by Thomas Seraphim Hamilton
A Roman Catholic argued :
"Unity of Peter" = "Unity of Episcopate", and Roman Catholics already affirm this. The question arises where is the essential present source of this unity. Cyprian said it’s the Throne of Peter which is principally in the Church of Rome in the 54th Epistle. That this was only in the past is absurd and unteneable. Cyprian in another work, says Rome is the "place of Peter and the degree of the sacerdotal throne" (Ep. 51) and calls Rome the ‘sacerdotal Chair’; "at Rome in the sacerdotal chair" (Ibid). He further calls Rome the "womb and root of the Catholic Church" (Quoted in Clarke, Letters of St. Cyprian, p75) as Rome having "the honor of the priestly throne" (Ep. 72).
Had this Roman Catholic actually read St Cyprian’s statements on this matter, he would have known just how silly using these quotations for his position is.
Let’s take a look at each of them.
Epistle 54, which is probably his strongest case, states:
After such things as these, moreover, they still dare— a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics— to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source
There’s no dispute that Rome was the chief church. None at all. Nor is there dispute that the bishop of Rome was successor of St Peter in a unique manner, because St Peter himself helped establish the Church of Rome. The fact is, however, that this unique Petrine privilege was shared with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch.
As St Gregory of Rome (540-590) puts it:
Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to the principality itself the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority, which in three places is the See of one.
For [Peter] himself exalted the See in which he deigned even to rest and end the present life. He himself adorned the See to which he sent his disciple as evangelist. He himself established the See in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years. Since then it is the See of one, and one See, over which by Divine authority three bishops now preside (Book 7, Epistle 40)
The original Greek is in the past tense- that is, priestly unity took its source in Rome because St Peter was in Rome, and St Peter is the icon of the unity of the episcopate, that is, in his person, sacerdotal unity takes its source. And, as an additional note, which was again not refuted, the word "chief" can also be translated "primeval."
Now, let’s take a look at the other quotations which our friend used to justify the innovation of papal supremacy. Epistle 51:
Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men, when no one had been made so before him, when the place of Fabian, that is, when the place of Peter and the degree of the sacerdotal throne was vacant…
It’s rather odd that a Roman Catholic would so obviously misuse this text to justify the supremacy of the bishop of Rome. The "sacerdotal throne" here does not belong to Rome uniquely, but is a term used to refer to the throne of any bishop. There was no bishop of the Church of Rome at the time which St Cyprian refers to. Thus, the "place of Peter", which we have seen is the place which every bishop holds in the position of the local Church, and the "sacerdotal" throne was vacant, because there was no bishop at that time. But, this was not a unique office to Rome. We will see this in our analysis from Epistle 72:
Because Novatian also usurps the honor of the priestly throne, ought we therefore to renounce our throne?
As you can see quite easily, St Cyprian says that he himself sits on a priestly throne like the priestly throne of the Roman Church. Nowhere is Rome indicated to hold the priestly throne in a unique sense.
What St Cyprian means by "the priestly throne" is the throne of any bishop. It is absolutely irresponsible to quote three words from an epistle of St Cyprian and conclude, from those three words, with no context given, the Roman Catholic position.
Now, let us look at a final example mentioned. The Roman Catholic claimed
He further calls Rome the "womb and root of the Catholic Church" (Quoted in Clarke, Letters of St. Cyprian, p75)
Had he done a bit of study on this passage, he would have discovered that the meaning of this is highly disputed. Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia itself notes that:
By this is probably meant "the womb and root which is the Catholic Church", but Harnack and many Protestants, as well as many Catholics, find here a statement that the Roman Church is the womb and root.
As we can see from this case study, the supremacy of the bishop of Rome has to be read into the Fathers, for the very reason that it is not there. The same eisegesis that Protestants apply to the sacred books of the Scriptures is applied to the writings of the holy Fathers by Roman Catholics.
As the Lord Jesus Christ Himself said:
(St John 8:32) And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."