Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Augustine and other Fathers on Matthew 16:13ff: "Upon This Rock"

"Remember, in this man Peter, the rock. He's the one, you see, who on being questioned by the Lord about who the disciples said he was, replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' On hearing this, Jesus said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you...‘You are Peter (rocky), and on this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of the underworld will not conquer her. To you shall I give the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:15-19). 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."
 Works of St Augustine, Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327. (John Rotelle, ed., New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993).


For Augustine, the rock upon which Christ founded the church is not the man Peter but his confession of faith in Christ as the Son of God, which is representative of the faith of the church as a whole in Christ. This is in accord with the Lutheran confessions, which state, in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope:

"In all these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of apostles [and does not speak for himself alone, but for all the apostles], as appears from the text itself. For Christ asks not Peter alone, but says: Whom do ye say that I am? And what is here said [to Peter alone] in the singular number: I will give unto thee the keys; and whatsoever thou shalt bind, etc., is elsewhere expressed [to their entire number], in the plural Matt. 18:18: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc. And in John 20:23: Whosesoever sins ye remit, etc. These words testify that the keys are given alike to all the apostles and that all the apostles are alike sent forth [to preach].
 In addition to this, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18:19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.]

 Therefore it is necessary that in these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of the apostles, and for this reason they do not accord to Peter any prerogative or superiority, or lordship [which he had, or was to have had, in preference to the other apostles].
 However, as to the declaration: Upon this rock I will build My Church, certainly the Church has not been built upon the authority of man, but upon the ministry of the confession which Peter made, in which he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He accordingly addresses him as a minister: Upon this rock, i.e., upon this ministry. [Therefore he addresses him as a minister of this office in which this confession and doctrine is to be in operation and says: Upon this rock, i.e., this preaching and ministry.]

Furthermore, the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to places and persons as the Levitical ministry, but it is dispersed throughout the whole world, and is there where God gives His gifts, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers; neither does this ministry avail on account of the authority of any person, but on account of the Word given by Christ. [Nor does the person of a teacher add anything to this word and office; it matters not who is preaching and teaching it; if there are hearts who receive and cling to it, to them it is done as they hear and believe.] And in this way, not as referring to the person of Peter, most of the holy Fathers, as Origen, Cyprian, Augustine, Hilary, and Bede, interpret this passage: Upon this rock. Chrysostom says thus: "Upon this rock," not upon Peter. For He built His Church not upon man, but upon the faith of Peter. But what was his faith? "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Hilary says: To Peter the Father revealed that he should say, "Thou art the Son of the living God." Therefore the building of the Church is upon this rock of confession; this faith is the foundation of the Church."
          Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 22-29.

The influential 20th C. Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar likewise acknowledged the lack of support among the church fathers for the later Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage, upon which is based the doctrine of papal primacy, writing, 'It does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16–19. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out an exegesis , more anthropological and spiritual than juridical.' (Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, New York, Macmillan, 1966, p. 398).

"at the level of their own ecclesiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than juridical"...one can only propose that the absence of the artificial need to make a juridical case for Roman ("Petrine") primacy protected the Fathers from even considering such a tendentious exegesis.    

The lack of historical continuity for this and other doctrines peculiar to Roman Catholicism - papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas - seems to me to be very problematic as far as the truth claims of Roman Catholicism go. Without scriptural warrant and without subsequent early historical evidence for these beliefs, all one really has as a basis is the ecclesiastical positivism of papal definition or some sort of theory of doctrinal development, both of which solutions only multiply the problems. 

For more quotes and occasional commentary on the church fathers, see Lutheran Catholicity.

Update: Intra-Roman squabbles over the keys


Stephen K said...

Dear Pastor Mark, the claim that Matt. 16 proves the correctness of Roman Catholicism (or any other form of Uniate/capital ‘C’ Catholicism) is no more or less persuasive or flawed than a claim that the canonised New Testament grounds the certainty that Protestant Christianity asserts.

After a couple of centuries of rationalistic exegesis (mostly Protestant), and a fundamental shift in Western epistemology since the 17-18th century, it should be clear by now that traditional concepts of revelation - whether RC or non RC - have either been largely rejected or are no longer understood. Arianism is resurgent because to the modern world the complicated hypostatic theology of Nicaea is too strained and reeks of arrogance. Faith is no longer seen as a result of grace and an assent to a dogma but a process by which a person informs their actions and a phenomenon of commitment: it is modal, not objective.

There is a fundamental divide now that did not obtain at the time of either Nicaea or the Reformation: namely between those who think - or want to think - that God is a Zeus-like character who impregnated Mary, Leda-like, to incarnate himself and who told us everything we need to know, on the one hand, and those who either do not think about it at all or who think - or want to think - that God is something much less interventionist.

Seen in this light, your anti-Roman Catholic analyses paradoxically show how close you are to RC traditionalists. The gap between you all is much much less than the gap between either of you and, say, me and much of the modern Western world. (That said, I do appreciate that the behaviour of many (including myself) continue to reflect traditional ideas about God and a commitment to or assumption of the idea of an attainable objective truth.)

The first thing to determine is what one thinks of scripture: just because Matt. 13 says x or y, does that mean that it is true? Personally, I think your interpretation of the “rock” passage make more sense, religiously and theologically, than the strained propagandistic interpretation that asserts it proves the Papacy and the RC version of Christianity. But I say this, not because I think scripture is proving anything, but because it “makes sense”. I may not think “tradition” proves anything either, but I still think that scripture must be understood in terms of the whole tradition of thought and faith, and not as a kind of stand-alone source. In that sense, I think the usual RC attitude to scripture is much more comprehendable and sustainable than the stereotypical Protestant attitude.

Just some thoughts. Pastor Mark, I respect the assiduousness with which you set out theological discussion of Christian ideas. It is a trait I think you share with David Schutz. There must be something in Lutheran formation that supports theological rigor and coherence (if not necessarily cogency).

I am powerfully influenced by the Dalai Lama who once said that he did not think people should religion-hop but work out their life and understanding within the tradition into which they found themselves. I thought this was very important and profound, so much so that I have never ceased trying to deal with it. And it occurs to me, that there is a sense in which traditionalists (of every stripe) should be very grateful for the non-traditionalists against whom they so often rail, because theocracies always insist on one version, and the rest get burnt. [Note: a liberal or modernist who would burn a traditionalist is not a true liberal or modernist]

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks for your comment Stephen, although of course I disagree with your epistemological scepticism!