The Church Fathers on Papal Supremacy: Tertullian

Tertullian

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

TERTULLIAN (A.D. 155/160 – 240/250)

Tertullian was born in Carthage in North Africa and practiced law before his conversion to Christianity ca. A.D. 193. As a Christian he was a prolific writer and has been called the ‘Father of Latin Christianity’. He was most likely a layman and his writings were widely read. He had a great influence upon the Church fathers of subsequent generations, especially Cyprian. He is the first of the Western fathers to comment on Matthew 16. In one of his writings Tertullian identifies the rock with the person of Peter on which the Church would be built: “Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the ‘rock on which the church should be built’ who also obtained ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and earth?”1.Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Volume III, Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 22

Though Tertullian states that Peter is the rock he does not mean it in a pro–papal sense. We know this because of other comments he has made. But if we isolate this one passage it would be easy to read a pro–Roman interpretation into it. However, in other comments on Matthew 16:18–19, Tertullian explains what he means when he says that Peter is the rock on which the Church would be built:

If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build My Church,’ ‘to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;’ or, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,’ you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build My church;’ and, ‘I will give thee the keys’…and, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound’…In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key; you see what key: ‘Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears: Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you,’ and so forth. (Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which kingdom are ‘loosed’ the sins that were beforetime ‘bound;’ and those which have not been ‘loosed’ are ‘bound,’ in accordance with true salvation….2.ibid., Volume IV, Tertullian, “On Modesty”, 21, p. 99

When Tertullian says that Peter is the rock and the Church is built upon him he means that the Church is built through him as he preaches the gospel. This preaching is how Tertullian explains the meaning of the keys. They are the declarative authority for the offer of forgiveness of sins through the preaching of the gospel. If men respond to the message they are loosed from their sins. If they reject it they remain bound in their sins. In the words just preceding this quote Tertullian explicitly denies that this promise can apply to anyone but Peter and therefore he does not in any way see a Petrine primacy in this verse with successors in the bishops of Rome. The patristic scholar, Karlfried Froehlich, states that even though Tertullian teaches that Peter is the rock he does not mean this in the same sense as the Roman Catholic Church: “Tertullian regarded the Peter of Matthew 16:18–19 as the representative of the entire church or at least its ‘spiritual’ members.”3.Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, pp. 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)

It is a common practice of Roman Catholic apologists to omit part of the quotation given above by Tertullian in order to make it appear that he is a proponent of papal primacy. A prime example off this is found in a recently released Roman Catholic defense of the papacy entitled Jesus, Peter and the Keys. The authors give the following partial citation from Tertullian:

I now inquire into your opinion, to see whence you usurp this right for the Church. Do you presume, because the Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ [Matt. 16:1819a] or ‘whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:19b] that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed on to you, that is, to every church akin to Peter? What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? On you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church; and whatever you shall have bound or you shall have loosed, not what they shall have bound or they shall have loosed.4.Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, David Hess, Jesus, Peter and the Keys (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1996), pp. 216-217

When comparing this citation with the one given above it is clear that these authors have left out the last half of the quotation. The part of the quotation that is omitted defines what Tertullian means by the statement that Christ built his Church on Peter and invested him with authroity. Again, what he means by these words is that Christ built his church on Peter by building it through him as he preached the gospel. This is a meaning that is clearly contrary to the Roman Catholic perspective. To omit this is to distort the teaching of Tertullian and to give the impression that he taught something he did not teach. So, though Tertullian states that Peter is the rock, he does not mean this in the same way the Roman Catholic Church does. Peter is the rock because he is the one given the privilege of being the first to open the kingdom of God to men. This is similar to the view expressed by Maximus of Tours when he says: “For he is called a rock because he was the first to lay the foundations of the faith among the nations.”5.Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman, 1989), The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon 77.1, p. 187

Not only do we see a clear denial of any belief in a papal primacy in Tertullian’s exegesis of Matthew 16, but such a denial is also seen from his practice. In his later years Tertullian separated himself from the Catholic Church to become a Montanist. He clearly did not hold to the view espoused by Vatican I that communion with the Bishop of Rome was the ultimate criterion of orthodoxy and of inclusiveness in the Church of God.

 

+VDMA

References   [ + ]

1. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Volume III, Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 22
2. ibid., Volume IV, Tertullian, “On Modesty”, 21, p. 99
3. Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, pp. 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
4. Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, David Hess, Jesus, Peter and the Keys (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1996), pp. 216-217
5. Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman, 1989), The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon 77.1, p. 187