Petrine Primacy in Sacred Scripture & the Early Church

Saint Peter and the Keys copy“As long as Christ, ‘the Master and the Lord’ (John xiii. 13), remained visibly on earth, there was no room or need for any other visible head. But since He willed that His kingdom should be visible, he was obliged, when He ascended into heaven, to designate a vicegerent on earth. ‘Should any one say that Christ is the one Head and the one Shepherd, the one Spouse of the one Church, he does not give an adequate reply. It is clear, indeed, that Christ is the author of grace in the sacraments of the Church; it is Christ Himself who baptizes; it is He who forgives sins; it is He who is the true Priest, who offered Himself upon the altar of the Cross; and it is by His power that His Body is daily consecrated upon the altar; and, still, because He was not visibly present to all the faithful, He made choice of ministers through whom the aforesaid sacraments should be dispensed to the faithful…For the same reason, therefore, because He was about to withdraw His visible presence from the Church, it was necessary that He should appoint some one in His place to have the charge of the Universal Church. Hence, before His ascension He said to Peter, ‘Feed My sheep’” (St. Thomas, Contra Gentiles, lib. iv. Cc. 74, 76)[1]

Scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ chose one of the twelve to stand in his place as visible head of His Church, and that the person selected for this office was Simon Peter.

The Holy Gospel of Saint Matthew reveals the promise of delegated authority to Peter,

“And Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi: and he asked his disciples saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is? But they said: Some John the Baptist, and others Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am. Simon Peter answering said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed are thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father, who is in heaven. And I say to 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 to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”[2]

The lengthy commentary from the Douay-Rheims Bible offers a considerably clear explanation of these passages of Sacred Scripture (original emphasis):

Ver. 18. And I say to thee, and tell thee why I before declared, (John i. 42) that thou shouldst be called Peter, for thou art constituted the rock upon which, as a foundation, I will build my Church, and that so firmly, as not to suffer the gates (i.e. the powers) of hell to prevail against its foundation; because if they overturn its foundation, (i.e. thee and thy successors) they will overturn also the Church that rests upon it. Christ therefore here promises to Peter, that he and his successors should be to the end, as long as the Church should last, its supreme pastors and princes.

T. – In the Syriac tongue, which is that which Jesus Christ spoke, there is no difference of genders, as there is in Latin, between petra, a rock, and Petrus, Peter; hence, in the original language the allusion was both more natural and more simple.

V. – Thou art Peter; and upon this rock (i.e. upon thee, according to the literal and general exposition of the ancient Fathers) I will build my church. It is true S. Augustine, in one or two places, thus expounds these words, and upon this rock (i.e. upon myself) or upon this rock, which Peter hath confessed: yet he owns that he had also given the other interpretation, by which Peter himself was the rock. Some Fathers have also expounded it, upon the faith, which Peter confessed; but then they take not faith, as separated from the person of Peer, but on Peter, as holding the true faith. No one questions but that Christ himself is the great foundation stone, the chief corner-stone, as S. Paul tells the Ephesians; (C ii. v. 20) but it is also certain, that all the apostles may be called foundation-stones of the Church, as represented Apoc. Xxi. 14. In the mean time, S. Peter (called therefore Cephas, a rock) was the chief and chief foundation stone among the apostles, on whom Christ promised to build his Church.

Wi. – Thou art Peter. As S. Peter, by divine revelation, here made a solemn profession of his faith of the divinity of Christ, so in recompense of this faith and profession, our Lord here declares to him the dignity to which he is pleased to raise him: viz. that he, to whom he had already given the name of Peter, signifying a rock, (John i. 42) should be a rock indeed, of invincible strength, for the support of the building of the church; in which building he should be next to Christ himself, the chief foundation stone, in quality of chief pastor, ruler, and governor; and should have accordingly all fullness of ecclesiastical power, signified by the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Upon this rock. The words of Christ to Peter, spoken in the vulgar language of the Jews, which our Lord made use of, were the same as if he had said in English, Thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my church. So that, by the plain course of the words, Peter is here declared to be the rock, upon which the church was to be built; Christ himself being both the principal foundation and founder of the same. Where also note, that Christ by building his house, that is, his Church, upon a rock, has thereby secured it against all storms and floods, like the wise builder. Matt. vii. 24, 25

The gates of hell. That is, the powers of darkness, and whatever Satan can do, either by himself or his agents. For as the Church is here likened to a house, or fortress, built on a rock; so the adverse powers are likened to a contrary house or fortress, the gates of which, i.e. the whole strength, and all the efforts it can make, will never be able to prevail over the city or Church of Christ. By this promise we are fully assured, that neither idolatry, heresy, nor any pernicious error whatsoever shall at any time prevail over the Church of Christ.

The commentary continues into verse 19 explaining the keys to the kingdom,

Ver. 19. And I will give you the keys. This is another metaphor, expressing the supreme power and prerogative of the prince of the apostles. The keys of a city, or of its gates, are presented or given to the person that hat the chief power. We also own a power of the keys, given to the other apostles, but with a subordination to St. Peter and to his successor, as head of the Catholic Church.

And whatsoever thou shalt bind. All the apostles, and their successors, partake also of this power of binding and loosing, but with a due subordination to one head invested with the supreme power.

Wi. – Loose on earth. The loosing the bands of temporal punishment due to sins, is called an indulgence; the power of which is here granted.

Ch. – Although Peter and his successors are mortal, they are nevertheless endowed with heavenly power, says S. Chry. nor is the sentence of life and death passed by Peter to be attempted to be reversed, but what he declares is to be considered a divine answer from heaven, and what he decrees, a decree of God himself.

He that heareth you, heareth me. The power of binding is exercised, 1st. by refusing to absolve; 2d, by enjoining penance for sins forgiven; 3d. by excommunication, suspension, or interdict; 4th. By making rules and laws for the government of the Church; 5th. By determining what is of faith by the judgments and definitions of the Church.

T. – The terms binding and loosing, are equivalent to opening and shutting, because formerly the Jews opened the fastenings of their doors by untying it, and they shut or secured their doors by tying or binding it.

V. – Dr. Whitby, a learned Protestant divine, thus expounds this and the preceding verse: ‘As a suitable return to thy confession, I say also to thee, that thou art by name Peter, i.e. a rock; and upon thee, who art this rock, I will build my Church, and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of making laws to govern my Church.” Tom i, p. 143. Dr. Hammond, another Protestant divine, explains it, in the same manner. And p. 92, he says: ‘What is here meant by the keys, is best understood by Isaias xxii. 22, where they signify ruling the whole family or house of the king: and this being by Christ accommodated to the Church, denotes the power of governing it.’

These commentaries are clear expositions of the most fundamental passages of scripture pertaining to the primacy of Saint Peter, the first Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. And while Matthew 16:13-19 are the most fundamental passages of scripture firmly establishing the papacy, these are not the only passages determining Petrine primacy. Once the special role of authority granted to St. Peter from Christ is properly understood, other passages in scripture provide witness to the same truth.

Here is a summary of scriptural references that provide a coherent testimony to the divinely instituted primacy of the Petrine office:

Sect. 236 – The Primacy proved from Scripture.  

I. From the very time when our Lord called St. Peter to follow him, He indicated the dignity to which the Apostle was afterwards to be raised. “Jesus looking upon him said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas…which is interpreted Peter” (John i. 42). In the election of the Apostles, and again in their mission, he is mentioned the first; and his surname is expressly spoken of: ‘He chose twelve of them, whom also He named Apostles; Simon, whom He surnamed Peter, and Andrew his brother, James and John,” etc. (Luke vi. 13, 14). “The names of the twelve Apostles are these: the first, Simon…who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother,” etc. (Matt. x. 2; Mark iii. 16). And whenever he is named together with any of the other Apostles, he is always named first. Moreover, our Lord always treats him as the leader and representative of the rest, and he in turn always acts as their spokesman. At the raising of Jairus’ daughter “He admitted not any man to follow Him but Peter, and James, and John…But Peter and they that were with him…” Luke viii. 45; “Peter standing with the eleven,” Acts ii. 14; “Tell His disciples and Peter,” Mark xvi. 7] were heavy with sleep…Peter saith to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here,” etc. (Luke ix. 28-33; Matt. xvii. I sqq.; Mark ix. I sqq.). So, too, in His agony in the garden, “He taketh Peter, and James, and John with Him…And He cometh and findeth them sleeping, and He saith to Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? Couldst thou not watch one hour? Watch ye and pray” (Mark xiv. 33-38; Matt. xxvi. 37-40). “He saw two ships standing by the lake…and going into one of the ships that was Simon’s…He taught the multitudes out of the ship…He said to Simon, Launch out into the deep for a draught. And Peter answering, said to Him, Master, have we labored… He (Peter) was wholly astonished, and all they that were with him…and so were also James and John…And Jesus saith to Simon, Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (Luke v. 2-10). When the Apostles seeing our Lord walking upon the sea, were troubled, “Peter, making answer (to our Lord’s assurance; ‘Be of good heart; it is I; fear not’), said, Lord, if it be Thou, bid me to come to Thee upon the waters. And He said, Come. And Peter, going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus” (Matt xiv. 22-33). “They that received the didrachmas came to Peter and said to him, Doth not your Master pay the didrachmas?…Jesus said to him…Go to the sea and cast in a book, and that fish which shall first come up, take; and when thou hast opened its mouth, thou shalt find a stater: take that and give it to them for me and thee” (Matt xvii. 23-26).[3]

The truth of Petrine primacy not only has scriptural testimony, but the testimony of the early Church provides further witness to the sacred and authoritative office of St. Peter.

St. Augustine recognizes the authority of the Pope in this passage taken from one of his homilies:

“What then was said of the Jews, the same altogether do we see in these men now. (Rom 10:2-3) They have a zeal of God: I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. What is, not according to knowledge? For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and wishing to establish their own, they have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. My brethren, share with me in my sorrow. When ye find such as these, do not hide them; be there no such misdirected mercy in you; by all means, when ye find such, hide them not. Convince the gainsayers, and those who resist, bring to us. For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed”[4]

This excerpt formulates the statement “Rome has spoken, it is finished.” However, isolated from a broader historical context, and regarding this sermon alone, it would be possible to argue that the Apostolic see is merely the collection of the so-called “sister churches”. But as it turns out, St. Augustine’s letters, the “rescripts” that Augustine referred to, which were from Pope Innocent indicate that St. Augustine gives full assent to the primacy of the Petrine office.

The correspondence (referred to by St. Augustine) between the Synod at Carthage, the Synod at Milevis, and Pope Innocent are a witness to the authority of the Pope.

Here are some excerpts from the first letter (emphasis added):

“After we had gathered in solemn conclave in the church at Carthage, according to our custom, and were holding a synod on various subjects, our fellow priest Orosius brought us a letter from our holy brothers and fellow priests, Heros and Lazarus, the substance of which we have decided to append to this. After reading it, we make known that Pelagius and Caelestius are the originators of an accursed error, which is a subject of anathema to all of us. As a consequence, we asked for a review of the disturbance raised under the name of Caelestius here in the church at Carthage about five years ago. When the report had been read, as your Holiness will be able to note from the documents appended, although there was clearly an undisputed verdict by the bishop’s court at that time, by which this great sore seemed to have been cut out from the Church, we have decreed, after general deliberation, that the authors of opinions of this kind, even though they said Caelestius attained to the priesthood afterward, should be subject to anathema unless they have previously and openly anathematized these teachings. Thus, if their own recovery cannot be brought about, at least those who have been or can be deceived by them might be cured by the publication of this sentence against them.

Consequently, Lord and Brother, we have thought it best to transmit this report to your holy Charity, that the authority of the Apostolic See may be added to the decisions of our insignificance, in order to safeguard the welfare of many and to correct the perversity of some.[5]

It is important to note that despite convening a council in Carthage (the exact same place St Cyprian had his council on re-baptizing heretics), the Synod still requests the “authority of the Apostolic See” and then refers to their own council as insignificant to deal with this issue alone, given the ongoing circumstances of the errors being promulgated in the area.

This is hardly the democracy of bishops as described in the mistaken views of church history that look to undermine the papacy. Moreover, the attempt to use St Cyprian of Carthage’s use of the appellation “brother” as evidence that he was equal to the bishop of Rome is not an adequate response. This argument is neutralized given the fact that the Synod also refers to Pope Innocent as “brother,” but the context of the letter clearly shows that they did not view themselves, or their collective authority, as authoritatively equal to the bishop of Rome.

The Synod correspondence continues on a similar note, showing that the authority to anathematize heresy ultimately belongs to the bishop of Rome, who they refer to as the “Apostolic See” (emphasis added):

If your Reverence has believed that Pelagius was justly acquitted of heresy by the action of the bishops which was accomplished in the East, it still remains urgent that his false doctrine, which now has many supporters scattered in various places, ought to be anathematized by the authority of the Apostolic See.[6]

It is worth noting that the Synod is seeking the anathema of these errors spreading in their region by the “Apostolic See” in order to appeal to the authority of the Pope on this matter – “Rome has spoken, it is finished.” If it were sufficient to simply exercise their own authority as Bishops to officially settle the dispute, this correspondence would be rendered a redundancy of authority. However, by the simple fact that Synod Bishops are appealing to the authority of the pope on this matter for it to be officially settled provides witness to the primacy of the Petrine office for the governance of the Universal Church.

The Synod then begins to expound on why Pelagianism is a grave heresy, and in one of their explanations, they refer to St. Peter as the “blessed chief of the apostles.” They end the first letter as follows (emphasis added):

Whatever other charges are brought against them, your Reverence will, no doubt, pass this judgment, after you have examined the report of the action taken by the bishops in the same case in the East. We shall then all rejoice in the mercy of God. Pray for us, blessed lord and pope.[7]

Pope Innocent’s first reply opens:

“In your inquiries into the things of God, which require to be treated by priests with great care, especially when there is question of a true, just, and Catholic council, you have kept the precedents of ancient tradition, being mindful of ecclesiastical discipline, and you have added strength to our religion, not only now in your council, but before it when you made your pronouncement according to right reason, and when you voted to submit the matter to our judgment, knowing well what is owing to the Apostolic See, since all of us who are placed in this position desire to follow the Apostle himself, from whom the very episcopate and the whole authority of its name are derived. Following in his footsteps, we know equally how to condemn what is evil and to approve what is praiseworthy, as for example, the fact that you keep the customs of the fathers with priestly zeal, that you do not think they should be trampled underfoot. Because it has been decreed by a divine, not a human, authority that whenever action is taken in any of the provinces, however distant or remote, it should not be brought to a conclusion before it comes to the knowledge of this See, so that every just decision may be affirmed by our complete authority. Thus, just as all waters come forth from their natural source and flow through all parts of the world, keeping the purity of their source, so all the other Churches may draw from this source knowledge of what they are to teach, whom they are to absolve, and from whom the waters, intended only for pure bodies, should be withheld as being soiled with indelible filth.”[8]

Pope Innocent does not refute the Synod’s submission to his authority, but rather, says that they are keeping the “precedents of ancient tradition” in “submitting the matter to his [our] judgment.” Not only that, he goes even further saying that this is what is owing to the Apostolic See, about which he says that no action can come to a conclusion without the knowledge of “this See.” This demonstrates a reference to his own episcopate, and not a union of all the episcopates, as the schismatics claim.

Pope Innocent closes the letter with:

“… let them repudiate the views they have hitherto held; let them lend their minds for a while to true arguments, and, turning from their former corruption, let them give and deliver themselves over to be healed by true counsels. If they do this, it will be in the power of the pontiffs to help them to some extent, and to offer the care for such wounds which the Church is not wont to refuse to the lapsed when they have recanted. Thus, they may be drawn back from the precipice on which they are, and led into the sheepfold of the Lord, lest, if they are left outside and deprived of the great protection afforded by the wall of faith, they may be exposed to all the dangers of being torn and eaten by the teeth of wolves, since they cannot fight them off by reason of the perverted doctrine which roused the attack against them. But this answer, furnished with abundant examples of our law, is sufficient to meet your warning, and we think that nothing remains for us to say. Since you, also, have left nothing out, it is clear that nothing has been passed over by which they may be refuted and may acknowledge their defeat. Therefore, no testimony is added here by us because this report is filled with them; it is evident that so many learned priests have said everything, and it does not befit us to believe that you overlooked anything which could advance the case. Farewell, brothers.”[9]

The second letter to Pope Innocent from the Synod of Milevis says:

“Whereas, by a particular gift of His grace the Lord has placed you in the Apostolic See and has given to our times a man like you to reign over us, it would be more possible for us to be charged with the guilt of negligence if we failed to report to your Reverence matters which need to be made known for the benefit of the Church than for you to receive such suggestions coldly or negligently, we therefore beg you to deign to apply your pastoral care to the great perils of the weak members of Christ.”[10]

The submission to Papal authority is even more obvious than the letter from the previous Synod. They claim that Pope Innocent has been handpicked by God to reign over the other bishops, who are guilty of negligence if they do not report to him.

The Synod ends the letter as follows:

“Trusting in the merciful help of the Lord our God, which deigns to guide you in your plans and hear you in your prayers, we think that those who hold these distorted and dangerous views will readily submit to the authority of your Holiness, which is derived from the authority of the holy Scriptures, so that we may congratulate you on their conversion rather than grieve over their loss, most holy lord. But, no matter what choice they make, your Reverence surely sees that immediate and speedy provision must be made for the others whom they are able to trap in their snares in great numbers if this is not made known to them. We are addressing this written report to your Holiness from the Council of Numidia, imitating the Church at Carthage and our brother bishops of the Carthaginian province, having heard that they have written on this matter to the Apostolic See which you so blessedly adorn”[11]

Not only does the Synod claim that God selected Pope Innocent to rule over the bishops, but they also say that this authority comes from the Holy Scriptures as well. It is also obvious from this passage that the Synods held by other Sees must report to the Apostolic See, which is occupied by Pope Innocent.

The opening of Pope Innocent’s second reply:

“In the midst of our other cares for the Church at Rome and the duties of the Apostolic See, in the course of which we examine decrees on various subjects with faithful and curative argument, our brother and fellow priest, Julius, brought the letter of your Charity which you sent, in your close devotion to the faith, from the Council of Milevis, and, without my knowing it, he included the report of the Synod of Carthage, adding this document of similar protest.”[12]

There are a couple points worthy of note in this greeting. Pope Innocent lets them know that he had received the report from the Synod held by the North African bishops. Again, the Roman Church is referred to as the Apostolic See. Pope Innocent refers to his fellow priests and bishops as “brother” despite the clear acknowledgment of his God-given authority over them, showing the previously mentioned argument that Cyprian of Carthage believed in a democracy of bishops because he referred to other bishops and the Pope as “brother” to strain credulity (just read any encyclical written in the 19th century, the Pope always refers to his audience, the readers, as “venerable brethren”).

Later on in the letter he says:

“You show diligence and consideration in taking thought of the apostolic honor, of that concealed honor, I mean, of him whom ‘besides those things which are without, the solicitude for all the churches’ (2 Cor 11:28) weighed down; and in asking what opinion is to be held on anxious matters, following in that the form of the ancient rule, which you know has always been upheld by me throughout the whole world. But I pass over that for I believe your Prudence is well aware of it. Why did you affirm it by your action if you did not know that replies always flow from the apostolic font to petitioners in all the provinces? In particular, I think that as often as an argument on the faith is being blown about, all our brothers and fellow bishops ought to refer it solely to Peter, that is, to the one having the authority of his name and rank, as your Charity has now done, so that it may be for the common benefit of all the Churches. They must be the more on guard when they see the originators of evil cut off from communion with the Church by the enactments of our decree, in consequence of the report from a twofold synod.”[13]

This is arguably the most obvious invocation of Papal authority in the entire correspondence. The apostolic honor, and the solicitude of the church, is said by Pope Innocent to be upheld by him throughout the whole world. Not only that, but he says that the fellow bishops ought to refer only to Peter, the ONE having authority and rank. This is a far cry from the ahistorical claim that the Chair of Peter is the union of every episcopacy in the world as argued by so many who are against the primacy of the Petrine office.

He ends the letter as follows:

“Moreover, since Christ our Lord showed that He willed not the death of the sinner but that he should be converted and live, (Eze 33:11, 2 Pet 3:9) we order that if ever these two recover a sane mind, after having repudiated the error of their wrong teaching, and if they condemn the false statements which brought on their condemnation, the customary remedy is not to be refused them by the Church, that is, they are to be received back, lest, if we should perchance forbid their return, they might remain outside the fold and be swallowed up by the fierce jaws of their waiting enemy, which they have armed against themselves with the sharp points of their wicked arguments. Farewell, brothers.”[14]

Following this analysis of the Sacred Scriptures, commentary on Matthew 16:13-19, and correspondence between two Synods and Pope Innocent, the clear witness of divine truth pertaining to the institution of authority to govern the Universal Church through the primacy of the Petrine office is evident. Despite the abundance of what has been offered, the evidence provided is not exhaustive. More evidence can and will be provided, but for now, what has been offered is sufficient to begin the ongoing demonstration these sacred truths.


– Lucas G. Westman & Tyson Carter

[1] A Manual of Catholic Theology Vol. II, Pg. 303

[2] Matthew 16:13-19 Douay-Rheims

[3] A Manual of Catholic Theology Vol. II, Pg. 304-305

[4] Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament. In P. Schaff (Ed.), R. G. MacMullen (Trans.), Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels (Vol. 6, p. 504). New York: Christian Literature Company.

[5] Augustine of Hippo. (1955). Letters (165–203). (H. Dressler, Ed., W. Parsons, Trans.) (Vol. 30, pp. 85–86). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.

[6] Ibid. p. 88

[7] Ibid., p. 90

[8] Ibid. pp. 121–122

[9] Ibid. pp. 126–127

[10] Ibid. p. 91

[11] Ibid. pp. 93-94

[12] Ibid. 127

[13] Ibid. p. 128

[14] Ibid. pp. 131-132


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