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Mark 8:22-38; Matthew 16:13-28; & Luke 9:18-27

10.12.2010

Feel like a challenge?  Let’s tackle perhaps the most controversial verse in scripture over the past 2,000 years!

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.

Matt. 16:18

Peter, ‘Petros‘ in Greek, means stone or rock, the same root for the English word ‘petrified,’ which means turned to stone.  Peter’s Aramaic name, Cephas, also means rock in that language.  So Jesus’ pun here is on Peter’s name and his newly declared role as foundation for the church.* 

The Catholic Church has traditionally interpreted this verse to mean that Peter was the first in succession of a line of bishops with particular authority over the entirety of the church on Earth.  Since Peter would eventually travel to Rome, where he led the church there before his martyrdom, the successive Bishops of Rome have inherited this mantle of preeminent authority of the universal church.

The Protestant interpretation is that the pun shifts the focus from Peter the man to Peter’s confession of Christ which immediately preceded the statement.  In other words, Christ is saying that the church, His body on Earth, will be built upon the confession of believers that He is the Son of God.  The word that Jesus uses for church in this verse is ‘ekklesia,’ which specifically refers to people being called to a mission.  Protestants see this corporate calling as being built on a shared confession of faith.  This interpretation is rather weak semantically (in my opinion, at least in the English), but I find it more convincing theologically than the Catholic one.**

Theologically, the Catholic claim that this verse invests Peter with extraordinary authority has to account for three particular points that suggest otherwise:

  • Immediately following this, Peter is chastised for rebuking Jesus, the latter going so far as to say, ‘Get behind Me, Satan!’  Now, Jesus is reacting not so much to Peter as to the temptation to avoid the cross, but it’s hard to believe Jesus would so harshly call out one whom He had just named as a special authority.
  • Paul rebukes Peter in Galatians because of the latter’s hypocrisy concerning circumcision.  Peter repents of this position, indicating that the authority(within this particular circumstance) lay with Paul.
  • Acts demonstrates that Peter is held accountable to other apostles early during his ministry, returning to Jerusalem and reporting before the others on his activities.  Again, this is not the picture of special authority that would seemingly stem from the Catholic interpretation.

I’m not sure what the Orthodox interpretation of this verse is.  I do know, from the MacCulloch book, that the authoritative center rested in Constantinople and the imperial court for the first few centuries of the church’s history.  After a gradual accretion of power by the Roman bishops, during which time the modern Catholic interpretation of Matt 16:18 developed, the claim of papal supremacy really didn’t materialize in a recognizable form until almost 1000 years after Christ.  In light of that, I’m inclined to believe that the Orthodox interpretation and the Catholic interpretation do not align.

————

* Are your sides hurting from laughing so hard?  I know mine are!

** Which, I suppose, is no surprise from someone who grew up in the United Methodist Church and has attended Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches for the past 10 years.

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