Rock of Ages: Was Peter the First Pope?

Posted by Clark Bates
June 1, 2017


Continuing this series of articles and videos in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we turn our attention to the papacy and Matthew 16:18-19.  To best understand the importance of this passage of Scripture to the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority let us return to the edict of the First Vatican Council:

Chapter 1 On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter

  1. We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.
  2. It was to Simon alone, to whom he had already said you shall be called Cephas, that the Lord, after his confession, you are the Christ, the son of the living God, spoke these words:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of the underworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

  1. And it was to Peter alone that Jesus, after his resurrection, confided the jurisdiction of supreme pastor and ruler of his whole fold, saying:

“Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

  1. To this absolutely manifest teaching of the sacred scriptures, as it has always been understood by the catholic church, are clearly opposed the distorted opinions of those who misrepresent the form of government which Christ the lord established in his church and deny that Peter, in preference to the rest of the apostles, taken singly or collectively, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.
  2. The same may be said of those who assert that this primacy was not conferred immediately and directly on blessed Peter himself, but rather on the church, and that it was through the church that it was transmitted to him in his capacity as her minister.
  3. Therefore, if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole church militant; or that it was a primacy of honour only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our lord Jesus Christ himself:

let him be anathema.

Chapter 2. On the permanence of the primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman pontiffs

  1. That which our lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain forever, by Christ’s authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time.
  2. For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and forever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.
  3. Therefore, whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So, what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received.
  4. For this reason, it has always been necessary for every church–that is to say the faithful throughout the world–to be in agreement with the Roman church because of its more effective leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that see, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single body.
  5. Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy:

let him be anathema.[1]

As can be seen through the dogmatic decree of the Roman Catholic Church, the entirety of papal authority rests on two pillars:

  1. The teaching of Scripture, particularly Matthew 16:18-19, and
  2. That this interpretation was the historical interpretation of the church from its inception

In order to properly assess these claims, we must address each individually and on its own merits.  Beginning with Scripture, we read in Matthew 16:18-19:

18 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It should at least be acknowledged that even among Protestants, this passage of Scripture has garnered multiple interpretations.  Before conceding the need for a magisterial proclamation however, we must examine the passage in light of both its context and the greater teaching of Scripture.


If we allow the context of Matthew 16 to teach us anything about the verses in question it can reveal some insight into the focal point of chapter.  The Scripture opens with the Jewish leaders demanding that Jesus show them a sign to prove both his authority and identity (1-4), followed by a brief rebuke by the Lord against his disciples, reminding them of the miraculous things he has already done (5-12), suggesting that they already know who he is.  This then opens the door to the discourse between Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples regarding “whom do others say that I am” (13-20).

Clearly, what creates the difficulty with this portion of Scripture is how to identify the “rock” of v.18 upon which the church would be built.  Some have posited the rock as being the confession made by Peter, namely that Jesus is the Messiah.[2]  Others find it more reasonable to see the rock as Jesus himself.[3]  While others still, view the rock as Peter himself, but without the Roman Catholic succession.[4]

So What is the Rock?

In defense of the viewpoint identifying the “rock” of Matthew 16 as Jesus, is Matthew 7:24 in which the author uses the parallel phraseology:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

The context of Matthew 7 being the famous parable of the wise man building his house in contrast with the foolish man.  The rock upon which the wise man builds his house is clearly not the apostle Peter, but the Lord Jesus Christ.  In addition, it must be acknowledged that a first century Jew such as Peter would not see himself as the “rock” as Rome sees it.  A short survey of the Hebrew Scriptures testifies to this.   “Throughout the Old Testament, the God of Israel is often called “rock” (Deut 32: 4, 15, 18, 30; 1 Sam 2:2, 22:32, 47; Ps 18:31, 19:14, 28:1, 42:9, 89:26; Isa 30:29). In the whole story of God’s self-revelation through His relationship with Israel, He proved that He was their provider and caretaker – the rock of their faith.”[5]  In addition, as has already been mentioned, the thrust of Matthew 16 is not the identity of Peter, but of Jesus.

In defense of the rock being the confession made by Peter, is largely the interpretation of St. Augustine, discussed in a previous video.  According to Augustine,

“In Peter, Rocky, we see our attention drawn to the rock. Now the apostle Paul says about the former people, ‘They drank from the spiritual rock that was following them; but the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4). So this disciple is called Rocky from the rock, like Christian from Christ…Why have I wanted to make this little introduction? In order to suggest to you that in Peter the Church is to be recognized. Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer.”[6]

And while it is certainly difficult to be at odds with men of such stature, it is my position that the most faithful reading of Matthew is the identity of the “rock” with the apostle Peter himself.

Peter as the Rock

Now before anyone accuses me of blasphemy or swimming the Tiber you must allow me to explain.  It is an undeniable fact of grammar that there is a clear wordplay being utilized by our Lord.  In the Greek, it appears thus:

18 κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος (Peter), καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρ (rock) οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς·

Simon’s nickname is a male derivative of the Greek word for rock.  There is no place here for silly diversions about there being a difference between “little pebble” and “big stone”, for such nuances are foreign to this text.  The simple truth is that were the Lord trying to distinguish the “rock” from the apostle he could have used the Greek word λιθος which also means “stone”.  The use of πετρα/Πετρος should not be ignored.  Another advantage to this understanding of Matthew is that it has been the consistent interpretation of the church for several centuries following the apostles.

Neither should it be ignored that Peter held a place of prominence within the apostolic twelve.  In all of the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is named first in the lists of the apostles (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16), and is included among the innermost circle of Jesus’ apostles; even among this band, though, Peter is listed first (Matt 17: 1-8; 26:37; Mark 5: 37; 9:2-8; Luke 9: 28-26; 13:3).  It is Peter who is the leading character in the story of the miraculous catch (Luke 5: 1-11).  It is Peter who tries to imitate Jesus by walking on water (Matt 14:28).  It is Peter who is called “blessed” for confessing that Jesus is the Christ (Matt 16:17), and it is Peter who is reprimanded for rebuking Jesus when the latter spoke of his impending death (Matt 16:23). It is Peter who cuts off Malchus’ ear in order to defend Jesus (John 18:10); it is Peter who is rebuked for doing so (John 18:11). It is Peter who denies Jesus three times (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:55-62; John 18:16-18, 25-27); it is Peter who receives a special commission from the post-resurrected Jesus (John 21:15-18). All four of the gospel writers, then, seem to attribute a unique position to Peter.  What’s more, Peter is also featured prominently in the first half of Acts. He guides the process of choosing Matthias as a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:15-26); he functions as a preacher within the Jerusalem Church and as a missionary to those who are outside (Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43); he is a miracle worker and (as in the case of Paul) some of his miracles resemble that of Jesus (Acts 3:1-10; 5:1-11, 15; 9:32-42); he is the object of divine care and receives visionary or heavenly guidance (Acts 5:17-21; 10:9-48; 12:6-11); and he is a spokesperson for the Jerusalem community (Acts 8:14-25; 11:1-18; 15:7-11).

While it might be easy to dismiss this prominence as being directly contingent to the brashness of Peter’s character, this would be dismissive of the purposes of the Gospel authors as well.  If we examine the text objectively, and the story of the apostles that follows, it becomes quite clear that it is Peter who reveals the kingdom to the world (Acts 2:14-36).  It is Peter who first administers the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and it is Peter that becomes a key figure in the spread of the faith to the Diaspora (1/2 Peter).  However, the fact that this exegesis points to Peter as the πέτρα in no way endorses a Roman Catholic understanding of Peter’s successors. In fact, the text states nothing about Peter’s successor, papal infallibility, or exclusive authority over the Church.

What About Apostolic Succession?

In Matthew 16:19 our Lord tells Peter that he will give him the keys of the kingdom.  As we have seen from the First Vatican Council, Rome interprets this to mean the authority of the church, both for the apostle and for all his successors.  However, there is no clear answer as to when these keys are given.  In fact, the power of these keys (i.e. to bind and loose on earth and in heaven) is then given by the Lord to all the apostles in Matthew 18:18.  It does not follow that the Lord would give this singular authority to Peter in 16:19 and then reverse that decision to give it to all apostles in 18:18.  The equality of authority among the twelve relates completely with the teachings of Jesus that masters are not greater than their servants (John 13), and the words of the apostle Paul in Eph. 2:19-22:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

While the teaching of Scripture clearly reveals a special role for the apostle, it says nothing of a perpetual monarchical bishopric to follow.  Certainly, the apostles appointed elders, deacons, and bishops in the local churches that they founded (1 Tim. 1:1-5; 3:1-13; 5:17-21; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Tit. 1:5-9), but there is no evidence for the succession of the apostolic office.  No student of the apostle Paul is said to assume his apostolic office after his death, neither is there any indication of a singular, pre-eminent bishop in Rome in the century that follows.  What this suggests, quite forcefully, is that the author of Matthew knows nothing of a perpetual office of Peter.


According to the First Vatican Council (and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council), papal authority finds its origin in the “gospel evidence” and it having “always been understood by the catholic church”.  In this article, we have seen that the gospel evidence in support of perpetual Petrine authority over the church is considerably lacking.  To suggest otherwise is to limit one’s understanding to the verses in isolation and to come to the text with a pre-determined solution.  When examined objectively, we see that Peter’s privilege of being the “rock” is historically unrepeatable. Understood in its original sense, Jesus assigns the apostle a unique and unrepeatable position in the spiritual edifice of God. On the one hand, the verse speaks of the ἐκκλησία, a fellowship that is to be built in the future, without any time limit being given; on the other hand, the verse speaks about Peter, a human person, whose earthly activity will necessarily be limited by his death.  Just as Peter’s feeding of the lambs in John 21:16ff is limited by his martyrdom, so is Peter’s status as “rock” of the Church limited by his earthly demise.

Having dealt with the gospel evidence of papal authority, the next article will address the historical testimony of the church in regards to Roman pre-eminance.


[1] 1 On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter

[2] Chrys C. Caragounis, Peter and the Rock (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990), 89-107.  J. C. Ryle, Matthew (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 139.  John Calvin , Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels,

[3] Ulrich Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, 2nd ed., ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Clarence Nevin Heller (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1981), 161.  G. A. F. Knight, “Thou Art Peter,” Theology Today 17 (1960): 168.

[4] Carson, Donald A. Matthew. HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2017.  Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.  Ridderbos, Herman N. Matthew. Regency Reference Library, 1987.

[5] G. A. F. Knight, “Thou Art Peter,” Theology Today 17 (1960): 168.

[6] John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993), Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327).


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