Peter's Primacy In Scripture
by Fr. William Most
16:13-20: Promise of the primacy to Peter: Jesus did not ask what people
were saying out of ignorance - even without the vision in His soul He would likely have
known. But He was leading up to the important question of who they said He was. Peter
speaks for the whole group, and says Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Jesus says Peter knew this by revelation from His Father.
How much did Peter really know? It is evident He knew Jesus was the Messiah. But did
Peter have the right notion of the Messiah? His attempt to dissuade Jesus from suffering
seems to indicate Peter had the false idea, that of a military conqueror. What did Peter
mean by the "Son of the Living God."? This could mean divinity, and many have
thought so. Yet it would not have to be such, even though Peter had a revelation. That
revelation might have given him some idea of the identity of Jesus without being a full
and clear picture. The fact that Peter denied Jesus later would fit with this, although if
Peter had learned by way of an interior locution Peter might have had a clear message at
the start, which later, by the time of the death of Jesus, had faded, and so Peter could
deny Him. In an interior locution, it is as if God touches the brain of the person and can
convey even a large amount of information at one touch. That seems to have been the case
with St. Paul on the Damascus road vision, for the words spoken by the vision then were
few, and did not cover all of basic Christianity - yet later (Gal 1:12) Paul said He did
learn Christianity from that vision. About the possibility of fading certitude - St.
Teresa of Avila in her Life 25 wrote (I. p. 741, Obras Completas,
B. A. C. Madrid, 1951): When God speaks in this way, "the soul has no remedy, even
thought it displeases me, I have to listen and to pay such full attention to understand
that which God wishes us to understand that it makes no difference if we want it or not.
For He who can do everything wills that we understand, and we have to do what He
wills." But in Interior Castle 6. 3. 7 (ibid, II, p 426): "these
words do not pass from the memory after a very long time" but "When time has
passed since heard, and the workings and the certainty it [the soul] had that it was God
has passed, doubt can come." And so Peter might have known the divinity of Jesus at
this occasion, but later the certitude had vanished.
Some Protestants even today try to claim verses 17-19 -- with the promise of primacy -
were just a late interpolation, and not part of the original text. There is simply no
manuscript evidence at all to support this notion. Rather, it shows how clearly these
Protestants perceive the real meaning of the words, so that they feel driven to such an
extreme as to propose, without any foundation, a claim of interpolation.
Special attention in such a charge is given to the word Church. Now the
Greek ecclesia is rare in the Gospels, though common in St. Paul. If we
omitted this word, we would have a Messiah without a messianic community - a thing
unthinkable to current Jewish ideas.
The Anchor Bible commentary on Matthew by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann,
two good Protestants, rejects the interpolation charge flatly, and admits a Catholic
interpretation of the words about the rock: . . "one must dismiss as confessional
interpretation [based on denominational views] an attempt to see this rock as meaning the
faith, or the Messianic confession of Peter." The evangelical Expositor's Bible
Commentary agrees with Albright and Mann, but then tries to claim ( pp. 373-74) that
Peter was not given special authority - all Christians had the same. And it asserts that
"binding and loosing" meant merely preaching the Lutheran error on justification
by faith - that would forgive sins. (similar comments by many Protestants on the grant of
power to forgive in John 20).
Their claims are very false. First of all, one should try to see what the text means,
not read things into it. They are reading into Matthew the error of Luther. - This is
eisegesis! - Luther thought justification by faith meant just confidence that
the merits of Christ apply to me - then one could sin as freely as he wanted, and no harm.
Luther even said in Epistle 501 to Melanchthon: "Even if you sin greatly, believe
still more greatly." And in another letter to Melanchton, August 1, 1521
(Works 48. 181-82) he said that even if one commits fornication and murder
1000 times a day, it will not separate him from Christ. Justification itself according to
Luther made no change in a person: he remained totally corrupt, with the merits of Christ,
like a cloak, thrown over him. But 2 Peter 1:4 says we are made sharers in the divine
nature, for we are sons of God (1 Jn. 3:2)and so partake of the nature of the Father. And
1 Cor 3:16 and 6:19 says we are temples of the Holy Spirit - who would not dwell in total
corruption. 1 Cor 13:12 He has already given us the first payment, the Spirit, in our
hearts (1 Cor 1:22). When the veil of flesh is removed we will see Him face to face: 1 Cor
13:12 says in heaven we see God face to face. God has no face, the soul no eyes, but it
means we will know Him directly. When I see you, I do not take you into my head, I take in
an image of you. But no image could show God as He is. So there must be no image - so God
joins Himself directly to the soul without even an image in between. He would not do that
with a totally corrupt soul. As Malachi 3:2 says: "Who can stand when He appears? For
He is like a refiner's fire."
Besides, the words "bind and loose" have no reference to such a distortion.
They were current in the days of Christ, and by them the rabbis meant to give an
authoritative decision on what was right or wrong. And only the authorities could give
such a decision - not just every Christian as the Protestants would have it.
Protestants like to add an appeal to Mt 18:18 to say the power is given to all
Christians. But in context, it speaks of a decision of the church, the
ecclesia, not of each individual. But if we put it into the framework of a
trajectory, the picture is clear. We begin with Luke 10:16, "He who hears you hears
me." It is true, this was not spoken only to the Twelve. But as we said, the
trajectory clarifies the picture. Mt 18:18 on which we have spoken cannot refer to all
Christians precisely because there is a question of authority to declare what is right and
wrong -- in Jewish thought, that belonged only to the Rabbis, not to all. At the Last
Supper, according to John 13:20, Jesus said: "Amen, amen, I say to you, he who
receives the one I send, receives me; he who receives me, receives the One who sent
me." The thought is like that of Luke 10:16, but at the Last Supper there were only
the Apostles present. Then Mt 28:16-29 in which He says all power is given Him in heaven
and on earth, is explicitly spoken to the Eleven, who are sent to teach or to make
disciples. We could add that the early Church definitely understood the grant of authority
to just the Apostles. In Acts 1:15-26 a replacement is chosen for one of the Twelve, for
Judas. Acts 2:42 reported that the people "devoted themselves to the teaching of the
Apostles", and in Acts 5:13: "No one of the rest dared to join himself to them
[the Apostles] but the people magnified them."
The Protestants not only misunderstand things, but claim that Matthew is entirely clear
- all Scripture is entirely clear, according to them. In that they contradict Scripture,
for 2 Peter 3:15-16 tells us that in St. Paul's Epistles, "there are many things hard
to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist as they do the other Scriptures, to
their own destruction." Protestant twisting of this passage surely fits what Peter's
And of course from the start the Church has understood the Scripture far differently
from the Protestant distortion, as we just saw in the verses from Acts. Then Pope Clement
I, writing to Corinth c 95 AD. claimed authority over Corinth. St. Irenaeus, who had heard
St. Polycarp tell what he heard from the Apostle John, said that "the faithful who
are everywhere must agree with this church [Rome] because of its more important
principality." Very different from saying every Christian forgives sin by preaching a
false doctrine of "justification" - that leaves one totally corrupt - by faith.
In the early heresies it was the Pope's decision that counted, e. g., at Ephesus in 431
AD. the Bishops heard the decision of Pope Celestine, and replied "He [Peter] lives
even to this time, and always in his successors gives judgment."
Some have tried to suppose verses 17-19 are retrojection, something spoken after
Easter, retrojected to this spot. We distinguish. If they mean the whole passage was
retrojected, that would be impossible - for after the resurrection Jesus would not ask who
people say He is, nor would Peter merely say He was Messiah -- an understatement by then.
If we were to suppose just verses 17-19 were retrojected, that would not be impossible,
but there is no evidence. What of the fact that Mark does not have these words? We may
conjecture: Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter, as even Martin Hengel of Tübingen
admits (Studies in the Gospel of Mark, tr. J. Bowden, Philadelphia, 1985, p.
29). As a matter of modesty, Peter might not have preached at Rome about his own
The word rock is merely a play on words. In Aramaic there is no difference
between the word for rock and Kepha, Peter.
The gates of hell could mean the gates of death, but more naturally mean the powers of
hell. They will not prevail. So if the Church founded by Christ had taught the wrong way
to salvation for most of 1500 years, until Luther, the promises of Christ would be
practically worthless. Nor could one dodge and say a few held on to the true meaning. No
evidence at all for that. And even so, the Church as such, as identifiable, would have
been in gross error until a grossly immoral Luther was sent by God to correct it!
"Keys" of course signified power to rule, as is obvious.