The Primacy of Peter

Paul E. Kretzmann

The claim of Rome

The doctrine of the primacy of Peter and of the supremacy of the popes, which is derived therefrom, is insisted upon by the Catholic theologians with the greatest vehemence. “From the very fact of the existence of a supreme head in the Jewish Church; from the fact that a head is always necessary for civil governments, for families, and corporations; from the fact, especially, that a visible head is essential to the maintenance of unity in the Church, while the absence of a head necessarily leads to anarchy, we are forced to conclude, even though positive evidence were wanting, that, in the establishment of His Church, it must have entered into the mind of the divine Lawgiver to place over it a primate invested with superior judicial powers. But have we any positive proof that Christ did appoint a supreme ruler over His Church? To those, indeed, who read the Scriptures with the single eye of pure intention, the most abundant evidence of this fact is furnished. To my mind, the New Testament establishes no doctrine, unless it satisfies every candid reader that our Lord gave plenipotentiary powers to Peter to govern the whole Church.” [Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, 121. 122]. The promise of the primacy, according to Catholic theologians, is found in Matthew 16:16-19, and its fulfilment John 21:15-17, the word “sheep” there being applied to the pastors, and “lambs” to the lay people.

An unhistorical claim

It would lead us too far afield, were we to follow up all the logical and historical inaccuracies contained in the one paragraph quoted above [A detailed account in Syn.-Ber., Gal.-u. Nev.-Dist., 1913, 31-62]. We may say, however, in passing: Strange that this “single eye of pure intention” was lacking in the Church of the first centuries, that it took fully ten centuries for the Roman bishop to establish his supremacy, and that at no time the entire Church recognized him as the viceregent of Christ with plenipotentiary powers.

Christ is our rock and our salvation

One thing is established beyond the shadow of a doubt, namely, that the Pope cannot base his primacy upon the text Matthew 16:18. To refer the word “rock” to the person of Peter would mean indeed to call “our Lord’s good grammar and common sense” into question. If He had intended to make Peter His viceroy here on earth, He would have said: Upon thee, or: Upon Peter. But He advisedly uses a word for rock which is employed throughout the entire New Testament to refer to Christ and His Word as the foundation of the Church. For the confession of Christ is His name, a part of His divine essence. “It cannot mean anything else than that Peter, being established himself upon the foundation that has been laid, was now qualified by his testimony to bear up the faith of future members of the Church, was now, and whenever he would repeat his witness for Christ in the future, a part of the foundation of the apostles, Ephesians 2:20, on which the entire Church rests, with Jesus Christ Himself the chief corner-stone.” [Theological Quarterly, 13, 110; pp. 104 to 114].

An old confession

It is interesting to know, in this connection, that the passage in question was not always understood by the leaders of the Roman Church as referring to a supposed primacy of Peter. Without taking into account the many witnesses of the subapostolic age, we refer only to one manuscript. It is a Latin manuscript from Spain, dating back to the Presbyter Beatus, who lived in the eighth century. The text reads: “I say unto thee, Upon this rock shall be built by the Holy Spirit His disciples,” and the comment written in the text: “Christians are called after Christ; therefore the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock shall be built by the Holy Spirit His disciples,’ ” and, “This is the first church that was founded at the first by the Spirit upon the Rock, Christ.” And in a remarkable discourse on “Peter the Rock” found at Mount Sinai a few decades ago, there is a most elaborate argument that the Church was founded, not upon Peter, but upon Christ the Rock [Cobern, The New Archeological Discoveries, 197. 279].

A living, eternal foundation

To insist upon Matthew 16:18, and omit all reference to Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22-23, not to mention the many passages in which Christ is called the one and only rock-foundation of His Church, is to employ exegetical subtlety. Luther’s words concerning our text will bear repetition: “As though He would say: Truly, thou hast hit upon it, for everything depends upon that; that is My Church which has this revelation that I am Christ, the Son of the living God. On this rock will I build My Church … For I am the absolutely reliable and unconquerable Foundation of the Church, that is, of those who, like thee, believe and confess. For through Me they will overcome, in Me they will have peace, and be able to do all things. … But what need is there of many words? The Church must necessarily be based and built upon a living, eternal foundation, and upon such a rock as will continue with her unto the end of the world, and thus be a conqueror of hell. But Peter the apostle, aside from the fact that he was a sinful man, has died, just as did all the other saints, and he himself was built upon this Rock of the Church. Therefore this passage has nothing to do with the papal tyranny.” [Luther, 7, 285-287. Cp. 290. 291. 11, 2296-2305; 13, 1166-1181; 17, 1068-1090].

The Office of the Keys is given to the Church

“They cite against us certain passages, viz., Matthew 16:18-19: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church’; also: ‘I will give unto thee the keys’; also John 21:15: ‘Feed My sheep,’ and some others. But since this entire controversy has been fully and accurately treated of elsewhere in the books of our theologians, and all things cannot be reviewed in this place, we refer to those writings, and wish them to be regarded as repeated. Yet we will briefly reply concerning the interpretation of the passages quoted. In all these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of 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 in the singular number: ‘I will give unto thee the keys; and whatsoever thou shalt bind,’ etc., is elsewhere expressed in the plural, Matthew 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. In addition to this, it is necessary to confess that the keys pertain not to the person of a particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys, Matthew 18:19, adds: ‘If two of you shall agree on earth,’ etc. Therefore He grants the keys to the Church principally and immediately; just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. … Therefore it is necessary in these passages that Peter be the representative of the entire assembly of the apostles, and for this reason they do not ascribe any prerogative, or superiority, or lordship to Peter. 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,’ that is, upon this ministry. … Furthermore, the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to persons and places, 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. … Therefore the building of the Church is upon this rock of confession; this faith is the foundation of the Church.” [Smalcald Articles, quoted in Theological Quarterly, 13, 113. 114. Boehringer, Die Kirche Jesu Christi und ihre Zeugen, I: 4, 276-286].