DONALD JOSEPH GRIMES, Fordham University


At its fourth session on July 18, 1870, the First Vatican Council solemnly defined the dogma of papal infallibility in the constitution Pastor Aeternus. The initial chapters of that document delineate the origin and nature of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff over the universal Church; their argument rests on biblical and Patristic sources. The Petrine texts (Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17) are explicitly cited to illustrate and support the institution of apostolic primacy in St. Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome.^ The contention in Pastor Aeternus, that these texts "have always been understood by the Catholic Church" as containing Christ's promise of a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction, made to Peter alone among the apostles, poses the foundational question for this study. The dissertation is concerned with the solution of an exegetical problem: it evaluates the broad assertion of the Council through an examination of the exegesis of the pertinent biblical texts during the Middle Ages (A.D. 800-1300).^ The Petrine teaching deriving from Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17, supplemented by Luke 22:31-32, is preserved in various Scriptural commentaries prepared in the Latin West during the ninth through the thirteenth centuries. Primary sources examined include published biblical commentaries, liturgical homilies, and occasional sermons emanating from the Latin West during those five centuries.^ Following an historico-theological methodology, the dissertation examines the relationship between the historical development of the idea and practice of papal primacy and the extent to which such development is reflected in the exegetical compositions of the period. Prefaced by a conspectus of the hermeneutics of medieval exegesis, the study examines the primary sources in chronological order, taking into account the affinity of sources within particular geographical areas and prevailing "schools" of interpretation. Each author's approach to the texts, his exegesis and conclusions are analyzed so as to disclose the way in which the Petrine texts were understood.^ Three conclusions emerge from this inquiry. During the ninth, tenth, and the first half of the twelfth centuries the biblical texts relating to Peter's position in the Church were interpreted in a predominantly spiritual sense. Only from the mid-twelfth century is a truly "Petrine" (i.e., primatial) understanding prevalent. Minimal evidence can be adduced to show significant influence of historical and/or papal ideological developments on the exegesis of the Petrine texts prior to the twelfth century. The sole exception is Odo of Cluny's adoption of the fifth-century exposition of Leo the Great. Finally, the contention in Pastor Aeternus--that the Petrine texts were always understood by the Catholic Church as Christ's promise of a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction, made to Peter alone--is apparently not confirmed if "always" is understood literally. Nonetheless, interpreting "always" less restrictively, it is possible to affirm the conciliar statement. The sources witness to an evolving and generally uncontested recognition that Peter was entrusted with an office and power peculiar to him. It must be acknowledged, however, that the medieval exegetes--particularly those of the ninth century--were generally fascinated with unfolding the spiritual sense of the texts. Neither their hermeneutics nor the exigencies of their age seem to have been such as to compel them to arrive at a univocal (primatial) understanding of the Petrine pericopes. ^

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Recommended Citation

DONALD JOSEPH GRIMES, "THE PAPACY AND THE PETRINE TEXTS: A STUDY IN THE HISTORY OF BIBLICAL EXEGESIS (A. D. 800-1300)" (January 1, 1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8111545.