The Church Fathers on Papal Supremacy: Origen


Excerpted from “The Church Fathers’ Interpretation of Matthew 16:18: An Historical Refutation of the Claims of Roman Catholicism,” by William Webster

ORIGEN (A.D. 185 – 253/254)

Origen was head of the catechetical school at Alexandria during the first half of the third century. He was an individual of enormous intellect and was by far the most prolific writer of the patristic age. Eusebius states that his writings numbered in the neighborhood of six thousand. He has been called the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity. He had immense influence upon fathers in both the East and West in subsequent centuries. Origen is the first father to give a detailed exposition of the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16:18. His interpretation became normative for the Eastern fathers and for many in the West. Apart from the specific passage of Matthew 16 he states that Peter is the rock: “Look at the great foundation of that Church and at the very solid rock upon which Christ has founded the Church. Wherefore the Lord says: ‘Ye of little faith, why have you doubted?'”1.Exodus, Homily 5.4. Cited in Froehlich, op. cit., p. 100

But, like Tertullian, he does not mean this in the Roman Catholic sense. Often, Origen is cited as a proponent of papal primacy because he says that Peter is the rock. Quotes such as the one given above are isolated from his other statements about Peter and his actual interpretation of Matthew 16:18 thereby inferring that he taught something which he did not teach. In his mind Peter is simply representative of all true believers and what was promised to Peter is given to all believers who truly follow Christ. They all become what Peter is. This is the view expressed in the following comments:

And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by the light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “Thou art Peter,” etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the Church, and the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God.


But if you suppose that upon the one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, “Upon this rock I will build My Church?” Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” be common to others, how shall not all things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them?


“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” If any one says this to Him…he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. For all bear the surname ‘rock’ who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from it the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peter…And to all such the saying of the Savior might be spoken, “Thou art Peter,” etc., down to the words, “prevail against it.” But what is the it? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church, or is it the Church? For the phrase is ambiguous. Or is it as if the rock and the Church were one and the same? This I think to be true; for neither against the rock on which Christ builds His Church, nor against the Church will the gates of Hades prevail. Now, if the gates of Hades prevail against any one, such an one cannot be a rock upon which the Christ builds the Church, nor the Church built by Jesus upon the rock.2.Allan Menzies, Ante–Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Chapters 10-11

This is one of the most important passages in all the writings of Origen for an understanding of his view of the rock of Matthew 16. Yet this passage is is not included in those referenced by the authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys. This is a glaring omission given the importance of the passage and the fact that it is easily accessible in the work the Ante-Nicene Fathers. One can only conclude that the authors purposefully omitted the passage because it is antithetical to the position they are seeking establish.

John Meyendorff was a world renowned and highly respected Orthodox theologian, historian and patristics scholar. He was dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Professor of Church History and Patristics. He gives the following explanation of Origen’s interpretation and of his influence on subsequent fathers in the East and West:

Origen, the common source of patristic exegetical tradition, commenting on Matthew 16:18, interprets the famous logion as Jesus’ answer to Peter’s confession: Simon became the ‘rock’ on which the Church is founded because he expressed the true belief in the divinity of Christ. Origen continues: ‘If we also say “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then we also become Peter…for whoever assimilates to Christ, becomes rock. Does Christ give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone, whereas other blessed people cannot receive them?’ According to Origen, therefore, Peter is no more than the first ‘believer,’ and the keys he received opened the gates of heaven to him alone: if others want to follow, they can ‘imitate’ Peter and receive the same keys. Thus the words of Christ have a soteriological, but not an institutional, significance. They only affirm that the Christian faith is the faith expressed by Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi. In the whole body of patristic exegesis, this is the prevailing understanding of the ‘Petrine’ logia, and it remains valid in Byzantine literature…Thus, when he spoke to Peter, Jesus was underlining the meaning of the faith as the foundation of the Church, rather than organizing the Church as guardian of the faith.3.John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham, 1974), pp. 97-98

James McCue in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue affirms these views of Origen in these statements:

When Origen is commenting directly on Matthew 16:18f, he carefully puts aside any interpretation of the passage that would make Peter anything other than what every Christian should be…(His) is the earliest extant detailed commentary on Matthew 16:18f. and interestingly sees the event described as a lesson about the life to be lived by every Christian, and not information about office or hierarchy or authority in the Church.4.Paul Empie and Austin Murphy, Ed., Papal Primacy in the Universal Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 60-61

Origen and Tertullian are the first fathers, from the East and West respectively, to give an exposition on the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16 and the role and position of Peter. Their views are foundational for the interpretation of this important passage for the centuries following. Strands of their teaching will appear in the views of the fathers throughout the East and West. It is important to point out that the first Eastern and Western fathers to give an exegesis of Matthew 16 do not interpret the passage in a pro-Roman sense.



References   [ + ]

1. Exodus, Homily 5.4. Cited in Froehlich, op. cit., p. 100
2. Allan Menzies, Ante–Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Chapters 10-11
3. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham, 1974), pp. 97-98
4. Paul Empie and Austin Murphy, Ed., Papal Primacy in the Universal Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 60-61