112. Peter, the Rock and the Keys: Does Matthew 16 Support the Doctrine of the Papacy?

September 1st, 2015

The most apparent and quoted evidence for the doctrine of the Papacy are the well-known words of Christ to his servant: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). This is deemed to be the cornerstone of the Biblical doctrine of the Papacy, and is the foundation of the doctrinal and ecclesiastical development that shaped the Papacy as we now know it. These words appear in the inside of St. Peter’s basilica in a marvelous mosaic, right where the Pope exercises his office.

The interpretation of this passage has been hotly debated for centuries and its meaning is a matter of on-going debate between informed readers of the Bible.[1] Some critical commentators argue that this speech by Jesus was inserted by the Petrine party in the early church to support Peter’s role and leadership over the Pauline party and the Jacobite party. The background of this hypothesis refers to the argument between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, and Paul’s recognition of the existence of factions in the Corinthian church mentioned after the names of the apostles (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).[2] This view, however, imposes on the canonical Bible a power struggle between the early church leaders. The early church was certainly characterized by various tensions in the inner circle of believers, but they did not reach the point of using apostolic writings as weapons to fight one another.

The standard Roman Catholic interpretation sees in this passage the embryonic stage of the doctrine of the papacy that was later developed into its full form. In it Jesus gives the person of Peter (and by implication his successors) a foundational role in the building of His Church. Subsequent traditions and practices continued to develop this role to the point in which the papacy eventually emerged. It is difficult, however, to see the organic connection between what the text says and the function of the papacy with its succession of the Petrine ministry to subsequent generations (which is not what Jesus says here), with the fundamental importance attributed to the See of Rome (which is not mentioned here), and with the imperial form that the Papacy took (which is not at all implied in the text).

Peter’s confession that precedes what Jesus says to him in Matthew 16 is reported in all three Synoptic Gospels, and is in the context of Jesus announcing His passion, His instructions to His disciples, and the Transfiguration narrative (Matthew 16:13-17:23; Mark 8:19-9:33; Luke 9:18-45).[3] Only Matthew’s Gospel, however, adds to this discourse the words: “Tu es Petrus …”. The context is Jesus’ approaching death, a necessary step towards the fulfillment of the Messiah’s mission as Savior and Lord. As He is nearing his death, Jesus asks His disciples who the people say He is, and after that, who they believe Him to be. At this point, Peter pronounces his perhaps most famous words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. These words, however, do not originate from Peter himself. Jesus promptly replies that they come from a revelation of God. There is nothing inherently Petrine in Peter’s confession of faith. It is God who has revealed it and Peter has spoken it. The church (ekklesia), the community of Jesus’ disciples, will be built upon the truth (the rock) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus underlines the fact that “my” church will be built in such a way. It is not the Petrine church; it is the church of Jesus, founded by Jesus as the Messiah. “I will build my church”, says Jesus. Jesus is the Founder and the Builder of the Church, whereas Peter is a witness, a special spokesperson of this Divine truth that was revealed to him by God. Moreover, there is no indication that Peter will have successors that will take his place. It is Jesus that will build His church, not Peter or someone else after him.

In amplifying Peter’s confession, Jesus says that He will give Peter the keys of the kingdom (16:19). The symbolic significance of the keys has been outstanding for the identity of the Papacy, especially as far as his authority is concerned. The Pope is thought of as being the one who has the power of holding the keys of the church and exercising supreme control over it. In popular imagery, Peter is pictured as the one standing at the gate of heaven opening or closing its door. It is important, however, that the “keys” which Jesus refers to are put in the right Biblical context. In mentioning them, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 22:22 where Shebna, king Ezekiah’s steward, is about to be replaced by Eliakim, onto whose shoulders the keys of the house of David will be put. Opening and closing doors with keys is the subordinate role of the steward on behalf of his king. It is not a self-referential, absolute power in and of itself. It is not something that the steward can do as if he were the king. So, by receiving the keys of the kingdom, Peter will be a servant of God the King who will use them as a steward of the church that Jesus will build. “Binding and loosing” is another expression that Jesus uses to define what Peter will be called to do (16:19). It is a Jewish saying implying the exercise of discernment (e.g. forbidding and permitting) that leads to decision. In fact, Peter will be part of various decision-making processes in the church’s development that will impact the life of the community of Jesus.

As the narrative continues Jesus announces His imminent passion and death. Peter replies according to his “flesh and blood” and rebukes Jesus for doing so (16:22). Apparently Peter does not possess infallibility, nor does he exercise a divinely appointed role that is beyond the need of on-going spiritual reformation. Jesus calls Peter “satan”, one whose mind is not on the “things of God” but on the “things of men” (16:23). These words shed light on the whole passage, especially if it is interpreted as supporting a papal portrayal of Peter. Peter is safe when he follows the revelation of God and lives under His authority. Peter is utterly unsafe when he acts according to his own understanding and wants to prevail over God’s will. The point is that he is not given a leadership role beyond his spirituality. He is not given an office detached from the condition of his heart. He is not assigned a divine office that puts him on a different level than other Christian leaders. Peter is and remains a saved sinner that God will use for his purposes inasmuch as he hears the Word of God and obeys it. Matthew 16 can be seen as the Biblical basis for the Papacy only if the doctrine of the Papacy has already been established apart from Scripture and then subsequently and retrospectively squeezed into it. It is perhaps fair to say that the Papacy created the papal implications of the “Tu es Petrus …”, not the other way around.

This is an excerpt from my book A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2015). http://www.christianfocus.com/item/show/1617/-


[1] The standard survey of the interpretation of the passage is the volume by O. Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr. A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962). More recent discussions are analyzed by M. Bockmuehl, Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory. The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).

[2] This reading was recently argued for by M. Hengel, Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] For extended exegetical discussions on the passage, cfr. W. Hendriksen, Matthew (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, reprint 1989) pp. 641-652; R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002) pp. 611-628.

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