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November 2018 Credo

At about the middle of the Gospel of Matthew, we find the famous account of the conversation that Jesus had with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16). In that incident, which took place just before his transfiguration, Jesus asked his disciples two questions.

The first question was: ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ The disciples readily supplied Jesus with a list of public opinions about him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets (16:13-14).

In the second question, Jesus wished to discover the views of his disciples who had accompanied him for several years and had personally witnessed his ministry. There can be no doubt that Jesus had expected a different answer from them.

Peter, impetuous as ever, blurted out the answer: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (16:16). Neither Peter nor the disciples realised that that reply was in fact revelation-enabled. This was only disclosed in Jesus’ response: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’.

Then, Jesus said these the remarkable words that have become the subject of one of the longest debates in the history of the Church: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (16:18).

What did Jesus mean by the metaphor of the ‘rock’? Does the rock in this context refer to a person (or indeed to several persons), or does it refer to something else?

The Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that ‘the rock’ refers to Peter himself, whom it regards as the chief apostle, the first among equals. Thus, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 880), we find this unequivocal statement: ‘When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted them in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them’.

The exclusive place of Peter as the head of the Church is also clearly articulated in the Catechism. ‘The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock’ (para 881).

Consequently, it is the Roman pontiff who must be seen as Peter’s successor: ‘The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’ (para 882).

The view that the Roman Pope is Peter’s successor and the theology of apostolic succession it spawns is uniquely that of the Roman Catholic Church, not shared by the other traditions.

The great 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, categorically rejected the Roman Catholic interpretation and insisted that ‘the rock’ refers not to Peter but to Christ himself.

In his comments on this Matthean passage, Luther insists that the ‘rock’ must refer to a ‘living, spiritual rock’. He therefore concludes: ‘“Church” must be a spiritual, living congregation, yes, living in such fashion that it all lives eternally. So this rock is now the Son of God, Jesus Christ, alone and no one else, [and] concerning whom the Scripture is full, and we Christians know well’.

In his commentary on Matthew 16, John Calvin also rejects the Roman Catholic interpretation. However, Calvin is of the view that ‘the rock’ does refer to Peter, and appears to give more weight to Peter’s apostolic office. But at the most fundamental level, Calvin puts emphasis on the faith of Peter, expressed in his great confession and shared by all who believe.

On the metaphor of the rock, Calvin could therefore write: ‘From this it appears how the name Peter belongs both to Peter and to other believers; that is, founded on the faith of Christ they are fitted in a holy concord into the spiritual building, so that God may dwell in their midst’.

The interpretation of the Reformers can he traced to the early fathers of the Church. Like the Reformers, the Patristic theologians did not interpret the metaphor in line with the Roman Catholic doctrine. Space allows us to consider only two examples, Origen and Augustine.

Origen, the head of a catechetical school in Alexandria in the first half of the third century, was a theologian of enormous intellect. More importantly, his interpretation of Matthew 16:18 became normative for the fathers of the Eastern Church.

Origen maintains that the rock in the Matthean passage does refer to Peter, but not in the Roman Catholic sense. Peter, for Origen, represents all true believers in Christ.

Thus, Origen could write in his commentary on Matthew 16:18: ‘And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ … we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “Thou are Peter”, etc’.

Augustine, who is without doubt one of the most important theologians in Latin Christianity, wrote more comments on Matthew 16:18 than any other Church father. Initially, Augustine interpreted the rock as Peter, but soon changed his mind.

For the remainder of his ministry as a theologian and bishop, Augustine maintained that the rock is not Peter but Christ, or Peter’s confession about Christ. Following the fathers of the Church who came before him, Augustine interpreted Matthew 16:18 on the basis of 1 Corinthians 10:4, where Paul explicitly states that ‘the Rock was Christ’.

In contrast to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church promulgated after him, Augustine did not see Peter as occupying a privileged position even though he acknowledged the special honour that Rome enjoys.

Summarising Augustine’s ecclesiology with regard to this issue, Karl Morrison writes: ‘Peter was said to have received the power of the keys, not in his own right, but as a representative of the entire Church. Without contesting Rome’s primacy of honour, St. Augustine held that all the Apostles, and all their successors, the bishops, shared equally in the powers which Christ granted St. Peter’.

Christ is the only foundation of the Church, the rock upon which she is established. As long as the Church remains faithful to Christ, ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it’, as her Lord had promised (Matthew 16:19).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.