The Church Fathers’ Interpretation of the Rock of Matthew 16:18
A Historical Refutation of the Claims of Roman Catholicism
Includes a Critique of Jesus, Peter and the Keys
By William Webster
Matthew 16:18 is the critical passage of Scripture for the establishment of the authority claims of the Roman Catholic Church. It is upon the interpretation of the rock and keys that the entire structure of the Church of Rome rests. And Vatican I plainly states that its interpretation of Matthew 16 is that which has been held by the Church from the very beginning and is therefore not a doctrinal development. The Council asserted that its interpretation was grounded upon the unanimous consent of the fathers. In saying this Vatican I is claiming a two thousand year consensus for its interpretation and teaching. It specifically states that the Roman Catholic Church alone has authority to interpret scripture and that it is unlawful to interpret it in any way contrary to what it calls the ‘unanimous consent of the fathers.’ This principle does not mean that every single father agrees on a particular interpretation of scripture, but it does mean that there is a general consensus of interpretation, and Vatican I claims to be consistent with that consensus. This is very important to establish because it has direct bearing on the Roman Church’s claim, that of being the one true Church established by Christ, unchanged from the very beginning.
Roman Catholic apologists, in an effort to substantiate the claims of Vatican I, make appeals to certain statements of Church fathers which they claim give unequivocal and unambiguous evidence of a belief in papal primacy in the early Church. Briefly, the arguments can be summarized as follows:
• The fathers often speak in lofty language when referring to the apostle Peter implying a personal primacy.
• Numerous fathers interpret the rock of Matthew 16 as the person of Peter.
• While some of the fathers interpret the rock to be Peter’s confession of faith, they do not separate Peter’s confession from his person.
• The fathers refer to the bishops of Rome as successors of Peter.
Roman apologists historically have often resorted to the use of selected statements of major Church fathers, interpreting them as supportive of papal primacy. An example of this type of argumentation can be seen in the following references to the writings of Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine by a Roman Catholic apologist:
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258 A.D.) in his letter to Cornelius of Rome (c. 251 A.D.) speaks of the Church of Rome as the ‘chair of Peter (cathedra Petri)’ and ‘the principle Church in which sacerdotal unity has its source’ (Ep. 59, 14). St Ambrose (d. 397 A.D.) states that ‘where Peter is, there is the Church’ (Commen.. on the Psalms 40, 30)…St. Augustine’s recognition of the authority of the Pope is manifested by the famous words with which he welcomes the decision made by the Pope: Roma locuta est; causa finita est—Rome has spoken the case is concluded (Sermon 131, 6:10). Why does Augustine believe the Bishop of Rome has the final word? The answer is because the Pope is the successor of St. Peter—a fact clearly recognized by Augustine in his Letter to Generosus (c. 400 A.D.) in which he names all 34 of the bishops of Rome from Peter to Anastasius (Letter 53, 1,2).
The above arguments are very common. They are precisely the same citations found in The Faith of the Early Fathers by the Roman Catholic patristics scholar William Jurgens as proof for the purported belief in papal primacy in the early Church. And Karl Keating uses the same reference to Augustine in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism. But do the statements of these fathers actually support the claims of papal primacy? Is this what they meant by these statements? The facts do not support this contention. These statements are given completely out of context of the rest of the writings of these fathers thereby distorting the true meaning of their words. And in the case of Augustine, as we will see, his words are actually misquoted. All too frequently statements from the fathers are isolated and quoted without any proper interpretation, often giving the impression that a father taught a particular point of view when, in fact, he did not. But for those unfamiliar with the writings of the Church fathers such arguments can seem fairly convincing. An example of this kind of methodology is seen in a recent Roman Catholic work entitled Jesus, Peter and the Keys.This work is being touted by Roman Catholics as providing definitive evidence of the teaching of the Church fathers on the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16 and of Peter’s role. But the actual references from the fathers cited in this work are very selective, often omitting important citations of their overall works that demonstrate a view contrary to that which is being proposed. What we will discover, if we give the statements of the fathers in context and in correlation with their overall writings, is that their actual perspective is often the opposite of that claimed by Vatican I and these Roman apologists.
In his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating states that the reformers had invented a novel exegesis of Matthew 16 in order to aid them in their rebellion against the papacy. This is a complete misrepresentation. As historian Oscar Cullmann points out, the view of the Reformers was not a novel interpretation invented by them but hearkened back to the patristic tradition: ‘We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformers gave…was not first invented for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition’ (Oscar Cullmann, Peter:Disciple–Apostle–Martyr (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), p. 162).
An examination of the writings of the fathers does reveal the expression of a consistent viewpoint, but it is not that of the Roman Catholic Church, as the documentation of the major fathers of the East and West in this article will demonstrate. This particular article is strictly historical in nature. Its purpose is to document the patristic interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:18. And the evidence will demonstrate that the Protestant and Orthodox understanding of the text is rooted in this patristic consensus. From a strictly scriptural point of view, the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is divorced from its proper biblical context. The Roman Church states that Matthew 16 teaches that the Church is built upon Peter and therefore upon the bishops of Rome in an exclusive sense. What is seldom ever mentioned is the fact that Ephesians 2:20 uses precisely the same language as that found in Matthew 16 when it says the Church is built upon the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. The same greek word for build upon in Matthew 16 is employed in Ephesians 2:20. This demonstrates that from a biblical perspective, even if we were to interpret the rock of Matthew 16 to be the person of Peter, the New Testament does not view the apostle Peter to be unique in this role. Christ is the foundation and the Church is built upon all the apostles and prophets in the sense of being built upon their teaching. And in addition, the Roman Catholic interpretation imports a meaning into the Matthew 16 text that is completely absent. This text says absolutely nothing about infallibility or about successors.
The fathers of the Church did not isolate particular verses from their overall biblical context and consequently they have a biblical perspective of the foundation of the Church, not that which is Roman. The documentation of the interpretation of the fathers will also be supplemented by the comments of major Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox historians in order to provide a scholarly consensus on the true understanding of the church fathers cited. In particular we will examine the comments of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, Augustine, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Theodoret, Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Epiphanius, Basil of Seleucia, Paul of Emesa and John of Damascus.
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? (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…(Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 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.’ (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 (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’ (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.
Origen was head of the catechetical school at Alexandria during the first half of the third century. He was an individual of enormous intellect and was by far the most prolific writer of the patristic age. Eusebius states that his writings numbered in the neighborhood of six thousand. He has been called the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity. He had immense influence upon fathers in both the East and West in subsequent centuries. Origen is the first father to give a detailed exposition of the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16:18. His interpretation became normative for the Eastern fathers and for many in the West. Apart from the specific passage of Matthew 16 he states that Peter is the rock:
Look at the great foundation of that Church and at the very solid rock upon which Christ has founded the Church. Wherefore the Lord says: ‘Ye of little faith, why have you doubted?’ (Exodus, Homily 5.4. Cited by Karlfried Froehlich, Formen der Auslegung von Matthaus 16,13-18 im lateinischen Mittelaiter, Dissertation (Tubingen, 1963), p. 100).
But, like Tertullian, he does not mean this in the Roman Catholic sense. Often, Origen is cited as a proponent of papal primacy because he says that Peter is the rock. Quotes such as the one given above are isolated from his other statements about Peter and his actual interpretation of Matthew 16:18 thereby inferring that he taught something which he did not teach. In his mind Peter is simply representative of all true believers and what was promised to Peter is given to all believers who truly follow Christ. They all become what Peter is. This is the view expressed in the following comments:
And if we too have said like Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by the light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, ‘Thou art Peter,’ etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the Church, and the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God.
But if you suppose that upon the one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, ‘The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,’ hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, ‘Upon this rock I will build My Church?’ Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ be common to others, how shall not all things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them?
‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ If any one says this to Him…he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. For all bear the surname ‘rock’ who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from it the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peters…And to all such the saying of the Savior might be spoken, ‘Thou art Peter’ etc., down to the words, ‘prevail against it.’ But what is the it? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church, or is it the Church? For the phrase is ambiguous. Or is it as if the rock and the Church were one and the same? This I think to be true; for neither against the rock on which Christ builds His Church, nor against the Church will the gates of Hades prevail. Now, if the gates of Hades prevail against any one, such an one cannot be a rock upon which the Christ builds the Church, nor the Church built by Jesus upon the rock (Allan Menzies, Ante–Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Chapters 10-11).
This is one of the most important passages in all the writings of Origen for an understanding of his view of the rock of Matthew 16. Yet this passage is is not included in those referenced by the authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys. This is a glaring omission given the importance of the passage and the fact that it is easily accessible in the work the Ante-Nicene Fathers. One can only conclude that the authors purposefully omitted the passage because it is antithetical to the position they are seeking establish.
John Meyendorff was a world renowned and highly respected Orthodox theologian, historian and patristics scholar. He was dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Professor of Church History and Patristics. He gives the following explanation of Origen’s interpretation and of his influence on subsequent fathers in the East and West:
Origen, the common source of patristic exegetical tradition, commenting on Matthew 16:18, interprets the famous logion as Jesus’ answer to Peter’s confession: Simon became the ‘rock’ on which the Church is founded because he expressed the true belief in the divinity of Christ. Origen continues: ‘If we also say “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then we also become Peter…for whoever assimilates to Christ, becomes rock. Does Christ give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone, whereas other blessed people cannot receive them?’ According to Origen, therefore, Peter is no more than the first ‘believer,’ and the keys he received opened the gates of heaven to him alone: if others want to follow, they can ‘imitate’ Peter and receive the same keys. Thus the words of Christ have a soteriological, but not an institutional, significance. They only affirm that the Christian faith is the faith expressed by Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi. In the whole body of patristic exegesis, this is the prevailing understanding of the ‘Petrie’ logia, and it remains valid in Byzantine literature…Thus, when he spoke to Peter, Jesus was underlining the meaning of the faith as the foundation of the Church, rather than organizing the Church as guardian of the faith (John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham, 1974), pp. 97-98).
James McCue in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue affirms these views of Origen in these statements:
When Origen is commenting directly on Matthew 16:18f, he carefully puts aside any interpretation of the passage that would make Peter anything other than what every Christian should be…(His) is the earliest extant detailed commentary on Matthew 16:18f. and interestingly sees the event described as a lesson about the life to be lived by every Christian, and not information about office or hierarchy or authority in the Church (Paul Empie and Austin Murphy, Ed., Papal Primacy in the Universal Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 60-61).
Origen and Tertullian are the first fathers, from the East and West respectively, to give an exposition on the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16 and the role and position of Peter. Their views are foundational for the interpretation of this important passage for the centuries following. Strands of their teaching will appear in the views of the fathers throughout the East and West. It is important to point out that the first Eastern and Western fathers to give an exegesis of Matthew 16 do not interpret the passage in a pro–Roman sense.
CYPRIAN(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 (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).
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 (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of S. Cyprian, Ep. 33.1).
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 (Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), pp. 57-60).
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 (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).
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 propapal 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 (Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), pp. 47-48).
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 (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).
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 (John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University, 1974), p. 98).
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 (John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1989), pp. 61, 152).
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…(Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume I, p. 182-183).
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 unintiated by investing Cyprian’s words with the doctrinal development of a later age thereby misrepresenting his actual position.
Eusebius was born in Caesarea in Palestine around the year 263 A.D. He took the name Eusebius Pamphilus after his mentor and teacher Pamphilus. He was consecrated bishop of Caesarea in 313 A.D. and was a participant at the Council of Nicaea. He is known as the father of ecclesiastical history for his work on the history of the Church. He has very clearly expressed his views on the meaning of the rock of Matthew 16:
‘And he sent out arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bear, at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of thy nostrils’ (Ps. 18.14)…By ‘the foundations of the world,’ we shall understand the strength of God’s wisdom, by which, first, the order of the universe was established, and then, the world itself was founded—a world which will not be shaken. Yet you will not in any way err from the scope of the truth if you suppose that ‘the world’ is actually the Church of God, and that its ‘foundation’ is in the first place, that unspeakably solid rock on which it is founded, as Scripture says: ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’; and elsewhere: ‘The rock, moreover, was Christ.’ For, as the Apostle indicates with these words: ‘No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.’ Then, too, after the Savior himself, you may rightly judge the foundations of the Church to be the words of the prophets and apostles, in accordance with the statement of the Apostle: ‘Built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.’ These foundations of the world have been laid bare because the enemies of God, who once darkened the eyes of our mind, lest we gaze upon divine things, have been routed and put to flight—scattered by the arrows sent from God and put to flight by the rebuke of the Lord and by the blast from his nostrils. As a result, having been saved from these enemies and having received the use of our eyes, we have seen the channels of the sea and have looked upon the foundations of the world. This has happened in our lifetime in many parts of the world (Commentary on the Psalms, M.P.G., Vol. 23, Col. 173, 176).
Eusebius unambiguously teaches that the rock is Christ. He correlates this interpretation with the parallel rock and foundation statements of 1 Corinthians 10:4 and 3:11. He goes on to say that there is a subsidiary foundation, from Ephesians 2:20, of the apostles and prophets, the Church also built upon them, but the cornerstone is Christ. However he interprets this to mean that the Church is to be built upon the words or teachings of the apostles and prophets as opposed to their persons. It is in this sense that it can be said that the Church is built upon Peter and the other apostles. It is clear that Christ alone is the true foundation and rock of the Church and that Eusebius sees no peculiar Petrine primacy associated with Christ’s statements in Matthew 16. Peter is simply one of a number of the apostles who is a foundation of the Church. This has nothing to do with his person, but everything to do with his words—his confession. This helps us to properly understand other references of Eusebius to Peter. For example, when he says: ‘But Peter, upon whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, has left one epistle undisputed,’ (Ecclesiastical History II.XXV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), p. 246), he does not mean that Christ established a papal office in Peter and that the Church is built upon him in a personal sense and through him upon his supposed successors. The Church is built upon Peter by being built upon his confession of faith. In light of his comments from his Commentary on the Psalms we can conclude that Eusebius did not interpret Matthew 16:18 in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. It is Christ and Christ alone that fills Eusebius’ vision from this passage. However, one will search in vain for the above quotation from Eusebius in the Roman Catholic work Jesus, Peter and the Keys. This work purports to give a definitive patristic perspective on the rock of Matthew 16. But the failure to give a full documentation of what this father has actually written on the subject once again leaves the authors open to the charge of a biased and manipulative presentation of the facts.
The interpretation of Eusebius, along with that of Origen, had an immense influence upon the Eastern and Western fathers. Over and over again, as we will see, we find the fathers of subsequent generations interpreting this rock passage with the focus on the person of Christ. The corresponding passages of 1 Corinthians 3:11 and 10:4 are used as justification for the interpretation. Michael Winter describes Eusebius’ point of view and influence:
In the Ecclesiastical History he says without any explanation or qualification: ‘Peter upon whom the church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail…’ Elsewhere he speaks of Christ as the foundation of the church in such a way as to exclude St. Peter. For instance in his commentary on the Psalms the reference to the foundation of the earth in Psalm 17 leads him to consider the foundation of the church. Using Matthew 16, he declares that this foundation is a rock, which is then identified as Christ on authority of 1 Cor. 10:4. This interpretation of the text of Matthew which seems so strange to the modern reader indicates a problem which perplexed quite a number of the early fathers. Their theology of the church was, thanks to Paul, so thoroughly Christocentric that it was difficult for them to envisage a foundation other than Christ…The third opinion which Eusebius put forward was an interpretation of Matthew 16 which envisaged the rock of the church neither as Christ nor precisely Peter himself, but as the faith which he manifested in his acknowledgment of Christ. This latter view of Eusebius, together with his other innovation, namely that the rock was Christ, had considerable influence on the later exegesis of the text in question, both in the Eastern and Western church (Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), p. 53).
Augustine is considered by many the most important theologian in the history of the Church for the first twelve hundred years. No other Church father has had such far reaching influence upon the theology of the Church. His authority throughout the patristic and middle ages is unsurpassed. He was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa from the end of the fourth century and on into the first quarter of the fifth, until his death in 430. William Jurgens makes these comments about his importance:
If we were faced with the unlikely proposition of having to destroy completely either the works of Augustine or the works of all the other Fathers and Writers, I have little doubt that all the others would have to be sacrificed. Augustine must remain. Of all the Fathers it is Augustine who is the most erudite, who has the most remarkable theological insights, and who is effectively most prolific (William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1979), Vol. 3, p. 1).
He was a prolific writer and he has made numerous comments which relate directly to the issue of the interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:18. In fact, Augustine made more comments upon this passage than any other Church father. At the end of his life, Augustine wrote his Retractations where he corrects statements in his earlier writings which he says were erroneous. One of these had to do with the interpretation of the rock in Matthew 16. At the beginning of his ministry Augustine had written that the rock was Peter. However, very early on he later changed his position and throughout the remainder of his ministry he adopted the view that the rock was not Peter but Christ or Peter’s confession which pointed to the person of Christ. The following are statements from his Retractations which refer to his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:
In a passage in this book, I said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built’…But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For, ‘Thou art Peter’ and not ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom, as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is the more probable (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C., Catholic University, 1968), Saint Augustine, The Retractations Chapter 20.1).
Clearly Augustine is repudiating a previously held position, adopting the view that the rock was Christ and not Peter. This became his consistent position. He does leave the interpretation open for individual readers to decide which was the more probable interpretation but it is clear what he has concluded the interpretation should be and that he believes the view that the rock is Christ is the correct one. The fact that he would even suggest that individual readers could take a different position is evidence of the fact that after four hundred years of church history there was no official authoritative Church interpretation of this passage as Vatican One has stated. Can the reader imagine a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church today suggesting that it would be appropriate for individuals to use private interpretation and come to their own conclusion as to the proper meaning of the rock of Matthew 16? But that is precisely what Augustine does, although he leaves us in no doubt as to what he, as a leading bishop and theologian of the Church, personally believes. And his view was not a novel interpretation, come to at the end of his life, but his consistent teaching throughout his ministry. Nor was it an interpretation that ran counter to the prevailing opinion of his day. The following quotation is representative of the overall view espoused by this great teacher and theologian:
And I tell you…‘You are Peter, Rocky, and on this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of the underworld will not conquer her. To you shall I give the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:15-19). In Peter, Rocky, we see our attention drawn to the rock. Now the apostle Paul says about the former people, ‘They drank from the spiritual rock that was following them; but the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4). So this disciple is called Rocky from the rock, like Christian from Christ…Why have I wanted to make this little introduction? In order to suggest to you that in Peter the Church is to be recognized. Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer (John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993), Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327).
Augustine could not be clearer in his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16. In his view, Peter is representative of the whole Church. The rock is not the person of Peter but Christ himself. In fact, in the above statements, in exegeting Matthew 16, he explicitly says that Christ did not build his Church on a man, referring specifically to Peter. If Christ did not build his Church on a man then he did not establish a papal office with successors to Peter in the bishops of Rome. Again, if one examines the documentation from the writings of Augustine that are provided in Jesus, Peter and the Keys, this particular reference will not be found. Clearly, the authors neglected to provide such documentation because it completely undermines their position. The following extensive documentation reveals that Augustine taught that Peter was simply a figurative representative of the Church, not its ruler—a view reminiscent of Cyprian:
But whom say ye that I am? Peter answered, ‘Thou art the Christ, The Son of the living God.’ One for many gave the answer, Unity in many. Then said the Lord to him, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Barjonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.’ Then He added, ‘and I say unto thee.’ As if He had said, ‘Because thou hast said unto Me, “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God;” I also say unto thee, “Thou art Peter.” ’ For before he was called Simon. Now this name of Peter was given him by the Lord, and in a figure, that he should signify the Church. For seeing that Christ is the rock (Petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (Petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. ‘Therefore,’ he saith, ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock’ which Thou hast confessed, upon this rock which Thou hast acknowledged, saying, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;’ that is upon Myself, the Son of the living God, ‘will I build My Church.’ I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon Thee.
For men who wished to be built upon men, said, ‘I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas,’ who is Peter. But others who did not wish to built upon Peter, but upon the Rock, said, ‘But I am of Christ.’ And when the Apostle Paul ascertained that he was chosen, and Christ despised, he said, ‘Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?’ And, as not in the name of Paul, so neither in the name of Peter; but in the name of Christ: that Peter might be built upon the Rock, not the Rock upon Peter. This same Peter therefore who had been by the Rock pronounced ‘blessed,’ bearing the figure of the Church (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume VI, St. Augustin, Sermon XXVI.1-4, pp. 340-341).
And this Church, symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, ‘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,’ he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by divers temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falleth not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, ‘On this rock will I build my Church,’ because Peter had said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume VII, St. Augustin, On the Gospel of John, Tractate 124.5).
Before his passion the Lord Jesus, as you know, chose those disciples of his, whom he called apostles. Among these it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given the privilege of representing the whole Church. It was in the person of the whole Church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, ‘To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 16:19). After all, it isn’t just one man that received these keys, but the Church in its unity. So this is the reason for Peter’s acknowledged pre–eminence, that he stood for the Church’s universality and unity, when he was told, ‘To you I am entrusting,’ what has in fact been entrusted to all.
I mean, to show you that it is the Church which has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, listen to what the Lord says in another place to all his apostles: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit;’ and straightway, ‘Whose sins you forgive, they will be forgiven them; whose sins you retain, they will be retained’ (Jn 20:22-23). This refers to the keys, about which it is said, ‘whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Mt 16:19). But that was said to Peter. To show you that Peter at that time stood for the universal Church, listen to what is said to him, what is said to all the faithful, the saints: ‘If your brother sins against you, correct him between you and himself alone’ (John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (Hyde Park: New City, 1994), Sermons, III/8 (273-305A), On the Saints, Sermon 295.1-3, pp. 197-198).
According to Augustine the Apostles are equal in all respects. Each receives the authority of the keys, not Peter alone. But some object, doesn’t Augustine accord a primacy to the apostle Peter? Does he not call Peter the first of the apostles, holding the chief place in the Apostleship? Don’t such statements prove papal primacy? While it is true that Augustine has some very exalted things to say about Peter, as do many of the fathers, it does not follow that either he or they held to the Roman Catholic view of papal primacy. This is because their comments apply to Peter alone. They have absolutely nothing to do with the bishops of Rome. How do we know this? Because Augustine and the fathers do not make that application in their comments. They do not state that their descriptions of Peter apply to the bishops of Rome. The common mistake made by Roman Catholic apologists is the assumption that because some of the fathers make certain comments about Peter—for example, that he is chief of the apostles or head of the apostolic choir—that they also have in mind the bishop of Rome in an exclusive sense. But they do not state this in their writings. This is a preconceived theology that is read into their writings. Did they view the bishops of Rome as being successors of Peter? Yes. Did they view the bishops of Rome as being the exclusive successors of Peter? No. In the view of Augustine and the early fathers all the bishops of the Church in the East and West were the successors of Peter. They all possess the chair of Peter. So when they speak in exalted terms about Peter they do not apply those terms to the bishops of Rome. Therefore, when a father refers to Peter as the rock, the coryphaeus, the first of the disciples, or something similar, this does not mean that he is expressing agreement with the current Roman Catholic interpretation. This view is clearly validated from the following statements of Augustine:
This same Peter therefore who had been by the Rock pronounced ‘blessed,’ bearing the figure of the Church, holding the chief place in the Apostleship (Sermon 26).
The blessed Peter, the first of the apostles (Sermon 295)
Before his passion the Lord Jesus, as you know, chose those disciples of his, whom he called apostles. Among these it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given the privilege of representing the whole Church. It was in the person of the whole Church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, ‘To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 16:19). After all, it isn’t just one man that received these keys, but the Church in its unity. So this is the reason for Peter’s acknowledged preeminence, that he stood for the Church’s universality and unity, when he was told, ‘To you I am entrusting,’ what has in fact been entrusted to all (Sermon 295).
Previously, of course, he was called Simon; this name of Peter was bestowed on him by the Lord, and that with the symbolic intention of his representing the Church. Because Christ, you see, is the petra or rock; Peter, or Rocky, is the Christian people (Sermon 76).
So then, this self–same Peter, blessed by being surnamed Rocky from the rock, representing the person of the Church, holding chief place in the apostolic ranks (Sermon 76).
For as some things are said which seem peculiarly to apply to the Apostle Peter, and yet are not clear in their meaning, unless when referred to the Church, whom he is acknowledged to have figuratively represented, on account of the primacy which he bore among the Disciples; as it is written, ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ and other passages of like purport: so Judas doth represent those Jews who were enemies of Christ (Exposition on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 119).
You will remember that the apostle Peter, the first of all the apostles, was thrown completely of balance during the Lord’s passion (Sermon 147).
Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer. (Sermon 229).
And this Church, symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, 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,’ he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by divers temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falleth not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, ‘On this rock will I build my Church,’ because Peter had said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Tractate 124.5).
Augustine states that Peter is the first and head of the apostles and that he holds a primacy. However he does not interpret that primacy in a Roman Catholic sense. He believes that Peter’s primacy is figurative in that he represents the universal Church. Again, he explicitly states that Christ did not build his Church upon a man but on Peter’s confession of faith. Peter is built on Christ the rock and as a figurative representative of the Church he shows how each believer is built on Christ. In Augustine’s view, Peter holds a primacy or preeminence, but none of this applies to him in a jurisdictional sense, because he says that ‘Christ did not build his Church upon a man.’ We can not get a clearer illustration that the fathers did indeed separate Peter’s confession of faith from Peter’s person. In commenting on one of Augustine’s references to Peter and the rock, John Rotelle, the editor of the Roman Catholic series on the Sermons of Augustine, makes these observations:
‘There was Peter, and he hadn’t yet been confirmed in the rock’: That is, in Christ, as participating in his ‘rockiness’ by faith. It does not mean confirmed as the rock, because Augustine never thinks of Peter as the rock.Jesus, after all, did not in fact call him the rock…but ‘Rocky.’ The rock on which he would build his Church was, for Augustine, both Christ himself and Peter’s faith, representing the faith of the Church (emphasis mine) (John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (New Rochelle: New City, 1993), Sermons, Sermon 265D.6, p. 258-259, n. 9)
Augustine does not endorse the Roman Catholic interpretation. Again and again he states that the rock is Christ, not Peter. Augustine claims no exclusive Petrine succession in the Roman bishops and no papal office. Karlfried Froehlich sums up Augustine’s views on Peter and the rock of Matthew 16 in these comments:
Augustine’s formulation (of Matthew 16:18-19), informed by a traditional North African concern for the unity of the church, that in Peter unus pro omnibus (one for all) had answered and received the reward, did not suggest more than a figurative reading of Peter as an image of the true church. In light of Peter’s subsequent fall and denial, the name itself was regularly declared to be derived from Christ, the true rock. Augustine, who followed Origen in this assumption, was fascinated by the dialectic of the ‘blessed’ Peter (Matt. 16:17) being addressed as ‘Satan’ a few verses later (v. 23). In Peter, weak in himself and strong only in his connection with Christ, the church could see the image of its own total dependence on God’s grace.
Augustine rigorously separated the name-giving from its explanation: Christ did not say to Peter: ‘you are the rock,’ but ‘you are Peter.’ The church is not built upon Peter but upon the only true rock, Christ. Augustine and the medieval exegetes after him found the warrant for this interpretation in 1 Cor. 10:4. The allegorical key of this verse had already been applied to numerous biblical rock passages in the earlier African testimonia tradition. Matt. 16:18 was no exception. If the metaphor of the rock did not refer to a negative category of ‘hard’ rocks, it had to be read christologically (Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, pp. 3, 8-14. 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).
Karl Morrison sums up Augustine’s views of ecclesiology in these words:
Peter was said to have received the power of the keys, not in his own right, but as the representative of the entire Church. Without contesting Rome’s primacy of honor, St. Augustine held that all the Apostles, and all their successors, the bishops, shared equally in the powers which Christ granted St. Peter (Karl Morrison, Tradition and Authority in the Western Church 300-1140 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1969), p. 162).
Reinhold Seeberg, the Protestant Church historian, makes these comments on Augustine’s interpretation of Peter pointing out that it reflects the view of Cyprian:
The idea of the Roman Primacy likewise receives no special elucidation at the hands of Augustine. We find a general acknowledgment of the ‘primacy of the apostolic chair,’ but Augustine knows nothing of any special authority vested in Peter or his successors. Peter is a ‘figure of the church’ or of ‘good pastors,’ and represents the unity of the church (serm. 295.2; 147.2). In this consists the significance of his position and that of his successors…As all bishops (in contradistinction from the Scriptures) may err (unit. eccl. II.28), so also the Roman bishop. This view is plainly manifest from the bearing of Augustine and his colleagues in the Pelagian controversy…Dogmatically, there had been no advance from the position of Cyprian. The Africans, in their relations with Rome, played somewhat the role of the Gallicanism of a later period (Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume I, p. 318-319).
W.H.C. Frend affirms the above consensus of Augustine’s ecclesiology and his interpretation of Peter’s commission:
Augustine…rejected the idea that ‘the power of the keys’ had been entrusted to Peter alone. His primacy was simply a matter of personal privilege and not an office. Similarly, he never reproached the Donatists for not being in communion with Rome, but with lack of communion with the apostolic Sees as a whole. His view of Church government was that less important questions should be settled by provincial councils, greater matters at general councils (W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), p. 222).
Augustine is the greatest Church father and theologian of the patristic age writing after 400 years of Church history. The constitution of the Church should have been a firmly settled issue, especially since Vatican I claims that its papal teachings and interpretation of Matthew 16 upon which they rest have been the belief and teaching of the Church from the very beginning. Yet Augustine interprets Matthew 16 in a Protestant and Orthodox way, explicitly repudiating the Roman Catholic interpretation of Vatican I. How are we to explain this? Vatican I states the rock of Matthew 16 is the person of Peter and has been the unanimous opinion of the Church fathers. Then why did Augustine hold a contrary view to that which was supposedly the universal opinion of the Church of his day and in all preceding Church history? According to Rome, this passage holds the key to the constitution of the Church given by Christ himself which was fully recognized from the very beginning. If this was so, why would Augustine purposefully contradict the universal interpretation of so fundamental and important a passage? The answer, quite simply, is that the fathers did not interpret the rock of Matthew 16 the way Vatican I does. Augustine is merely a prominent representative of the opinion of the Church as a whole.
The authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys suggest that Augustine invented a novel interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16 in stating that the rock is Christ. Specifically they state: ‘St. Augustine invented a new exegesis (of Matthew 16:18-19)—that the rock is Christ’ (Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, David Hess, Jesus, Peter and the Keys (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1996), p. 252). This is a completely misinformed statement. As we have seen this interpretation was utilized by Eusebius in the fourth century, many years before Augustine.
AMBROSE (ca. A.D. 333—397)
Ambrose was bishop of the see of Milan in the latter part of the fourth century. He was one of the greatest fathers of the Western Church, the mentor of St. Augustine, and universally recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the patristic age. He is one of a handful of Western fathers who would be recognized theologically by the Roman Catholic Church as a doctor of the Church. He was the leading theologian and outstanding bishop of the Western Church. He is a father who is often cited in support of the present day Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18. The following quotation is the one that is most often given in support of this view:
It is to Peter himself that He says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.’ Where Peter is, there is the Church (W.A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1979), Volume 2, St. Ambrose, On Twelve Psalms 440, 30, p. 150).
The impression given by Roman Catholic apologists is that in these comments Ambrose supports the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16. They apply the following logic to his statement: The above quote seems to suggest that Peter’s person is the rock. And since the bishops of Rome are the successors to Peter they are, therefore, by succession, the rocks of the Church. Therefore, according to Ambrose, the Church is founded upon the universal rule of the bishops of Rome. To be in communion with Rome is to be in the Church. To be out of communion with Rome is to be out of the Church for where Peter (that is, the bishop of Rome) is, there is the Church. Is this what Ambrose meant? If we divorce this one sentence from its context and from the rest of his comments on Peter in other writings, we could certainly lean towards that interpretation. However, Ambrose made other comments on Peter and Matthew 16 which explain exactly what he meant when he said that Peter is the rock. Unfortunately, these other comments are often neglected in discussions by Roman Catholic apologists. Often a quote like this is given out of the context. The result is that an interpretation is given the words of Ambrose that is completely foreign to his true meaning. This becomes clear upon examination of his other statements:
He, then, who before was silent, to teach us that we ought not to repeat the words of the impious, this one, I say, when he heard, ‘But who do you say I am,’ immediately, not unmindful of his station, exercised his primacy, that is, the primacy of confession, not of honor; the primacy of belief, not of rank. This, then, is Peter, who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather, before the rest of men. And so he is called the foundation, because he knows how to preserve not only his own but the common foundation…Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ But his confession of faith conquered hell. And this confession did not shut out one heresy, for, since the Church like a good ship is often buffeted by many waves, the foundation of the Church should prevail against all heresies (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C., Catholic University, 1963), Saint Ambrose, Theological and Dogmatic Works, The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord IV.32-V.34, pp. 230-231).
Jesus said to them: Who do men say that I am? Simon Peter answering said, The Christ of God (Lk. ix.20). If it is enough for Paul ‘to know nothing but Christ Jesus and Him crucified,’ (1 Cor. ii.2), what more is to be desired by me than to know Christ? For in this one name is the expression of His Divinity and Incarnation, and faith in His Passion. And accordingly though the other apostles knew, yet Peter answers before the rest, ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of God’…Believe, therefore, as Peter believed, that thou also mayest be blessed, and that thou also mayest deserve to hear, ‘Because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father who is in heaven’…Peter therefore did not wait for the opinion of the people, but produced his own, saying, ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God’: Who ever is, began not to be, nor ceases to be. Great is the grace of Christ, who has imparted almost all His own names to His disciples. ‘I am,’ said He, ‘the light of the world,’ and yet with that very name in which He glories, He favored His disciples, saying, ‘Ye are the light of the world.’ ‘I am the living bread’; and ‘we all are one bread’ (1 Cor. x.17)…Christ is the rock, for ‘they drank of the same spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. x.4); also He denied not to His disciple the grace of this name; that he should be Peter, because he has from the rock (petra) the solidity of constancy, the firmness of faith. Make an effort, therefore, to be a rock! Do not seek the rock outside of yourself, but within yourself! Your rock is your deed, your rock is your mind. Upon this rock your house is built. Your rock is your faith, and faith is the foundation of the Church. If you are a rock, you will be in the Church, because the Church is on a rock. If you are in the Church the gates of hell will not prevail against you…He who has conquered the flesh is a foundation of the Church; and if he cannot equal Peter, he can imitate him (Commentary in Luke VI.98, CSEL 32.4).
What does Ambrose mean when he says that Peter is the foundation? In the sense that he was the first to openly confess faith in Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. The rock is not Peter himself but Peter’s confession of faith! It is this faith which is the foundation of the Church. Peter possesses a primacy, but he explains that primacy as one of confession and faith and not of rank in the sense of ruling over the other apostles. Thus, when Ambrose says that ‘where Peter is there is the Church,’ he means that where Peter’s confession is, there is the Church. He does not mean the bishop of Rome at all. He goes on to give an exposition of the rock reminiscent of the interpretation of Origen who says that all believers are rocks. As Robert Eno points out, when the overall context of Ambrose’s statement is taken into account, it demonstrates that the interpretation given by Fastiggi and others is a complete misrepresentation of Ambrose’s statement since his statement has nothing to do with ecclesiology and papal authority. Robert Eno gives the following explanation:
There is no question then that Ambrose honored the Roman see, but there are other texts which seem to establish a certain distance and independence as well. He commented, for example, that Peter’s primacy was a primacy of confession, not of honor; a primacy of faith, not rank…Finally, one further text should be mentioned in connection with Ambrose since it is a text which like Roma locuta est has become something of a shibboleth or slogan. This is the brief phrase from his commentary on the fortieth Psalm: Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia (where Peter is, there is the Church)…As Roger Gryson has shown, in his study on Ambrose and the priesthood, the context of such a statement has nothing to do with any treatise on ecclesiology. It is but one statement in a long chain of allegorical exegesis starting with the line from Ps. 41:9: ‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted…has lifted his heel against me.’ This is not to deny the fairly common association of Peter as the symbol of the Church, the figura ecclesiae we have seen in Augustine. But it says little that is new and nothing at all about papal authority (Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), pp. 83-84).
In the view of the fathers, as seen in the examples of Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine, the Church is not embodied in one individual but in a confession of right faith. Where you have that right confession you have Peter. This is explicitly stated for example by Chrysostom. Like Ambrose, he says that where Peter is there is the Church in the sense of Peter’s confession and he applies it not to Rome but to Antioch: ‘Though we do not retain the body of Peter, we do retain the faith of Peter, and retaining the faith of Peter we have Peter’ (On the Inscription of Acts, II. Taken from E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p.168).
It is important to note also that Ambrose, like Augustine, separates Peter’s confession of faith from the person of Peter himself: ‘Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.’ This conclusively demonstrates the spuriousness of some Roman apologists’ claims that the fathers did not separate the confession of Peter from the person of Peter. Ambrose did this as did Augustine, and other fathers as well, as we will see. These fathers did not believe that the Church was built on the person of Peter but on Christ alone or on Peter’s confession of faith in a secondary sense. And generally speaking, when the fathers state that the Church is built on Peter, they mean it is built upon his faith. Karlfried Froehlich makes this very point in his comments on the patristic exegesis of the rock of Matthew 16:18:
Most of the Eastern exegetes, especially after the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century, read v. 18 as the culmination of vv. 16-17: ‘upon this rock’ meant ‘upon the orthodox faith which you have just confessed.’ Introduced in the West by Ambrose and the translation of the Antiochene exegetes, this Petra=fides equation maintained an important place alongside the christological alternative, or as its more precise explanation: the rock of the church was Christ who was the content of Peter’s confession (Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, p. 12. 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).
This can be seen from the example of Ambrose himself. In other passages he refers to Christ as the rock:
‘They sucked honey out of the firm rock,’ (Deut. xxxii.13): for the flesh of Christ is a rock, which redeemed heaven and the whole world (1 Cor. x.4) (Epistle 43.9. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 76).
When the cock crew, the very rock of the Church did away with his guilt (Hymn. Aeterne rerum conditor. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 76).
For Ambrose, then, the rock is not Peter but his confession of faith. It points to the person of Christ as the ultimate rock. So it is possible to make it appear that Ambrose holds a particular view when in fact he does not, by not presenting his complete teaching on this subject.
John Chrysostom was an Eastern father who lived during the second half of the fourth century. He was a priest of Antioch, bishop of Constantinople and contemporary of some of the greatest Church fathers in the history of the Church (such as Epiphanius, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome). He was the most prolific writer of the Eastern fathers and is considered by many to be the greatest preacher, commentator and theologian to grace the Eastern Church. He was known as the golden–mouthed preacher for his eloquence. He died in exile in 407 A.D. William Jurgens makes these comments about him:
Some will say that John Chrysostom is unparalleled anywhere, while others will say that he is matched only by Augustine…No one else among the Greek Fathers has so large a body of extant writings as has Chrysostom (William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1979), Volume 2, pp. 84-86).
What was Chrysostom’s view of Peter and his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16? Does it coincide with the teaching of papal primacy espoused by the Church of Rome? The answer is no. Chrysostom’s views are very similar to those of Augustine. As we have seen Augustine held a very high view of Peter. He called him the chief and first of the apostles and yet stated that the rock was not Peter but Christ. A very similar picture presents itself in the writings of Chrysostom. In his book Studies in the Early Papacy, the Roman Catholic apologist Dom Chapman has referenced approximately ninety citations from Chrysostom’s writings which he claims as proof of a clear and unambiguous affirmation of a Petrine and thereby a papal primacy. But Dom Chapman has committed a primary error of historiography—that of reading back into the writings of a previous age the presuppositions and conclusions of a later age. He assumes that because a particular father makes certain statements about Peter that he must have a primacy of jurisdiction in mind and that this applies in his thinking to the bishop of Rome in an exclusive sense as well. But as we have seen with Augustine this is not the case. A close examination of the comments of Chrysostom demonstrates this to be true in his case as well. Like Augustine, Chrysostom makes some very exalted statements about Peter:
Peter, that chief of the apostles, first in the Church, the friend of Christ who did not receive revelation from man but from the Father, as the Lord bore witness to him saying: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar–Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven’: this same Peter (when I say ‘Peter,’ I name an unbreakable rock, an immovable ridge, a great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called and the first obeying), this same Peter, I say, did not perpetrate a minor misdeed but a very great one. He denied the Lord. I say this, not accusing a just man, but offering to you the opportunity of repentance. Peter denied the Lord and governor of the world himself, the savior of all…(De Eleemos III.4, M.P.G., Vol. 49, Col. 298)
Peter, the coryphaeus of the choir of apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the foundation of the faith, the base of the confession, the fisherman of the world, who brought back our race from the depth of error to heaven, he who is everywhere fervent and full of boldness, or rather of love than boldness (Hom. de decem mille talentis 3, PG III, 20. Cited by Dom Chapman, Studies in the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 74.).
These are exalted titles but in using them Chrysostom does not mean that Peter possesses a primacy of jurisdiction in the Church or that he is the rock upon which the Church is built. Again, we have already seen this in Augustine. He uses similar language in describing Peter but without its having a Roman Catholic meaning. We know this is also true for Chrysostom because he applies similar titles to the other apostles and did not interpret the rock of Matthew 16 to be Peter. The term coryphaeus, for example, was a general title applied by Chrysostom to several of the apostles, not to Peter exclusively. It carries the idea of leadership but implies no jurisdiction. Chrysostom uses this term to describe Peter, James, John, Andrew and Paul. He states that just as Peter received the charge of the world, so did the apostles Paul and John. Just as Peter was appointed teacher of the world, so was Paul. Just as Peter was a holder of the keys of heaven, so was the apostle John. He places the apostles on an equal footing relative to authority:
He took the coryphaei and led them up into a high mountain apart…Why does He take these three alone? Because they excelled the others. Peter showed his excellence by his great love of Him, John by being greatly loved, James by the answer…’We are able to drink the chalice’ (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume X, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 56.2; p. 345).
Do you not see that the headship was in the hands of these three, especially of Peter and James? This was the chief cause of their condemnation by Herod (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XI, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily XXVI, p. 169)
The coryphaei, Peter the foundation of the Church, Paul the vessel of election (Contra ludos et theatra 1, PG VI, 265. Cited by Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 76)
And if any should say ‘How then did James receive the chair at Jerusalem?’ I would make this reply, that He appointed Peter teacher not of the chair, but of the world…And this He did to withdraw them (Peter and John) from their unseasonable sympathy for each other; for since they were about to receive the charge of the world, it was necessary that they should no longer be closely associated together (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 88.1-2, pp. 331-332).
For the Son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom, with much confidence, this man now comes forward to us now (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 1.1, p. 1).
The merciful God is wont to give this honor to his servants, that by their grace others may acquire salvation; as was agreed by the blessed Paul, that teacher of the world who emitted the rays of his teaching everywhere (Homily 24, On Genesis..Cited by E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 165).
It is clear from these statements that Chrysostom, while certainly granting a large leadership role to Peter, does not consider him to have been made the supreme ruler of the Church. These passages demonstrate that the exalted titles applied to Peter were not exclusively applied to Peter. But these passages are completely absent from the work Jesus, Peter and the Keys. The passage in which Chrysostom exegetes the rock of Matthew 16 explaining that it is Peter’s confession of faith is also not included. How can the authors of this work claim to give a truthful and balanced presentation of Chrysostom’s perspective when they are guilty of such blatant and purposeful disregard of his writings? There is one passage in which Chrysostom does state that Peter received authority over the Church:
For he who then did not dare to question Jesus, but committed the office to another, was even entrusted with the chief authority over the brethren (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 88.1-2, pp. 331-332).
This would seem to indicate that Chrysostom taught that Peter was the supreme ruler of the Church. However in the passage cited above Chrysostom speaks of the apostle John as also receiving the charge of the whole world and the keys equally with Peter:
And this He did to withdraw them (Peter and John) from their unseasonable sympathy for each other; for since they were about to receive the charge of the world, it was necessary that they should no longer be closely associated together (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 88.1-2, pp. 331-332).
For the Son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven…(Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 1.1, p. 1).
He goes on to speak of Paul as being on an equal footing with Peter:
Where the Cherubim sing the glory, where the Seraphim are flying, there shall we see Paul, with Peter, and as chief and leader of the choir of the saints, and shall enjoy his generous love….I love Rome even for this, although indeed one has other grounds for praising it…Not so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the city of Rome, sending out these two lights into all parts of the world. From thence will Paul be caught up, thence Peter. Just bethink you, and shudder, at the thought of what a sight Rome will see, when Paul ariseth suddenly from that deposit, together with Peter, and is lifted up to meet the Lord. What a rose will Rome send up to Christ!…what two crowns will the city have about it! what golden chains will she be girded with! what fountains possess! Therefore I admire the city, not for the much gold, nor for the columns, not for the other display there, but for these pillars of the Church (1 Cor. 15:38) (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XI, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans, Homily 32, Ver. 24, pp. 561-562.).
Further, Chrysostom speaks of James, and not Peter, as possessing the chief rule and authority in Jerusalem and over the Jerusalem Council:
This (James) was bishop, as they say, and therefore he speaks last..There was no arrogance in the Church. After Peter Paul speaks, and none silences him: James waits patiently; not starts up (for the next word). No word speaks John here, no word the other Apostles, but held their peace, for James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XI, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 33, pp. 205, 207).
Dom Chapman interprets these statements in a limited sense this way:
Obviously, it is James who has the ‘rule’ and the ‘great power’ as bishop of those believing Pharisees who had initiated the discussion. But the idea that he had (rule) over Peter is, of course, ludicrous, and the notion that he could possibly be the president of the council certainly never occurred to Chrysostom’s mind (Dom John Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 90).
The problem with what Chapman says is that this is not what Chrysostom says. Chrysostom says nothing about the chief rule of James being limited to that of the believing Pharisees. There is not one word said about Pharisees. His reference to the chief rule is of the overall Council over which James presided. When all of his statements about Peter, Paul, James and John are taken together, it becomes clear that in the mind of Chrysostom, all the apostles together held the care of the world and headship of the Church universally. Peter did not hold a primacy of jurisdiction but of teaching, which he says is equally true of John and Paul:
And if anyone would say ‘How did James receive the chair of Jerusalem?’ I would reply that he appointed Peter a teacher not of the chair, but of the world (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 88.1-2, pp. 331-332).
Chrysostom interprets the keys given to Peter as a declarative authority to teach and preach the gospel and to extend the kingdom of God, not a primacy of jurisdiction over the other apostles:
For the Father gave to Peter the revelation of the Son; but the Son gave him to sow that of the Father and that of Himself in every part of the world; and to mortal man He entrusted the authority over all things in Heaven, giving him the keys; who extended the Church to every part of the world, and declared it to be stronger than heaven (A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford, Parker, 1844), Homilies of S. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 54.3).
This authority was shared equally by all the apostles. Chrysostom states, for example, that John also held the authority of the keys and, like Peter, he held a universal teaching authority over the Churches throughout the world:
For the Son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven…(Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XIV, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 1.1, p. 1).
It is also evident from Chrysostom’s exegesis of Matthew 16 that he did not teach that Peter was made supreme ruler of the Church. He did not interpret the rock of Matthew 16 to be the person of Peter, but his confession of faith, pointing to Christ himself as the rock and only foundation of the Church:
‘And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’; that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd…For the Father gave to Peter the revelation of the Son; but the Son gave him to sow that of the Father and that of Himself in every part of the world; and to mortal man He entrusted the authority over all things in Heaven, giving him the keys; who extended the church to every part of the world, and declared it to be stronger than heaven (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume X, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 54.2-3; pp. 332-334).
He speaks from this time lowly things, on his way to His passion, that He might show His humanity. For He that hath built His church upon Peter’s confession, and has so fortified it, that ten thousand dangers and deaths are not to prevail over it…(Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume X, Chrysostom, On Matthew, Homily 82.3, p. 494).
‘For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ I say, no man can lay it so long as he is a master–builder; but if he lay it…he ceases to be a master–builder. See how even from men’s common notions he proves the whole of his proposition. His meaning is this: ‘I have preached Christ, I have delivered unto you the foundation. Take heed how you build thereon, lest haply it be in vainglory, lest haply so as to draw away the disciples unto men.’ Let us not then give heed unto the heresies. ‘For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid.’ Upon this then let us build, and as a foundation let let us cleave to it, as a branch to a vine; and let there be no interval between us and Christ…For the branch by its adherence draws in the fatness, and the building stands because it is cemented together. Since, if it stand apart it perishes, having nothing whereon to support itself. Let us not then merely keep hold of Christ, but let us be cemented to Him, for if we stand apart, we perish…And accordingly, there are many images whereby He brings us into union. Thus, if you mark it, He is the ‘Head’, we are ‘the body’: can there be any empty interval between the head and the body? He is a ‘Foundation’, we are a ‘building’: He a ‘Vine’, we ‘branches’: He the ‘Bridegroom’, we the ‘bride’: He is the ‘Shepherd’, we the ‘sheep’: He is the ‘Way’, we ‘they who walk therein.’ Again, we are a ‘temple,’ He the ‘Indweller’: He the ‘First–Begotten,’ we the ‘brethren’: He the ‘Heir,’ we the ‘heirs together with Him’: He the ‘Life,’ we the ‘living’: He the ‘Resurrection,’ we ‘those who rise again’: He the ‘Light,’ we the ‘enlightened.’ All these things indicate unity; and they allow no void interval, not even the smallest (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XII, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, Homily VIII.7, p. 47).
Chrysostom argues that the rock is not Peter but Peter’s confession of faith in Christ as the Son of God. Even Dom Chapman is forced to admit that Chrysostom consistently interpreted the rock to be Peter’s confession of faith:
‘The rock on which the Church is to be built is regularly taken by St. Chrysostom to be the confession of Peter, or the faith which prompted this confession’ (Dom John Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 77).
It is Peter’s confession that is the foundation of the Church. Peter is not the foundation. According to Chrysostom that position belongs to Christ alone. Dom Chapman objects to this claiming that in Chrysostom’s mind, the rock is not only Peter’s faith but also Peter’s person. He cites a quote where Chrysostom speaks of Peter as being strengthened by Christ to stand as a rock against a hostile world:
For those things which are peculiar to God alone, (both to absolve from sins, and to make the church incapable of overthrow in such assailing waves, and to exhibit a man that is a fisher more solid than any rock, while all the world is at war with him), these He promises Himself to give; as the Father, speaking to Jeremiah, said, He would make him as ‘a brazen pillar, and as a wall;’ but him to one nation only, this man in every part of the world (A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford, Parker, 1844), Homilies of S. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 54.3).
In light of these statements Chapman says:
I think this statement alone would have made it clear that the Rock is Peter, in St. Chrysostom’s view, as well as, and because of, the firmness of his confession. He has no idea of the two notions, ‘Peter is the Rock’ and ‘his faith is the Rock’ being mutually exclusive, as, in fact, they are not (Dom John Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 79).
But this statement is a complete misrepresentation. In exegeting the rock of Matthew 16, just prior to the above statements, Chrysostom states that Peter is not the rock. In the quotes given by Chapman, what Chrysostom is saying is that just as the Lord strengthened Jeremiah for his calling so he would strengthen Peter. He says he will be like a rock, not that he is the rock of Matthew 16. This is very similar to Augustine’s position on Peter:
So is it the case that Peter is now true, or that Christ is true in Peter? When the Lord Jesus Christ wished, he left Peter to himself, and Peter was found to be a man; and when it so pleased the Lord Jesus Christ, he filled Peter, and Peter was found to be true. The Rock had made Rocky Peter true, for the Rock was Christ (John Rotelle, The Works of Saint Augustine (Brooklyn: New City, 1992), Sermons, Sermon 147.3, p. 449).
According to Augustine, the rock is Christ and Christ made Peter a rock of strength in his faith. But Peter is not the rock of Matthew 16. He simply derives strength to be a rock from the rock, Christ Jesus himself. And what is true for Peter becomes true for all Christians because Peter is a figurative representative of the Church. In contradistinction to Chapman’s assertions the fathers do in fact separate Peter’s faith from Peter’s confession, making them mutually exclusive, as we have seen with Augustine and Ambrose. While it is true that it is the person of Peter who makes the confession, the focus of Chrysostom is not on Peter’s person but on Peter’s faith. Chrysostom holds a similar view to that of Ambrose which we referenced earlier. Ambrose says that where Peter is (his confession), there is the Church. Chrysostom affirms the same point when he says:
‘For though we do not retain the body of Peter, we do retain the faith of Peter, and retaining the faith of Peter we have Peter’ (On the Inscription of the Acts, II. Cited by E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 168. Cf. Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy, p. 96).
While holding a very high view of the status of the apostle Peter, Chrysostom, like Augustine, did not transfer this status to the bishops of Rome. In his thinking, along with Cyprian, Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose, all bishops are successors of Peter. There is no supreme authority of one bishop over another. In all his remarks about Peter, where does Chrysostom apply them to the bishops of Rome in an exclusive sense? He never does that. He never personally makes that application in his statements and it is historically dishonest to assert that that is what he meant when he personally never said it. In similar fashion to Cyprian, Chrysostom refers to the chair of Peter, stating that the bishop of Antioch possesses that chair, demonstrating that in his mind all legitimate bishops are successors of Peter and not just the bishop of Rome:
In speaking of S. Peter, the recollection of another Peter has come to me, the common father and teacher, who has inherited his prowess, and also obtained his chair. For this is the one great privilege of our city, Antioch, that it received the leader of the apostles as its teacher in the beginning. For it was right that she who was first adorned with the name of Christians, before the whole world, should receive the first of the apostles as her pastor. But though we received him as teacher, we did not retain him to the end, but gave him up to royal Rome. Or rather we did retain him to the end, for though we do not retain the body of Peter, we do retain the faith of Peter, and retaining the faith of Peter we have Peter (On the Inscription of the Acts, II. Cited by E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 168. Cf. Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy, p. 96).
In his book, The Eastern Churches and the Papacy, Herbert Scott makes the assertion that John Chrysostom held to the view of papal primacy because he expressed exalted views about the apostle Peter. He makes the assumption that because Chrysostom speaks of Peter in exalted terms that such statements apply to the bishops of Rome in an exclusive sense. But when pressed by the question as to whether Chrysostom actually makes this application himself, Scott is forced to this significant admission:
Granted that Chrysostom reiterates that Peter is the coryphaeus, ‘the universal shepherd,’ etc., what evidence is there, it is asked, that he recognised these claims in the Bishop of Rome? Is there anything in his writings to that effect?…If it be held that all this labouring by Chrysostom of the honour and powers of Peter does not of itself demand the exalted position of his successors as its explanation, it must be conceded that there is little or nothing in his writings which explicitly and incontestably affirms that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of S. Peter in his primacy (S. Herbert Scott, The Eastern Churches and the Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 133).
In other words, there is no evidence in any of the writings of Chrysostom that he applied his statements about Peter to the bishops of Rome. Nevertheless, Scott goes on to suggest that Chrysostom’s statements imply a papal interpretation to his words. As Scott puts it:
Surely, however, if Peter is the foundation of the Church as Chrysostom constantly affirms, and if the Church is eternal as the Founder made it, he must last as long as the building, the Church, which is erected upon him (S. Herbert Scott, The Eastern Churches and the Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 133).
The logic employed here by Scott is flawed. Chrysostom never makes such a statement. He has in fact explained what he means when he says that Peter is the foundation. There is no reason to suppose that Chrysostom envisioned a papal office when he speaks of Peter as the foundation of the Church. We have seen quite clearly from Chrysostom’s statements that he taught that the Church was built on Peter’s confession of faith. It can be said to be built on Peter only in the sense that it is built on his confession. Chrysostom’s comments given above on Antioch demonstrate that he teaches that the Church’s foundation is preserved throughout history as Peter’s confession of faith is preserved. It is not preserved by being built upon the bishops of Rome as supposed exclusive successors of Peter, but upon Peter’s confession. As Chrysostom put it, ‘Where you have Peter’s confession there you have Peter: ‘for though we do not retain the body of Peter, we do retain the faith of Peter, and retaining the faith of Peter we have Peter’ (On the Inscription of the Acts, II. Cited by E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 168. Cf. Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy, p. 96).
Nevertheless, Scott goes on to offer what he considers incontrovertible proof of the expression of papal primacy from Chrysostom’s writings:
There is indeed one passage which may be a categorical affirmation of the primacy of the pope: De Sacerdotio 53: ‘Why did Christ shed His Blood? To purchase the sheep which He confided to Peter and those who came after him.’ It may be urged that S. Chrysostom means no more by this than all those who have the care of souls. On the other hand, there may be a reference to Peter only and to his personal commission: ‘Feed my sheep’; and Chrysostom soon afterwards actually quotes these words. And when one recalls his comments on them given above, as meaning Peter’s ‘government’ and ‘ruling the brethren,’ it is at least likely that here is a reference to Peter’s successors in the see of Rome (S. Herbert Scott, The Eastern Churches and the Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), p. 133).
These assertions are refuted by Dom Chrysostom Baur, the Roman Catholic biographer on the life of John Chrysostom. He points out that Chrysostom’s writings contain no allusion to a papal primacy and that the supposed evidence as that appealed to by Scott twists his writings to say what one wants them to say. It is to read a preconceived theology into his writings that Chrysostom himself never expressed. Baur comments:
A more important question is whether Chrysostom considered the primacy of Peter as only personal, or as an official primacy, hence a permanent arrangement of the Church, and whether he correspondingly attributed the primacy of jurisdiction in the Church also to the Bishops of Rome…Chrysostom never made in his works any questionable deductions, never passed sentence with clear words on the jurisdiction of the Pope. Even P. Jugie admits this frankly. N. Marini, who later became a Cardinal, published a book on this question. In this he seeks, with the help…of a number of quotations from Chrysostom, to prove that this must pass for unqualified evidence of the jurisdictional primacy of the successors of Peter in Rome. His first argument is borrowed from the Treatise on the Priesthood. In Book 2.1 Chrysostom asks: ‘Why did Christ shed His blood? In order to ransom His sheep, which He entrusted to Peter and to those after him.’ Marioni translates here ‘Peter and his successors,’ which naturally facilitates his proof. But Chrysostom actually expressed himself in a more general way, and means by ‘those after him’ all the pastors generally, to whom the sheep of Christ had been entrusted after Peter.
So it is not practicable to interpret this passage so narrowly as Marini has done. Still less convincing is Marini’s second piece of evidence. In a letter which Chrysostom addressed to Pope Innocent from his exile, he says that he would gladly assist in putting an end to the great evil, ‘for the strife has spread over almost the entire world.’ So then, one concludes, Chrysostom ascribes to the Pope authority over the whole world. Then Chrysostom writes once more, to the Bishop of Thessalomki: ‘Do not grow weary of doing that which contributes to the general improvement of the Church,’ and he praises Bishop Aurelius of Carthage, because he put forth so much effort and struggle for the churches of the whole world. It would not occur to anyone to wish to construe from this a possible proof of the primacy of the bishops of Saloniki or of Carthage (Dom Chrysostumus Baur, O.S.B., John Chrysostom and His Time (Westminster: Newman, 1959), Vol. I, pp. 348-349).
Clearly, Chrysostom cannot be cited as a proponent of a Petrine or papal primacy in the Roman Catholic sense any more than Augustine. Michael Winter candidly admits that Chrysostom’s views, especially his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16, were antithetical to those of Rome and greatly influenced the Eastern fathers who followed him. He states that such Eastern fathers as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Palladius of Helenopolis, Theodore of Ancyra, Basil of Seleucia and Nilus of Ancyra held to an opinion that was unfavourable to the superiority of Peter, an opinion that was widespread in the East in the first half of the fifth century:
The antipathy to Rome which finds its echo even in the works of St. John Chrysostom became more pronounced as the Eastern Church came more and more under the control of the emperor and effected eventually their estimate of St. Peter. Although they were not influenced by the Eusebian idea that the ‘rock’ of the church was Christ, the lesser Antiocheans betray an unwillingness to admit that Peter was the rock. Theodore of Mopsuestia, who died a quarter of a century after Chrysostom, declared that the rock on which the church was built was Peter’s confession of faith. The same opinion is repeated by Palladius of Helenopolis in his Dialogues on the life of St. John Chrysostom. Without any elaboration he states that the rock in Matthew 16 is Peter’s confession. The complete absence of reasons or arguments in support of the contention is an indication of how widely the view was accepted at that date. Such an opinion was, in fact, held also by Theodore of Ancyra, Basil of Seleucia, and Nilus of Ancyra, in the first half of the fifth century…The opinion unfavourable to the superiority of St. Peter gained a considerable following in the East under the influence of the school of Antioch…(Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), p. 73).
THEODORET OF CYR (A.D. 393—466)
Theodoret was the leading theologian of Antioch in the fifth century. In interpreting the rock passage of Matthew 16 he shares the opinion of the Eastern fathers, especially that of Chrysostom. The ‘opinion unfavourable to the superiority of St. Peter’ in the school of Antioch mentioned by Winter in the above quote finds representative expression in the following comments of Theodoret:
Let no one then foolishly suppose that the Christ is any other than the only begotten Son. Let us not imagine ourselves wiser than the gift of the Spirit. Let us hear the words of the great Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Let us hear the Lord Christ confirming this confession, for ‘On this rock,’ He says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’ Wherefore too the wise Paul, most excellent master builder of the churches, fixed no other foundation than this. ‘I,’ he says, ‘as a wise master builder have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ How then can they think of any other foundation, when they are bidden not to fix a foundation, but to build on that which is laid? The divine writer recognises Christ as the foundation, and glories in this title (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), Volume III, Theodoret, Epistle 146, To John the Economus, p. 318).
Other foundation no man can lay but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus (1 Cor. iii.11). It is necessary to build upon, not to lay foundations. For it is impossible for him who wishes to build wisely to lay another foundation. The blessed Peter also laid this foundation, or rather the Lord Himself. For Peter having said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God;’ the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build My Church.’ Therefore call not yourselves after men’s names, for Christ is the foundation (117Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1,12. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 149).
Surely he is calling pious faith and true confession a ‘rock.’ For when the Lord asked his disciples who the people said he was, blessed Peter spoke up, saying ‘You are Christ, the Son of the living God.’ To which the Lord answered: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Commentary on Canticle of Canticles II.14, M.P.G., Vol. 81, Col. 108).
‘Its foundations are on the holy mountains.’ The ‘foundations’ of piety are divine precepts, while the ‘holy mountains’ upon which these foundations are laid are the apostles of our Saviour. Blessed Paul says concerning these foundations: ‘You have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus.’ And again he says: ‘Peter, James and John who are perceived to be pillars.’ And after Peter had made that true and divine confession, Christ said to him: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ And elsewhere Christ says: ‘You are the light of the world, and a city set on a hill cannot be hid.’ Upon these holy mountains Christ the Lord laid the foundations of piety (Commentary on Psalms 86.1, M.P.G., Vol. 80, Col. 1561).
Wherefore our Lord Jesus Christ permitted the first of the apostles, whose confession He had fixed as a kind of groundwork and foundation of the Church, to waver to and fro, and to deny Him, and then raised him up again (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume III, Theodoret, Epistle 77, To Eulalius, p. 273).
According to Theodoret the rock is Peter’s confession of faith in Christ which points to Christ as the foundation of the Church. The main cornerstone is Jesus Christ and the subsidiary foundation includes all the apostles equally in their teachings and faith. He does refer to Peter personally as the foundation:
For if they say that these things happened before baptism, let them learn that the great foundation of the Church was shaken, and confirmed by divine grace. For the great Peter, having denied thrice, remained first; cured by his own tears. And the Lord commanded him to apply the same cure to the brethren, ‘And thou,’ He says, ‘converted, confirm thy brethren’ (Luke xxii.32) (Haeret. Fab. Book 5, Chapter 28. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 152).
Peter is called the foundation because of his confession of faith. It is his confession which is the rock of the Church. The rock and foundation is Jesus Christ alone. Theodoret does state that Peter is first among the apostles and the coryphaeus but, like Chrysostom and Augustine, these titles carry no unique jurisdictional primacy in a Roman Catholic sense. All the apostles are equal in authority and all bishops are successors of Peter. In a statement reminiscent of Cyprian and Chrysostom, Theodoret speaks of the bishop of Antioch as possessing the throne and authority of Peter demonstrating that this was not something unique to the see of Rome:
Dioscurus, however, refuses to abide by these decisions; he is turning the see of the blessed Mark upside down; and these things he does though he perfectly well knows that the Antiochean metropolis possesses the throne of the great Peter, who was the teacher of the blessed Mark, and first and coryphaeus of the apostles (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume III, Theodoret, Epistle 86, To Flavianus, bishop of Constantinople, p. 281).
In Jesus, Peter and the Keys, the authors list only one very short passage from Theodoret omitting completely all the others that have been listed here. That passage is the one referred to above where Peter is spoken of as ‘the great foundation of the Church.’ As we have seen Theodoret’s understanding of Peter as a foundation must be interpreted in the light of his other comments about Peter and his confession of faith. This is consistent with the prevailing patristic view of the East in that day as we have seen represented by Chrysostom and in the West by Ambrose and Augustine. But one can easily mislead people if one chooses to disregard the other references and to cite only that one which superficially seems to support one’s position because it speaks of Peter as a foundation. Without a proper reading of this one passage in the context of Theodoret’s other writings one cannot possibly fairly and objectively represent what he actually taught. By citing only this one passage, in isolation from the others, the authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys impose a preconceived papal theology onto Theodoret’s words which was not true to his own thought. They have misrepresented the writings of this Church father and they are at odds with their own historians. The Roman Catholic historian, Michael Winter, demonstrates this to be the case when he sums up Theodoret’s views this way:
He declared at one time that the rock foundation of the church was faith, and at another that it was Christ. Elsewhere he applies the notion to all the Apostles…It is evident that he did not acknowledge the primacy of St. Peter (Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), p. 74).
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA (Died A.D. 444)
Cyril is one of the most important and influential theologians of the Eastern Church. He was bishop of Alexandria in the first half of the fifth century from 412 A.D to 444 A.D. He presided over the Council of Ephesus and is considered the great defender of the orthodox faith against Nestorius. His views on the rock of Matthew 16 and the foundation of the Church are unambiguously presented in his writings:
For that reason divine Scripture says that Peter, that exceptional figure among the apostles, was called blessed. For when the Savior was in that part of Caesarea which is called Philippi, he asked who the people thought he was, or what rumor about him had been spread throughout Judea and the town bordering Judea. And in response Peter, having abandoned the childish and abused opinions of the people, wisely and expertly exclaimed: ‘You are Christ, Son of the living God.’ Now when Christ heard this true opinion of him, he repaid Peter by saying: ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar–Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ The surname, I believe, calls nothing other than the unshakable and very firm faith of the disciple ‘a rock,’ upon which the Church was founded and made firm and remains continually impregnable even with respect to the very gates of Hell. But Peter’s faith in the Son was not easily attained, nor did it flow from human apprehension; rather it was derived from the ineffable instruction from above; since God the Father clearly shows his own Son and causes a sure persuasion of him in the minds of his people. For Christ was in no way deceptive when he said, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ If, therefore, blessed Peter, having confessed Christ to be the Son of the living God, are those not very wretched and abandoned who rashly rail at the will and undoubtedly true teaching of God, who drag down the one who proceeds from God’s own substance and make him a creature, who foolishly reckon the coeternal author of life to be among those things which have derived their life from another source? Are such people not at any rate very ignorant? (Dialogue on the Trinity IV, M.P.G., Vol. 75, Col. 866).
But why do we say that they are ‘foundations of the earth’? For Christ is the foundation and unshakable base of all things—Christ who restrains and holds together all things, that they may be very firm. Upon him also we all are built, a spiritual household, put together by the Holy Spirit into a holy temple in which he himself dwells; for by our faith he lives in our hearts. But the next foundations, those nearer to us, can be understood to be the apostles and evangelists, those eyewitnesses and ministers of the word who have arisen for the strengthening of the faith. For when we recognize that their own traditions must be followed, we serve a faith which is true and does not deviate from Christ. For when he wisely and blamelessly confessed his faith to Jesus saying, ‘You are Christ, Son of the living God,’ Jesus said to divine Peter: ‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ Now by the word ‘rock’, Jesus indicated, I think, the immoveable faith of the disciple. Likewise, the psalmist says: ‘Its foundations are the holy mountains.’ Very truly should the holy apostles and evangelists be compared to holy mountains for their understanding was laid down like a foundation for posterity, so that those who had been caught in their nets would not fall into a false faith (Commentary on Isaiah IV.2, M.P.G., Vol. 70, Col. 940).
The Church is unshaken, and ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ according to the voice of the Saviour, for it has Him for a foundation (Commentary on Zacharias. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 143).
It is likely that by these words (Is. 33:16) our Lord Jesus Christ is called a rock, in Whom, as some cave or sheepfold, the Church is conceived as having a safe and unshaken abiding place for its well-being; ‘For thou art Peter,’ the Saviour says, ‘and upon this rock I will build My Church’ (Commentary on Isaiah 3.iii, on Isaiah 28:16. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 142).
Cyril’s views are very similar to those of Chrysostom. He identifies the rock of the Church to be Peter’s confession of faith and not the person of Peter himself. He separates Peter’s faith from Peter’s person, just as Augustine, Chrysostom and Ambrose did. All of the apostles according to Cyril are Shepherds and foundations. It is their teaching on Christ which is foundational and points to Christ as the true rock and only foundation upon which the Church is built. He interprets the rock of Matthew 16 to be Christ as well as Peter’s confession of faith. This amounts to the same thing as Peter’s confession points to the person of Christ. Cyril’s views are completely antithetical to those of the Roman Catholic Church. He is no proponent of the teaching of papal primacy. Michael Winter summarizes Cyril’s views in the following statements:
Cyril of Alexandria’s theology on the question of St. Peter resembles closely that of the Antiochean fathers. The life work of St. Cyril, for which he is renowned in the church, was his upholding of the orthodox faith against Nestorius, principally at the Council of Ephesus in 431. This preoccupation with Christological questions influenced his exegesis of the text of Matthew 16 in a manner which is reminiscent of the earliest fathers who were writing against Gnosticism. Although he alludes frequently to the text, it is the Christological application which interests him and the resultant picture of St. Peter is inconclusive. For instance when, commenting on the passage he writes: ‘Then he also names another honour: “Upon this rock I will build my church; and to thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Observe how he summarily manifests Himself Lord of heaven and earth for. . . He promises to found the church, assigning immovableness to it, as He is the Lord of strength, and over this He sets Peter as shepherd. Then He says, “And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Neither an angel nor any other spiritual being is able to speak thus.’
The application to Peter of the title ‘shepherd’ is deceptive, since he applies it elsewhere to all the Apostles and it cannot therefore indicate a peculiar authority for Peter. It seems to have been his consistent opinion that the ‘rock–foundation’ of the church was Peter’s immovable faith. Although it seems a small matter to distinguish Peter’s faith from his person in the function of being the foundation of the church, it does appear that Cyril did, in fact, isolate St. Peter himself for that role and in this respect he is at one with the later Antiocheans…The school of Antioch (and those who were influenced by it) presents a conflicting set of opinions. St Chrysostom and some followers uphold the primacy of St. Peter, while St. Cyril of Alexandria and others deny it (Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), pp. 74-76).
It is significant that this Roman Catholic historian is forced by the evidence of Cyril’s writings to conclude that his use of the word shepherd as applied to Peter did not imply any peculiar authority to him and that he was not a proponent of Petrine primacy. In fact, that he actually denied it. He deals honestly with the facts. This cannot be said of the authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys. They give selective quotations from this father, purposefully omitting those that are unfavorable to their position. There is no attempt at an honest assessment of what Cyril actually meant by the words that he used leading the reader to conclude that Cyril taught that Peter was the rock and was a supporter of a primacy of Peter in a pro-Roman, papal sense, neither of which is true. Cyril’s views are consistent with those of the other major fathers of the East and West which we have examined. Peter’s faith is the rock and foundation of the Church. It points to the person of Christ as the true rock and only foundation.
The views of the fathers that have been cited are representative of the fathers as a whole. This can be demonstrated by the examples of other major fathers such as the following:
HILARY OF POITIERS
Hilary was consecrated bishop of Poitiers in 350 A.D. He is known as the Athanasius of the West due to his staunch stand for Nicene orthodoxy in opposition to Arianism. He died in 367–368 A.D. and was declared a doctor of the Church by pope Pius IX. His views on the rock of Matthew 16 are consistent with those of Augustine and Ambrose:
A belief that the Son of God is Son in name only, and not in nature, is not the faith of the Gospels and of the Apostles…whence I ask, was it that the blessed Simon Bar–Jona confessed to Him, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God?…And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built…that Christ must be not only named, but believed, the Son of God.
This faith is that which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven…The very reason why he is blessed is that he confessed the Son of God. This is the Father’s revelation, this the foundation of the Church, this the assurance of her permanence. Hence has she the keys of the kingdom of heaven, hence judgment in heaven and judgment on earth….Thus our one immovable foundation, our one blissful rock of faith, is the confession from Peter’s mouth, Thou art the Son of the living God (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), On The Trinity, Book VI.36,37; Book II.23; Book VI.20.
Jerome is the great biblical scholar of the Western Church of the patristics age. He spent time in both the East and West and was a master of three languages: Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Along with Origen, he is considered the only true biblical scholar of the entire patristic age:
The one foundation which the apostolic architect laid is our Lord Jesus Christ. Upon this stable and firm foundation, which has itself been laid on solid ground, the Church of Christ is built…For the Church was founded upon a rock…upon this rock the Lord established his Church; and the apostle Peter received his name from this rock (Mt. 16.18) (Commentary on Matthew 7.25, M.P.L., Vol. 26, Col. 51. Cited by Karlfried Froehlich, Formen der Auslegung von Matthaus 16,13-18 im lateinischen Mittelalter, Dissertation (Tubingen, 1963), Footnote #200, p. 49).
Epiphanius was born in Palestine and was bishop of Salamis on Cyprus. He was an ardent defender of Nicene orthodoxy. He gives an interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16 that is consistent with the overall Eastern exegesis:
He confessed that ‘Christ’ is ‘the Son of the living God,’ and was told, ‘On this rock of sure faith will I build my church’—for he plainly confessed that Christ is true Son (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (Leiden: Brill, 1994), Books II and III, Haer. 59.7, 6-8,3, pp. 108-109).
BASIL OF SELEUCIA
Basil was a fifth century Eastern bishop of Seleucia in Isauria. He took part in the Council of Chalcedon in 451:
Now Christ called this confession a rock, and he named the one who confessed it ‘Peter,’ perceiving the appellation which was suitable to the author of this confession. For this is the solemn rock of religion, this the basis of salvation, this the wall of faith and the foundation of truth: ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.’ To whom be glory and power forever (Oratio XXV.4, M.P.G., Vol. 85, Col. 296-297).
PAUL OF EMESA (Died—ca. A.D. 444)
Paul was consecrated bishop of Emesa just after 410 A.D. He took part in the Council of Ephesus:
Whom do you say that I am?’ Instantly, the Coryphaeus of the apostles, the mouth of the disciples, Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God…Upon this faith the Church of God has been founded. With this expectation, upon this rock the Lord God placed the foundations of the Church (Homily of the Nativity. Cited by J. Waterworth S.J., A Commentary (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), p. 148).
JOHN OF DAMASCUS
The death of John of Damascus (around 749 A.D.) is considered to be the close of the patristic age. He was an Eastern father with a reputation as a great preacher and prolific writer. In his writings he clearly identifies the rock of the Church as the person of Christ or Peter’s faith which points to Christ:
This is that firm and immovable faith upon which, as upon the rock whose surname you bear, the Church is founded. Against this the gates of hell, the mouths of heretics, the machines of demons—for they will attack—will not prevail. They will take up arms but they will not conquer (Homily on the Transfiguration, M.P.G., Vol. 96, Col. 554-555).
This rock was Christ, the incarnate Word of God, the Lord, for Paul clearly teaches us: ‘The rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:4) (Homily on the Transfiguration, M.P.G., Vol. 96, Col. 548).
The evidence presented on the history of the patristic exegesis of Matthew 16 is similar for Luke 22:32 and John 21:15–17. This evidence reveals that the fathers did not interpret these passages in favor of an exclusive Roman primacy or papal infallibility. There is no patristic exegesis of Matthew 16:18 or Luke 22:32 which even implies that the bishops of Rome are infallible.
Summary Statements of Historians
The following commenst from the writings of major Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant historians which summarize the patristic understanding of the person of Peter and the rock of Matthew 16 affirm the above assertions.
Brian Tierney is a world renowned medieval scholar. He gives the following analysis of the medieval interpretation of Luke 22 which was grounded in the patristic interpretation as documented by Froehlich. He demonstrates that the doctrine of papal infallibility was unknown in the patristic and medieval ages:
The scriptural text most commonly cited in favor of papal infallibility is Luke 22.32. There is no lack of patristic commentary on the text. None of the Fathers interpreted it as meaning that Peter’s successors were infallible. No convincing argument has ever been put forward explaining why they should not have stated that the text implied a doctrine of papal infallibility if that is what they understood it to mean. Again, it is difficult for us to know exactly what men of the sixth and seventh centuries understood by formulas like those of Hormisdas and Agatho. But we do know that the general council which accepted Agatho’s formula also anathematized Agatho’s predecessor, Pope Honorius, on the ground that he ‘followed the views of the heretic Sergius and confirmed his impious dogmas.’ Agatho’s successor, Pope Leo II, in confirming the decrees of the council, added that Honorius ‘did not illuminate the apostolic see by teaching the apostolic tradition but, by an act of treachery strove to subvert its immaculate faith.’ Whatever the council fathers may have meant by the formula they accepted concerning the unfailing faith of the apostolic see, their meaning can have had little connection with the modern doctrine of papal infallibility (Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 11-13).
Luis Bermejo is a Spanish Jesuit who has taught theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum at Puna, India for the last thirty years. In a recently published book (1992), he makes the following compelling argument in confirmation of Brian Tierney’s historical research:
To my knowledge, nobody seems to have challenged Tierney’s contention that the entire first millenium is entirely silent on papal infallibility and that, therefore, Vatican I’s contention concerning the early roots of the doctrine is difficult to maintain. Practically the only objection of some substance raised against Tierney seems to be his interpretation of the twelfth century decretists: is the future dogma of Vatican I implicitly contained in them? Even after granting for the sake of argument that it is—something that Tierney does not concede in any way—the formidable obstacle of the first millenium remains untouched. In my opinion his critics have fired their guns on a secondary target (the medieval decretists and theologians)leaving the disturbing silence of the first millenium out of consideration. Nobody seems to have been able to adduce any documentary proof to show that this long silence was illusory, that the doctrine was—at least implicitly—already known and held in the early centuries. It is not easy to see how a given doctrine can be maintained to be of apostolic origin when a thousand years of tradition do not echo it in any way (Luis Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1992), pp. 164-165).
Pelikan provides this overview of the Eastern Church’s understanding of the rock and Peter in Matthew 16:16–19:
The identification of the gates of hell with the great heresies of the second, third, and fourth centuries was generally accepted. Against these gates of hell not only the apostle Peter, but all the apostles, especially John, had successfully contended with the authority of the word of God. Indeed, the power of the keys conferred upon Peter by Christ in Matthew 16:19 was not restricted either to him or to his successors on the throne of Old Rome; all the faithful bishops of the church were imitators and successors of Peter. They had this status as orthodox adherents of the confession of Peter in Matthew 16:16: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ By attaching the promise in the following verses to that confession it was possible to admonish orthodox believers to ‘run to the faith…of this immovable rock…and let us believe that Christ is both God and man.’ The unshakable foundation of the church was the rock that was Christ, but at the same time Peter could be called ‘the foundation and support of our faith.’ He was this, however, principally because of his confession, which was repeated by all true believers. It was a polemical extension of this general Greek tendency when a later treatise, falsely ascribed to Photius, stated flatly that the rock in Christ’s promise was the confession of Peter rather than his person.
Thus Peter was the foundation of the church, so that whoever believed as he believed would not go astray. But for most Greek theologians Peter was above all ‘the chief of the theologians’ because of his confession. All the titles of primacy, such as foundation and basis and ‘president of the disciples,’ pertained to him as trinitarian theologian. The church was to be built on the rock, on Christ the cornerstone, on which Peter, as coryphaeus of the disciples of the Logos, had also been built—‘built that is by the Holy and divine dogmas.’ Primacy belonged to Peter on account of his confession, and those who confessed Christ to be the Son of the living God, as he had, were the beneficiaries of the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church built on the rock (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), Volume Two, pp. 160-161).
Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger
Dollinger taught Church history as a Roman Catholic for 47 years in the 19th century and was one of the greatest and most influential historians in the Church of his day. He sums up the Eastern and Western understanding of Matthew 16 in the patristic period:
In the first three centuries, St. Irenaeus is the only writer who connects the superiority of the Roman Church with doctrine; but he places this superiority, rightly understood, only in its antiquity, its double apostolical origin, and in the circumstance of the pure tradition being guarded and maintained there through the constant concourse of the faithful from all countries. Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, know nothing of special Papal prerogative, or of any higher or supreme right of deciding in matter of doctrine. In the writings of the Greek doctors, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, the two Gregories, and St. Epiphanius, there is not one word of any prerogatives of the Roman bishop. The most copious of the Greek Fathers, St. Chrysostom, is wholly silent on the subject, and so are the two Cyrils; equally silent are the Latins, Hilary, Pacian, Zeno, Lucifer, Sulpicius, and St. Ambrose.
St. Augustine has written more on the Church, its unity and authority, than all the other Fathers put together. Yet, from all his numerous works, filling ten folios, only one sentence, in one letter, can be quoted, where he says that the principality of the Apostolic Chair has always been in Rome—which could, of course, be said then with equal truth of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Any reader of his Pastoral Letter to the separated Donatists on the Unity of the Church, must find it inexplicable…that in these seventy–five chapters there is not a single word on the necessity of communion with Rome as the centre of unity. He urges all sorts of arguments to show that the Donatists are bound to return to the Church, but of the Papal Chair, as one of them, he says not a word.
We have a copious literature on the Christian sects and heresies of the first six centuries—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Philastrius, St. Augustine, and, later, Leontius and Timotheus—have left us accounts of them to the number of eighty, but not a single one is reproached with rejecting the Pope’s authority in matters of faith.
All this is intelligible enough, if we look at the patristic interpretation of the words of Christ to St. Peter. Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. xvi.18, John xxi.17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the twelve being together the foundation–stones of the Church (Apoc. xxi.14). The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as—what is obvious to any one at first sight—they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as anything peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing (Janus (Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger), The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1869), pp. 70-74).
Karlfried Froehlich, one of the foremost medieval and patristic scholars living today, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the patristic and medieval exegesis of Matthew 16. He affirms the above facts in discussing the history of the exegesis of the Petrine texts, demonstrating how the medieval theologians interpreted Matthew 16 in harmony with a clear patristic tradition contrary to the Roman Catholic point of view:
Three biblical texts have traditionally been cited as the religious foundation of papal primacy: Matt. 16:18–19; Luke 22:32; and John 21:15–17…The combination of the three passages in support of the primatial argument reaches far back in the history of the Roman papacy. Leo I and Gelasius I seem to have been the first to use it…However, it would be a mistake to assume that the papal interpretation was the standard exegesis everywhere…Quite on the contrary, the understanding of these Petrine texts by biblical exegetes in the mainstream of the tradition was universally nonprimatial before Innocent III.
Perhaps the most instructive case is that of Matt. 16:18–19. It is quite clear to modern exegetes that all three parts of the passage, the name–giving, its interpretation by Jesus’ word about the founding of the church on the rock, and the promise of the keys, speak about the person of Peter, even if the nature of his prerogative and the application to any successors is set aside. The medieval interpretation shows a very different picture. The name–giving (v. 18a) was generally regarded as Jesus’ answer to Peter’s confession which, as the context suggested to medieval exegetes, Peter had uttered pro omnibus (for all). Following Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome, exegetes widely assumed that in Peter the reward for the correct confession of Christ, the Son of God was given to all true believers; all Christians deserved to be called petrae. Even Augustine’s formulation, informed by a traditional North African concern for the unity of the church, that in Peter unus pro omnibus (one for all) had answered and received the reward, did not suggest more than a figurative reading of Peter as an image of the true church. In light of Peter’s subsequent fall and denial, the name itself was regularly declared to be derived from Christ, the true rock. Augustine, who followed Origen in this assumption, was fascinated by the dialectic of the ‘blessed’ Peter (Matt. 16:17) being addressed as ‘Satan’ a few verses later (v. 23). In Peter, weak in himself and strong only in his connection with Christ, the church could see the image of its own total dependence on God’s grace.
Augustine rigorously separated the name-giving from its explanation: Christ did not say to Peter: ‘you are the rock,’ but ‘you are Peter.’ The church is not built upon Peter but upon the only true rock, Christ. Augustine and the medieval exegetes after him found the warrant for this interpretation in 1 Cor. 10:4. The allegorical key of this verse had already been applied to numerous biblical rock passages in the earlier African testimonia tradition. Matt. 16:18 was no exception. If the metaphor of the rock did not refer to a negative category of ‘hard’ rocks, it had to be read christologically.
The same result was obtained when exegetes focused on the image of ‘the building of the church.’ The rock metaphor in Matt. 16:18 stressed the firmness of the church’s foundation. But the foundation image itself, fundamentum ecclesiae, was clearly explained in another key passage of the New Testament: ‘Another foundation can no one lay except the one that is laid, which is Christ Jesus’ (1 Cor. 3:11). The same interpretation of the ‘firm foundation’ being Christ seemed inevitable when exegetes associated Matt. 16:18 with Jesus’ parable of Matt. 7:24 which spoke of the building of a house on firm ground. The exegetical tradition since Origen and the Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum identified the house with the church so that the wise master builder had to be Christ who builds the church upon the firm rock, himself. Even in a secondary moral interpretation which explained the master builder as the virtuous Christian, the image of the strong foundation was invariably christologized, often with direct reference to 1 Cor. 3:11 and 10:4, or even Matt. 16:18. A good Christian must build the house of his life on Christ. Applied to the imagery of Matt. 16:18, the final scope of Jesus’ parable again reinforced a christological reading: the house of the wise master builder, Jesus taught, stands firm against all assaults of wind, flood, and weather. The parallel to Matt. 16:18c was very obvious to the interpreter: if the portae inferi (gates of hell) cannot prevail against it, the church must indeed be built on the one rock that cannot be moved, Christ.
The logic of these parallel texts must have seemed inevitable to medieval exegetes. In none of the biblical building and foundation passages which were understood as referring to the church was Matt. 16:18 used as a hermeneutical key that would suggest Peter as the foundation. On the contrary, the clear Petrine meaning of the verse was silenced by the weight of the christological parallels. In medieval exegesis these keys goverened not only all references to the building of the church in the New Testament but also its Old Testament prefigurations: Christ was the foundation of the church prefigured in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 5ff), in the house which Wisdom built for herself (Prov. 9), and in the cosmological foundation images of the Psalms (Ps. 76:69; 86:1; 101:26; 103:5 etc.).
Most of the Eastern exegetes, especially after the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century, read v. 18 as the culmination of vv. 16–17: ‘upon this rock’ meant ‘upon the orthodox faith which you have just confessed.’ Introduced in the West by Ambrose and the translation of the Antiochene exegetes, this petra=fides equation maintained an important place alongside the christological alternative, or as its more precise explanation: the rock of the church was Christ who was the content of Peter’s confession.
The North African catechetical tradition, on the other hand, understood the word about Peter, the rock of the church, as the preface to v. 19: Peter was the rock, because he received the keys of the kingdom, which signified the church’s exercise of penitential discipline. Tertullian, nevertheless, regarded the Peter of Matt. 16:18-19 as the representative of the entire church or at least its ‘spiritual’ members. Cyprian understood him as symbolizing the unity of all bishops, the priveleged officers of penance.
A basic lack of the primatial context also characterizes the exegetical tradition about the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 16:19). Again, the major reason may have to be sought in the influence of biblical parallels. In the patristic commentaries, the keys were understood as penetential authority, primarily the priestly power of excommunication and reconciliation. This understanding was nourished by the parallel passages of Matt. 18:18…and especially John 20:23, where binding and loosing seemed to be explained as the retaining and forgiving of sins. Both texts, however, extended this power beyond the one Peter to all apostles. Thus, the exegetes were faced with the fact that ‘what was bestowed on Peter, was also given to all apostles.’
We can now summarize our findings. The earlier exegetical history of Matt. 16:18–19, Luke 22:32, and John 21:15–17 was largely out of step with the primatial interpretation of these passages which had itself a long history among papal writers since the fifth, perhaps even the third century. The mainstream of exegesis followed an agenda set by patristic precedent, especially Augustine, but also other Western fathers. In the case of Matt. 16:18-19, the tradition was dominated by the christological interpretation of the ‘rock’ of the church, nourished by powerful biblical parallels such as 1 Cor. 10:4, Matt. 7:24–25, and 1 Cor. 3:11. For Luke 22:32, the tradition focused on the context of Jesus’ passion and Peter’s denial, applying the verse in tropological way to the theme of the ‘humble prelate.’ In the case of John 21:15–17, the traditional interpretation drew on the biblical imagery of flock and shepherds as a metaphor of the cura pastoralis in the church and saw in the text a lesson about the qualities of a ‘good prelate’ (Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, pp. 3, 8-14, 42. 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).
John Meyendorff documents the overall Eastern exegesis of Matthew 16 and its view of ecclesiology:
The reformed papacy of the eleventh century used a long-standing Western tradition of exegesis when it applied systematically and legalistically the passages on the role of Peter (especially Mt. 16:18, Lk. 22:32, and Jn. 21:15-17) to the bishop of Rome. This tradition was not shared by the East.226
(After) the schism between East and West…Greek scholars and prelates continued the tradition of the Fathers without the slightest alteration…Origen is the common teacher of the Greek fathers in the field of biblical commentary. Origen gives an extensive explanation on Mt. 16:18. He rightly interprets the famous words of Christ as a consequence of the confession of Peter on the road of Caesarea Philippi: Simon became the Rock on which the Church is founded, because he expressed the true belief in the divinity of Christ. Thus, according to Origen, all those saved by faith in Jesus Christ receive also the keys of the Kingdom: in other words, the successors of Peter are all believers. ‘If we also say,’ he writes, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we also become Peter…for whoever assimilates to Christ, becomes the Rock. Does Christ give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone, whereas other blessed people cannot receive them?’
This same interpretation implicitly prevails in all the patristic texts dealing with Peter: the great Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine all concur in affirming that the faith of Simon made it possible for him to become the Rock on which the Church is founded and that in a certain sense all those who share the same faith are his successors. This same idea is to be found in later Byzantine writers. ‘The Lord gives the keys to Peter,’ says Theophanes Kerameus, a preacher of the twelfth century, ‘and to all those who resemble him, so that the gates of the Kingdom of heaven remain closed for heretics, yet are easily accessible to the faithful.’
On the other hand, a very clear patristic tradition sees the succession of Peter in the episcopal ministry. The doctrine of St. Cyprian of Carthage on the ‘See of Peter’ as being present in every local church, and not only in Rome, is well known. It is also found in the East, among people who certainly never read De unitate ecclesiae of Cyprian, but who share its main idea, thus witnessing to it as a part of the catholic tradition of the Church…A careful analysis of Byzantine ecclesiastical literature…would certainly show that this tradition is a persistent one, and indeed it belongs to the essence of Orthodox ecclesiology to consider any local bishop to be the teacher of his flock and therefore to fulfil sacramentally, through the apostolic succession, the office of the first true believer, Peter (John Meyendorff, St. Peter in Byzantine Theology. Taken from The Primacy of Peter (London: Faith, 1963), pp. 7-29).
Yves Congar is one of the most influential Roman Catholic historians and theologians of this century. He makes the following statements on the Eastern Church’s ecclesiology and of the patristic understanding of the rock of Matthwe 16:
Many of the Eastern Fathers who are rightly acknowledged to be the greatest and most representative and are, moreover, so considered by the universal Church, do not offer us any more evidence of the primacy. Their writings show that they recognized the primacy of the Apostle Peter, that they regarded the See of Rome as the prima sedes playing a major part in the Catholic communion—we are recalling, for example, the writings of St. John Chrysostom and of St. Basil who addressed himself to Rome in the midst of the difficulties of the schism of Antioch—but they provide us with no theological statement on the universal primacy of Rome by divine right. The same can be said of St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Damascene (Yves Congar, After Nine Hundred Years (New York: Fordham University, 1959), pp. 61-62).
It does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16–19. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out an exegesis at the level of their own ecclesiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than juridical (Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 398).
Batiffol likewise affirms the fact that the Eastern Church, historically, has never embraced the ecclesiology of Roman primacy:
I believe that the East had a very poor conception of the Roman primacy. The East did not see in it what Rome herself saw and what the West saw in Rome, that is to say, a continuation of the primacy of St. Peter. The bishop of Rome was more than the successor of Peter on his cathedra, he was Peter perpetuated, invested with Peter’s responsibility and power. The East has never understood this perpetuity. St. Basil ignored it, as did St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John Chrysostom. In the writings of the great Eastern Fathers, the authority of the Bishop of Rome is an authority of singular grandeur, but in these writings it is not considered so by divine right (Cited by Yves Congar, After Nine Hundred Years (New York: Fordham University, 1959), pp. 61-62).
From the primary documentation of the writings of the fathers and the comments of Church historians we can summarize the patristic understanding of Peter and the rock from Matthew 16. Generally speaking, the fathers viewed the rock and foundation of the Church as the person of Christ, or Peter’s confession of faith which pointed to Christ. Sometimes they speak of Peter as the rock or foundation in the sense that he is the example of true faith—that he exemplified faith. But they do not teach that he is representative of a papal office or that the Church was built upon him in a legalistic sense. They also viewed Peter figuratively as representative of the unity of the entire Church. What Christ spoke to Peter he spoke to the Church as a whole and what was given to Peter was given to all the apostles and through them to the entire Church. The keys are a declarative authority to teach truth, preach the gospel and exercise discipline in the Church.
Though the fathers spoke in very exalted terms about the apostle Peter, their comments were not applied in an exclusive sense to the bishop of Rome, nor did they view the Roman bishops as given universal jurisdiction over the Church. Although they saw the bishops of Rome as successors of Peter, they did not see them as the exclusive successors of Peter, nor as the universal rulers of the Church, nor the see of Rome as the only apostolic see. Roman Catholics assume that when a Church father speaks of Peter he is also talking about the bishops of Rome but this is not the case. That is to read a preconceived theology into their writings. The fathers teach that all bishops are successors of Peter. In their interpretation of Matthew 16, Luke 22 and John 21 we do not find any affirmation of the teaching of Vatican I on papal jurisdiction and infallibility.
This reveals two important points from both a theological and historical perspective. Theologically, there is no evidence of patristic consensus to support the Vatican I papal interpretation of Matthew 16:18–19 equating the rock with the person of Peter, assigning to him and the Roman bishops the place of preeminence of rule in the Church through the authority of the keys. The Roman Catholic Church’s appeal to the ‘universal consent of the fathers’ to support its exegesis of Matthew 16 is fallacious. Such a consensus does not exist. The interpretation of Matthew 16:18 by the major fathers of the patristic age from both the East and West demonstrates that the overwhelming majority view of the Church historically is not that of the Roman Catholic Church today. The fact is, apart from the popes themselves—beginning in the late fourth century—and with those who have an interest in promoting the papacy, the Roman interpretation of Matthew 16:18–19 has historically been universally rejected by the Church in both East and West. And what is true in the exegetical history is true also in historical practice. It is clear from the history of the Church, in the attitudes and actions of the general Councils and with individual fathers in their dealings with the bishops of Rome, that in the patristic age, the Church never operated on the basis of a universal Roman primacy or in the belief in papal infallibility.