Petrine Primacy: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

One of the perennial dividing issues between Roman Catholics and other Christians is the issue of Petrine Primacy.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that our Lord gave his apostle Peter universal jurisdiction over Christians everywhere, and that the popes are Peter’s successors in this role.  Unsurprisingly, other Christians have taken a dimmer view of papal claims to universal jurisdiction.  (Papal claims are not, however, unique: some have suggested that the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the Patriarch of Constantinople implies a claim to universal jurisdiction, and a few scribes in the Church of the East title their patriarch the “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East and of all the inhabited world.”  Indeed, a scribe in Mosul in northern Iraq even gave the so-called “Nestorian” Catholicos the title “Vicar of Christ” [syr. natar duktheh da-mshiha]!)

A few years back, as I was re-reading Boniface VIII’s encyclical Unam Sanctam (as one does), I observed that his interpretation of John 21:17 flips the imperative: Jesus commanded Peter to “Feed my sheep,” but Boniface interpreted the text as a command to Christ’s sheep to be fed by Peter.  This got me thinking.

Many critics of the papacy throughout the centuries (perhaps beginning with Origen?) suggested that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18), the rock in question is not Peter but something else, perhaps Peter’s confession, or perhaps Christ himself.  (Paul tells us that Christ is the cornerstone, but we may not require the architectural metaphors for the spiritual community to be fully consistent.)  I think this idea is nonsense: if, as is most likely, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, then what he said is, “You are Peter [Aramaic kefa, “the rock”], and on this kefa I shall build my Church.”  We know from other NT texts that the Aramaic name of Peter is Kefa.

(I shall not consider in this post whether the Roman popes are the heirs of Peter or not.  I actually have little at stake in the question, the reasons for which will become clear later, I suspect.  If they wish to claim to be Peter’s heirs, let them live according to Peter’s call.)

So, having established that Christ singled out Peter in this passage, the question is what did he single out Peter for.  What did Petrine primacy consist of?

In the context of Matt 16, there are two things mentioned, neither of which is fully clear.  “The keys of the kingdom” would suggest that Peter can open God’s kingdom for others.  The very curious grammar of the “binding” and “releasing” (something close to “what you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven”; future perfect periphrastic constructions are rare!) is surprising, but whatever the authority consisted of, it was then given by the Lord to the disciples more generally at Matt 18:18, sandwiched between instructions for confronting a fellow believer regarding sin (confronting as a peer, one might note) and references to any two or three Christians gathered together in Christ’s name for prayer.  Neither of these phrases are very clear regarding the content of Petrine primacy, which is no doubt why Boniface only cited Matt 16 to declare that papal authority has a divine origin, not to define the content of that papal authority.

Fortunately, other passages are clearer about what is required of Peter.  Luke 22:31-32 again singles out Peter, and indicates that once he has repented of denying his Lord, he should “strengthen [his] brothers.”  In John 21:15-17, Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed Christ’s sheep.  The command is not to the sheep, but to Peter, to provide food for the sheep.  Peter’s role in the early Church was to encourage, to feed, and to serve.

And this should not surprise us.  Christ himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  In that same context, Christ made clear what Christian primacy had to look like: “You know that those who intend to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It will not be this way among you, but whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).  Christian leadership does not consist in exercising authority and lordship, but in serving.  If Peter was singled out for primacy of Christian leadership, after Christ, then he was called to serve more than all others.  If Peter was called to universal Christian leadership, this means that he was obliged to serve all Christians everywhere.

And Peter understood this!  His instructions to Christian leaders forbid “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:3) and admonish these leaders to be “eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2).  That is why, in spite of all his faults and failures, Peter is a great saint and a model for us all.

But think how different the history of Christianity would be if the popes had understood Petrine primacy as a call to serve rather than an opportunity to be served.  Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople was by reputation suitably pugnacious, but it was the papal envoy Cardinal Humbert who stormed into the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and inaugurated the schism of 1054 by excommunicating the Greek patriarch in the pope’s name.  Who was served by this?  One of the most severe spiritual crises under papal jurisdiction was the papal schism of 1378-1415, when for over a generation multiple different people claimed to be pope and were recognized by different countries.  It’s easy to see that as politics, and easy to miss the degree to which, on medieval understandings of salvation’s dependence upon allegiance to the (correct) pope, the salvation of large segments of the population was brazenly endangered by papal grasping.  That was the crisis which gave rise to the Conciliar movement in Western Europe, the notion that when popes were sufficiently refractory, they themselves were subject to ecumenical councils.  The Conciliar movement itself was outflanked by Pope Eugenius IV at Florence, and then banned by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis of 1460, which then hampered the papacy’s ability to respond positively to criticism from friend and foe alike.  Pope Leo X was not the innocent Daniel in the lion’s den of the Roman Curia, as Luther portrayed him in his dedicatory letter to his treatise The Freedom of the Christian, though Luther himself was hardly docile.

The irony is that by the time of these medieval popes, a papal title invented centuries earlier had become a fixed part of papal self-designation.  In the late 6th C, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople assumed the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.”  This might be taken to imply jurisdiction over the entire inhabited world (the “oikoumene,” from which the title “ecumenical” is derived).  Pope Pelagius II protested the title as a usurpation of papal prerogative, but his successor Pope Gregory I had a different response: he disliked John IV, but he did not dispute the title.  Instead, Pope Gregory adopted the title servus servorum Christi (“the servant of Christ’s servants”).  If John of Constantinople claimed preeminent status, Gregory claimed preeminent service, and in so doing he captured perfectly the Lord’s calling for Peter.  According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the title was used by some popes after Gregory and not others, and occasionally by bishops or others, but by the tenth century the title was claimed by all subsequent popes, and after 1200 or so was used exclusively by popes, even the very popes whose arrogance and lordliness contradicted Christ’s teachings on the nature of Christian leadership.

I suspect that the more that popes take this title and Peter’s calling as their agenda, the more Christians will wish to be fed by the Roman pontiff.



  1. Very good points, and ones which remind me of something C.S. Lewis said about the papacy, namely that ‘nothing would give such strong support to the papal claims as the spectacle of a Pope actually functioning as head of Christendom’ – by which he meant precisely the strengthening of his brethren that you mention.

    It would indeed be a great thing if each pope were to fulfill their calling in this manner, but I suppose the question I would have to ask is if all Jesus meant by ‘binding and loosing’ etc was to be pre-eminent in service, then might one be justified in saying that this would have been quite a blunder on His part, knowing human nature as He did? Could it be rather that He invested Peter (and the other Apostles) with authority to teach in His name AND counselled them to do so via a model of service?

    Basically, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and as Jesus must have known that the Apostles and their successors would often fail in the latter aspect, He would have therefore at least made provision for the former.

    Also, I think that all the two bestowals of authority (one to Peter, then to them all) means is that all the Apostles have this authority to bind and loose, but that the ‘keys’ given to Saint Peter establish an especial role for him, one that Isaiah 22:20ff sheds some light on, and that his leadership in the Acts of the Apostles gives credence to.

    1. Ah, I hadn’t come across that remark by C.S. Lewis, but I’m flattered to have incidentally followed in his footsteps. Do you happen to recall the citation?

      All I said was that the “binding and loosing” was not the most transparent in its meaning; I think the clearer commands (I think them stricter than simply “counsel”) regarding serving provide the context in which “binding and loosing” are to be practiced, whatever they mean. I’m inclined to interpret the “binding and loosing” in a context of forgiveness, and in light of the context in Matt 18:18, to extend it beyond merely the twelve to all Christ’s followers.

      I do not deny that the apostles taught and were supposed to teach in Christ’s name. Why does that require special authority? I do it all the time (okay, all too rarely), when I explain what Christianity is to my non-Christian friends.

      I have often seen Roman Catholic apologists appeal to isaiah 22:20ff, but I am afraid I don’t see the relevance of it, beyond mentioning “keys.” Why is the rebuke of a prominent royal servant under King Hezekiah relevant to this context? And why that passage more relevant than, say, Judges 3, which also mentions “a key”?

      1. I think perhaps the difference between the two type of statements Jesus makes regarding leadership is more clear if we see that the ones about binding and loosing are promises made by Him to Saint Peter and the Apostles – ‘I will build my Church…’, ‘I will give you the keys…’, whereas in Mark 10:41-45, He seems to be describing how they should behave – ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant’ and ‘whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’ – but are not promises that they will so act.

        As for binding and loosing, there seems to be quite a strong agreement amongst scholars that these refer to rabbinical terms for exclusion and readmission into the community, and/or for stating what actions were permitted according to the Law. This certainly makes just as much sense of the context in Matthew 18, if not more, given the cultural context. Seeing binding and loosing as something that should be extended to all Christians, I have to say that I find this problematic, as Jesus explicitly says that whatever is bound (or loosed) on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven – it seems clear that this authority could not be extended to all Christians without leading to some rather contradictory situations in heaven! 🙂 Would you apply the same criteria to John 20:23 – that any follower of Jesus can forgive or retain the sins of another in God’s name?

        Similarly, when I talk to my non-Christian friends, I would not consider myself to be ‘speaking in Jesus’ name’, other than in some sense being for them an example of what a Christian is and believes. I would never claim to be able to tell them that x, y or z is the case without the proviso that I am not speaking on my own authority, but repeating what the Church has taught. By speaking ‘in Jesus’ name’, I don’t mean just talking about Him to people, but teaching definitively what is to be believed about Him, His will for us, His mission, etc.

        As for the keys, the significance here is that God is talking to the King of the Kingdom, and telling him to appoint someone to ‘shut and open’ etc on the King’s behalf:

        ‘And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons’ (vv.22-24).

        Thus, Jesus, who was soaked in the Old Testament, and saw Himself as the fulfilment of the promises made to David, would very likely have been aware of this passage, and thus His use of the language in Matthew 16 suggests strongly that He saw Saint Peter (and his successors) as the ‘stewards’ of His kingdom. I’m not saying you have to share this interpretation, but this is why Catholics appeal to it. Jesus is the King, and the ultimate holder of the keys (c.f.; Revelation 1:18), but He delegates authority to Peter (and the other Apostles) to exercise in His name on earth.

        The C. S. Lewis passage that I quoted is from a letter to Bede Griffiths from the 8th May 1939. I have it in a compilation of some of his letters called ‘Yours Jack’ – I don’t have the full collection….yet 🙂

        1. Thanks for the Lewis citation!

          Might I also trouble you for a citation of “binding and releasing” (do people use “loosing” as a verb any more, outside of discussions of papal prerogatives?) being a term of exclusion or inclusion from the community? I’ve heard Roman Catholics, but never New Testament scholars, interpret it that way, but my expertise is not in New Testament studies.

          Re: Isaiah, I agree that Jesus knew the OT backward and forward, and that he knew himself to be the promised Davidic King (indeed, he had just confirmed Peter’s confession of him as the Messiah). But David himself isn’t mentioned in Matt 16, and the “kingdom” is not mentiond in Isaiah 22:22-24, so the only verbal link between them is “keys.” There is also no prophetic link, as Isaiah this prophesy is fulfilled within Isaiah’s own lifetime (as he rebukes one steward and says God will appoint another to replace him, giving the name of the latter). I could see interpreting “the keys of the kingdom” to imply stewardship, and Isaiah 22 being cited as a pattern for what God-appointed stewardship might look like, but then Isaiah 22 is merely a possibly genre for Peter’s ministry. In any event, to use the language “steward” implies primarily not jurisdiction (that the people of the household answer to me) but responsibility (that I answer to my Lord for the household).

          It is good to remember the difference in genre between the promises of Matt 16:18-19 and the instructions of Mark 10:41-45. But not all promises are unconditional, nor (as you point out with regard to the parallel promise of Matt 18:18) obvious of scope. And hence people disagree on these points.

          I must go now. You evidently have more time to write these comments than I do! I will be really intermittent about dealing with this blog in the next few weeks, and so some of your comments may not appear when you enter them, as (for now anyway) I am holding up all comments for approval (not being as trusting as AATW folks yet). Sorry for any lengthy delays.

          1. No problem 🙂

            For background on the rabbinical use of binding and loosing as exclusion or inclusion, see the Jewish Encyclopedia here:


            It’s not surprising that it is mainly Catholic scholars who appeal to this in interpreting Matthew 16 and 18, but off the top of my head I think Alister McGrath mentions it in his ‘Christian Theology’ textbook. I have seen it mentioned by some Protestant NT scholars, but it is often explained away.

            Re Isaiah, I know that Matthew 16 doesn’t mention David himself, or that the work ‘kingdom’ is not mentioned in Isaiah 22, but I don’t think we need explicit verbal mentions to make connections here – the overall pattern of Jesus’ actions and teachings (especially as presented by Saint Matthew) make it clear that He is presenting Himself as the true heir to the Davidic throne, so any kingdom-related passages should, I think, be seen in that light. Similarly in Isaiah, whilst the word ‘kingdom’ is not explicitly stated, it is very clear that it is the royal household that is being discussed. Personally I think the text very much implies jurisdiction, as well as responsibility – in fact, that the steward only has responsibilities because certain powers have been delegated to him – but I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree there 🙂

            As for not all promises being unconditional, this is true, but the one in Matthew 16 does seem pretty unconditional to me – if Jesus was doing otherwise, he certainly made it very difficult with the language used to interpret what He said as being conditional. Again though, agree to disagree!

            No problem re any delays – completely understand. I have thoroughly enjoyed the exchange though, and the posts that led to them.

            P.S. Re Christ’s fulfillment of the Davidic prophecies/promises etc, there is an excellent online Bible study on this very theme here:


            It is written by Scott Hahn, a Catholic convert and apologist (and NT scholar) but there is nothing there that should pose problems for any non-Catholic. It is just a very good Bible study, and a really thorough examination of how the NT authors read and used the OT. This one’s good too:


            P.P.S. No, I don’t think people do use ‘loosing’ outside of this sort of context anymore – I’m going to try and bring it back! 🙂

          2. Thank you for the links; when I have time again, I shall attempt to follow up the rabbinic side of things.

            I certainly agree, as do almost all Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox of various kinds, that Jesus fulfilled the Davidic prophecies and promises. I am fond of referring to our Lord as “great David’s greater Son,” though I don’t know the pedigree of the title. I am more suspicious of Scott Hahn, however; at one time I eagerly listened to several hours of his recorded talks arguing in favor of Catholicism among varieties of Christianity, mostly on the basis of patristic citations, and I found them very plausible. Then I started to check his citations (no easy task, as his talks rarely gave the full details), and the ones I found were almost all suspect in one way or another (either he interpreted them in what seemed an anti-contextual way, like a proof-text, or he translated them in a way I couldn’t justify from the original languages, or in at least one case he quoted a text which was spurious). So I lost the intellectual respect I once held for Dr. Hahn. But perhaps I was not exposed to his best work, and I think we fully agree on orthodox Christology! 🙂

          3. Thanks for the info re Scott Hahn’s loose work with patristics! 🙂 I shall tread a bit more carefully in the future.

            However, I must say I’m surprised by that, because with respect to the Bible studies I mentioned, he seems to take precisely the opposite approach – i.e.; the whole thing is about seeing things in their proper context, and trying to examine what the verses used by the NT authors might mean in the light of that wider context, as opposed to simply proof-texting.

            Nevertheless, as you say, there should be full agreement on orthodox Christology, and on Jesus’ being a fulfilment of the Davidic prophecies/promises. There’s nowt in the studies I linked to that should be problematic for a non-Catholic (I don’t think so anyway!)

          4. Perhaps he emphasizes context in the Bible because proof-texting is a Protestant practice he rejected, while he proof-texts patristic citations because that is a practice with a good patristic and medieval pedigree (see Florilegium). Of course, the Church Fathers also quoted bits of the Bible out of context, so the proof-texters may be able to appeal to tradition on their side, and contextual interpreters like me may be the innovators. 😉

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