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Earliest Interpretations of Peter as the “Rock” in Mt 16:18

Posted by Tony Listi on March 22, 2014

Protestants offer a slew of rationalizations for why Peter is not the “rock” upon which Jesus built His Church in Matthew 16:18.

But how did the earliest Christians and Christian leaders (East and West) interpret this verse of Scripture? They interpreted it the way Catholics do. Peter is the Rock.

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225)
“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’….” (On the Prescription Against the Heretics, 22; ANF, Vol. III, 253)

“If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock will I build My Church,’ ‘to you have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;’ or, ‘Whatsoever you shall 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 you,’ He says, ‘will I build My Church;’ and, ‘I will give to you the keys,’ not to the Church; and, ‘Whatsoever you shall have loosed or bound,’ not what they shall have loosed or bound. For so withal the result teaches. 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; and Ananias he ‘bound’ with the bond of death, and the weak in his feet he ‘absolved’ from his defect of health. Moreover, in that dispute about the observance or non-observance of the Law, Peter was the first of all to be endued with the Spirit, and, after making preface touching the calling of the nations, to say, ‘And now why are you tempting the Lord, concerning the imposition upon the brethren of a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to support? But however, through the grace of Jesus we believe that we shall be saved in the same way as they.’ This sentence both ‘loosed’ those parts of the law which were abandoned, and ‘bound’ those which were reserved. Hence the power of loosing and of binding committed to Peter….” (On Modesty, 21; ANF, Vol. IV)

Hippolytus (d.c. 236)
By this Spirit, Peter spoke that blessed word, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ By this Spirit, the rock of the Church was established.” (Discourse on the Holy Theophany, 9, ANF, Vol. V, 237)

Origen (c. 185-c. 254)
“And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.” (Commentary on John, 5:3; ANF, Vol. X, 347; cf. Jurgens, I, 202)
“Look at [Peter] the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church. And what does our Lord say to him? ‘O you of little faith,’ he says, ‘why do you doubt?’ [Mt 14:31]” (Homilies on Exodus, 5, 4; Jurgens, I, 205)

Cyprian (210-258)
“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: Whose soever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever 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.” (The Unity of the Church [Treatise IV]; ANF, Vol. V)

“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.’ Upon one He builds His Church, and to the same He says after His resurrection, ‘feed My sheep’. And though to all His Apostles He gave an equal power yet did He set up one chair, and disposed the origin and manner of unity by his authority. The other Apostles were indeed what Peter was, but the primacy is given to Peter, and the Church and the chair is shown to be one. And all are pastors, but the flock is shown to be one, which is fed by all the Apostles with one mind and heart. He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he think that he holds the faith? He who deserts the chair of Peter, upon whom the Church is founded, is he confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Church [Treatise IV]; ANF, Vol. V) (Click here for discussion of two different versions of Treatise IV.)

“Nevertheless, Peter, upon whom by the same Lord the Church had been built, speaking one for all, and answering with the voice of the Church, says, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we believe, and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God:’ signifying, doubtless, and showing that those who departed from Christ perished by their own fault, yet that the Church which believes on Christ, and holds that which it has once learned, never departs from Him at all, and that those are the Church who remain in the house of God…. After such things as these, moreover, they still dare—a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics—to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access.” (Epistle LIV [LIX], To Cornelius, Concerning Fortunatus and Felicissimus, 7, 14; ANF, Vol. V)

“They who have not peace themselves now offer peace to others. They who have withdrawn from the Church promise to lead back and to recall the lapsed to the Church. There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering.” (Letter 43 [40], To All His People, 5; Jurgens, I, 229)

“There speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest and the flock clinging to their shepherd are the Church. You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop, and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priests of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split nor divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere one to another.” (Letter 66 [69], 8; To Florentius Pupianus; Jurgens, I, 233-234)

Firmilian of Caesarea (c. 255)
“But what is the greatness of his error, and what the depth of his blindness, who says…and does not abide on the foundation of the one Church which was once based by Christ upon the rock, may be perceived from this, that Christ said to Peter alone, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’… Stephen…boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid…. Stephen, who announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter….” (quoted in St. Cyprian’s letters 74:16-17)

Eusebius of Caesaria [Church historian] (c. 265-c. 340)
“And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail’….” (Ecclesiastical History, 6, 25; NPNF 2, Vol. I, 273)

Aphraates (c. 280-c. 345)
“[T]he chief of the disciples…the Lord accepted him, set him up as the foundation, called him the rock and structure of the church.” (De Paenitentibus, Homily 7:15; Winter, 58)

Letter of Clement to James (c. 290)
“Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon, who for the sake of the truth faith, and the sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was, by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter.” (2)

Clementine Homilies (c. 290)
“[Simon Peter to Simon Magus:] For in direct opposition to me, who am a firm rock, the foundation of the Church, you now stand.” (17:19)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-368)
“[B]lessed Simon, who after his confession of the mystery, was set to be the foundation-stone of the Church, and received the keys of the kingdom….” (On the Trinity, 6, 20; NPNF 2, Vol. IX, 105)

Ephraem (c. 306-373)
Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples…. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures!” (Homilies, 4, 1; Jurgens, I, 311)

Basil the Great (c. 330-379)
Peter upon which rock the Lord promised that he would build his church.” (In Isaias, 2, 66; Winter, 55)

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 330-c. 390)
“Seest thou that of the disciples of Christ, all of whom were exalted and deserving of choice, one is called rock, and is entrusted with the foundations of the church.” (Oration 32, 18; Winter, 56)

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c. 394)
“Peter, who is the head of the apostles…he is the firm and most solid rock, on which the savior built his Church. (Panegyric on St. Stephen, 3; Winter, 56)

Epiphanius (c. 315-403)
“[T]he first of the apostles, the solid rock on which the Church was built. (In Ancorato, 9, 6; Winter, 57)

John Chrysostom (c. 345-407)
“[H]e [Peter] became a foundation of the Church.” (Homily 3 on Matthew; NPNF 1, Vol. X, 19)
“[T]o exhibit a man that is a fisher more solid than any rock, while all the world is at war with him….” (Homily 54 on Matthew; NPNF 1, Vol. X, 334)
Peter, the coryphaeus of the choir of apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the foundation of the faith, the base of the confession, the fisherman of the world, who brought back our race from the depth of error to heaven….” (Hom. de decem mille talentis; Chapman, 74)
“Peter, that the head of the Apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, who received the revelation not from man but from the Father…this Peter, and when I say Peter, I mean the unbroken rock, the unshaken foundation, the great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called, the first to obey.” (Almsgiving 3:4; Chapman, 74)

Optatus of Milevis (c.367)
“You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the city of Rome was bestowed the episcopal cathedra, on which sat Peter, the head of all the apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one cathedra, unity should be preserved by all.” (Schism of the Donatists 2:2)

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