Thursday, July 29, 2004

Meyendorff on the Primacy of Peter

One of my students, Sean Fagan, is working on two related independent studies this summer, one with me on Cardinal Newman's theory of the development of Christian doctrine, another with Prof. Andrew Weisner on the conception of Petrine Primacy in Eastern Orthodoxy. Fagan recently presented me with a summary of the principal Eastern Orthodox arguments from John Meyendorff's chapter in The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church. Meyendorff's chapter, entitled "St. Peter in Byzantine Theology," is one of the more balanced essays in the volume, as Fagan notes. Meyendorff divides the Byzantine tradition of reflection on Petrine primacy into three periods:
  1. The exegetical teachings (mostly of Origen, but a few others) of the Patristics/Byzanines
  2. The polemics of the 12th and 13th centuries
  3. "Theologians" of the 14th and 15th centuries.
What follows is a series of Eastern Orthodox arguments from each of these periods, summarized by Fagan, along with my replies:

I. The exegetical teachings:
A. Peter's confession in Matthew is the basis on which Christ makes his "Rock" statement. In this sense, all Christians are Peter because we confess the Faith of Christ.


First, this is exegetically unsound, for the "Rock" can only refer to Peter without doing violence to it. In Aramaic, "Rock" is "Kepha." Jesus would have said to Peter, "You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church."

Second, the statement that all Christians are Peter because all confess faith in Christ is a little like the common Protestant argument that the priesthood of all believers rules out the need or possibility of a unique priesthood of ordained clergy. But the fact that every believer is a priest in some sense doesn't mean that licitly ordained clergy are not priests in a uniquely proper sense. Likewise, the fact that all Christians believe and confess what Peter believed and confessed hardly means that we share in his ecclesiastical primacy or in that of his successors.

B. All Bishops share in Peter's Confession because it was at that moment that Christ conferred the Keys; the bishops share in the "Cathedra Petri" (St. Cyprian) because of Peter's Confession.


First, while it may be true that bishops share in the power of binding and loosing that is symbolized by the Keys in Matthew, this no more removes the distinction between bishops and the Pope than the fact that priests have the power to grant absolution removes the distinction between priests and bishops.

Second, this assertion shares in the common exegetical confusion/conflation implicit in the Evangelical Protestant interpretation of "presbyteros" and "episkopos." Presbyterians, for example, reduces each to an "elder," even though they may distinguish between "teaching" and "ruling" elders. But while an "episkopos" (literally "overseer," in Catholic tradition, "bishop") is ALSO a "presbyteros" (from which etymologically derives the early English "prester" and the later contraction, "priest"), not all priests are bishops, any more than all bishops are Popes.

Third, while it may be true that the bishops share in the common Faith professed by Peter and in the apostolic authority of his episcopal office, this hardly means that every bishop is a successor to Peter in the sense of sharing in his primacy. What dies it mean to have "primacy" if everybody has it? Just try imagining all those Eastern Orthodox bishops trying to squeeze their butts into the "Cathedra Petri" alongside the Pope! What insanity!

C. Peter is most definitely the "Coryphaeus" and he is the head of the Apostles in this regard, as at least being the head of the Apostles.

Reply: This, of course, goes without saying.
II. 12th and 13th century polemic arguments:
A. Canon 28 of Chalcedon conferred secondary primacy to Constantinople; because "old Rome" is no longer the imperial capital, it has lost its primacy and it has been transferred to "New Rome."


"Secondary primacy" doesn't mean "primary primacy." What else needs be said?! Furthermore, the de facto primacy attaches not to the city in which the Holy See is located but to the office of the Pontiff. Thus when the Papacy was moved to Avignon during the "Babylonian Captivity," so was the primacy, in the person of the Pope. In principle, Constantinople has no more primacy than, say, Alexandria or Jerusalem, even if it had a secondary importance during the transfer of the IMPERIAL capital in the Eastern Empire.

B. The powers given to Peter were also give to the other Apostles; Meyendorff sasys that this argument is both weak, and runs counter to the fairly uniform patristic tradition of the headship of Peter.


Amen to Meyendorff's remark. Again, that the "powers" given to Peter (like priestly or even episcopal ordination) were given to the other Apostles, doesn't mean that the primacy of Peter was given to them as well.

Just in terms of circumstantial evidence, it's interesting that the second most frequently cited Apostle in the NT is St. John, whose name appears 30 times (in the Gospels and in Acts), whereas Peter's name appears a total of 179 times! Furthermore, in every NT listing of the apostles' names (whether small or large), Peter's name always heads the list! (scroll down at same link)

C. In what Meyendorff says is a broader argument that anticipates future ecclesiological issues is that the succession of Peter does not belong to Rome alone; the primacies of Rome and Constantinople is of imperial origin, and they are conditioned upon confession of the true faith. (Meyendorff mentions that the filioque addition dissolved Rome's primacy, in view of the Byzantine polemicists.)


This, of course, is nonsense. Even if Papal succession is a species of apostolic succession, it does not follow that apostolic succession is a species of Papal succession. Neither does the fact that the imperial governments of Rome and Constantinople, respectively, had a hand in the episcopal activities of each city (e.g., Constantine's calling of the Council of Nicea) mean that the episcopal or Papal offices are imperially constituted. They were constituted by Christ while upon earth when he called the Apostles as the first bishops of the Church and made Peter the first head (or 'papa' or Pope) of the other bishops. Nor does the fact that the confession of the true Faith is essential to the episcopate mean that the Faith can serve to determine who the true bishops are. Theoretically one could have a bishop who believes every article of the Catholic Faith yet be out of communion with the Church, like Archbishop Lefebvre, for example. Furthermore, one has to address the principle of authority by which the true Faith is determined, and that is something that can't be divorced from the apostolic succession and the Papacy.

As for the filioque, I find it irrelevant. If one uses THAT as an excuse to reject the Pope's authority, then he's thrown back on his own resources to define what the criterion for authority is going to be, which pretty much leaves him as much adrift at sea as the Protestant who says "the Bible" is his only standard. Um ... yeah. Sure.

Parenthetically, Nicholas Mesarites, a Byzantine theologian of the time, mentions that there is an old tradition of the Roman Pramacy before the 4th century, but this primacy was only given that the Bishop of Rome may defend the Church against Pagan Emperors; in short, Meyendorff says that Mesarites' idea is that the Primacy of Rome, though practical and useful, depends on its adherence to the Faith.


Again, this is a way of trying to avoid the proper authority of the Roman Pontiff. If the Pope's authority can be made subservient to the goal of combating Pagan Emperors, then it can be avoided in venues where there are no Pagan Emperors, as in Byzantium, where the emperors were Christian or after 1543 when there were no more emperors at all. And making the primacy of Rome dependent upon adherence to the Faith again ties the authority of the Papacy to a body of beliefs whose content it is his prerogative to judge as to its orthodoxy. But it's rubbish to think you can define the orthodoxy of content apart from the Prophetic Office which furnishes the standard of orthodoxy.
III. The Theologians of the 14th/15th centuries:
A. Many of these theologians teach that the function of primacy is this: pramacy exists within the episcopal college as it existed within the apostolic college, but it implies the unity of faith in the truth.


This is something like saying that a monarchy is really a parliamentary democracy, and then doing away even with the parliament. "The primacy exists within the episcopal college": that means -- using the analogy -- that there is no real monarch; ultimate authority exists within the parliamentary representatives of the people. "... but it implies the unity of faith in the truth": that means that the ultimate criterion is not even the elected representatives but the people electing them. How otherwise does one determine what is true? You're not willing to listen to the Pope. So, then whom? The bishops? But bishops can fall from the Faith. So, then where do you turn? The Faith? But who knows that? The consensus of the faithful? But the majority can be wrong too, after all.

B. Only the Church is infallible, not Peter.

Reply: How does one define "Church" without "Peter"? No Peter, no Church. Do those Eastern Orthodox who teach the permissibility of contraception participate in the Church's infallibility? Of course not.

In summation, the fault of Rome is to distort the analogy between the apostolic college and the episcopal college; the ecclesiastical order is detemined by both Councils and secular rulers, not the succession of the Bishop of Rome.


What distortion? The ecclesiastical order is and was determined by Christ who founded the Church upon Peter and his successors. All distinctions between the apostolic college and episcopal college that found themselves upon criteria such as the fact that the apostles were "eyewitnesses of the resurrection" while later bishops were not, are grasping at straws. For Peter himself supervised the selection of a successor to Judas, beginning the process of episcopal
succession, which would continue down to our own day. The process is seamless from Christ to Peter to Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte, NC.

What do they mean, "the ecclesiastical order is determined by both Councils and secular rulers"? This is tanamout to Erastianism. The fact that Constantine had a major hand in convening the Council of Nicea doesn't make him an authoritative successor of the apostles any more than you or I. His interest at Nicea was primary political, not theological; it was the bishops' business to settle the theological controversy under the aegis of the Pope who ratified their decision with the seal of ecclesiastical authority.