Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Succession of Peter

Eastern and Western Christianity both understand the succession of Apostle Peter differently, explaining the same text in two distinct ways. Nevertheless, John Meyendorff argues an interesting case, using the patristic tradition. He states:
‘St Peter had received from the Lord Himself the solemn promise: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18), and this logion of Jesus was preserved, in St. Matthew, the Gospel of the church of Jerusalem, where Peter presided over the Eucharist and was the spokesman of the Church against which “the powers of hell shall not prevail.” But the Church-the same Church-was to be established elsewhere and others inherited also the promise given to Peter.

As early as St. Ignatius the image of the episcopate is associated with the image of the “rock” (To Polycarp 1:1). With Cyprian of Carthage the idea that each bishop, as the head and pastor of his local church, was a successor of St. Peter and the “rock” of faith was expressed quite clearly. Most scholars agree that for Cyprian the succession of Peter is in no way limited to Rome. Every local church is “the Church,” and as such inherits the promise given to Peter. “God is one,” he writes, “and Christ is one, and one is the Church, and there is one chair, founded on Peter by the Lord’s command.” (Eph. 43:5). This understanding follows necessarily from a “eucharistic” conception of the Church. If each local church is the Church in its fullness, the “catholic Church,” it must indeed be identical with that Church which was mentioned by Jesus Himself in Matt. 16:18, the Church founded on Peter.     
Careful reading in the patristic Tradition, both Greek and Latin, indicates that this understanding was by no means limited to Cyprian, but prevailed in the minds of the major theologians. There was no formal elaboration of the idea, however, because “ecclesiology” was never treated systematically. St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the power of the keys transmitted by Peter to the bishops (De Castigatione, P.G. 46:312 C), and even Pseudo-Dionysius sees in Peter the prototype of the order of the “high priests” (Eccl. Hier. 7, 7). In the later period, especially after 1204 when a Latin patriarch was confirmed as bishop of Constantinople by the pope, Byzantine theologians began to use the argument against Rome: the pope is not the only successor of Peter, but all the bishops share equally in that dignity.’[1]
For more information on this interesting topic see: J. Meyendorff, The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church (London: Faith Press, 1963), pp. 14-29.

[1] Meyendorff, John, Living Tradition, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 49-50. 

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