Upon This Rock: Matthew 16:18 in Church History

Posted on June 12, 2017
by Clark Bates

In the previous article on Matthew 16:18-19, I discussed the exegetical approach to the passage and the resulting interpretation.  A consequence of that brief discussion led me to conclude that the Apostle Peter was, in fact, the “rock” in question, but that this did not necessarily lead to papal succession.  There is nothing within the text of the New Testament that suggest or encourages the succession of the apostolic title, nor is there any exegetical basis for the administration of a universal bishopric.  Today’s article serves as a follow-up to that piece and will discuss the historical interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 by the early church.

For Rome, papal authority rests upon two pillars:

  1. The scriptural support of Matthew 16:18-19, and
  2. The consensus of the church fathers from the 1st century forward, that Peter was the first pope, or that his successors in Rome held universal jurisdiction over the Christian church.

The argument was presented in the last article that the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 does not comport to the greater testimony of Scripture, nor does it even agree with the writings within the Gospel of Matthew.  The question before us today, is the meaning of the early church fathers, when they wrote of the seat of Peter.  It must be said from the outset that a cursory reading of the church fathers without historical context can be confusing for some.  There are multiple references to the “catholic church”, and to the “chair of Peter”.  Given the overwhelming control of this language by the Roman Catholic Church, it is natural to read their definition back into the earliest writings.  It is not enough to merely assert that such a reading is false, but if we are to be faithful historians as well as theologians, it must at least be asked if it is accurate to read Roman Catholic definitions into the terms of the earliest writings.

The Argument of the Catholic Apologist

It is most often asserted unequivocally, and occasionally without any reference, that the church fathers unanimously agreed with the ruling of Vatican I.  That is to say that the seat of Peter, or the papal throne has always been considered the highest authority over the entire Christian church.  It is argued that the language of the fathers places Peter in a lofty position of praise, the bishops of Rome are often referred to as his successors, and the unanimous interpretation of Matthew 16 indicates that Peter is the “rock”.

In response to this last point, I have already identified how the interpretation of Peter as “the rock” of Matthew 16 is clearly valid, but not in the way it is stretched by Rome.  I have addressed the writings of some church fathers already on this website, but the men most often cited by the Catholic Church are Ignatius of Antioch (AD 107); Tertullian (AD 240); Cyprian of Carthage (AD 258); Ambrose (AD 397); and Augustine (AD400).  We will now turn our attention to each of these fathers in kind and assess what they have written.

Ignatius of Antioch

The most frequently cited reference to Roman pre-eminence from Ignatius is found in his Letter to the Romans.  While he does not specifically cite Matthew 16, the suggestion of papal authority is perceived from his description:

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father:[1]

It is argued that Rome’s “presidency” is an indication of its universal jurisdiction over the churches.  A great deal must be read into this phrase to support such an assertion.  To begin, there is no mention to a particular Roman bishop as being the “president”, likely because there was no singular bishop in Rome at this time, but an eldership.[2]  This introduction by Ignatius is similar to the introductions used elsewhere by him and the apostles before him.  On its own, there is no reference to papal authority here.


Tertullian was born in Carthage in North Africa and practiced law before his conversion to Christianity. He had a great influence upon the Church fathers of subsequent generations, especially Cyprian, and he is the first of the Western fathers to comment on Matthew 16. In one of his writings Tertullian identifies the rock with the person of Peter on which the Church would be built:

Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the ‘rock on which the church should be built’ who also obtained ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and earth?[3] 

I will admit that it is a pet peeve of mine to see writings such as this removed from their context and submitted as proof of a particular viewpoint.  Protestant apologists are as guilty of this as Catholics, so consider this a rebuff of both.  It would be preferable and more ethical for apologists who have not read the actual writings for themselves, in their entirety, to refrain from enlisting portions of the writer’s words from the internet to support their position, than from defending an argument from a standpoint of historical ignorance.  While space does not permit me to paste the entirety of the writing discussed in this article, footnotes are attached to each, and I invite all readers to visit those links and read the entire writings for themselves.

Regarding this particular section of Tertullian, the greater point being made is in refutation of the Gnostics, claiming that they possessed “special knowledge” not given to the apostles.  He wrote,

What man, then, of sound mind can possibly suppose that they were ignorant of anything, whom the Lord ordained to be masters (or teachers), keeping them, as He did, inseparable (from Himself) in their attendance, in their discipleship, in their society, to whom, “when they were alone, He used to expound” all things which were obscure, telling them that “to them it was given to know those mysteries,” which it was not permitted the people to understand? Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called “the rock on which the church should be built,” who also obtained “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with the power of “loosing and binding in heaven and on earth?” Was anything, again, concealed from John, the Lord’s most beloved disciple, who used to lean on His breast to whom alone the Lord pointed Judas out as the traitor, whom He commended to Mary as a son in His own stead? Of what could He have meant those to be ignorant, to whom He even exhibited His own glory with Moses and Elias, and the Father’s voice moreover, from heaven? Not as if He thus disapproved of all the rest, but because “by three witnesses must every word be established.” After the same fashion, too, (I suppose,) were they ignorant to whom, after His resurrection also, He vouchsafed, as they were journeying together, “to expound all the Scriptures.” No doubt He had once said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot hear them now;” but even then He added, “When He, the Spirit of truth, shall come, He will lead you into all truth.” He (thus) shows that there was nothing of which they were ignorant, to whom He had promised the future attainment of all truth by help of the Spirit of truth.[4]

While more will be said regarding the mention of Peter, the intention of Tertullian in this writing is not to illustrate a Petrine papacy but to argue that the apostles, all of them, were not lacking in any knowledge as it related to Christ or the faith as a whole.  Regarding the position held by Peter and the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 directly, Tertullian also wrote,

If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build My Church,’ ‘to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;’ or, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,’ you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build My church;’ and, ‘I will give thee the keys’…and, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound’…In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key; you see what key: ‘Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears: Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you,’ and so forth. (Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which kingdom are ‘loosed’ the sins that were beforetime ‘bound;’ and those which have not been ‘loosed’ are ‘bound,’ in accordance with true salvation..[5]

Still arguing against the claims of Gnosticism, Tertullian clarifies that his understanding of the “rock” of Matthew 16:18, while referring to Peter, is not referring to any succession that would follow him.  The power and unique authority bestowed upon Peter, according to Tertullian, was his alone, and no one else’s.  Peter is the “Rock” because he is the one given the privilege of opening the kingdom of God to men.

Cyprian of Carthage

Cyprian was clearly influenced by Tertullian in his writings and is often cited, in tandem, as affirming the papacy of Peter and the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16.  A reference found frequently comes from his letter On the Unity of the Church, where it reads,

The Lord saith unto Peter, I say unto thee, (saith He,) 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 unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18–19). To him again, after His resurrection, He says, Feed My sheep. Upon him being one He builds His Church; and although He gives to all the Apostles an equal power, and says, As My Father sent Me, even so I send you; receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted to him, and whosoever sins ye shall retain, they shall be retained (John 20:21);—yet in order to manifest unity, He has by His own authority so placed the source of the same unity, as to begin from one.[6]

Being influenced by Tertullian, and having seen how Tertullian understood the teaching of Matthew 16, it would seem odd that Cyprian would hold such a divergent opinion.  When read in the full context, Cyprian’s view is no different than his predecessor,

“The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto 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 unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  And again, to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.”  And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whosoever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.[7]

For Cyprian, the apostles existed on equal footing.  Peter, as has been acknowledged here and by others before him, held a special prominence in being the first to open the kingdom and as such, existed in the mind of Cyprian as a symbol unity in the church.  In other writings, he states that the ordination of Bishops in all the churches, not a singular bishop, is the embodiment of the unity found in Peter.[8]  Contrary to the Roman Catholic teaching that Peter begins the line of papacy, Cyprian viewed Peter as the beginning of all elders, in all churches, in all the world.

Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose served as bishop of Milan and acted as the mentor to the great Augustine of Hippo.  He is considered by many to be one of the greatest fathers of the Western Church.  He is often cited as supporting the papal tradition in Matthew 16, most succinctly by writing,

“It is to Peter himself that He says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.’ Where Peter is, there is the Church.”[9] 

As with the others, this quote, taken as it is, certainly seems to imply that Ambrose viewed the seat of Peter as the source of the church.  But Ambrose wrote many things regarding Matthew 16:18, and these writings help to clarify his position.  For instance,

He, then, who before was silent, to teach us that we ought not to repeat the words of the impious, this one, I say, when he heard, ‘But who do you say I am,’ immediately, not unmindful of his station, exercised his primacy, that is, the primacy of confession, not of honor; the primacy of belief, not of rank. This, then, is Peter, who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather, before the rest of men. And so, he is called the foundation, because he knows how to preserve not only his own but the common foundation…Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ But his confession of faith conquered hell. And this confession did not shut out one heresy, for, since the Church like a good ship is often buffeted by many waves, the foundation of the Church should prevail against all heresies.[10]

For Ambrose, the rock is not Peter, but Faith.  Peter being the first to utter the statement of faith, holds the unique and honored position of being first among men to see the truth, and in all writings in which Ambrose refers back to the relationship of Peter and the church it is upon the foundation of Peter’s faith that he is referring.

Augustine of Hippo

For those in the church, Augustine needs no introduction.  Considered to be one of the greatest minds of the Christian faith, his influence has reached farther than any other figure in the church following the apostles.  He served as the bishop of North Africa until his death in 430, having been a writer par excellence in the community of faith.  While his writings have often been claimed by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant church, it is his Retractations that bear upon the discussion of Matthew 16,

In a passage in this book, I said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built’…But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For, ‘Thou art Peter’ and not ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom, as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is the more probable.[11]

I have noted in other articles that not only does Augustine re-state that his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:18 is Christ, not the apostle, but even more, he allows for the reader to discern for themselves, what the proper interpretation is.  This is clearly not the position of Vatican I, reaffirmed by Vatican II, that anyone who does not agree with the Roman interpretation of these verses is anathema.

While various other sermons of Augustine can be drawn upon for greater clarification, it is perhaps this quote that rejects the Roman Catholic position most certainly,

Before his passion the Lord Jesus, as you know, chose those disciples of his, whom he called apostles. Among these it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given the privilege of representing the whole Church. It was in the person of the whole Church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, ‘To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 16:19). After all, it isn’t just one man that received these keys, but the Church in its unity. So this is the reason for Peter’s acknowledged pre–eminence, that he stood for the Church’s universality and unity, when he was told, ‘To you I am entrusting,’ what has in fact been entrusted to all.
I mean, to show you that it is the Church which has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, listen to what the Lord says in another place to all his apostles: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit;’ and straightway, ‘Whose sins you forgive, they will be forgiven them; whose sins you retain, they will be retained’ (Jn 20:22-23). This refers to the keys, about which it is said, ‘whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Mt 16:19). But that was said to Peter. To show you that Peter at that time stood for the universal Church, listen to what is said to him, what is said to all the faithful, the saints: ‘If your brother sins against you, correct him between you and himself alone’.[12]

For Augustine, especially near the end of his life, the apostle Peter was figurative of the entire church.  The keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to all the church so that all possess the chair of Peter.  Yes Augustine, much like the men cited before him, spoke of Peter in lofty and exalted terms, but it requires a Roman Catholic presupposition to interpret such speech as being indicative of the papacy.  Peter is rightly placed in a position of honor due to his pre-eminence among the twelve, but this is not the equivalent of teaching papal succession, infallibility, or Roman primacy.


Why does this matter?  In his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating states that the reformers had invented a novel exegesis of Matthew 16 in order to aid them in their rebellion against the papacy. This is a complete misrepresentation. As historian Oscar Cullmann points out, the view of the Reformers was not a novel interpretation invented by them but hearkened back to the patristic tradition: ‘We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformers gave…was not first invented for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition’[13]

It is not my goal, nor that of any other protestant, to turn the early church fathers into Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, or the like.  The simple fact is, they are not.  Neither were they Roman Catholic.  They were men of the Spirit, beholden to the teachings of the Apostles, seeking to understand and codify the faith that had been entrusted to them.  In the days of the early church there was only one church and the very concept of denominations was as foreign as the teaching of transubstantiation.  The Protestant Reformation was not a progressive movement trying to change thousands of years of the church function, but a call to return to the teachings of the apostolic church; the true catholic church; the church of the anti-Nicene fathers and the apostles who led them.

It is not Protestantism that places its reliability and authority on the shoulders of history.  It is not Protestantism that requires a consistency in teaching throughout successive generations of the church.  Protestantism stands on the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone.  If a dogma cannot be defended from Scripture than it cannot be defended elsewhere.  The Roman Catholic Church requires all of Christendom to affirm an authority at the ignorance of church history.  If they were willing to admit that the Church of Rome that exists today has no comparison with the church founded by the Apostles, they would be more credible and their position more defensible, but this is not their position.  This is why the Reformation is not over.  For Protestants, it is a call to cast off the yoke of slavery to tradition and man-centered dogma and embrace the freedom found in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.

I do not bear any animosity toward individual Roman Catholics, only against the false gospel being taught by its hierarchy.  I know that the dividing line between the teaching of the Church and the identity of the believer can become easily intertwined, but please hear this, “If you are a Roman Catholic, that does not make you Rome.  It only makes you a student of Rome.  You are not to blame for false teaching.  The debate is not against you, it is against your taskmasters.  I pray that you find freedom in Christ, and peace to your souls.”


[1] Ignatius, Letter to the Romans: Introduction, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.v.html.

[2] This is evidenced by the Letter to the Corinthians attributed to Clement of Rome in which greetings and admonition are given in the name of the “church” in Rome and the repeated use of plural personal pronouns.  Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, I. v.

[3] Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics: Attempt to Invalidate This Rule of Faith Rebutted…,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tertullian, On Modesty: Of the Difference Between Discipline and Power, the Power of the Keys, 99.

[6] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church, 423.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 33: To the Clergy and people, About the Ordination of Celerinus as Reader, 1.

[9] Ambrose of Milan, On Twelve Psalms, 440, 30.

[10] Ambrose of Milan, The Sacraments of the Incarnation of Our Lord, IV.32-V.34.

[11] Augustine, The Retractations, 20.1.

[12] Augustine, On the Saints, Sermon 295. 1-3.

[13] Oscar Cullmann, Peter:Disciple–Apostle–Martyr (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), p. 162).

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