The Petrine Fact, Part 1: Introduction

by SDG

in The Pope

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Note: This series is a work in progress. New material is being added, existing posts are being revised and expanded, and works used are in the process of being referenced. Please refer to the live blog pages for the latest versions.


Saint Peter, 5th or 6th century icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai.

In my home library (overflowing, alas, the eight-foot bookshelves lining my home-office walls into double rows on the shelves and spills out into stacks covering the floor) are a couple dozen or so books by Eastern Orthodox writers, at least two of which are dedicated to the exploring the meaning of Peter’s primacy and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

Some Protestants are surprised to discover this, because they have the idea that the Eastern Orthodox “deny the primacy” of Peter and/or of Rome; but this is not the case. The nature and applicability of the Petrine and Roman primacies is certainly a subject of controversy, not only between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, but also to an extent among different schools of Eastern Orthodox thought; but the fact of Peter’s preeminence both in the New Testament and in the tradition of the early Church, as well as the special role of Rome in the early Church, is so clear that there is little question of denying it altogether.

In this series of posts I will briefly explore the New Testament basis for Peter’s preeminence or primacy in the New Testament. I call this “the Petrine fact” because I see the fact of Peter’s preeminence or primacy as an intractable datum to be accounted for, regardless what theology or ecclesiology one subscribes to.

My intent for now is to maintain the following:

  1. Peter’s preeminence and leadership role among the Twelve is seen in many different ways throughout the New Testament evidence, not just in one or two books (possibly indicating the special interest of a particular community), but in every major strand of NT tradition (Pauline, Synoptic as well as Acts, Johannine, and, within the Synoptic tradition, in “triple tradition” [all three Synoptics], “double tradition” [Matthew and Luke], and material unique to Matthew, Mark and Luke).

  2. This primacy is different in kind from the preeminences of other prominent apostles (i.e., James and John on the one hand, Paul on the other). It is not merely a function of, e.g., Peter’s outspoken personality, or some other informal consideration. It is rooted in the choice of Jesus Christ, who indicated his intention for Peter to have a unique foundational role in the new People of God, a representative headship among the apostles, and a uniquely privileged relationship to Jesus himself in the kingdom.

  3. The Petrine fact, and in particular Peter’s role as rock on which the church is built in Matthew 16, has for some time been widely recognized by Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox scholarship. Major challenges remain in unpacking how this Petrine fact is best understood historically and ecclesiologically, what significance it is understood to have for the early church, the church Fathers of the East and West, the Great Schism, and the Protestant Reformation — questions that have been debated for centuries and which have perhaps remain to be fully explored. (At this point I must resist the temptation to get sidetracked with important caveats for my Orthodox and Protestant brethren; bear with me.) But the Petrine fact itself I take to be, as it were, bedrock and ecumenical New Testament data.

In coming posts I will explore some of the biblical evidence regarding the Petrine fact, and perhaps try to offer some light on how it is to be understood.

Added: Bibliography (in progress)

Below is a partial list in progress of sources used and (slowly) referenced in this series. In particular, Joseph Ratzinger’s essay “The Primacy of Peter and the Unity of the Church” provided the template for the overall strategy of this series and for many of the individual insights.

  • Caragounis, Chrys C, Peter and the Rock (W. de Gruyter, 1990).
  • Chamblin, J. Knox, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Baker, 1989).
  • Clément, Olivier, You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy (New City Press, 2003).
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph, “Aramaic Kepha’ and Peter’s Name in the New Testament,” To Advance the Gospel (W. B. Eerdmans, 1998 – 2nd ed), pp. 112–120.
  • Kasper, Walter (ed.), The Petrine Ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue (Newman Press, 2006).
  • Meyendorff, John (ed.), The Primacy of Peter (St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1992; first English ed. 1963).
  • Nichols, Aidan, Rome and the Eastern Churches (2nd ed.) (Ignatius Press, 2010).
  • Ratzinger, Joseph, “The Primacy of Peter and the Unity of the Church,” Called to Communion (Ignatius Press, 1996), pp. 112–120.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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{ 26 comments }

Dr. Eric September 7, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Jimmy,
Pretty much every Orthodox person I have talked with doesn’t deny the Primacy of Peter and by extension the Bishop of Rome, it’s the Supremacy of the Pope as defined at Vatican I that has them up in arms.
The Pope is seen as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or having the Vice President’s role in the Senate. It’s a nice primatial title, but nothing more.
I’m afraid one would have to show how the Pope has always had supremacy in the Church to convince the Orthodox. Primacy is easily seen in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

SDG September 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Dr. Eric,
SDG here (not Jimmy!).

“Pretty much every Orthodox person I have talked with doesn’t deny the Primacy of Peter and by extension the Bishop of Rome, it’s the Supremacy of the Pope as defined at Vatican I that has them up in arms.”

It’s a bit more difficult than that (it’s not like everything was fine prior to Vatican I), but certainly the Vatican I definition hasn’t helped matters, ecumenically speaking.

“The Pope is seen as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or having the Vice President’s role in the Senate. It’s a nice primatial title, but nothing more.”

Once again, it’s a bit more complicated than that (different Orthodox schools of thought accord different levels of significance to the Roman primacy), but this dynamic is certainly part of the mix.

“I’m afraid one would have to show how the Pope has always had supremacy in the Church to convince the Orthodox. “

Well, that’s not necessarily the only way forward, or even the best. I would say it’s actually less a matter of squaring early church history with Vatican I, than squaring Vatican I with early church history — and recontextualizing both into a larger model capable of taking Church unity forward. Easy to say, hard to do. But with God all things are possible.

Oneil September 7, 2009 at 3:37 pm

“I’m afraid one would have to show how the Pope has always had supremacy in the Church to convince the Orthodox. ”
Well, that’s not necessarily the only way forward, or even the best. I would say it’s actually less a matter of squaring early church history with Vatican I, than squaring Vatican I with early church history — and recontextualizing both into a larger model capable of taking Church unity forward. Easy to say, hard to do. But with God all things are possible.

That sounds a lot like historical revisionism. SDG, you should run for politics.

George G. September 7, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Good grief, Oneil. What does that even mean?
Nice posts SDG. I look forward to reading the next few.

SDG September 7, 2009 at 4:24 pm

“That sounds a lot like historical revisionism. SDG, you should run for politics. “

To a jaundiced eye, that is how it looks. In the same way, a skeptic would sneer at your efforts to square apparently contradictory biblical accounts of how Judas died (on the one hand, he “hanged himself”; on the other, he “fell headlong and his bowels gushed open”), or how King Saul met David (on the one hand, he took David into his service to play the harp, and armed him to fight Goliath; on the other, Saul seems never to have laid eyes on David immediately after the death of Goliath).
You are convinced, in faith, that scripture does not contradict scripture, and you will not be greatly troubled that the explanation that you find reasonable and satisfying is dismissed as ridiculous special pleading by the skeptic before he has even heard it.
Likewise, I am convinced, in faith, that the dogmatic definition of Vatican II does not contradict the faith of the early Church, and I am not greatly troubled that the explanation that I would accept is dismissed as historical revisionism by you before you have even heard it.
Your jaundice has been noted. Please do not feel the need to contribute further unless you have an actual constructive comment to make (unlikely).

Dr. Eric September 7, 2009 at 4:38 pm

From what I’ve read, the rope broke and Judas then fell and his guts burst out.

Oneil September 7, 2009 at 4:44 pm

SDG,
I would love to hear how to ‘square early church history with Vatican I’. To say it can be done without proof rings empty.

Dr. Eric September 7, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Steven,
Sorry, I didn’t pay attention enough to note that you wrote the article. :-O

SDG September 7, 2009 at 6:14 pm

“From what I’ve read, the rope broke and Judas then fell and his guts burst out.”

Which is fine, but neither account mentions a rope breaking. That’s an inference from two seemingly disparate accounts, and to the skeptical ear it smacks of special pleading. You would never guess from Luke’s account that hanging was involved, or from Matthew’s account that he “fell” anywhere or burst open.
Look at it this way. Imagine Oneil’s evil(er) twin, who feels toward Christianity as Oneil feels toward Catholicism. What do you think he’s going to make of an explanation like “the rope broke”? My point is: We’ve got the exact same thing with Oneil when he says:

“I would love to hear how to ‘square early church history with Vatican I’. To say it can be done without proof rings empty.”

For the second and last time, your jaundice has been noted. After I am done discussing the Petrine fact, I may add some thoughts toward Catholic-Orthodox dialogue on the papacy, and you can add your obligatory sneer or two at that time.

Oneil September 7, 2009 at 6:44 pm

fair enough :-) !

Dr. Eric September 8, 2009 at 11:20 am

Steven,
The Chief Justice analogy might be the most that the more ecumenically minded Orthodox concede. Others would have the Pope on the same level as the bishop of Peoria, IL. There are some Orthodox who insist that the Latin Church would have to drop the Novus Ordo and return to the Extraordinary Form (EF), insert an explicit epiclesis in the Roman Canon of the EF, repudiate the Gregorian Calendar, and use leavened bread at the Mass.
So, yes there are wide differences in opinion on the Orthodox side. To which they will point out that there are wide differences of opinion on the Catholic side (unfortunately, with all of the un-orthodox clergy still in power they’d be right.)

Papist September 8, 2009 at 6:02 pm

“There are some Orthodox who insist that the Latin Church would have to drop the Novus Ordo and return to the Extraordinary Form”
There’s a suggestion some of us Romanists can get behind!

Hans September 13, 2009 at 10:32 pm

As I said after part 4, SDG, it’s a fine summary.
Also after part 4 I said I couldn’t remember any contrary arguments, but now I have. You wrote in this part, “The Petrine fact, and in particular Peter’s role as rock on which the church is built in Matthew 16, has for some time been widely recognized by Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox scholarship.” However, as reasonable as that is, I have come across a fellow who says he’s Lutheran (my best guess is Missouri Synod) who makes the typical rock/pebble argument about Matthew 16, but he also argues that the ‘rock’ in question there is really Peter’s confession, not Peter himself. I’ve never been able to get him to explain to me why Peter is then called ‘Peter’ and even ‘Cephas’ but only occasionally ‘Simon’.
While I can see how someone would be able to argue that Peter’s confession is also the rock, I don’t see from the text how it could only be that. Do you, or anyone else, have any suggestions for a counter-argument? (Not that I think he’s willing to be convinced just now, but that’s not up to me.)

SDG September 14, 2009 at 1:41 am

Hans, Matthew 16 is coming. :-)
BTW, it almost sounds like you’re saying that your Lutheran friend argues that neither Petros nor petra applies to Peter himself. He can’t be saying that, surely, can he? Surely, surely no one would say that “I say to you, you are Petros” means “I say to you, your confession is a pebble”???

Hans September 14, 2009 at 1:34 pm

No, you got it first time, SDG. That’s what I got from what he said also; I tried to get him to explain how that worked, but he cited some reference that he said proved it, which I don’t recall just now, and has refused to discuss it since.

SDG September 14, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Wow. Your friend sounds really, um, confused. As in, I’ve never even heard of that confusion confused.

Hans September 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Yes, which make it hard to explain things to, though he does seem fairly well educated. There does seem to be a certain attitude of defining his positions contrary to the Catholic position.

bill912 October 10, 2009 at 7:06 am

“another shill for the most evil corrupt organization in the last 2000 years of human history.(sic)”
Care to cite some evidence, or are hate and bigotry all you have?
“Peter was blasted by Paul…”etc
So?
“How about studying the original languages Jimmy it’s clear in the Koine that your interpretation is wrong.”(sic)
Evidence? If I were as inept in my native language as you appear to be (lack of capitalization and punctuation marks), I don’t think I’d be implying that I had any expertise in an ancient dead language.
BTW, Einstein, the author of this series is SDG, not Jimmy, as shown above.

SDG October 10, 2009 at 7:09 am

Robert: I would not even call you “such an idiot,” and you dare to speak that way of Peter? I’m sure he forgives you, but do you not fear God? Do you not read in the Gospels that he who calls his brother a fool is liable to judgment? Do you not regard Peter as your brother? Do your tribal prejudices override all obligations of charity and reason?
It’s obvious you haven’t made the slightest effort to read and understand what you contemptuously malign. Your blinkered ignorance, smug carelessness and apathy are probably an insurmountable obstacle to any communication. I wish there were something I could say to rouse you from the intellectual slumber of your complacency, since you are loved by God and are made for something better than where you are right now.

bill912 October 10, 2009 at 7:10 am

Okay, what happened to the post I responded to that was posted a little earlier today? (Cue the “Twilight Zone” theme).

SDG October 10, 2009 at 9:40 am

bill912, looks like a higher power decided to enforce Da Rulz.

Arun Tom October 19, 2009 at 8:00 am

In 2006, the Major Arch Bishop of Syro Malabar Catholic Church Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil said, “What is the authority of Rome? On what basis, Rome is appointing bishops all over the world? From where it has got all these powers? In the first centuries, there was a dispute between Rome and Antioch who is head and superior.”
Also The great American Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons said, “Peter went to Antioch and established the church there and served as the bishop there. What is the authority of Rome?”

SDG October 19, 2009 at 8:15 am

Arun Tom: You’re welcome to comment if you have anything substantial to add to the discussion.
Your present post does not add to the discussion, for three reasons. First, you merely cut and pasted a post from another discussion board. Second, the quotations you cite are of at best marginal interest on the subject of Petrine succession. Third, this series is not (yet) about the Petrine succession, but about the Petrine primacy. Again, if you have anything substantial to add to the discussion, please feel free to comment.

bill912 October 19, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Before he does so, he might want to source his quotes; some posters on this blog have the quaint old habit of asking for evidence.

The Pachyderminator October 19, 2009 at 6:36 pm

SDG, now that your attention is directed to this reactivated combox, can you answer my question from the combox in Part 7? I’d rather get a note telling me I have not added to the discussion than get nothing at all.
PachyD

SDG October 19, 2009 at 7:42 pm

PachyD: Your post was thoughtful, and requires a thoughtful answer. Arun Tom’s was not, and did not. I started to write a reply to you, but five minutes later I hadn’t finished and didn’t have time to go further. My reply to Arun took less than five minutes and so got posted.
I hope the moral is clear: If you want replies, don’t be so thoughtful.
No, seriously, I’ll try to address your question. But not tonight. I’ve run out of time again.

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