Petrine primacy

Petrine primacy

"And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mateo 16,18-19)

In this section you will find biblical, historical and patristic theme studies and analysis of the major Protestant objections.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about Papacy (Part 1)

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese. You can read the Part 2 of this dialog too.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Joseph, we would like to study the topic of the Papacy, because Pauline and I have been reading some of the arguments of the Catholic Church about this, and we would like you to clarify some of our doubts.

Joseph: I’ll be glad.

Pauline: As far as we have learned, you Catholics believe that Jesus appointed Peter “Pope” when he said: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matt 16,18-19). You use this to interpret that the rock on which Jesus builds his Church is Peter, right?

Joseph: Exactly[1].

Pauline: Well, based on what we have studied, it seems that this interpretation is not the right one. Let me explain.

Joseph: Go on.

Pauline: In the first place, let’s read the full text; because we both agree that a text out of context is a pretext. The entire passage says: “And Jesus came into the quarters of Cesarea Philippi: and he asked his disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is?  But they said: Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets.  Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?  Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matt 16,13-19)

We can see that it all begins when Jesus asks his disciples: “Whom do men say that the Son of man is?” and Peter responds: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God”. Peter confessed who was the rock on which it was built the faith of the Church. The rock wasn’t Peter, or any other man; instead, it was Christ and his divine relationship with God the Father, because He is the Son of God.

There are many other texts where this interpretation is confirmed. For example, the apostle Paul makes this clear when he says, “for other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 3,11). Talking about Jesus Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will lay a stone in the foundations of Sion, a tried stone, a corner stone, a precious stone, founded in the foundation. He that believeth, let him not hasten.” (Isa 28,16). In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul repeats: “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph 2,20).

Joseph: I’m glad that you have searched and read all about the context, but I think that you’re ignoring several things in your analysis.

Pauline: Tell me about it…

Joseph: Look, in that episode, Jesus is changing the name of Simon to Peter[2]. Remember that every time that God changes someone's name, it’s because that name comes with a new identity and a new role. For example, when God changed Abram's name to Abraham in Genesis 17,3-6, it was because he would be "father of nations"; he changed Sarai's name to Sarah in Genesis 17,16 because she would be "mother of kings", "fruitful princess." He changed Jacob’s name to Israel in Genesis 32,28 because he "wrestled with God and men and he won", even the very name of Jesus in Matthew 1:21 has a profound meaning: "savior God" because He would save the people from their sins.

As you well said, Jesus had asked him who he was, and Simon replied indicating his identity: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God”.  Christ does the same thing and tells what Peter's identity will be: “That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church”. Therefore, you can wonder what the meaning is of the new name of Simon? What would be the new role or identity that would accompany this new name? Because it would be very curious to find the only exception in the Bible where a new name has no meaning. And whatever that meaning is, we have to find it there in the context, and this is where it gets interesting because Jesus says immediately afterwards: “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

Note that this text is very similar to a prophecy of Isaiah, where a new butler for the people of Israel is announced: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias.  And I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda.  And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open.  And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father.” (Isa 22,20-23)[3]. As you should know, the butler or bearer of the keys of the Kingdom was a minister in the royal service with the highest authority subordinate only to the king himself, and with a role of spiritual fatherhood over the people[4]: “he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda”. That was a widely known figure for the Jewish people, so it was natural to understand that Jesus used it to state what would be the new role of Peter.

Pauline: Joseph, you haven’t explained why you think that Jesus was referring to Peter as the Rock, because in all the biblical texts that I have shown you, Jesus is the Rock.

Joseph: I’ll get to that point, but let’s take one step at a time.

In Matthew 16,18 and in the rest of the texts that you have mentioned, a figure is used which we have discussed before, known as a metaphor. As we said before, a metaphor is a figure of speech that allows you to identify a real term with a symbolic term among which there is a similarity or analogy. In the Bible there are so many metaphors, for example when Christ says:

“…I am the light of the world…” (John 8,12)

“…I am the good shepherd…” (John 10,11)

“…I am the door…” (John 10,9)

“…I am the true vine…” (John 15,1)

And I could mention many more examples, but I think it is not necessary, because we all know what metaphors are in the Scripture.

Even when there are many metaphors in the Bible, the symbolic elements used in them don’t have a fixed meaning. It is a misconception that because in John 8,12, it is said that Christ is the “light of the world”, it doesn’t mean that every time the word light appears with a metaphor, that it refers to Him. You can find a good example in Matthew 5,14 where Christ also tells us, “You are the light of the world.

Isaiah 51,1 for example, says: “look unto the rock whence you are hewn,” and in this metaphor, the word rock doesn’t symbolize Christ but Abraham, as the passage continues “...and to the hole of the pit from which you are dug out. Look unto Abraham your father”. In 1 Peter 2,5 they refer to us as “living stones”.

That's why when we are trying to find the meaning of the metaphoric elements, we must go to the context and not try to mechanically apply the same meaning to each one. Look for example, as in Ephesians 2, 20 the apostles and prophets figure as the foundation, and Christ is the Cornerstone: “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph 2,20), however, in another metaphor, the foundation is Christ: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 3,11). And there is no contradiction because they are different metaphors. In the Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph 2,20) the Church is compared to a building, and there we all come to be represented figuratively as stones (believers, the apostles and Christ also, as the Cornerstone). In the Epistle to the Corinthians instead (1 Cor 3,11), the construction materials symbolize the good or bad deeds of every believer. These (works) if they are built on the foundation (which is Christ) will receive their reward.

In the passage we studied (Matt 16,18) as in Eph 2,20 the Church is compared to a building, but in that metaphor, Christ appears as the builder, not as part of the construction. We see it when He uses the verb "build" and He conjugates it in the first person: “I will build”. We are the rocks that Christ uses to build the Church, Peter is the first one.

That is why it is a mistake to mix the metaphors or want to establish a consistent meaning with a literal element in all of them. With this method, you can try anything, take a word here and there, look for the symbolic meaning, and then jump to a different metaphor and to a different meaning.

You shouldn’t forget that the Cornerstone of a building IS NOT THE SAME rock on which it is built. The rock on which a building lays is at the base, the Cornerstone is on the top and it is the one that gives consistency to all others (In a construction, for example, in a pyramid, there really are five cornerstones, but the one that is on the top is generally called the cornerstone, not the one at the base). So we could build a general metaphor where the Church symbolized a spiritual building, Christ figures as the Cornerstone, Peter and the apostles as the foundation, with Peter the main rock on which it is built, and we complete the construction with the living rocks that conform to the rest of the building.

Pauline: So with all that, I understand that you're saying that the foundation of the Church is a man and it is not Christ.

Joseph: No. Now we have to distinguish in what sense Peter is the main rock in that metaphor. Peter is the rock on which it all is built as the authority instituted by Jesus Christ to rule and shepherd the Church, as His "servant butler", bearer of the keys, while the confession of faith is the doctrinal foundation of it. If we don’t understand this difference, we end up not understanding the Catholic position, because we have the thought that we put our faith on a man.

That is why throughout the history of the Church, the first Christians and the Church Fathers understood this text in both directions without excluding each other, and they claimed at the same time while Christ is the foundation of the Church, Peter under His faith was instituted as his butler and bearer of the keys[5].

Michael: Joseph, but remember that not only Peter received the keys, the whole Church did, because in another passage we read, Jesus said to all the apostles: “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matt 18,18)

Joseph: But look that Jesus just talks about "binding and loosing" and he doesn’t tell them that he will give them the keys. In contrast, in Matthew 16,19, Jesus does speak of giving the keys and tells Peter in singular, “I will give to thee the keys…”. It is true that through Peter, the entire Church in communion with him had the keys, but only he was appointed as its bearer under his primacy. The same thing happened with the figure of the butler in the ancient kingdoms, because there were many ministers who could bind and loose[6] (make decisions), but for the rest of the ministers, the decisions of the Butler were irrevocable[7].

Pauline: I understand, but there is another element in this passage that makes the Catholic interpretation fail. Let me explain. [8]

Joseph: Go ahead…

Pauline: When we look at the Greek of Matthew 16:18, we see something that is not observed in the Spanish: “…That thou art Peter [Πέτρος, pétros], and upon this rock [πέτρα, pétra] I will build my church”. In the Greek, the substantives have gender (male and female). It is similar to the use of "actor" and "actress". The first is masculine, the second is feminine. Similarly, the word "Pétros" is masculine and "Pétra" is female. The name of Peter refers in the right way to "Pétros". But Jesus said that the rock on which He (Christ) would build his church is not found in the male of "Pétros" but in the feminine "Pétra". Let me illustrate this using the words "actor" and "actress" in a sentence. If I tell you: “You’re the actor and with this actress I will film the movie”, how do you understand that? Can you see how the gender influences the sense of a sentence? Jesus was not saying that he would build his church on Peter (stone), but on the Rock, or otherwise at what was He referring to with the feminine noun "Pétra"?

Joseph: What happens is that when the evangelist translates the words of Jesus into Greek, it can’t assign to Peter a female name, and therefore, it doesn’t use the same word in both places. However, we know from the same gospel that Jesus didn’t say those words originally in Greek, but in Aramaic, and in that language, there is no such distinction. Jesus really calls Peter כֵּף  (Kēphas) and there is no distinction, so what Jesus really says was: “You’re Peter [Kēphas] and on this Rock [Kēphas], I will build my Church”.

Pauline: How is that we know this from the same gospel? We don’t have the text in Aramaic and we only have the copies in Greek, so it is not appropriate to refer to this as a proof. Why turn to something that doesn’t exist; in this case, the text in Aramaic?

Joseph: Although we no longer preserve the copies in Aramaic of the Gospel of Matthew[9], we can deduce this from the text in Greek.  Remember that when the apostle John tells us what new name was given to Simon, he tells us it was Cephas, not Petros: “And he brought him to Jesus. And Jesus looking upon him, said: Thou art Simon the son of Jona. Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter.” (John 1,42).  And Cephas (en griego Κηφᾶς = Kēphas) is a transliteration of the Hebrew word (כֵּף = Kēphas) that means Rock.

Pauline: Wait, the fact that John translates it supports the view that “Kēphas” is not a proper name, because we don’t usually translate proper names.

Joseph: And this is the reason why it is so significant. Even when “Kēphas” (Cephas) is not a proper name, it is assigned by Jesus to Peter as if it was, and this extends to the point that in the New Testament, when it was written in Greek, it still retains that name given to him in Aramaic. Remember that this is the name that is given to the apostle Peter in all his letters (1 Cor 1,12; 3,22; 9,5; 15,5; Gal 1,18; 2,9; 2,11; 2,14). Therefore, it is certain that if Jesus wouldn’t have said the words of Matthew 16,18 directly in Greek, Peter wouldn’t have kept his name in Aramaic.

Let’s look at this issue objectively: Jesus makes a pun when he changes Peter’s name: “That thou art Peter [that means “stone” or “rock”] and upon this rock I will build my church”. It would be pointless to make that pun if he was trying to refer to a different rock[10].

One evidence that the evangelist translated “Kēphas” to “Petros” and not to “Petra” to not assign Peter a female name is that there is a Greek word to refer to a small stone, which is lithos and the translator doesn’t use it, and that would make a difference between the two words beyond the gender. In other New Testament texts, this contrast is observed, “That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone (lithon).” (Matt 4,6); “Or what man is there among you, of whom if his son shall ask bread, will he reach him a stone? (lithon).” (Matt 7,9); “To you therefore that believe, he is honour: but to them that believe not, the stone (lithos) which the builders rejected, the same is made the head of the corner: And a stone (lithos) of stumbling and a rock (petra) of scandal, to them who stumble at the word, neither do believe, whereunto also they are set.” (1 Pet 2,7-8).

That's why, in Matthew 16:18, we can be sure that Jesus was referring to Peter as the rock on which the Church is built, as the butler of his kingdom. Today, that figure is called "Pope", but the name isn’t important, the real meaning is the important thing.

Michael: Joseph, the conversation is very interesting, but we have to go. I would like to continue with this at another time, because there are so many points that I would like to discuss.

Joseph: With pleasure.

Talking with my evangelical friends about Papacy (Part 2)


[1] The Catholic Church interprets Matt 16,18 from different perspectives that complement each other. Peter is the Rock in which the Church is built regarding the authority instituted by Jesus Christ to shepherd the Church occupying the primacy among the apostles, and the faith in Jesus Christ is the doctrinal basis for it. Catechism explains in this regard:

CEC 424 Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'8 On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church.

CEC 552 Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Our Lord then declared to him: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." Christ, the "living Stone", thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakeable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.

CEC 881 The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the "rock" of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. "The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head." This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

[2] Peter is the only apostle to whom Jesus changes the name. Remember that although Jesus is collectively referred to as James and John, as the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17) they retained their own names.

[3] Although this prophecy didn’t refer to Peter, but Eliakim, we can see here the functions of the butler of the Kingdom, so Jesus used it as a known figure to publicize the new role of Peter.

[4] The figure of the butler was very common in the culture of ancient people. Kings and householders appointed one of his most trusted servants as butler. Eliezer of Damascus, for example, was the butler of Abraham (Gen 15.2), José, son of Jacob, was butler of Potiphar (Gen 39.4) and later of the Pharaoh (Gen 41.40 to 41). Just like these examples we can find numerous references to different butler in the reigns of Judah and Israel throughout the centuries 1 Kgs 4,6; 16,9; 18,3; 2 Kgs 10,5; 18,18.37, 19,2; 2 Chr 28,7; Isa 22,15; 36,3.22; 37,2.

[5] If we study all the texts of the Fathers of the Church, we’ll find that they use both interpretations, because they say that Peter was the rock on which the Church is built (as the authority instituted by Jesus Christ), and they also say that he’s the faith in Jesus Christ  (as its doctrinal basis). You can review my other book (Spanish), Compendio de Apologética Católica, where I present a compilation of patristic testimonies in this regard.

[6] The terms δέω - λύω (binding and loosing) come from rabbinic terminology (Alfred E. Tuggy, Léxico Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento, Editorial Mundo Hispano, First Edition 1996, 1210 D): BINDING in Hebrew is said אָסַר (“asar”). The Mishná (which is an exegetical body of the compiled Jewish law, which collects and consolidates Jewish oral tradition developed over centuries since the time of the Torah or written law, and till its coding at the hands of Rabbi Judah Hanasí, towards the end of the second century) employs it (Shabbat 4,1) commenting the Numbers 30,3 as a declaration of the FORBIDDEN (Strack-Billerbeck I, 738). LOOSING in Hebrew is said “hittir”; the Mishná employs as a declaration of LEGAL or ALLOWED.

The Synagogue used both verbs to indicate who was ADMITTED or OUTLAWED in the Synagogue (excommunication) and for the interpretation of certain difficult passages of Scripture; It is therefore a "technical" use to indicate "authority" not only in disciplinary matters (imposition and lifting of the anathema dictated by the Synagogue, in addition to the Mishná, Josephus speaks about it in Bello ludaico I, 111), but also the “halákica” A-U-T-H-O-R-I-T-Y TO TEACH (in terms of teaching, means the authoritative interpretation of the law by the ORDERED and competent RABBI: “has the authority to prohibit and allow" (Josephus, Guerra de los Judíos , L.1, Ch. 5, 111. The Word "deo" (tie) in the Dictionary of NT exegetical Balz-Schneider, Salamanca 1996

[7] In Isaiah 22,22 it is described how the decisions of the Butler of the Kingdom couldn’t be revoked by the rest of the ministers, as it says: “he’ll open, and nobody will close, he’ll close, and nobody will open”.

[8] For this chapter, I have taken the arguments of the evangelical brothers in this conversation from the evangelical apologetics web, which is a well-known ministry that publishes apologetic content in so many languages. 

[9] Although there aren’t copies of the Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic, there is sufficient historical evidence that comes from the early church (First Century) that prove that this Gospel was written first in Aramaic and later was translated into Greek. For a detailed compilation of these testimonies, you can consult my book Compendium of Catholic Apologetics, Second Edition, Lulu 2014, p. 83s.

[10] The construction in Greek doesn’t allow interpreting that Jesus referred as the “stone” or the “rock” to someone other than Peter. In this regard, Robert A Sungenis explains: “It is important to point that Jesus chooses the phrase epi tautee tee petra (“on this rock”) rather than the other phrase that could be more ambiguous epi tee roca (“on the rock”) or epi petra (on a rock). By using the definite or indefinite article it might seem that he points to someone other than Peter, but he uses the demonstrative adjective tautee (‘this’) so it is more likely that he identifies someone in the immediate vicinity grammatical to the nun «rock». The only rock that is illustrated in the immediate vicinity is Petros (‘Peter’) which is a proper name that means «Rock»...” (Butler, Dahlgren, Hess, Jesús, Peter & the Keys, Queenship Publishing Company, USA 1996, p. 23-24).