Some patristic interpretations of Matt. 16:13–20

Steven Nemes
20 min readApr 23, 2021
Photo by James Newcombe on Unsplash

One of the most important texts in the debates between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox about the papacy is found in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13–19)

Roman Catholic apologists will argue, on the basis of this text and others as well, that Simon himself, in his person, was here declared by Jesus to be the Rock on which the Church is to be built. In other words, this one apostle was given a certain function and role, distinct in certain ways from the function and role of the other apostles and of all other Christians, in such a way as to be the principle of unity of Christ’s Church. In the understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, moreover, this power which belongs to Peter is independent of his moral qualities, whether he lives a life of righteousness or sin, and so on. Furthermore, this power of “binding and loosing” includes the authority to make infallible judgments about matters of doctrine, which, when uttered in the right conditions, are per se binding on all Christians who would be in unity with him.

In what follows, I wish to include some passages taken from the writings of various Fathers of the Church in which they interpret, in some way or another, this passage. I am going to focus on Church Fathers who notably do not read it in exactly the way proposed by these Catholic apologists.

Origen

« And perhaps that which Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” if we say it as Peter, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto us, but by the light from the Father in heaven shining in our heart, we too become as Peter, being pronounced blessed as he was, because that the grounds on which he was pronounced blessed apply also to us, by reason of the fact that flesh and blood have not revealed to us with regard to Jesus that He is Christ, the Son of the living God, but the Father in heaven, from the very heavens, that our citizenship may be in heaven, revealing to us the revelation which carries up to heaven those who take away every veil from the heart, and receive “the spirit of the wisdom and revelation” of God. And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “Thou art Peter,” etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, and the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God. » (Commentary on Matthew XII.11)

« But when those who maintain the function of the episcopate make use of this word as Peter, and, having received the keys of the kingdom of heaven from the Saviour, teach that things bound by them, that is to say, condemned, are also bound in heaven, and that those which have obtained remission by them are also loosed in heaven, we must say that they speak wholesomely if they have the way of life on account of which it was said to that Peter, ‘Thou art Peter;’ and if they are such that upon them the church is built by Christ, and to them with good reason this could be referred; and the gates of Hades ought not to prevail against him when he wishes to bind and loose. But if he is tightly bound with the cords of his sins, to no purpose does he bind and loose. » (Commentary on Matthew XII.14)

In these passages from Origen, it seems that Peter is called a “rock” on which the Church is built, not because he is given some special office, but because he makes a righteous confession of faith which serves for the edification of the Church. Thus, anyone who does the same is also a “rock.” On the other hand, the power to bind and loose is contingent on the holiness of the life of the person claiming to exercise this authority.

Cyprian

« If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. 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. And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. » (Treatise I on the Unity of the Church, 4)

Cyprian here suggests that all the apostles share in the honor and authority of Peter, who was awarded the keys and the authority to bind and loose first, as one person, in order symbolically to emphasize the unity of the apostolate. In the same way, the episcopate is one, so that all the bishops of the Church share in one and the same authority.

Augustine

« [Christ] has given, therefore, the keys to His Church, that whatsoever it should bind on earth might be bound in heaven, and whatsoever it should loose on earth might be loosed in heaven; that is to say, that whosoever in the Church should not believe that his sins are remitted, they should not be remitted to him; but that whosoever should believe and should repent, and turn from his sins, should be saved by the same faith and repentance on the ground of which he is received into the bosom of the Church. For he who does not believe that his sins can be pardoned, falls into despair, and becomes worse as if no greater good remained for him than to be evil, when he has ceased to have faith in the results of his own repentance. » (On Christian Doctrine I.17)

« But what follows? “For the poor ye have always with you, but me ye will not have always.” We can certainly understand, “the poor ye have always;” what He has thus said is true. When were the poor wanting in the Church? “But me ye will not have always;” what does He mean by this? How are we to understand, “Me ye will not have always”? Don’t be alarmed: it was addressed to Judas. Why, then, did He not say, thou wilt have, but, ye will have? Because Judas is not here a unit. One wicked man represents the whole body of the wicked; in the same way as Peter, the whole body of the good, yea, the body of the Church, but in respect to the good. For if in Peter’s case there were no sacramental symbol of the Church, the Lord would not have said to him, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” If this was said only to Peter, it gives no ground of action to the Church. But if such is the case also in the Church, that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven, — for when the Church excommunicates, the excommunicated person is bound in heaven; when one is reconciled by the Church, the person so reconciled is loosed in heaven: — if such, then, is the case in the Church, Peter, in receiving the keys, represented the holy Church. If, then, in the person of Peter were represented the good in the Church, and in Judas’ person were represented the bad in the Church, then to these latter was it said, “But me ye will not have always.” » (Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John, Tractate L Chapter XI.55–57, 12)

« So does the Church act in blessed hope through this troublous life; and this Church symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, “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,” he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by divers temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falleth not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, “On this rock will I build my Church,” because Peter had said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church. This Church, accordingly, which Peter represented, so long as it lives amidst evil, by loving and following Christ is delivered from evil…

« For the whole body of the saints, therefore, inseparably belonging to the body of Christ, and for their safe pilotage through the present tempestuous life, did Peter, the first of the apostles, receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven for the binding and loosing of sins; and for the same congregation of saints, in reference to the perfect repose in the bosom of that mysterious life to come did the evangelist John recline on the breast of Christ. For it is not the former alone but the whole Church, that bindeth and looseth sins; nor did the latter alone drink at the fountain of the Lord’s breast, to emit again in preaching, of the Word in the beginning, God with God, and those other sublime truths regarding the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity and Unity of the whole Godhead, which are to be yet beheld in that kingdom face to face, but meanwhile till the Lord’s coming are only to be seen in a mirror and in a riddle; but the Lord has Himself diffused this very gospel through the whole world, that every one of His own may drink thereat according to his own individual capacity. » (Tractate CXXIV Chapter XXI.19–25, 5, 7)

« When the Lord asked them who He was, and whom did men say that He was, the disciples made answer to Him, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And this he heard from the Lord: “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” See what praises follow this faith. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” What meaneth, “Upon this rock I will build my Church”? Upon this faith; upon this that has been said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Upon this rock,” saith He, “I will build my Church.”…

« Where remission of sins, there the Church is. How the Church? Why, to her it was said, “To thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” Where is this remission of sins spread abroad? “Through all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Lo, believe Christ! » (Homily X 1 John V.1–3, 1, 10)

« For that Church is founded on a rock, as the Lord says, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” But they build on the sand, as the same Lord says, “Every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.” But that you may not suppose that the Church which is upon a rock is in one part only of the earth, and does not extend even to its furthest boundaries, hear her voice groaning from the psalm, amid the evils of her pilgrimage. For she says, “From the end of the earth have I cried unto Thee; when my heart was distressed Thou didst lift me up upon the rock; Thou hast led me, Thou, my hope, hast become a tower of courage from the face of the enemy.” See how she cries from the end of the earth. She is not therefore in Africa alone, nor only among the Africans, who send a bishop from Africa to Rome to a few Montenses, and into Spain to the house of one lady. See how she is exalted on a rock. All, therefore, are not to be deemed to be in her which build upon the sand, that is, which hear the words of Christ and do them not, even though both among us and among you they have and transmit the sacrament of baptism. See how her hope is in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, — not in Peter or in Paul, still less in Donatus or Petilianus. » (Answer to the Letters of Petillian, the Donatist II.109)

« For as some things are said which seem peculiarly to apply to the Apostle Peter, and yet are not clear in their meaning, unless when referred to the Church, whom he is acknowledged to have figuratively represented, on account of the primacy which he bore among the Disciples; as it is written, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and other passages of the like purport… » (Exposition on Psalm CIX, 1)

« The Gospel which has just been read touching the Lord Christ, who walked on the waters of the sea; and the Apostle Peter, who as he was walking, tottered through fear, and sinking in distrust, rose again by confession, gives us to understand that the sea is the present world, and the Apostle Peter the type of the One Church. For Peter in the order of Apostles first, and in the love of Christ most forward, answers oftentimes alone for all the rest. Again, when the Lord Jesus Christ asked, whom men said that He was, and when the disciples gave the various opinions of men, and the Lord asked again and said, “But whom say ye that I am?” Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” One for many gave the answer, Unity in many. Then said the Lord to Him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.” Then He added, “and I say unto thee.” As if He had said, “Because thou hast said unto Me, Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God;’ I also say unto thee, Thou art Peter.’” For before he was called Simon. Now this name of Peter was given him by the Lord, and that in a figure, that he should signify the Church. For seeing that Christ is the rock (Petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (Petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. “Therefore,” he saith, “Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock” which thou hast confessed, upon this Rock which thou hast acknowledged, saying, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;” that is upon Myself, the Son of the living God, “will I build My Church.” I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon thee.

« For men who wished to be built upon men, said, “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas,” who is Peter. But others who did not wish to be built upon Peter, but upon the Rock, said, “But I am of Christ.” And when the Apostle Paul ascertained that he was chosen, and Christ despised, he said, “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” And, as not in the name of Paul, so neither in the name of Peter; but in the name of Christ: that Peter might be built upon the Rock, not the Rock upon Peter. » (Sermon XXVI on Matt. xiv.25, 1-2)

« But whilst we are absent from the Lord, and walk by faith, not by sight, we ought to see the “back parts” of Christ, that is His flesh, by that very faith, that is, standing on the solid foundation of faith, which the rock signifies, and beholding it from such a safe watch-tower, namely in the Catholic Church, of which it is said, “And upon this rock I will build my Church.” » (On the Trinity II.17.28)

Augustine therefore maintains that the authority of the keys and of the binding and loosing have to do with binding and loosing of sins. Moreover, he asserts that Peter received this authority symbolically on behalf of the entire Church, and not in such a way that it would belong only to him. Finally, Augustine maintains that the “rock” refers either to the faith which Peter confessed in Christ’s divine sonship, or else to Christ Himself, and not to Peter. “Peter” (Petros) is to the “rock” (petra) as “Christian” is to “Christ.”

John Chrysostom

« How then doth He say elsewhere, “Reprove, rebuke, exhort,” and, “Them that sin rebuke before all?” And Christ too to Peter, “Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone,” and if he neglect to hear, add to thyself another also; and if not even so doth he yield, declare it to the church likewise?” And how hath He set over us so many to reprove; and not only to reprove, but also to punish? For him that hearkens to none of these, He hath commanded to be “as a heathen man and a publican.” And how gave He them the keys also? since if they are not to judge, they will be without authority in any matter, and in vain have they received the power to bind and to loose. » (Homilies on Matthew XXIII, 1)

« What then saith Christ? “Thou art Simon, the son of Jonas; thou shalt be called Cephas.” “Thus since thou hast proclaimed my Father, I too name him that begat thee;” all but saying, “As thou art son of Jonas, even so am I of my Father.” Else it were superfluous to say, “Thou art Son of Jonas;” but since he had said, “Son of God,” to point out that He is so Son of God, as the other son of Jonas, of the same substance with Him that begat Him, therefore He added this, “And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;” that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were now on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd. “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” “And if not against it, much more not against me. So be not troubled because thou art shortly to hear that I shall be betrayed and crucified.” » (Homilies on Matthew LII, 3)

« For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence, this man comes forward to us now… » (Homily I on the Gospel of John, 2)

« How again can the rites which we celebrate be other than heavenly? For when He says, “Whose soever sins ye retain they are retained, whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted” (John xx. 23) when they have the keys of heaven, how can all be other than heavenly? » (Homily XIV on Hebrews iii.1–2, 3)

Chrysostom thus appears to maintain that the keys and the right of binding and loosing belong not only to Peter (and possibly to his successors in Rome), but also to John the Apostle and to all the clergy who are charged with the care of God’s flock. The “rock” on which the Church was built is not so much Peter himself, but rather the faith expressed in his confession. Indeed, perhaps because of his faithfulness to the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Chrysostom also says that John is “the pillar of the Churches throughout the world.”

Gregory of Nazianzus

« He [viz., Basil of Caesarea] emulated the zeal of Peter, the intensity of Paul, the faith of both these men of name and of surname, the lofty utterance of the sons of Zebedee, the frugality and simplicity of all the disciples. Therefore he was also entrusted with the keys of the heavens, and not only from Jerusalem and round about unto Illyricum, but he embraces a wider circle in the Gospel; he is not named, but becomes, a Son of thunder; and lying upon the breast of Jesus, he draws thence the power of his word, and the depth of his thoughts. He was prevented from becoming a Stephen, eager though he was, since reverence stayed the hands of those who would have stoned him. I am able to sum up still more concisely, to avoid treating in detail on these points of each individual. In some respects he discovered, in some he emulated, in others he surpassed the good. In his many-sided virtues he excelled all men of this day. I have but one thing left to say, and in few words. » (Oration XLIII for Basil of Caesarea, 76)

Here Gregory suggests that Basil, who was a bishop, though not of Rome, also received the keys of the heavens in virtue of his imitation of “the zeal of Peter.” In general, the implication is that the apostles received the authority they did because of various qualities which qualified them for it, and this also was the basis of Basil’s sharing in that authority.

Hilary of Poitiers

« This faith [in the divinity of Christ] it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. » (On the Trinity VI.37)

Hilary here interprets the faith professed by Peter in the divine Sonship of Christ as the foundation of the Church, in accordance with the interpretation of John Chrysostom given above.

Theodoret of Cyrus

« Let no one then foolishly suppose that the Christ is any other than the only begotten Son. Let us not imagine ourselves wiser than the gift of the Spirit. Let us hear the words of the great Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Let us hear the Lord Christ confirming this confession, for “On this rock,” He says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Wherefore too the wise Paul, most excellent master builder of the churches, fixed no other foundation than this. “I,” he says, “as a wise master builder have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” How then can they think of any other foundation, when they are bidden not to fix a foundation, but to build on that which is laid? The divine writer recognises Christ as the foundation, and glories in this title, as when he says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me.” And again “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and again “For I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” And a little before he says, “But we preach Christ crucified to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And in his Epistle to the Galatians he writes, “But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace to reveal His Son in me that I might preach Him among the heathen.” But when writing to the Corinthians he does not say we preach “the Son” but “Christ crucified,” herein doing no violence to his commission, but recognising the same to be Jesus, Christ, Lord, only begotten, and God the Word. »(Letter CXLVI To John the Œconomus)

Here, the interpretation seems to be that the foundation of the Church is (the confession of) the divine sonship of Jesus Christ.

John Cassian

« But what are the other words which follow that saying of the Lord’s, with which He commends Peter? “And I,” said He, “say unto thee, that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church.” Do you see how the saying of Peter is the faith of the Church? He then must of course be outside the Church, who does not hold the faith of the Church. “And to thee,” saith the Lord, “I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This faith deserved heaven: this faith received the keys of the heavenly kingdom. See what awaits you. You cannot enter the gate to which this key belongs, if you have denied the faith of this key. “And the gate,” He adds, “of hell shall not prevail against thee.” The gates of hell are the belief or rather the misbelief of heretics. For widely as hell is separated from heaven, so widely is he who denies from him who confessed that Christ is God. “Whatsoever,” He proceeds, “thou shalt bind on earth, shalt be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shalt be loosed also in heaven.” The perfect faith of the Apostle somehow is given the power of Deity, that what it should bind or loose on earth, might be bound or loosed in heaven. For you then, who come against the Apostle’s faith, as you see that already you are bound on earth, it only remains that you should know that you are bound also in heaven. » (On the Incarnation of the Lord, Against Nestorius, III.XIV)

John Cassian seems to be saying that it is the faith professed by Peter, namely that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the Living God, that is given the keys and the authority to bind and loose. One’s “proper standing” with heaven, thus, is a matter of one’s agreeing or not with this faith.

Summary

These are a few passages from the writings of the Church Fathers in which an interpretation of the passage from Matthew 16 is given. They do not all agree with each other, of course, and there are certainly interpretations to be found in other, later writers which are closer to the official Roman Catholic interpretation. My purpose is only to point to authoritative and respected patristic figures who do not see the same significance in the Matthean text as some Roman Catholic apologists.

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Steven Nemes

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.