Roman Catholics believe this verse is spoken, not only to Peter
the apostle who has gone to his reward, but to their bishop, whoever
he may happen to be at the time. What does the verse mean? Some
commentators link this 'rock' verse with all the verses identifying
Jesus Himself as the Rock of Israel, but sometimes a rock is just a
rock, and lesser beings like Abraham are likened in the Bible to
'rocks': "Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole
of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and
to Sarah who bore you..." (Isaiah 51:1-2).
Not only Peter, but all the other apostles as well, are foundation stones
of the church:
"Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow
citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself
being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together,
grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built
together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:19-22).
"Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve
apostles of the Lamb." (Revelation 21:14).
To go by Biblical qualifications for the office, apostleship could not be
a continuing office once the eye-witness generation passed from the
scene: "...'Let another take his office.’ 'Therefore, of these men who
have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,
beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us,
one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.'"
(Acts 1:20-21). So unless the bishop of Rome has personally encountered
the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and been commissioned to preach
like Paul, he cannot be an apostle; he did not witness the resurrection.
The imagery envisions a large and glorious edifice in the process of construction,
each believer a living stone:
"Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen
by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual
house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to
God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-6).
A masonry building rises course by course, the later stones being piled
atop the earlier. The builders do not jack the structure up, pry out an
existing foundation stone, and insert a late-comer like the bishop of Rome!
The eye-witness generation gave their testimony and departed to be with
the Lord; their place in the structure's foundation is secure and immovable.
Besides, some stones are not sound for building:
"She said to me, 'Lo! do you not see opposite to you a great tower,
built upon the waters, of splendid square stones?' For the tower was built
square by those six young men who had come with her. But myriads of men
were carrying stones to it, some dragging them from the depths, others
removing them from the land, and they handed them to these six young men.
They were taking them and building; and those of the stones that were dragged
out of the depths, they placed in the building just as they were: for they
were polished and fitted exactly into the other stones, and became so united
one with another that the lines of juncture could not be perceived. And
in this way the building of the tower looked as if it were made out of
one stone. Those stones, however, which were taken from the earth suffered
a different fate; for the young men rejected some of them, some they fitted
into the building, and some they cut down, and cast far away from the tower.
Many other stones, however, lay around the tower, and the young men did
not use them in building; for some of them were rough, others had cracks
in them, others had been made too short, and others were white and round,
but did not fit into the building of the tower. Moreover, I saw other stones
thrown far away from the tower, and falling into the public road; yet they
did not remain on the road, but were rolled into a pathless place."
(Shepherd of Hermas, Book First, Vision Third, Chapter 2).
If you study the history of the papacy, you'll stumble across many of these
cracked and worthless stones. The normal course of constructing a masonry
building is to build it up line upon line. The foundation once laid is
not removed; the building goes only one way, up. The apostolic doctrine
is not subject to improvement or renovation. So while you can still get
to be a 'pillar' in this building of lively stones: "Him that overcometh
wil I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out:
and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city
of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from
my God: and I will write upon him my new name." (Revelation 3:12),—
you can't get built into the foundation any more. It's already been laid.
In addressing Peter, Jesus is addressing the church. Far from being unique
to Peter, much less to the bishop of Rome or wherever, the same keys are
given to the church as a whole in Matthew 18:18: "Truly I tell you,
whatever you [plural] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever
you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18). This
is the traditional understanding of the 'keys:' "But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter: although
elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive
the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends
upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a
head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism." (Jerome, Against
Jovinian, Book 1, Chapter 26).
I've never been to a church service where only one lonesome soul showed
up and sat down in the pew, though once only the pastor and I showed up.
If only one guy showed up for church, he might feel like he was being blamed
for an awful lot, nor could the pastor plausibly say 'I wasn't talking
about you.' In Matthew 16:18 there's only one guy who shows up for church,
because Peter's the first to make the Christian confession that Jesus Christ
is the son of God. The promise made to him, of the 'keys,' is actually
a promise to the whole assembly, as Matthew 18:18 shows. At the time, Peter
was the whole assembly!
Likewise, Peter perceives himself, not as sole shepherd, but as one of
many shepherds: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your
fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also
of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you,
exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to
the will of God..." (1 Peter 5:1-3).
If Matthew 16:17 had been intended as a grant of personal primacy to Peter
— or, rather, to the bishop of Rome or wherever — that point certainly
whizzed right by the other disciples. They were still left wondering who
was the greatest: "At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus,
saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matthew 18:1),
the answer being, of course, 'Peter' (not!). The disciples argued about
which of them was greatest, "Then they came to Capernaum; and when
he was in the house he asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the
way?' But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another
who was the greatest." (Mark 9:33-34). How is it that they did not
know about the primacy of Peter?
Peter's primacy is itself problematical, given that James the Lord's brother
has the last word in the apostolic conference of Acts 15. How the primacy
leaps from Peter to the bishop of Rome is even more perplexing. Tradition
records that Peter, like Paul, was martyred at Rome. By what logic do his
Roman murderers wipe the blood off their guilty hands and inherit everything
belonging to the man? By the same logic, the mayor of Dallas must now be
the President of the United States, because John F. Kennedy, then President,
was murdered in that town.
There's no historical evidence that Peter ever was the bishop of Rome,
though he may have appointed one or another of the early bishops: "Of
the church of Rome, Linus the son of Claudia was the first, ordained by
Paul; and Clemens, after Linus’ death, the second, ordained by me Peter."
(Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book 7, Section 4, XLVI). In their
efforts to prove their bishop's legitimacy as successor to the apostles,
Roman Catholics eagerly present early lists of the Roman bishops. These
lists might be more impressive if they specified the same names! Some start
with Linus, others with Clement. But because the institution of the monarchical
bishop had not yet arisen, it's not impossible for these two bishops to
have been serving at the same time. Paul addressed his letter to Romans to
a collection of house churches. The office of 'bishop' was not yet
differentiated from that of 'presbyter;' there were no doubt many
bishops in Rome, any one of whom would make a fine candidate for a
list of the undivided and unconfused succession.
Peter, along with the other apostles, appointed bishops and elders in many places,
not in one only: "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed
with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." (Acts 14:23).
Paul reports Peter's presence at Antioch: "Now when Peter had come to Antioch,
I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed..." (Galatians 2:11).
Tradition reports him active, along with Paul, at Corinth: "And that they both
suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in
his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: 'You have thus by such an admonition
bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them
planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner
in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.'" (Eusebius, Church History,
Book 2, Chapter 25). Indirect confirmation that Peter was at Corinth comes from Paul's
report of the factionalized Corinthian church, where one faction identified itself as his:
"Now I say this, that each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,'
or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.'" (1 Corinthians 1:12). Since
Corinth enjoyed the same dignity Rome boasted, of having been visited by both the apostles
Peter and Paul, why is not Corinth, or Antioch, the seat of Peter's 'successor'?
Scripturally it does not seem possible Peter ever intended the bishop of Rome to be
his 'successor.' He calls Rome "Babylon": "She who is in Babylon,
elect together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son." (1 Peter 5:13).
In Bible parlance, 'Babylon' means 'toast': "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'The
broad walls of Babylon shall be utterly broken, and her high gates shall be burned
with fire; the people will labor in vain, and the nations, because of the fire; and
they shall be weary.'" (Jeremiah 51:58). For Peter, believing Rome to be Babylon,
to nominate an officer of that place as his 'successor' would be about like naming
the captain of the Titanic as executor of your estate — if you knew the Titanic was going down!
Did the early church writers believe that Peter was the chief of the
apostles, and that he passed on that office to whoever happened to be
bishop at Rome? John Chrysostom explained that Paul was a great apostle
than Peter: "Who is the one who is better than all men? Who other than
that tentmaker, that teacher of the entire world. . .If he will receive
a crown greater than the other apostles (and no one of the apostles was
his equal, but he was greater than they), it is clear that he will enjoy
the loftiest honor and privilege." (John Chrysostom, Homily VIII, The
Father of the Church, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp.