The Papacy and the Orthodox

Sources and History of Debate

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A. Edward Siecienski
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     528 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate is a very welcome addition to the Oxford series on historical theology. In it, Edward Siecienski examines the question of the primacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome over the Christian church. The trajectory of Siecienski’s study follows a historical arc and is dominated by Roman Catholic and Orthodox authors, though Protestant thinkers do receive some occasional attention—a point to which this review will return later. Siecienski also published The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford University Press, 2010) which appears in the same series.

This volume treats the historical Peter up through the church of Rome in the patristic era (four chapters covering one hundred and eighty pages), medieval Catholicism to the first Vatican Council (three and a half chapters covering one hundred and sixty pages), and Vatican I to today (one and a half chapters covering sixty-three pages). Siecienski’s emphasis on the early period is entirely understandable. The study would, in my judgment, be open to severe criticism were the author to have sought to organize things differently. However, this arrangement may cause frustration for readers. The volume discusses Matthew 16 in several different chapters, for example, forcing the reader to jump around from place to place if they are interested in thinking on that particular biblical passage. But any alternative organizational choice would have raised similar issues.

The study provides thoughtful analysis of extremely important questions related to the papacy. Siecienski discusses, for instance, scholarly opinion on matters related to Peter’s calling and naming by Jesus, confession and commission, relationship with the other disciplines, presence in Rome, whether he was martyred there, and whether his tomb was, in fact, discovered under St. Peter’s Basilica as was announced to the world in 1953 by Pope Paul VI. He examines Petrine appearances through the biblical canon. Concerning Jesus’s momentous declaration in Matthew 16: 13-20, Siecienski makes clear that biblical scholarship has moved more and more towards the view that the rock upon which the church would, according to Jesus, be built was Peter himself and not merely his faith. This, Siecienski contends, is true even among scholars who self-identify as Orthodox (70-71). He considers the “keys” and Jesus’s reference to “binding and loosing,” discussing who might have been wielding the keys at the time Matthew’s gospel was written and, in fact, whether such questions matter at all (that is, whether Matthew 16 refers to anyone other than Peter himself). Siecienski also discusses the question of whether Peter’s position, as established by Jesus, constituted an office which would be occupied by others following Peter’s death. He treats the Petrine Epistles, wisely commenting that the most relevant concern for his volume is not related to whether Peter the apostle actually wrote either letter but rather why the letters bear his name. Other issues discussed include the question of whether, in fact, the fathers regarded Peter as holding a unique place among the apostles, and how the papacy developed during the period of the Gregorian reform.

Throughout The Papacy and the Orthodox, Siecienski is particularly good at stepping back and reflecting thoughtfully on the character of the debate over the papacy. He notes, for instance, that both Catholic and Orthodox theologians continually insist the key issue is to attend to the undivided church and “the role played by the Bishop of Rome in the Church’s first few centuries” (140) but adds that the ability of scholars to actually do this is seriously limited. This observation nicely illustrates one of the more admirable qualities found in this study. Siecienski does not come across as dogmatic, defensive, captious, or tendentious; the study is full of solid learning. It handles with maturity and sensitivity matters which could very easily be handled poorly. One of the upshots of this is that Siecienski refrains from passing judgement on matters which he is discussing. So, for example, in concluding that the majority of scholars—even Catholic ones—do not think Peter was ever the bishop of Rome (49-50), Siecienski raises an issue on which a controversialist might be tempted to expand. He refrains from doing so, leaving his readers to ponder the matter for themselves.

It is part of the job of a reviewer to raise points of criticism. This reviewer found Siecienski’s engagement with scholarship to be somewhat uneven in two ways. First, he focuses on the relatively-older writings of Rudolph Bultmann, F.F. Bruce, Raymond Brown, Ernst Käsemann, and Oscar Cullmann (whose name throughout the monograph is often spelled Cullman) perhaps more than is warranted given that they died in 1976, 1990, 1998, 1998, and 1999, respectively.  This decision is all the more striking given that scholarship on the New Testament and the early church during the past fifty years by Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, Bart Ehrman and others has broken new and significant ground. To his credit, Siecienski seems quite conscious of the decisions he has made—he mentions Cullmann specifically, for instance, noting in the preface that he has avoided discussion of the Protestant critiques of the papacy but has engaged with scholarship from important Protestants such as Cullmann, whose Peter: Discipline, Apostle, Martyr (London, 1961) significantly advanced understanding of the apostle. Second, Siecienski focuses on Roman Catholic over Orthodox scholars. So, for instance, the work of Olivier Clément and also the extremely-important volume edited by John Meyendorff, La primauté de Pierre dans l'Église Orthodoxe (Neuchâtel, 1960)—which saw a second edition and English translation in 1992, with contributions from Meyendorff, Nicholas Koulomzine, Alexander Schmemann, Nicholas Afanassieff, and Veselin Kesich—receive relatively little attention.

The monograph would have been even stronger had it examined Protestant critiques of the papacy. The subtitle of the volume includes the phrase “History of a Debate,” which suggests inclusion of the Protestant side of that history even though, of course, the volume is focused on the debate between Rome and the Orthodox. Siecienski does briefly note the existence of Protestant arguments, yet even here he focuses on their appeal to the Orthodox. It may be noted that chapter 8 covers the longest historical period (the four hundred and thirty-two years between the council of Ferrara-Florence [1438-39] and Vatican I [1869-70]) and is the book’s shortest chapter at only forty pages. Other chapters tend to cover periods of two hundred or three hundred years. Now arguably the most significant event that occurred during that four hundred and thirty-two-year period was the Reformation, which produced a momentous amount of material directed specifically at analyzing the papal claim to primacy and authority. Could one argue that Siecienski’s work would not be strengthened by dedicated coverage of this material? 

These criticism are, I hasten to add, open to discussion and debate. They do not detract from the excellence of this outstanding monograph, which is a work of exceptional breadth, perceptiveness, and learning; an excellent addition to an excellent series.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Religion at the University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

A. Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Religion and Pappas Professor of Byzantine Culture and Religion at Stockton University.


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