Cyprian Contra Rome’s Mathew 16:18 Exposition

Church Fathers

In The Catholic Layman William Geraghty noted what he deemed to be Cyprian of Carthage’s doctrines:

First, that St. Peter’s person, and not his faith, was the rock upon which our Saviour promised to build His Church – epis. lxx. Ad episc. Numid., &c., &c.

Secondly, that St. Peter was the head of the Church under Christ, and the principle of unity to all the faithful – epist. lxxi., lxxiii. Et lib. De Unitat. Eccles.

Thirdly, that Bishops of Rome are his successors – ep. lii., lv.

Fourthly, that his successors are the principle of Christian unity – ep. xlv – or that they hold the principal see – ep. lv. – the root and matrice (or mother) ep. xlv. – not in the order of time, for that belonged to Jerusalem, but in the order of government of the Catholic Church – ep. lxvii. ; and that to be in their communion is to be in the communion of the Church of Christ – ep. lxvii., xlv. lii., xlii; and xl.?

Fifthly, that , consequently, to be separated from St. Peter’s successors is to be in schism? (Geraghty 1858:93)

Cyprian, like Origen, held the primacy of honor given to St. Peter, but not primacy of authority over other disciples. In this article I agreed with Geraghty’s first, second, fourth and fifth articles as correctly representing the doctrine of Cyprian, but quite the contrary to many Roman Catholic apologists who are unaware of the Church history, the third article is not entirely the doctrine of Cyprian.

De unitate ecclesiae is the treatise of this Northern African bishop that Rome has cited as a testimony for papal primacy exposition of Matthew 16. There are two versions of this treatise that are now widely accepted by Roman and Protestant scholars to be penned by Cyprian. One without what I italicized below and one with:

There Lord saith unto Peter, ‘ I say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ And to the same (apostle) He says after His resurrection ‘Feed my sheep’. He builds His Church upon that one, and to him entrusts His sheep to be fed. And although after His resurrection He assigns equal power to all His apostles, and says ‘ As the Father sent me even so send I you, receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosesoever sins ye remit they shall be remitted unto him, and whosesoever sins ye retain they shall be retained,’ nevertheless in order to make the unity manifest, He established one Chair, and by His own authority appointed the origin of the same unity beginning from one. Certainly the rest of the apostles were that which Peter also was, endued with equal partnership both of honour and office, but the beginning set out from unity, and Primacy is given to Peter, that one Church of Christ and one Chair may be pointed out; and all are pastors and one flock is shown, to be fed by all the apostles with one-hearted accord, that one Church of Christ may be pointed out. It is this one Church the Holy Spirit in the Person of the Lord speaks of in the Song of Songs, saying ‘ My dove is one, my perfect one, one is she to her mother, elect to her who brought her forth.’ He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he believe that he holds the Faith? He who strives and rebels again the Church, he who deserts the Chair of Peter on which the Church was founded, does he truth that he is in the Church? (Cyprian Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church)

Regardless of which version one holds, contrary to Rome, Cyprian held that all the apostles had equal power. They, according to Cyprian, “as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power”. He understood that Peter, in Matthew 16, as representative of the episcopate as a whole. In the Epistles 33.1, Cyprian contended,

Our Lord whose precepts and warnings we ought to observe, determining the honour of a Bishop and the ordering of His own Church, speaks in the Gospel and says to Peter [quoting Matt. 16:18-19] Thence the ordination of Bishops, and the ordering of the Church, runs down along the course of time and line of succession, so that the Church is settled upon her Bishops; and every act of the Church is regulated by these same Prelates (Cyprian 1844: Ep. 33.1)

Thus contrary to Rome, Peter alone is not the rock on which the Church is built, according to Cyprian, but a paradigm of the principle of unity. For Cyprian, the whole episcopate is the rock on which Christ built His church. Peter was the first to receive the keys that all the bishops as one also now have. He held that “the Church is established in the bishop and the clergy, and all who stand fast in the faith.”(Epistle xxvi.1).

The case that Cyprian held that all the disciple had equal honour and office/authority as Peter, makes it impossible to attribute a view that Peter had authority over other apostles as his teaching since the bishop in Rome, according to Cyprian, had equal honour and authority as bishop in Carthage and other bishops.

Robert Eno, Roman Catholic historian, agreed that Cyprian did view all bishops as equal and it is far from his theology to think he understood the bishop of Rome to have had higher authority over him or other African bishops. Expounding the two versions of Cyprian’s De unitate ecclesiae Eno wrote,

Given what we have said above, it is clear that he [Cyprian] did not see the bishop of Rome as his superior, except by way of honor, even though the lawful bishop of Rome also held the chair of Peter in an historical sense (Ep. 52.2). Another term frequently used by the Africans in speaking of the Church was ‘the root’ (radix). Cyprian sometimes used the term in connection with Rome, leading some to assert that he regarded the Roman church as the ‘root.’ But in fact, in Cyprian’s teaching, the Catholic Church as a whole is the root. (Eno 1990: 57-60)

“It is clear that in Cyprian’s mind”, concluded Eno, “one theological conclusion he does not draw that the bishop of Rome has authority which is superior to that of the African bishops”(ibid). Eno was not alone. Another Roman Catholic historian, Michael Winter, had earlier drew the same conclusion. Winter argued,

Cyprian used the Petrine text of Matthew to defend episcopal authority, but many later theologians, influenced by the papal connexions of the text, have interpreted Cyprian in a propapal sense which was alien to his thought. […] Cyprian would have used Matthew 16 to defend the authority of any bishop, but since he happened to employ it for the sake of the Bishop of Rome, it created the impression that he understood it as referring to papal authority”(Winter 1960: 47-48)

Winter went even further to claim that both Catholics and Protestants “now generally agreed that Cyprian did not attribute a superior authority to Peter”(ibid 48)

Contrary to Rome, Cyprian, as Origen, believed that all bishops in accordance to the true faith have the honor and authority of Peter. Cyprian viewed all bishops as Peter’s successors. Thus Cyprian understanding of Matthew 16:18 is contrary to Rome. He indeed contended that Peter is the rock to which Christ built his Church, thus affirming his primacy of honour but quite the contrary to the doctrines of Rome, he neither view Peter as the only rock nor understood him to be the one of true and proper jurisdiction.

Question: Contrary to Roman Catholic, Cyprian did not recognized Peter alone to posses primacy of honour and authority. Should we let Cyprian, on this view, be an anathema?

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Cyprian (1844) The Epistles of S. Cyprian, Ep. 33.1 in A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church. Oxford: Parker

Eno, Robert (1990). The Rise of the Papacy. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.

Geraghty, William (1858). What St. Cyprian Thought of St. Peter’s and the Pope’s Supremacy. The Catholic Layman, Vol. 7, No. 80: 92-95

Winter, Michael (1960). St. Peter and the Popes. Baltimore: Helikon.

Cover Image: Archidiocese Of Washington