as much to the Apostles as to those who would succeed them that this promise was made. As long as there were Apostles around or disciples of the Apostles, such a function would for the most part not be needed. However, the further away from Apostolic times the Church developed, the greater the need for this stability would be. As needed it would manifest itself albeit not without "growing pains" if you will as the climate of the Church became gradually acclimated to a greater frequency of such interventions. We have traced out a few of the significant steps in the growth of this function already through the mid third century. For those who pin all of the Church’s problems on Constantine, this is still over sixty years from the time of Constantine’s Edict and about seventy-five years before the General Council of Nicaea. However, it was not only to those of the Church and its dissenters who begin becoming more and more aware of this function in an explicit sense.

It is also significant that over sixty years before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire that the secular authorities in Rome were concerned about the power of the Roman Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-third century praised the courage of Pope Cornelius in "sitting fearless at Rome in the bishop’s chair" during the persecutions of the pagan Emperor Decius (r. 249-251). According to Cyprian (writing from Africa) Decius was "issuing unbridled threats against God’s bishops, and was much less angered to hear that a rival of his imperial power was appearing then that of a bishop of God was being set up at Rome" (Epistle 51,9). Likewise in the 270’s, a dispute between bickering parties at Antioch for what would appear to be the episcopal residence and cathedral of the See of Antioch cropped up and this dispute was referred to the Emperor for judgment. This was at a time when the persecutions had ceased and the Emperor was one reasonably favourable to the Christians and the laws against the Christians were not being enforced. The Emperor (Aurelian) in pronouncing judgment assigned possession "to those to whom the bishops of Italy and the city of the Romans should write". The Church historian Eusebius from Caesaria (in the East) believed that this move by the Emperor was "very right" (Church History, Book VII).

In short, the evidence of the authority in the Church of the Roman See was even known to the secular leaders of Rome by the-mid third century (if not earlier). It also appears that Rome’s presiding bishop was seen to be analogous within the Church to the position that the Emperor had in the temporal sphere. This writer doubts that our Orthodox brethren would claim that the Emperor merely had a "primacy of honour but not jurisdiction" throughout the Roman Empire right. Considering that the Lord Himself stated that "whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all" (Mark 10:44), this whole idea of "primacy of honour" seems to go against the explicit words of Our Lord Himself.

[This essay was excerpted from a longer work Christian Unity and the Role of Authority (c. 2001)]


[1] Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff: "The Primacy of Peter" Ch. 4, pg. 92 (c. 1992)

[2] Dr. T.G. Jalland: "The Church and the Papacy" (c. 1944) cited in The Church and Infallibility by B.C. Butler pgs. 129-130 (c. 1954)

[3] Sir Nicholas Cheetham: "A History of the Popes" Ch. 1, pg. 9 (c. 1992)

[4] Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff: "The Primacy of Peter" Ch. 4, pgs. 125-126 (c. 1992)

[5] Dr. Ludwig Ott: "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma", pg. 283 (c. 1960)

[6] Dr. Adolph Harnack: "Dogmengeschichte", 4th ed., p. 486 (c. 1904) cited in B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility pg. 140 (c. 1954)

[7] Sir Nicholas Cheetham: "A History of the Popes" Ch. 1, pgs. 11-12 (c. 1992)

[8] Dr. John Lawson: "The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus" (c. 1948) cited in The Church and Infallibility by B.C. Butler pgs. 136-137 (c. 1954)

[9] Dr. T.G. Jalland: "The Church and the Papacy" (c. 1944) as cited in B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility pgs. 132-133 (c. 1954)

[10] Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff: "The Primacy of Peter" Ch. 4, pgs. 126-127 (c. 1992)

[11] Eusebius of Caesarea: "Church History" Book V Ch. 24 (320 AD)

[12] Eusebius of Caesarea: "Church History" Book V Ch. 24 (320 AD)

[13] Dr. Adolph Harnack: "Dogmengeschichte", 4th ed., pp. 489f (c. 1904) cited in B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility pg. 140 (c. 1954)

[14] Sir Nicholas Cheetham: "A History of the Popes" Ch. 1, pgs. 12-13 (c. 1992)

[15] Dr. Adolph Harnack: "Dogmengeschichte", 4th ed., pp. 492 (c. 1904) cited in B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility pg. 143 (c. 1954)

[16] Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff: "The Primacy of Peter" Ch. 4, pgs. 126-127 (c. 1992)

[17] St. Cyprian: To Cornelius, Epistle 54/59:14 (A.D. 252), in ANF, V:344*

[18] Fr. Alexander Schmemann: "The Primacy of Peter" Ch. 5, pgs 163-164 (c. 1992)

[19] Vladimir Soloviev: "Russia and the Universal Church", pgs 86-87 (c. 1889)

Additional Notes:

The citations from Orthodox scholars Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff and Fr. Alexander Schmemann were taken from the compilation "The Primacy of Peter : Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church" edited by John Meyendorff - St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (c. 1992)

The citations from B.C. Butler were taken from his book "The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged Salmon", Sheed and Ward New York, 1954

The citations of Sir Nicholas Cheetham were taken from his book "A History of the Popes" from Dorsett Press (c. 1992) 

The citations of the Church Fathers that were not taken from Jurgen’s work which are marked with a * symbol were obtained at Joe Gallegos' Corunum Apologetics web-site which specializes in Patristic studies:

The citation from Ludwig Ott was taken from the theology manual "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" Tan Publishing, Fourth Ed. (c. 1960)

The citations from Eusebius of Caesaria’s multi-volume series "Church History" were taken from book 5 of the series located at the following link:

The citations from Vladimir Soloviev were taken from his book "Russia and the Universal Church" - a substantial portion of which is available at the following link:

©2001, "The Ante-Nicene Development of Papal Primacy", written by I. Shawn McElhinney. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

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