With the recent election of a new pope, the papacy seems to be the theological topic of the day. I heard repeatedly, even from some secular news organizations, that the papacy was instituted by Christ Himself when He named St. Peter as the rock, and gave him (alone) the keys to heaven. This requires the assumption that Christ had instituted the papacy as it is today, and that all of the pomp and circumstance that was happening in response to the election of a new Bishop of Rome is somehow ancient. It also requires the assumption that the church, from its earliest days, recognized the universal rule of the Bishop of Rome. So why not let one of the prominent church fathers have a say?
St. John Chrysostom was a 4th century father (347-407) who served as a priest in Antioch and Archbishop of Constantinople. He was well known for his preaching, and after his death received the name “Chrysostom,” which means in Greek, “golden-mouthed.” The church is blessed to have many of his sermons, which have survived to this day, and in those sermons we can gain a great deal of insight into how the early church viewed the Bishop of Rome. Did he have universal rule over the church on earth? Did St. Peter alone hold the keys of heaven? Was St. Peter the rock on which Christ has built His church?
Beginning with the last question, “Was St. Peter the rock on which Christ has built His church?” Chrysostom gives clear explanation. He confesses that it is not Peter himself who is the rock; rather his confession is the rock. He writes:
“’And I say unto thee, Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’: that is, on the faith of his confession.” (NPNF Vol. 10, p. 333)
“(Jesus) speaks from this time lowly things, on His way to His passion, that He may show His humanity. For He that has built His church upon Peter’s confession, and has so fortified it, that ten thousand dangers and deaths are not to prevail over it…” (NPNF Vol. 10, p. 494)
Chrysostom is quite consistent in this understanding as well, regularly referring to the rock on which the church is built as the confession and not as the man.
Now, turning to the question of whether St. Peter alone held the keys to heaven, Chrysostom is again quite clear. He states frankly that St. John holds these keys as well when he writes:
“For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom, with much confidence…” (NPNF Vol. XIV, p. 1)
Chrysostom recognizes that the keys given to St. Peter in Matthew 16 are the same keys given in John 20, which are to be used for binding and loosing (forgiving and retaining) through the exercise of the Office of the Keys.
Finally, to the question of whether or not universal rule over the church on earth belongs to the Bishop of Rome, Chrysostom shows us that it has never been the case that Peter was to rule as head of the church on earth. Indeed, he shows that St. James (who was the bishop of Jerusalem), and not St. Peter, was the chief rule and authority at the Jerusalem Council because it was taking place in the city where he was bishop (Acts 15):
“This (James) was bishop, as they say, and therefore he speaks last…There was no arrogance in the Church. After Peter Paul speaks, and none silences him: James waits patiently; not starts up (for the next word). Great the orderliness (of the proceedings). No word speaks John here, no word the other Apostles, but held their peace, for James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. And after that they had held their peace, James answered. Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly; for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part…” (NPNF Vol. XI, p. 205, 207)
And so, if St. Peter was not even invested with chief rule at the church’s first ecumenical council, it is impossible to suggest that papal primacy is the ancient practice of the Christian Church. And when one acknowledges that it is St. Peter’s confession, and not St. Peter himself, that is the rock on which Christ has built His church, and considering that the keys are not given to St. Peter alone, one certainly cannot claim that papal primacy was instituted by Christ.
*note that the emphasis in the quotes is that of the author.