Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The first extant exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19

One of the more significant exegetical monographs that we have on the topic of the importance of Peter is Peter in the New Testament, edited by Raymond Brown, Karl Donfried, and John Reumann. This work describes its mission and function:

A National Dialogue between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians began in July 1965 under the sponsorship of the U.S.A. National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation and the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops…. In their 1971 meetings [these groups] began to discuss one of the thorniest problems arising from the Reformation: the problem of ministry in the universal church, with special emphasis on papal primacy…. In order that the work of the National Dialogue not become impossibly long, it was decided that smaller task forces of specialists be appointed to work on two particularly sensitive historical periods, namely the New Testament and the Patristic periods (pgs 1-2).

So two works have been produced by this commission. I’ve had the first for some time now, and have referred to it on occasion. The second, Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, just arrived in my mailbox. It has taken me a while to locate it, because it was not referred to directly in the first work. The footnote in the first work refers to the second only in terms of function (I suppose the essays had not been collected at that point):

The Patristics task force, co-chaired by the Rev. Dr. A.C. Piepkorn of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, and by Professor J. McCue [a Roman Catholic] of the School of Religion at the State University of Iowa (Iowa City), will make a separate report on the evidence pertaining to the first five centuries (fn 4, pg 2).

From the Roman Catholic side, T.Austin Murphy, Bishop’s Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs served as a co-editor. Murphy was an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore at the time.

I’m working through McCue’s essay, “The Beginnings Through Nicaea”, and I hope to talk about this a bit more, but for now, I’ve found the following, which I find quite interesting:

When Origen is commenting directly on Matthew 16:18f. he carefully puts aside any interpretation of the passage that would make of Peter anything other than what every Christian is to be.

… 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 to us, but because light from the Father in heaven had shone in our hearts, we become a Peter, and to us also he who was the Word might say, “Thou Art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”. For every imitator of Christ is a rock, of Christ, that is, who is the spiritual rock that followed them that drank of him. And upon every such rock is built every word of the Church, and the whole order of life based thereon; for whosoever is perfect, having the sum of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the state of blessedness, in him is the Church that God is building.

But if you suppose that God builds the entire Church upon Peter and on him alone, what would you say about John, the son of thunder, or any particular apostle? In other words, are we so bold as to say that it is against Peter in particular that the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other apostles and the perfect? Does not the above saying “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” hold in regard to all, and in the case of each of them? And likewise with regard to the words “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? For in the passage before us, the words “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” and what follows do appear to be addressed to Peter individually; but in the Gospel of John, the Saviour, having given the Holy Spirit to the disciples by breathing on them, says “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” and what follows. For all the imitators of Christ are surnamed “rocks” from him, the spiritual rock which follows those who are being saved; … but from the very fact that they are members of Christ, they are called Christians by a name derived from him. And those called after the rock are called Peter. (In Matt. 12:10-11; ANF translation, extensively revised by E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority 1952, pp. 45-46).

This is the earliest extant detailed commentary on Matthew 16:18f. and interestingly sees the event describe as a lesson about the life to be lived by every Christian, and not information about office or hierarchy or authority in the church.

The Brown, Donfried, and Reumann work concludes by saying, “it has become clear to us that an investigation of the historical career does not necessarily settle the question of Peter’s importance for the subsequent church” (168).

Origen is the first commentator from the Eastern church (Alexandria) on the importance of Peter. According to this passage, Peter’s importance as an apostle is not denied, but it is very much put on par with that of the smallest of believers.

There is no acknowledgement here of any “primacy”. This speaks also to the issue that Christ founded a visible church and specifically, what this “visible church” is – very much reminiscent of Calvin and the WCF, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.”

Here Origen’s understanding deals with the ontological aspects of what is visible, and that is, “every imitator of Christ is a rock”, a reflection of Peter’s own statement, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house”.

Both of these together support the notion that there was nothing special about the “ontologicalness” of being Peter. In terms of being “first”, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Peter had the privilege of being the first one to preach the Gospel, “first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles” (Acts 10), but in the context of historical “tradition”, Origen contradicts the notion that the early third-century church in the East thought that there was anything particularly special about him, or where he happened to be located.


  1. Did you mean the title to be about Matthew 16:18-19 rather than verses 8-9 ?

  2. Hi John,

    I think I’ve mentioned to you a very interesting book I’ve just finished: “Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity” (Paulist Press, 1983, 2004). It’s interesting because it is both well done and written by two Catholic priests.

    Fr. John Meier supposes that Matthew’s elevation of Peter was a compromise position which arose from the conflicts of the four different groups of Christians at Antioch. He proposes that Peter was the middle position between the conservatism of James and the liberalism of Paul. After Paul’s upbraiding of Peter in Galatians 2, Meier thinks that Matthew 16, in particular, was an effort to rehabilitate Peter, not elevate him above the others.

    The other thing that has fascinated me is how the RC censored the OT for the centuries between Trent and Vatican I. That means that none of their members would be familiar with what the OT has to say about the “Rock” of God’s church:

    Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26:4.

    For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31

    Have a great day, John.


    1. Hey Constantine -- I have "Antioch and Rome" at home, and I consult it from time to time.

      I do think, along with Meier, that at least some of the emphasis on Peter involves his rehabilitation.

      You are right, too, I think about the OT. I've been reading through some of the CTC stuff -- they seem completely to disregard the OT -- I am thinking of Bryan Cross's recent analysis of "justification" (which I've not totally read, but "the Law" in Paul, does not mean the Jewish law, but some invention of his own called "the law of Agape".