St. John Chrysostom On the Papacy

pope2With 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)

And again:

“(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.


St. John Chrysostom On the Papacy — 8 Comments

  1. I have been interested in Patristics for some time and own the Ante-Nicene Volumes. I have read some of Augustine also.

    Where do you suggest I start? I have heard that Irenaeus had a “Catechism” that does not mention the later papal assumptions. I have seen this even in Augustine also.

    Secondly, it does seem the church was a continuation of the synagogue style of worship which lead to the liturgy (which I am new to as a catechesis in a confessional church).

  2. “He confesses that it is not Peter himself who is the rock; rather his confession is the rock. ”

    I am so glad that you gave this testimony from Chrysostom. Lately, I have often heard even confessional pastors say things like we have to finally admit Luther and the other Reformers were wrong when they invented their novel and unsupported interpretation of Matthew 16:17-18. But, the novel and unsupported interpretation is rather that the person of Peter is the rock upon which the Church is built. As Lenski says:

    “It is essential to note that the masculine πέτρος denotes a detached rock or boulder, and that the feminine πέτρα signifies a rocky cliff. Liddell and Scott define the latter: ‘A ledge or shelf of rock, a rocky peak or ridge,’ and add the statement: ‘There is no example in good authors of πέτρα being used in the sense of πέτρος, a stone, for even in Homer πέτραι are not loose stones but masses of living rock torn up and hurled by giants.’ The distinction is beyond question . . . and it is enhanced by the demonstrative ‘this rock,’ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ. Both the plain distinction and the evident correlation between these two terms should be noted. Πέτρος, the person of Peter, and αὕτη ἡ πέτρα, ‘this rock,’ are not identical; the latter does not signify the Apostle Peter. This [is] linguistic fact . . . Ephesians 2:20 makes all the apostles the ‘foundation’ of the church (not, indeed, their persons or their faith but their inspired preaching and writing) and knows nothing of a prerogative in the case of Peter. . . Luther is right: ‘All Christians are Peters on account of the confession which Peter here makes, which is the rock on which Peter and all Peters are built.’”

  3. @Dr. Ralph “Rafe” E. Spraker, Jr. #1

    Dr. Spraker,
    I’m glad to hear of your interest in reading the early church fathers. In reading them you will continue to find that Martin Luther was not innovative, but rather was calling the church to return to the ancient confession of faith, and to reject the innovations of the (Roman Catholic) church of his day.

    Regarding your question, I would suggest that you might want to start with “the Apostolic Fathers” (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Didache…). And, of course, Irenaeus! Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies” is particularly important for Christians in our day to read as, I believe, his context is very similar to our modern context in many ways. The “Irenaeus Catechism” you are referring to is probably “On the Apostolic Preaching.” Another catechism-like book that gives great insight into the life of the church in the first century is “The Didache.”

    I hope you have enjoyed the liturgical life of your parish so far. The Divine Service is a wonderful gift! And as you continue in catechesis I would encourage you to ask your pastor lots of questions about the liturgy. As a pastor, I love when one of my folks ask, “Hey, pastor, why do we do this?” or “What is the significance of that?”

  4. Pr. Lehman, thank you for sharing Chrysostom’s 4th c. insights on the papacy. Granting all that he said and including what you’ve written, how can we move forward in co-operation with other Christians world-wide in the 21st century?

  5. @Pr. Adam Lehman
    In what kind of instance or scenario can you envision profitable cooperation with fellow Christians? Or, for that matter, even non-Christians? I think there is room here for consideration…



    Or is the LCMS an island to itself? And not a part of the wider body of Christ?

  6. @Alan#6

    Paul addresses his letters to the ‘saints’ at Corinth, etc. A ‘saint’ is one who has been sanctified by the Spirit. So, we are all ‘saints.’

    And then again, there are ‘saints’ who have exemplified the faith, and doubly worthy of our respect. While the Lutheran Church does not follow Rome in this respect, we do honor those who have gone before us in the faith, those whose faith we consider have made their faith a sacrifice above and beyond what we normally face day to day in our walk with Christ.

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

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