Protestants, It’s OK to say Jesus called Peter “this rock.”

From the biblical record one can see that Peter was an impulsive man. He said things at the wrong time (“Lord, it is good for us to be here, let us build three booths.”)  He did what he shouldn’t do (cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant.) And of course, he denied the Lord Jesus in the hours after his betrayal. None of this surprised the Lord. For all this, Peter was also the one who spoke the clear confession of who Jesus really was: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16) What follows that has been a point of contention between Roman Catholicism and the rest of Christianity.

Jesus answered thus: “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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)

I want to suggest that Protestant explanation of this need not go where it sometimes has in order to counter Roman Catholic claims. Many have said that it is Peter’s confession—the truth he spoke about Jesus—that is the thing Jesus would build his church upon, but not Peter himself. Roman Catholics see it as Jesus talking to Peter about himself, calling Peter the rock. From this comes the establishment of the papacy, the founding of the “Petrine office” and the beginning of the hierarchy.

It is neither of these, that is, in the way it’s usually understood. On the Protestant side, discomfort with Roman Catholic claims, and a desire to steer clear of any hint that Peter possesses anything like papal authority, have driven the exegesis of this, more than the text itself. We are uneasy with the thought that Jesus may have been speaking of Peter himself when he answers with “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” One can see that Jesus does indeed speak of Peter in this, without going on to the entailments that Rome has attached to it. Peter was a leader of the Twelve, despite his foibles. And indeed, after the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter shows boldness and power that indicate the fulfillment of what Jesus spoke to him.

But none of this means that Peter occupies an office that was monarchical and foreign to the New Testament, as the papacy has come to be. He held no office in the Jerusalem church, as is evident from the Jerusalem council where James is clearly a leader. And although it is post-Pentecost and the Spirit had been given, Paul still finds occasion to rebuke Peter for his error in walking not according to the truth of the gospel. Indeed, in describing the situation, Paul wrote that “from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.” (Gal. 2:6) Paul views Peter not as his superior, not as a possessor of an office, but one whom Paul had to rebuke and correct in this instance.

Moreover, Jesus words elsewhere to the Twelve show that the idea of one man holding a chair above the others is antithetical to the church Jesus would build. “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matt 23:8-10.) When Peter and Andrew’s mother asks of Jesus an exalted position for her sons, Jesus replies that “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25-26) Peter’s own letters eschew any thought that he occupied a position above any of the Twelve. He refers to himself as a fellow elder. (1 Pet. 5:1).

All of this evidence leads to a conclusion that Jesus’ words to Peter go beyond a view that sees him only commenting on the confession of Peter as the rock on which the church is built. It is instead a proclamation of the church built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Peter being the chief representative of the apostles. It is upon the Twelve that the church is built, Peter’s subsequent history demonstrating that he doesn’t have a preeminent office that gives him authority over his fellow apostles, to command them. It is a particular exegetical fallacy that supports the inverse. D. A. Carson points this out in quoting Cardinal Avery Dulles’s defense of the Papacy.

According to the New Testament, Peter has his lapses, both before and after Easter, but Catholic apologists defend the doctrinal infallibility of Peter in the post-Easter situation, and consequently that of the pope in whom the ‘Petrine Office’ is perpetuated.” The appeal is to “Catholic apologists” and implicitly to Roman Catholic traditional interpretations: those not convinced by the status of these authority figures and traditions will not be helped much by Avery Dulles’s argument.[1] It is an a priori assumption that these Catholic apologists have an authority, but as Carson points out, it’s a circular argument to cite only those from the camp.

But let me assume for a moment that Jesus’ words to Peter did intend to invest him with unique authority among the Twelve. That is, that he was indeed the head of the Church. Even if this were so, it does not include the transfer for this authority to an endless stream of successors, each with this same authority. In other words, the idea of apostolic succession is not found in Matthew at all.  As Hans von Campenhausen has noted, “The rank and authority of the apostolate are restricted to the first ‘apostolic’ generation, and can neither be continued nor renewed once this time has come to an end.”[2] It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 4, a foundational office, not to be repeated or transferred.

Protestants don’t need to deny Peter’s position as a leader of the Twelve in order to see that Jesus’ affirmation of his confession is in no sense an establishment of the papacy. Let us be faithful to the text—all of it, not just what is recorded in Matthew 16—and we will see that the scriptural evidence argues for something other than what Rome has claimed, but indeed something more than what Protestants have often said.

[1] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1996), 123.

[2] Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1969), p. 23.

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