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The Attempt to Whitewash Peter’s Primacy

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17, New King James Version).

In John’s gospel Jesus—addressing himself specifically to Peter—charges Peter to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” “Tending” and “feeding” are metaphors for governing and teaching, a clear indication that Christ intended Peter to govern and teach his “sheep,” i.e., the whole Church. Peter, and through him his successors, the bishops of Rome, are granted a universal primacy over the Church. Opponents of Roman primacy, such as James White in his book The Roman Catholic Controversy, reject the notion that by these words Jesus intended to confer a primacy of jurisdiction upon Peter and his successors.

White claims Peter’s role is indistinguishable from the other apostles, saying John 21:15–17 does not establish that “only Peter was told to shepherd God’s flock.” According to White, Paul “seems to have been ignorant of this injunction” when he advises the Ephesian elders to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God” (Acts 20:28). White observes that, “Paul does not say, ‘Since Peter is the chief shepherd, you act as undershepherds of the flock of God.’”

While White busies himself with strained attempts at reading the minds of John and Paul as to what they would or would not have said if there were a Petrine primacy, the actual words and contexts of Scripture support, or are at least consistent with, Catholic belief. In the case of Acts 20:28, there is no basis to conclude with White that Paul “seems to have been ignorant” of the Petrine primacy. No one argues that the other apostles and elders did not act as “shepherds” within the Church. What White cannot deny is that Paul addresses elders who shepherd a mere portion of the Lord’s flock “among which the Holy Spirit” has placed them—that is, the Ephesian Church. The Lord, on the other hand, in addressing Peter neither implies nor places any such limitations upon the jurisdiction of his office. Peter is to feed and shepherd—teach and govern—the Lord’s flock “among which” the Lord placed him—that is, the whole flock, the universal Church.

White argues Jesus uses the words recorded in John 21:15–17 not to confer a primacy upon Peter but to forgive Peter his denials (see John 18:15–27) and to restore him to his former position. “Here we have the gracious Lord restoring the apostle who, in his brash impetuosity, had promised to follow him even to death yet had denied him three times.” White says Cyril of Alexandria (370–444) “demonstrates” that the “earliest and most logical understanding” of the passage in John is held by Protestants, not Catholics. He provides the following quote from Cyril:

“If anyone asks for what cause he asked Simon only, though the other disciples were present, and what he means by ‘Feed my lambs’ and the like, we answer that Peter, with the other disciples, had been already chosen to the apostleship. But because meanwhile Peter had fallen (for under great fear he had thrice denied the Lord), he [Christ] now heals him that was sick and exacts a threefold confession in place of his triple denial, contrasting the former with the latter and compensating the fault with the correction.”

While it is true Cyril stresses the restorative nature of the passage in question, it does not follow that Cyril’s understanding is necessarily incompatible with or contradictory of the Catholic understanding. For example, Cyril elsewhere in his writings makes reference to Peter’s appointment as “shepherd.” Although White attempts to downplay Cyril’s reference to this appointment as not unique to Peter, Cyril’s reference is more strongly worded than White lets on.

Speaking in the context of Matthew 16, where Jesus names Simon the rock and grants him the keys to the kingdom, Cyril says, “He [Christ] promises to found the Church, assigning immovableness to it, as he is the Lord of strength, and over this [the Church] he sets Peter as shepherd.” According to Cyril, Peter is assigned not merely a shepherd but is instead set up as shepherd over the whole Church by the Lord himself. If Cyril’s Peter is “restored” as White alleges, then he is restored to the promised position of shepherd over the whole Church.

Further, it was Cyril, whom White attempts to conscript to his cause as if the Alexandrine patriarch was a proto-Protestant, who referred the case of Nestorius to Pope Celestine. Celestine in turn commissioned Cyril to act with the pope’s authority to depose the heresiarch unless he recanted. As Cyril presided at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) pursuant to this charge, the papal legates called Peter the “head and prince of the apostles,” the “head of the whole faith” and declared Celestine—the “holy head”—to be Peter’s successor, holding Peter’s place and exercising Peter’s authority and judgment. The council fathers, with Cyril among them, in their place declared they were “compelled” by the pope’s judgment to depose Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople.

White claims ancient Christian commentators “did not find the constitution of the Church in these passages, as later claimed by Rome.” However, this is simply not the case. Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386), in the same breath that he speaks of Peter’s three denials, calls Peter “the chiefest and foremost of the apostles” (Catechetical Lectures, 2, 19).

While sharing the view Christ’s words in John 21 are restorative, John Chrysostom (347–407) understands that by them the Lord also confers “chief authority among the brethren” upon Peter:

“He was the chosen one of the apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the leader of the band; on this account also Paul went up upon a time to inquire of him rather than the others. And at the same time to show him that he must now be of good cheer, since the denial was done away, Jesus puts into his hands the chief authority among the brethren; and he brings forward not the denial, nor reproaches him with what had taken place, but says, “If you love me, preside over your brethren, and show now the warm love that you have always manifested and in which you rejoiced; and the life that you said you would lay down for me now give for my sheep” (Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, homily 88). Later in the same homily, John Chrysostom observes that Jesus “appointed” Peter “teacher of the world.”

Augustine (354–430), while also seeing a restorative sense in John 21:15–17, affirms that the “the succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter [the see of Rome], to whom the Lord, after his Resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep, up to the present episcopate, keeps me here [within the Catholic Church]” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5).

Pope Leo (440–461) writes “for not only was the power of loosing and binding given to Peter before the others, but also to Peter more especially was entrusted the care of feeding the sheep,” and that it is Peter who “holds the headship” (Letter 10). Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) writes “it is apparent that by the Lord’s voice the care of the whole Church” was committed to Peter (Register of the Epistles, 5, 20).

Pope Agatho, echoing his predecessors, applied the verse in question specifically to Peter and his successors. Agatho cited it as the basis for the inerrancy of the Roman See in a letter to the fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680), held in the East and attended almost exclusively by Eastern bishops:

“He [Peter] received from the Redeemer of all himself, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church; under whose protecting shield this apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error, whose authority, as that of the Prince of all the apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the ecumenical synods have faithfully embraced, and followed in all things; and all the venerable Fathers have embraced its apostolic doctrine.”

Such a claim caused no disturbance at the council, since it was the faith of the Church. The East, once again, at the reunion council of Florence (1438–1445)—the most representative council of both East and West up to the time—affirmed the same in a dogmatic definition: “We define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff have the primacy over the whole world, and that the same Roman pontiff is the successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles and the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him, in the person of Peter, was given by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church.”

Clearly, the constitution of the Church, contrary to White’s objections, has been seen in such verses down through the centuries since the time of Christ. We have the plain words of Scripture that Jesus bestowed to Peter universal jurisdiction over the Church. The Greek and Latin fathers understood the verses in question in a sense supportive of and consistent with this Catholic teaching. The popes taught that the primacy and inerrancy of the Roman See was based on these verses, and ecumenical councils of East and West accepted and declared this teaching. Indeed, the evidence demonstrates the early Church was of one mind with Pope Leo, who said, “Yet anyone who holds that the headship must be denied to Peter cannot really diminish his dignity, but is puffed up with the breath of his pride, and plunges himself into the lowest depth.”

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