Was Peter the Rock Christ built His church upon?

Lets look at the leadership for Christ’s church from scripture and see if it agrees with some modern thinking on the subject. including the question, “was Peter the Rock Christ built His church upon?” and who are the pastoral leaders of Christ’s church?

For his farewell message Paul called to Miletus the “elders” (presbuteros)of the church of Ephesus, exhorting them “to take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you as bishops (episkopos - overseers)”. Paul saw the bishop and elder, the presbyter and the episkopo as one and the same. Never does he call them priests, but rather elders/shepherds/overseers/bishops.

The apostles were ever preoccupied with their own pre-eminence in the coming kingdom. Jesus dealt with this topic numerous times during His ministry not the least of which was at His Last Supper and immediately before His ascension. In every case the lowly state was emphasized. Unless you become like children, he who is the least among you, he who is your servant etc. Jesus even took on washing their feet as the ultimate example. Had the apostles even for a moment thought Peter was of a higher office this argument would never had occurred and surely Jesus would have told them the greatest is Peter.

So lets look at this hierarchy in the Roman church.

Clement of Rome urged the Christians at Corinth to preserve the arrangements made by the apostles for controlling the congregation’s affairs, i.e. elders (plural) in every assembly. But this was simply the kind of provisions any pioneer missionary organizes for the leadership of a new church. Paul and Barnabas did it, Paul instructed Timothy and Titus to do it. So if apostolic tradition means anything let it be multiple elders/Bishops in every assembly.

The Gnostics (AD 150 onward) soon began to appeal to a succession of teachers traced back to the apostles (normally Philip, Thomas and Matthias (and not Peter or Paul or John) to whom they claimed Jesus had given some special and secret information never written down (sacred traditions) before He ascended. The argument was first outlined by Hegesippus who drew up succession lists of bishops at least for Corinth and Rome. He may have gotten this from the practice of the Jerusalem churches efforts to attempt to maintain a hereditary leadership from among the brothers of the Lord (James and Jude), similar to the succession of the Jewish High Priests. But these early lists were concerned with successors from all the apostles and never singled out Peter and any papist line.

Both Irenaeus and Tertullian and others taught that an unbroken succession of bishops stemming from the apostles guaranteed and was a guarantee of the unbroken handing-on of the apostle’s doctrines. But in fact the apostles had not appointed (personally laid hands upon) bishops (Elders) in every church and succession lists of bishops (Elders) were seriously unreliable and often times biased. Cyprian gave later new birth to this practice stating that the bishop (Elder) became the basis and criterion of the churches life. Being in the church in good standing became dependent upon communion with the bishop and Creeds where at first it had depended on confession of Christ and baptism.

By the middle of the second century, memorial shrines were built to both Paul and Peter along the Appian Way and the Vatican hill where both apostles were considered of equal authority and importance. The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 assured the prominence of the Roman, Antioch and Ephesus churches. However, the letter to the Corinthian church known as 1 Clement did not imply any Roman claim to superior authority or bishopric. It was in fact addressed to the church at large and not to any monarchical bishop as were his other letters to the churches in the East.

The First bishop to claim any special authority derived from Peter by appealing to Matthew 16:18-19 was Stephan, in his dispute with Cyprian. Paul’s position along side of Peter in the earliest Roman church now began to be lost sight of. An interesting fact in light of Peter’s commission to the circumcision and Pauls to the uncircumcision. Cyprian regarded every bishops seat as the “See of Peter” regardless of where it resided, although he admitted that the Roman church had special importance because it was founded so early (even though it was certainly not the first or foremost as say Antioch or Ephesus or Jerusalem). The fact that the Jerusalem churches and those in the surrounding areas were in fact older didn’t seem to matter much. Much of this prominence depended on the wealth of the Roman church in contrast to the utter poverty of the churches of the east and their willingness to send financial support to those who submitted to them and their bishops.

While a flock without a shepherd was not wise, it was also agreed by most that one shepherd overseeing many flocks was equally unwise and would prove to be unfruitful and too Empirical as well. While many attempted to compile these succession lists for their bishops, it must be noted that Rome had no monarchical bishopric until late in the second century and trying to determine the true successor from a plurality of bishops would be pure speculation at best since none of the earliest bishops claimed any pre-eminence. Rome was almost the last to actually formulate this type of list and since it could never be proven that Peter was ever the bishop of Rome, let alone a monarchical bishop it seemed quite futile at best.

The first leaders of the church were the apostles, assisted in Jerusalem by the elders/Bishops and the practical help of the seven (acts 6) (if all bishops were in fact apostles none of these passages would make any sense since the two are always spoken of separately and as yet no lower presbytery was ever mentioned). Other gifted men of the spirit were prominent in the early church decades, including missionaries, preachers, evangelists (including some of the seven such as Phillip), teachers and prophets. This Spirit-gifted leadership disappeared by the early second century (since only the laying on of apostolic hands seemed to supply these gifts). The Didache (approx 100 AD) shows that Bishops and Deacons (the only two offices spoken of in the churches) began to gain new prominence. Local leaders immerged at an early stage. Congregational life was directed by a team or group or college commonly known as Presbyters (lower bishops not priests), that is elders or fathers in the faith possibly based on Jewish or Old Testament models, or bishops, that is guardians or overseers based on Grecian city officials.

It would seem that this matter is not so clear cut or determined, as Catholics would have us believe. The early church did not at first see this succession from Peter with supreme authority or even pre-eminent authority until later on (AD 180 or later), it was actually the Gnostics who first presented the idea of succession albeit not from Peter, and the later lists were compiled to combat the Gnostic lists. It was not until the time of Stephan that anyone claimed succession from Peter and that was challenged by Cyprian and Steven had to repent of his claim.

Even the lists we have are questionable

Tertullian and most Latins and pseudo-Clementina make Clement the first successor of Peter; but Irenaeus, Eusebius and other Greeks as well as Jerome and the Roman catalogue give him the third place and put Linus and Anacletus (or Anincletus) between him and Peter. In fact if this is the same Clement mentioned in the Philippian epistle (4:3) it would stand to reason he would be a successor of Paul as a fellow worker and not Peter. In some lists Cletus is substituted for Anacletus while in others the two are distinguished. Furthermore the earliest fathers who had a much better distinction between apostles and bishops do not reckon Peter among the bishops of Rome at all let alone a monarchical bishop. And the Roman Catalogue in placing Peter in the line of bishops, is strangely silent regarding Paul the true apostle of the gentile churches, whose independent labors in Rome are attested not only by tradition but by the clear witness of his own Epistles and the book of Acts which are silent on any Roman years of ministry concerning Peter.

Lipsius, after laborious critical comparison of the different catalogues of popes arrives at the conclusion that Linus, Anacletus and Clement were Roman presbyters (or presbyter bishops in the NT sense of the term) at the close of the first century equal in authority and mission. Evaristus and Alexander presbyters at the beginning of the second century, Xystus I (Latinized Sixtus) presbyter for ten years till about 128, Telesphorus for eleven years till about 139 and his next successors diocesan bishops. And no mention of any papist or successor authority from Peter.

So was Peter, the Apostle this great foundation Christ said He would build his church upon?

The early church (especially Augustine) has always used the Greek version or text in examining Matthew’s gospel and the play on words between Petra and Petros; so to say we cannot use its Greek influence here, and go to the Aramaic is purely ludicrous. And while I can accept that Peter may have (this is only tradition) written an account in Hebrew/Aramaic, to say he never transcribed it into the more widely read Greek tongue, is equally ludicrous, since the early church used the Greek text with equal authority as the other Synoptics and John. Or perhaps which is more likely Matthew wrote his gospel in the more common Greek and later on transcribed it into Hebrew/Aramaic.

Our passage begins with Jesus and the disciples entering into the district of Caesarea Philippi and asking a question, “Who do men say that I am”. This is the context of the passage. This is what Jesus wanted to know. This was the force of everything to follow, who Jesus is!

The disciples give the common beliefs of the people, but Jesus did not want to know this. He then asks, “but who do you (all of the disciples) say that I am”. This is the key question and the key to understanding the rest of the text. Jesus wants to know who His followers think He is, and it is on this basis He will build His assembly of called out believers.

Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Was this statement of Peter’s own free will? Was it Peters understanding of who Jesus really was? Jesus tells us, “flesh and blood (either his or someone elses) has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven”. This was Gods revelation to Peter and not Peters own understanding at this time. Jesus then continues:

And I say to you (kago de soi lego) the emphasis is not on “thou art Peter” over against “thou art the Christ”, but on “kago”; the father has revealed this truth to you and I reveal another.

Catholics deny the accuracy of the Petra massive bedrock as opposed to Petros the common word for a stone separated from the ledge of massive bedrock, from the Greek text because “tradition says the original was written in Hebrew/Aramaic but they do not deny any of the other truths based on Greek text found in this gospel. This inconsistency is disturbing to say the least. But again we have no evidence that Peter did not also translate it into the more common Greek (or visa versa) for a wider reading and circulation. But even if we stick with the Hebrew/Aramaic “kepha” (Cephas) from the root “keph” this refers to a hollow rock with little substance or support and would never be considered for a foundation. It also means a rock of distortion literally. If foundation were in mind the word “cela” would have better suited the text since it means a craggy rock fortress. If we are to dismiss the Petra/Petros argument here, we must do likewise to the same usage in Mt 7:24 of the man who built his house on bedrock rather than sand. If the same Hebrew/Aramaic word “kepha” were used there it would mean that the man built his house on small hollow movable rocks which would be no better than the sinking sand it is contrasted with. So the emphasis is not on the word play or names but on the truth Peter was given by the Father and the new truth Jesus is about to reveal.

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian). It is a figure of a building and He uses the word “ekklesian” which occurs in the New Testament of a local assembly of believers rather than an organization of assemblies or any magesterium. What is the sense in which Jesus uses it here? The word originally meant an assembly (Acts 19:39), but it came to be applied to an “unassembled assembly” as in Acts 8:3 for the Christians persecuted and scattered by Saul from house to house. If one is puzzled over the use of building with the word ‘ekklesia” one only has to go to 1 Peter 2:5. Peter, the very one being spoken to by Jesus while writing to the 5 Roman Provinces in Asia says, “you are built a spiritual house”. This is the new Israel Christ will build, a spiritual nation founded on a solid foundation of bedrock (preached by apostles and prophets). Not on Peter alone or even primarily. Peter by his revealed confession was furnished with the illustration for the rock (Just like Moses was furnished with the plans of the tabernacle in heaven from which he was to build the earthly one) on which it will rest. It is the same kind of faith and confession Peter had that all Christians must have and was just expressed or confessed.

Again Peters own words are the key. 1 Peter 2:4 says, “coming to Him (Jesus) as to a living stone (lithos = a milled foundational stone, usually a corner or cap stone), rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God” clearly Peter saw Christ as the foundation stone and not himself. In fact he calls all believers in verse 5 living stones as well.

In Ephesians 2:20 Paul says, “you (the church) are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (literally the foundation laid by them in the revealed word of God given to them as here with Peter). The foundation of Gods ekklesia in the OT was his revealed word and mans acceptance of it. This formula holds true for the NT ekklesia, which is founded upon the revealed word of God though his prophets and apostles, not on flesh.

It would seem that the false teaching of Jesus building His church on a man rather than on the confession revealed by God to Peter was not first solidified until the council of Chalcedon in AD 451 with the famous words, “the twice blessed and all honored Peter who is the rock and basis of the Catholic Church and the foundation of the orthodox faith”. But before that we see a different claim of the fathers

Saint Cyril affirms in his treatise on the Trinity, “I do believe that by the rock you must understand the unshakable faith of the apostle”

Likewise Saint Hilary of Poitiers, the father of western theology says, “the rock is the unique and blessed faith confessed by the mouth of Peter” (De Trin. Bk. 2) and again in book 4, “it is upon the confession of faith that the church is built”

At the close of the fourth century, Saint Jerome, writing to Jovinian, made statements that are in open contradiction with posterior Roman Catholic teaching: “But you reply that the church was founded upon Peter, though that same thing was done in another place upon all apostles (Matt. 18:18), and all of them received the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the solidity of the church is established equally upon them all…but why was not John chosen, who was a virgin? Peter was an apostle and John was an apostle, the first is married, the second a virgin. But Peter was nothing else that an apostle; John was both apostle and an evangelist and a prophet” . Elsewhere Jerome says, “God founded His church upon this rock, that is the confession of faith, and it is from this rock that the apostle peter got his name” (Comment. On Matt, bk. 4)

After him, Chrysostom, perhaps the greatest preacher of his generation declares in unmistakable terms; “on this rock, that is, the faith of Peters confession. He did not say upon Peter, for it was not upon a man, but upon his faith”. The same interpretation was advocated by Ambrose, the holy bishop of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa, Isadore of Pelusium, Theodoret, Theophanes, Theophylect, John of Damascus and many others.

Finally Augustine, probably the greatest mind of the catholic church writing in the fifth century, did not hold the position of present day Romanists as to Peter’s having primacy over others, and not at all as to transmitting to others any special spiritual authority. In fact in his sermon on Matthew 16:18 affirms that the church was not built on Peter but on Christ; “Simon he was called before; but his name of Peter was given him by the Lord and that in figure to signify the church. For because Christ is the Rock (Petra) and Peter (Petros) is the people. For the rock (Petra) is the principle word. Therefore Peter (Petros) is from Petra, and not Petra from Petros; as Christ is not called from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. Thou art therefore, said He, Peter and upon this rock, which thou hast confessed, upon this rock which thou hast recognized, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God, I will build My church. Upon me I will build thee, not upon thee me.

So it would seem the Catholic Church not only has abandoned Greek grammar, but has chosen to ignore what the fathers believed and taught before this corruption of this precious verse of Gods word written was promoted.

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