The Church Fathers on Papal Supremacy: St. Cyprian

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


Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 200/210 – ca. 258)

Cyprian was a bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the mid–third century. He was one of the most influential theologians and bishops of the Church of his day and gave his life in martydom for his faith. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Tertullian, the North African father who preceded him. He is often cited by Roman Catholic apologists as a witness for papal primacy. In his treatise On the Unity of the Church Cyprian gives the following interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:

The Lord saith unto Peter, I say unto thee, (saith He,) that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And 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 (Matt. 16:18–19). To him again, after His resurrection, He says, Feed My sheep. Upon him being one He builds His Church; and although He gives to all the Apostles an equal power, and says, As My Father sent Me, even so I send you; receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted to him, and whosoever sins ye shall retain, they shall be retained (John 20:21);— yet in order to manifest unity, He has by His own authority so placed the source of the same unity, as to begin from one.1

Cyprian clearly says that Peter is the rock. If his comments were restricted to the above citation it would lend credence to the idea that he was a proponent of papal primacy. However Cyprian’s comments continue on from the statements given above. His additional statements prove conclusively that although he states that Peter is the rock he does not mean this in a pro–Roman sense. His view is that Peter is a symbol of unity, a figurative representative of the bishops of the Church. Cyprian viewed all the apostles as being equal with one another. He believed the words to Peter in Matthew 16 to be representative of the ordination of all Bishops so that the Church is founded, not upon one Bishop in one see, but upon all equally in collegiality. Peter, then, is a representative figure of the episcopate as a whole. His view is clearly stated in these words:

Certainly the other Apostles also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship both of honour and power; but a commencement is made from unity, that the Church may be set before as one; which one Church, in the Song of Songs, doth the Holy Spirit design and name in the Person of our Lord: My dove, My spotless one, is but one; she is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her (Cant. 9:6) (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), Cyprian, On The Unity of the Church 3, p. 133).


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, I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. 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. 2

Cyprian, like Tertullian, states that Peter is the rock. But such a statement must be qualified. He definitely does not mean this in the same way the Church of Rome does. In his treatise, On the Unity of the Church, Cyprian teaches that Peter alone is not the rock or foundation on which the Church is built, but rather, he is an example of the principle of unity. He is representative of the Church as a whole. The entire episcopate, according to Cyprian, is the foundation, though Christ is himself the true Rock. The bishops of Rome are not endowed with divine authority to rule the Church. All of the bishops together constitute the Church and rule over their individual areas of responsibility as co-equals. If Cyprian meant to say that the Church was built upon Peter and he who resists the bishop of Rome resists the Church (cutting himself off from the Church), then he completely contradicts himself, for, as we will see in Part II, he opposed Stephen, the bishop of Rome in his interpretation of Matthew 16 as well as on theological and jurisdictional issues. His actions prove that his comments about Peter could not coincide with the Roman Catholic interpretation of his words. To do so is a distortion of his true meaning.

Historically there has been some confusion on the interpretation of Cyprian’s teaching because there are two versions of his treatise, The Unity of the Church. In the first Cyprian speaks of the chair of Peter in which he equates the true Church with that chair. He states that there is only one Church and one chair and a primacy given to Peter. In the second, the references to a Petrine primacy are softened to give greater emphasis to the theme of unity and co-equality of bishops. Most Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars now agree that Cyprian is the author of both versions. He wrote the second in order to offset a pro–Roman interpretation which was being attached to his words which he never intended. The episcopate is to him the principle of unity within the Church and representative of it. The ‘chair of Peter’ is a figurative expression which applies to every bishop in his own see, not just the bishops of Rome. The bishop of Rome holds a primacy of honor but he does not have universal jurisdiction over the entire Church for Cyprian expressly states that all the apostles received the same authority and status as Peter and the Church is built upon all the bishops and not just Peter alone. Some object to these conclusions about Cyprian citing his statements about the chair of Peter. Roman Catholic apologists would lead us to believe that Cyprian’s comments refer exclusively to the bishops of Rome and that they therefore possess special authority as the successors of Peter.

The Roman Catholic historian, Robert Eno, repudiates this point of view as a misrepresentation of Cyprian’s view. As he points out Cyprian did not believe that the bishop of Rome possessed a higher authority than he or the other African bishops. They were all equals:

Cyprian makes considerable use of the image of Peter’s cathedra or chair. Note however that it is important in his theology of the local church: ‘God is one and Christ is one: there is one Church and one chair founded, by the Lord’s authority, upon Peter. It is not possible that another altar can be set up, or that a new priesthood can be appointed, over and above this one altar and this one priesthood’ (Ep. 43.5).


The cathedri Petri symbolism has been the source of much misunderstanding and dispute. Perhaps it can be understood more easily by looking at the special treatise he wrote to defend both his own position as sole lawful bishop of Carthage and that of Cornelius against Novatian, namely, the De unitate ecclesiae, or, as it was known in the Middle Ages, On the Simplicity of Prelates. The chapter of most interest is the fourth. Controversy has dogged this work because two versions of this chapter exist. Since the Reformation, acceptance of one version or the other has usually followed denominational lines.


Much of this has subsided in recent decades especially with the work of Fr. Maurice Bevenot, an English Jesuit, who devoted most of his scholarly life to this text. He championed the suggestion of the English Benedictine, John Chapman, that what we are dealing with here are two versions of a text, both of which were authored by Cyprian. This view has gained wide acceptance in recent decades. Not only did Cyprian write both but his theology of the Church is unchanged from the first to the second. He made textual changes because his earlier version was being misused.


The theology of the controverted passage sees in Peter the symbol of unity, not from his being given greater authority by Christ for, as he says in both versions, “…a like power is given to all the Apostles” and “…No doubt the others were all that Peter was.” Yet Peter was given the power first: “Thus it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair.” The Chair of Peter then belongs to each lawful bishop in his own see. Cyprian holds the Chair of Peter in Carthage and Cornelius in Rome over against Novatian the would-be usurper. You must hold to this unity if you are to remain in the Church. Cyprian wants unity in the local church around the lawful bishop and unity among the bishops of the world who are “glued together” (Ep. 66.8).


Apart from his good relations and harmony with Bishop Cornelius over the matter of the lapsed, what was Cyprian’s basic view of the role, not of Peter as symbol of unity, but of Rome in the contemporary Church? Given what we have said above, it is clear that he 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. So when he bade farewell to some Catholics travelling to Rome, he instructed them to be very careful about which group of Christians they contacted after their arrival in Rome. They must avoid schismatic groups like that of Novation. They should contact and join the Church presided over by Cornelius because it alone is the Catholic Church in Rome. In other words, Cyprian exhorted “…them to discern the womb and root…of the Catholic Church and to cleave to it” (Ep. 48.3).


It is clear that in Cyprian’s mind…one theological conclusion he does not draw is that the bishop of Rome has authority which is superior to that of the African bishops.3

As Charles Gore has pointed out, Cyprian used the phrase, the “Chair of Peter” in his Epistle 43, which Roman apologists often cite in defense of an exclusive Roman primacy, to refer to his own see of Carthage, not the see of Rome. This is confirmed as a general consensus of Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic historians. James McCue, writing for Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue, in the work Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, affirms this interpretation of Cyprian’s view in the following comments:

According to Cyprian’s interpretation of Matthew 16:18, Jesus first conferred upon Peter the authority with which he subsequently endowed all the apostles. This, according to Cyprian, was to make clear the unity of the power that was being conferred and of the church that was being established. Cyprian frequently speaks of Peter as the foundation of the church, and his meaning seems to be that it was in Peter that Jesus first established all the church–building powers and responsibilities that would subsequently also be given to the other apostles and to the bishops.


Peter is the source of the church’s unity only in an exemplary or symbolic way…Peter himself seems, in Cyprian’s thought, to have had no authority over the other apostles, and consequently the church of Peter cannot reasonably claim to have any authority over the other churches.4

This judgment is further affirmed by the Roman Catholic historian, Michael Winter:

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 pro-papal 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… Catholics as well as Protestants are now generally agreed that Cyprian did not attribute a superior authority to Peter.5

This Roman Catholic historian insists that it is a misrepresentation of Cyprian’s true teaching to assert that he is a father who supports the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16. And he says that both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars are now agreed on this. Once again, Roman Catholic historians specifically repudiate what some Roman apologists often teach about Cyprian and his comments on the ‘Chair of Peter’. Karlfried Froehlich states:

Cyprian understood the biblical Peter as representative of the unified episcopate, not of the bishop of Rome… He understood him as symbolizing the unity of all bishops, the privileged officers of penance… For (Cyprian), the one Peter, the first to receive the penitential keys which all other bishops also exercise, was the biblical type of the one episcopate, which in turn guaranteed the unity of the church. The one Peter equaled the one body of bishops.6

John Meyendorff explains the meaning of Cyprian’s use of the phrase ‘chair of Peter’ and sums up the Cyprianic ecclesiology which was normative for the East as a whole:

The early Christian concept, best expressed in the third century by Cyprian of Carthage, according to which the ‘see of Peter’ belongs, in each local church, to the bishop, remains the longstanding and obvious pattern for the Byzantines. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, can write that Jesus ‘through Peter gave to the bishops the keys of heavenly honors.’ Pseudo–Dionysius when he mentions the ‘hierarchs’— i.e., the bishops of the early Church— refers immediately to the image of Peter….Peter succession is seen wherever the right faith is preserved, and, as such, it cannot be localized geographically or monopolized by a single church or individual.7


Cyprian’s view of Peter’s ‘chair’ (cathedri Petri) was that it belonged not only to the bishop of Rome but to every bishop within each community. Thus Cyprian used not the argument of Roman primacy but that of his own authority as ‘successor of Peter’ in Carthage…For Cyprian, the ‘chair of Peter’, was a sacramental concept, necessarily present in each local church: Peter was the example and model of each local bishop, who, within his community, presides over the Eucharist and possesses ‘the power of the keys’ to remit sins. And since the model is unique, unique also is the episcopate (episcopatus unus est) shared, in equal fullness (in solidum) by all bishops.8

And finally, Reinhold Seeberg explains Cyprian’s interpretation of Matthew 16 and his ecclesiology in these words:

According to Matt. 16:18f., the church is founded upon the bishop and its direction devolves upon him: “Hence through the changes of times and dynasties the ordination of bishops and the order of the church moves on, so that the church is constituted of bishops, and every act of the church is controlled by these leaders” (Epistle 33.1)…The bishops constitute a college (collegium), the episcopate (episcopatus). The councils developed this conception. In them the bishops practically represented the unity of the church, as Cyprian now theoretically formulated it. Upon their unity rests the unity of the church…This unity is manifest in the fact that the Lord in the first instance bestowed apostolic authority upon Peter: “Hence the other apostles were also, to a certain extent, what Peter was, endowed with an equal share of both honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity, in order that the church of Christ may be shown to be one” (de un. eccl. 4)… In reality all the bishops— regarded dogmatically— stand upon the same level, and hence he maintained, in opposition to Stephanus of Rome, his right of independent opinion and action….9

The above quotations from world renowned Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox historians reveal a consensus of scholarly opinion on Cyprian’s teaching effectively demonstrating the incompatibility of Cyprian’s views with those espoused by Vatican I. This consensus also reveals the danger of taking the statements of Church fathers at face value without regard for the context of those statements or for seeking a proper interpretation of the meaning of the terms they use. It is easy to import preconceived meanings into their statements resulting in misrepresentation of their teaching.

The authors of Jesus Peter and the Keys are guilty of this very thing. They list quotations from Cyprian in total disregard of the true facts as they have been enumerated by the above historians giving the impression that Cyprian believed in papal primacy when in fact he did not. Their point of view and that of many of the Roman apologists of our day is thoroughly repudiated even by conservative Roman Catholic historians. Cyprian is an excellent example of a father who states that Peter is the rock but who does not mean this in a Roman Catholic sense. But without giving the proper historical context and understanding of his writings it would be quite easy to mislead the uninitiated by investing Cyprian’s words with the doctrinal development of a later age thereby misrepresenting his actual position.



  1. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church [Oxford: Parker, 1844], Cyprian, On The Unity of the Church 3-4, pp. 133-135
  2. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of S. Cyprian, Ep. 33.1
  3. Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), pp. 57-60
  4. Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, Edited by Paul Empie and Austin Murphy (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 68-69
  5. Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), pp. 47-48
  6. Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and the Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, p. 36, 13, n. 28 p. 13. Taken from The Religious Roles of the Papacy: Ideals and Realities, 1150-1300, ed. Christopher Ryan, Papers in Medieval Studies 8 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989).
  7. Meyendorff, op. cit., p. 98
  8. Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1989), pp. 61, 152
  9. Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume I, p. 182-183


  1. Hi, im 15 and I’ve recently become very interested in theology and the first topic I began researching (as a protestant) is Catholicism. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in an environment brimming with a variety of Christians from Catholics to 7 day Adventists and so forth. I was going down the list debunking Catholic beliefs and presenting essays before Catholic and Protestant communities, in which wed hold debates, whenever I came across the Papacy. I’ve read and presented Webster’s argument before some Catholic Apologists (all around my age, the oldest being 24) in which I received Stephen Rays response. I’m currently exegeting his 210 page response and I’ve gathered a much more efficient argument from Ray than what Webster has presented. Not only do I find that Webster’s argument is debunked, but I see that his second rebuttal to Ray isn’t very convincing either. Ray provides more than enough evidence from the Patristic period supporting the belief that the church fathers believed in not only the Papacy, but Apostolic succession and Papal primacy as well. I’m not certain about Papal infallibility due to what Alpha and Omega ministries has provided on Pope Honorius, but I was wondering if there’s more evidence supporting protestant claims other than Webster and James White. The arguments I’ve seen supporting protestantism just doesn’t appear as convincing as Catholicisms. I’d appreciate any sources or books provided and/or reccomended. Thanks.

    • Hello, Isaiah. Thanks for your comment.

      I am not someone who can give you an argument for “Protestantism” over and against Roman Catholicism. There is no such thing as “Protestantism” per se. As a Lutheran, I disagree more consistently with “Protestants” than I do with papists, i.e., “Roman Catholics.” So, no, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you find the arguments for Roman Catholicism more convincing than arguments for “Protestantism.”

      Which argument by Webster are you saying that Stephen Ray has debunked? I don’t know what article by Webster you’ve read, but this is the one I’m most familiar with. Do be sure that it’s the same one you have in mind, as there are several out there: “The Church Fathers’ Interpretation of the Rock of Matthew 16:18: An Historical Refutation of the Claims of Roman Catholicism”

      As far as recommendations go, if you haven’t read Philipp Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, that should be near the top of your list. Also, if you convert to Roman Catholicism before reading Bl. Martin Chemnitz’s An Examination of the Canons & Decrees of the Council of Trent, you’re just ignoring the evidence so that you can “join the nicest club,” so to speak. I wish there were a free/cheap public domain version of that text (four thick volumes, in case you didn’t click), but there’s not. You can find them used, however.

      Some posts you might enjoy:

      “sic volo, sic iubeo: On Papal Infallibility”

      “The Crux of the Matter”

      “A Lutheran view of mystical ecclesiology”

      But, really, just read Chemnitz and you’ll be unstoppable. And stay off of Facebook— in general, and definitely when it comes to serious theological discourse. Finally, remember that most papist apologists that you meet on the internet are triumphalist intellectual lightweights who don’t read. They’re cheerleaders. And Rome’s soteriology is a mixture of Judaism and pagan philosophy. I’m all about philosophy— don’t get me wrong. But Rome mingles it where it ought not be.

      God’s peace to you.

      • Thanks! I really appreciate the sources and reccomendations. I can’t ever get enough of new information. In regards to which article I was referring to it is “The Church Fathers’ Interpretation of the Rock of Matthew 16:18: An Historical Refutation of the Claims of Roman Catholicism” by William Webster. Stephen Ray has a response online that I downloaded and have been reading and discussing with some Calvinists. I just searched “William Webster refuted” into Google and Stephen Ray was the second link if you’re interested and haven’t read Rays response. As far as how intelligent the Catholics I debate go, the majority are sincere in their faith and can hold a legitimate argument. From church history, the formation of the OT canon, Saint/Mary intercession, etc. ofcourse none of us hold an actual education in theology, we make the best use we can of books, sources, articles, etc. I highly doubt I’ll convert to Catholicism due to the history of the OT canon and what the deuterocanon states exactly. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already proven beyond a doubt that Saint/Mary intercession rests upon assumptions and an argument of silence along with Alpha and Omega ministries articles debunking Papal Infallibility.. I won’t bore you with the details as I’m sure you’re an educated man. Again, thank you so much for the sources and reccomendations.
        God bless

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