In yesterday’s post, I stated my intention to set the issue of whether or not Peter was the “Rock” in Matthew 16:18 aside to have a more fruitful discussion on Christ’s promises in that passage. It didn’t quite work out that way in the comments, which have almost all been about … whether or not Peter was the “Rock.” Nevertheless, there was at least one good question asked. Namely, what to make of St. John Chrysostom’s exegesis of the passage:
“Having said to Peter, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonas, and of having promised to lay the foundation of the Church upon his confession; not long after He says, Get thee behind me, Satan. And elsewhere he said, Upon this rock. He did not say upon Peter for it is not upon the man, but upon his own faith that the church is built. And what is this faith? You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
St. Augustine agrees: in his earlier writings, he argued that the rock was Peter, but later, changed his mind. These men, while a minority view among Church Fathers, are some of the most brilliant minds Catholicism has ever produced, and some of the holiest Saints. So what to make of this?
It is a prerogative of the dignity of our city [that is, Antioch] that, from the beginning, it received as master the prince of the apostles. In fact, it was a just thing that this city – which was glorified by the name of “Christians” before the rest of the earth – should receive as shepherd the prince of the apostles. When we received him as master, however, we did not keep him forever but rather yielded him to the royal city of Rome. Therefore, we do not hold the body of Peter, but we hold the faith of Peter as we would Peter himself. As a matter of fact, as long as we hold the faith of Peter, we have Peter himself.
So Chrysostom is quite clear that the authentic faith is Petrine, and by extension, Roman. No denier of the papacy was he, readily acknowledging that Peter was “the prince of the Apostles,” and that he went from being the master and shepherd of Antioch to the “royal city of Rome.”
In other words, St. John Chrysostom isn’t denying Peter’s earthly headship: he doesn’t say that since we can all hold the faith of Peter, we’re all equal with the Apostles; or that because the Apostles (besides Judas) all held the faith of Peter, they were all his equals. No, St. John Chrysostom simultaneously affirms that we can all affirm the faith of Peter, and yet there are some (shepherds and Apostles) who are placed over us as “masters,” and within the ranks of even the Apostles, one man stood as “prince of the Apostles.”
With St. Augustine, you’ll find the same belief. One need only read the canons of the Council of Carthage from 417 A.D., in which Augustine and the other North African Fathers met, to see their respect for, and submission to, “the Apostolic See” (Rome) and the “holy and most blessed pope.” Or read Augustine’s own writings, in which he speaks of the same. Rome stands in a place of authority, capable of settling disputes authoritatively.
It’s important that we’re clear what the Fathers were claiming, and what they weren’t. Protestants use these passages to say things that the Fathers they’re quoting would have been shocked and appalled by, and which run against the teachings of these very same Fathers. That’s a shallow and ineffective way of approaching the Fathers.
With that in mind, the issue at hand is much, much narrower. No question about Peter’s primacy, only about whether Jesus means to refer to Peter (as a man) or Peter’s faith as the Rock. The best answer to this is that it’s both. Peter is chosen as a man because of his faith.
We see both of these characteristics in the passage. Simon declares who Jesus is (Christ: that is, the Anointed One) in Mt. 16:16. Jesus responds by blessing him for this declaration of faith in Mt. 16:17, and proceeds to tell Simon who he is (Peter: that is, the Rock). Both titles, Christ and Peter, become so tied to the individual that they’re treated as proper names.
In that light, it’s quite sensible to say that the Church is built upon Peter and Peter’s faith. Most of the Church Fathers seem to agree on this point, as well: the two I cited above are something of outliers, in thinking it has to be one or other other.
Other parts of Scripture make it clear that Simon is selected as a man, that the title of Rock doesn’t just go to any Christian who accurately declares faith in Christ. From John 1:40-49,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”