Is Peter The Rock? Early Interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19

Updated on June 17, 2018
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B. A. Johnson is an avid student of history. He endeavors to provide detailed and carefully documented histories of the Christian church.

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Introduction

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.’’ – Matthew 16:15-191

As one reads this passage, it seems inevitable that controversy would arise from it. That a man should be called ‘the Son of the living God,’ would shock many, and that this same man would claim to possess the keys to the kingdom of heaven (which he further presumes to bestow upon man) would be nothing short of an outrage! In the midst of this, it seems almost strange that it is the words concerning Peter, not Jesus, that have become the center of one of the most famous and bitter controversies in the history of the Church.

In the days of the Reformation, this controversy reached a fever’s pitch. It was then that Matthew 16:18-19 became a pillar of irreconcilable opposition between the disparate theologies of the Church of Rome and the Protestant Reformation. The debates that raged in the era of reformation threw it into a role of absolute centrality, but it should be no surprise that even long before, many differing voices offered up their own understandings of the passage.

What did the early writers of the church understand Matthew 16:18 to mean? And what significance did the meaning have on their lives and the life of the church? In this article we will consider five of the most notable writers and thinkers of the ancient church; Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Origen^.

Tertullian and Cyprian: Peter, The Rock

Tertullian

Tertullian held that Peter was the rock on which Christ built his church2, but in a wholly exclusive sense. To his mind, Peter exclusively* was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the ‘power’ of binding and loosing, and he expressly denies that these gifts were intended for anyone after Peter.

Indeed, it was this view of the exclusivity of the Apostolic authority, coupled with his understanding of the ‘keys’ (which we will address later), that left Tertullian open to joining the Montanist Party at the expense of enjoying communion with the church at large (which condemned the Montanists as heretics). As a Montanist, Tertullian wrote his treatise, ‘On Modesty,’ in which he defends himself against the notion that the church – as a body under the authority of bishops in agreement – is alone able to offer the necessities of salvation.

“…you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to…every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord conferring this (gift) personally upon Peter? ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build My Church;’ and, ‘I will give to thee the keys,’ not to the Church; and, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound,’ not what they shall have loosed or bound.2

As we will see, this sets Tertullian apart from his fellow ‘fathers,’ and it is no wonder that he was so bold as to join a faction so widely condemned. His affiliation with the Montanists has placed him in a strange place in history, being called both a great theologian and a heretic – often by the same people! Never the less, his contribution to the knowledge and thought of the church is virtually universally acknowledged and therefore worthy of consideration.

Cyprian

Cyprian was a devoted disciple of Tertullian, whom he often called “master.” He shared many traits in common with his elder, though never adopted the teachings of Montanus. His reputation therefore remains one of staunch orthodoxy in the eyes of most. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Cyprian also considered Peter to be the rock4,5. Seemingly of equal importance to him was the equality of the other Apostles with Peter, as together these two principles were the very basis for the unity of the church, its structure, and its function4:

“The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, ‘I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock[etc.]’…And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power…that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.4

Cyprian also believed that Peter’s gifts were transferred by succession to the bishops of the church, who therefore became the continuing foundation of the church through their teaching and authority6:

“Our Lord…says to Peter: ‘I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I 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.’ Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.5

Tertullian and Cyprian both held Peter to be the rock on which the church was built, but they could not have differed more on the practical significance of that interpretation.
Tertullian and Cyprian both held Peter to be the rock on which the church was built, but they could not have differed more on the practical significance of that interpretation.

Augustine and Chrysostom: The Rock of Christ and the Profession of Faith

Augustine

Augustine initially agreed with Tertullian and Cyprian, but later he came to a different conclusion and preached that it was Jesus Christ himself who was the rock on which the church was founded7. He reasoned that Peter (‘Petros,’ which is the masculine form of ‘petra’ - rock) was given his new name after the object of his faith(Christ, the rock), just as a Christian is named after Christ8.

“Now this name of Peter was given him by the Lord, and that in a figure, that he should signify the Church. For seeing that Christ is the rock, Peter is the Christian people. For the rock 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 be 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.8

Augustine did not draw principles of church structure from Matthew 16:18-19. Rather, in characteristic fashion, he saw a higher image of the Christian in Peter, who is built upon the rock. Peter’s strength is our strength, Peter’s weakness is a ‘type’ of our weaknesses. In this way, When Jesus said, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you,” he was saying it also to all who confess that the Christ is the Son of God8.

From this view, Augustine had no reason to be dogmatic about his interpretation, and so, though he preached according to this later understanding, he was quick to say that the reader should decide which interpretation seemed most reasonable7.

Chrysostom

Chrysostom applied Christ’s words, “On this rock” to be referring to the rock of Peter’s confession of faith – that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God9. In a Homily on Matthew, he compares Peter’s confession with those that had preceded him, demonstrating that Peter’s was the first that came from a true knowledge of the uniqueness and divinity of Christ, and therefore was the first which could rightly have been said to be divinely inspired. It was therefore on this rock of divinely informed faith that the church would be built:

“…therefore [Christ] added this, ‘And I say unto you, you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;’ that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were now on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd.9

According to Chrysostom, Peter becomes a shepherd to those about to believe, having demonstrated that his faith was true. Although he makes no application of the keys and power of binding and loosing in this homily, the understanding of these gifts he espouses may shed some light on which of his fellow ‘fathers’ his interpretation aligned with. We will revisit this shortly.

Augustine of Hippo initially thought Peter was the Rock, but later changed his mind and preached that it was Jesus Christ himself on which the church was founded
Augustine of Hippo initially thought Peter was the Rock, but later changed his mind and preached that it was Jesus Christ himself on which the church was founded | Source

Origen

Of all the interpretations of the early church writers, Origen’s is perhaps the most fascinating, not only for his understanding of who the rock is, but also for his understanding of the keys, the gates of Hades, and the power of binding and loosing. There are a number of similarities between Origen’s view and the later view of Augustine (It should be remembered that Origen preceded Augustine), but Origen exhibited a far bolder and farther-reaching interpretation which was characteristic of his thought.

Like Augustine, he believed Peter received his name after Christ, but Origen believed that all who professed the same belief as Peter also could be called ‘rock.’ Indeed, he even held that those gifts which were conferred to Peter were no less conferred to any other believer!

“And if we too have said like Peter, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by 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, ‘You are Peter,’ etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ… But if you suppose that upon that 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?10

By this reasoning, Origen concluded that in essence both ‘The Church’ and ‘The Rock’ were one in the same:

“Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the church, or is it the church [against which the gate of Hades will not prevail]? 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 the church, nor against the church will the gates of Hades prevail.10

Origen believed all believers could rightly be called "Petros" (rock)
Origen believed all believers could rightly be called "Petros" (rock) | Source

Succession and the Power of the Keys

Just as the identity of The Rock on which Christ founded his church was understood differently among the early church writers, so too was the significance of Matthew 16:18-19 on the life and structure of the church.

As mentioned before, Tertullian denied that the gifts bestowed upon Peter succeeded him. By extension, justification before God was completely distinct from participation in the visible church of bishops and clergy2. Cyprian, on the other hand, although he agreed with Tertullian that Peter was the rock, held that all bishops succeeded Peter as holders of the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing5. This binding and losing Cyprian understood to mean the forgiveness and retention of sins. By extension of these interpretations, Cyprian held that it was only under the auspices of the bishops of the universal church that true believers found salvation through Christ, who granted to the church the forgiveness of sins11. It is interesting that, despite Cyprian’s reverence for Tertullian, his understanding of Matthew 16:18-19 is the exact position which Tertullian argued passionately against2.

Somewhat aligned with Cyprian’s views, Chrysostom also concludes that the power of binding and loosing and the keys to the kingdom are related to the authority to forgive or else retain sins, though he does not expressly conclude that this authority passes along to the bishops by succession:

“Do you see how [Christ], His own self, leads Peter on to high thoughts of Him, and reveals Himself, and implies that He is Son of God by these two promises? For those things which are peculiar to God alone, (both to absolve sins, and to make the church in capable 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…this man in every part of the world.9

Augustine’s later conclusion that Peter was only named after Christ – the true Rock – allowed him to be completely undogmatic concerning the matter. Augustine’s views loosely resemble those of his precursor, Origen, who expounded far more on his own interpretation of the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power of binding and losing.

According to Origen, as all believers are ‘Peters’ (named after the rock), all have the assurance that the gates of Hades will not prevail against them when they stand upon the Rock which is both foundation of the church and the church itself. Origen interprets the gates of Hades as sins, and understands these to be shut and locked when we stand upon the rock. More than that, when we stand upon this rock, we receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven, which he considers to be contrasting ‘virtues.’ These virtues are the spiritual gift granted to those who will no longer be captured by sin10.

“I think that the saying, ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ is spoken in consistency with the words, ‘The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.’ For he is worthy to receive from the same Word the keys of the kingdom of heaven, who is fortified against the gates of Hades …that he might open for himself the gates that were closed to those who had been conquered by the gates of Hades. And he enters in, as a temperate man, through an opened gate — the gate of temperance— by the key which opens temperance; and, as a righteous man, by another gate — the gate of righteousness — which is opened by the key of righteousness; and so with the rest of the virtues.10

Origen’s views on the gift of binding and loosing are similarly universal but stand as more of a commandment than a power. He holds that binding and loosing is the forgiveness of sins or the retention thereof, but it is no power, as they can only be exercised rightly, otherwise this exercise is a sin, this sin is the prevailing of the gates of Hades against the individual, which therefore proves he is no ‘rock’ and therefore has no such power to bind or to loose10.

Conclusion

The interpretations of these men represent only a few voices among many. Other opinions which we have not addressed are still extant, and it can only be surmised how many more are lost to history. Some held that Peter was indeed the rock on which the church was founded, but what that meant exactly was a point of further divergence. Others believed that it was Christ on which the church was founded, or else the faith that prompted Peter’s confession. To Tertullian it was vital not to misconstrue this text’s meaning, to Cyprian this text was central to the unity of the church, and yet despite their agreements, they represent two extremes when interpreting the implications. Augustine and Origen, both lofty thinkers and well renowned in their days, remained far more flexible. Origen, at times in history, would be condemned for unorthodox propositions he expounded upon in his writings, but not for his views on Peter and the Rock. Tertullian’s interpretation was the very key that allowed him to conscience parting ways with the broader church, but he remained an admired teacher of Cyprian and a gem in the history of Christendom. Perhaps the most telling reality is that it was a full millennium after these men thought and taught that Matthew 16:18-19 became such a point of bitter dissension.

Footnotes

* Or perhaps the Apostles exclusively – Tertullian makes no mention of the others in regards to the power of binding and loosing. C.F. Matthew 18:18

^ Jerome’s name is conspicuously absent from this list, but as establishing his views on the authority of the Roman See are more complex, this deserved its own article.


1. New English Translation

2. Tertullian, On Modesty, chapter 21, Schaff - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.iii.viii.xxi.html

C.F. Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 22 - http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian11.html

3. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, page 103

4. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, section 4, Schaff - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.v.i.html

5. Cyprian, To the Lapsed, section 1, Schaff - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.xxvi.html

6. C.F. The Seventh Council of Carthage, section 1 - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.vi.i.html

7. Augustine, Retractiones, book 1, chapter 20, section 1, Sister Mary Bogan - https://www.questia.com/read/98659533/the-retractations

8. Augustine, On Matthew, sections 1-4, Schaff - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf106.vii.xxviii.html

9. Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew (#54), section 3 - http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200154.htm

10. Origen, Commentary on Matthew, book 12, chap 10-12, 13-14 - http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/101612.htm

11. C.F. Firmilian’s letter to Cyprian, Against the Letter of Stephen, sections 16-17 - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.lxxiv.html

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