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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 16: You are Peter"


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We have carefully and solidly worked our way to the conclusion that it is not only intellectually possible, but even inescapable, to believe the body commissioned by the Divine Messenger, His Church, to whose teaching He promised divine protection, so that he who hears the Church hears Him, and hence, Him who sent Him.

We saw that His promises were spoken not to all followers, but to the Apostles and their successors, for Jesus intended His Church to last to the end of time. We saw that this fact was understood clearly from the beginning (Acts 5:13): "But of the rest no man dared join himself to them; but the people magnified them."

Next, we must explore the concept of the primacy of Peter and his successors. Since we have already established the fact that the teaching of the Church is divinely protected, obviously, the most secure and the easiest proof is simply to ask if the Church has taught that primacy. We can also, though it is not essential, examine the testimony of the Gospels regarding primacy.

1) The teaching of the Church

Even before a Council found occasion to teach the primacy of Rome, we find Christians in practice accepting that primacy. For example, there was acceptance when Pope St. Clement I, writing to Corinth around 95 A.D., intervened in a schism there, in which the lawful authorities had been ousted and supplanted by rebels. This Pope, who seems to have known Sts. Peter and Paul personally-for he says that they "belonged to our own generation"91-began his letter saying, "Because of the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes, we think our attention has been slow in turning to the things debated among you."92 Later in the same letter he adds, "If some are disobedient to the things He [Jesus] has spoken through us, they should know that they are enmeshing themselves in sin, and no small danger."93 No ordinary person, without authority, would want or need to explain his slowness in taking up a case in a distant place, nor would he claim Jesus had spoken through him, so that it would be wrong not to comply.

In the second half of the next century, St. Irenaeus, who as we saw before, had listened to St. Polycarp tell things he had heard from the lips of St. John the Apostle himself, wrote a striking line. In the course of explaining that the way to be sure of getting sound doctrine is to be sure that the local church from which one receives it has unbroken continuity back to the Apostles, he adds, "Since it would be very long, in a volume of this sort, to go through the succession [of Bishops] in all the churches, by showing it in the most ancient one, known to all, founded by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul at Rome, which holds the tradition and faith announced by the Apostles, coming down by the successions of Bishops even to us-in this way we confound all those who in any way, out of self-pleasing, or vain glory, hold illicit assemblies. For it is necessary that every church, that is, the faithful who are everywhere, agree with this church because of its more important principality-this church in which the tradition coming from the Apostles has always been kept by those who are from every place."94

Some features of this text are not clear, and therefore are open to discussion. However, it is clear that the Church of Rome is the principal church and all other churches must agree with it because it has the doctrine of the Apostles Peter and Paul.

At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., although the Nestorian heresy was an Eastern error, St. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, went west to Pope Celestine for a decision before he went to the Council. The Pope then sent delegates to the Council who asserted without contradiction by anyone at the Council, "There is no doubt, it has been known to all centuries, that the holy and blessed Apostle Peter, the prince and head and pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ ... He [Peter] lives even to this time, and always in his successors gives judgment."95

Twenty years later the Council of Chalcedon, which again dealt with an Eastern heresy, accepted the decision of Pope Leo that, in Christ, there is one divine Person and two natures, divine and human. When the Pope's letter had been read, the bishops exclaimed, "This is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. We all believe thus ... Anathema to him who does not so believe. Peter has spoken through Leo."96

In 680 A.D., the Third Council of Constantinople wrote to Pope Agatho, "And so we leave to you, the Bishop of the first See of the whole Church, what is to be done, you who stand on the firm rock of faith, and we gladly acquiesce in your letters of true doctrine ... which we acknowledge as prescribed divinely from the supreme peak of the Apostles ... Peter spoke through Agatho."97

The Council of Lyons, in 1274 A.D., taught in more general terms that, "The holy Roman Church holds the supreme and full primacy over the whole Catholic Church, together with fullness of power, which it truly and humbly recognizes it received from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, prince and summit of the Apostles, whose successor is the Roman Pontiff."98

The Council of Florence, in 1439 A. taught, "We define that the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff holds the primacy in the whole world, and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles and true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and that to him, in blessed Peter, full power of ruling and governing the universal Church was given by our Lord Jesus Christ."99

Finally, Vatican Council I, in 1870, acting under the protection which Jesus Christ Himself promised to the teaching of the successors of the Apostles, taught, "We teach and define that it is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when functioning as the pastor and teacher of all Christians, by his supreme Apostolic authority he defines a doctrine on faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church should be equipped in defining a doctrine of faith or morals, and so, that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. If anyone-which may God forbid-dares to contradict this our definition, let him be anathema."100

Vatican II reaffirmed this teaching, "His definitions of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are rightly called irreformable, for they are pronounced under the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to him in blessed Peter, and so they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment."101

Speaking of his lesser pronouncements, Vatican II said, "... religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining; that is, in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will."102

In regard to his authority of ruling, the same Council said, "The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his function, that is, as Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the whole Church, has full, supreme, and universal power, which he can always exercise freely."103 That is, even though most major decisions have been and are taken in a collegial fashion (by a council or group with the Pope), the Pope can act entirely alone whenever he so wishes, both in teaching, defining, and in ruling.

2) The scriptural data

The teachings of the Council rest on Scripture and on the Church's tradition, which is Her ongoing memory and teaching since the beginning. The Councils clarify, and, under the protection promised by the Divine Messenger, assure us of the correct meaning of the sources of revelation.

At this point, let us begin investigating the record of the Scriptures on Peter. In the Gospels, Peter is everywhere. He is always named first among the special three who were given the privilege of being with Jesus at special times: on the Mount of the Transfiguration, in the inner part of the Garden of Gethsemani, and on other occasions. When Jesus wanted to preach to the crowds pressing on Him, it was into Peter's boat that He went to sit and teach the crowds (Luke 5:3). A bit later, He said to the same Peter, "Launch out into the deep." (Luke 5:4). It was to Peter that Jesus said not long after, "Fear not, from henceforth you shall catch men." (Luke 5:10). It was Peter who was told to walk on the waters of the lake to meet Jesus (Matt. 14:28-30). It was Peter who alone was told to catch a fish and find in its mouth a coin to pay the tribute for Jesus and Peter (Matt. 17:24-27). It was Peter who asked on behalf of all the Apostles, "Behold we have left all things, and have followed you: what therefore shall we have?" (Matt. 19:27).

The angel at the tomb of the risen Savior said, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee." (Mark 16:7). Four times in the New Testament there appears a list of the Apostles, and, although the order of names is not the same in all, Peter is always listed first. (Matt. 10:2-5; Mark 3:16-20; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).

There are numerous other examples in which Peter is constantly first. In all, he is named 118 times in the Gospels, while John is named only 38 times. If we count the Gospels and Acts together, Peter is named 171 times, while John is mentioned by name only 46 times.

Most important are the words in Matthew 16:16-19. Jesus and the Apostles are in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks them who people say He is. They tell Him various things. Then Jesus asks the Apostles, "Whom do you say that I am?" Peter answers for all, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answers him, "Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you: That you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: And whatsoever you shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

The passage is so clear that little explanation is needed. But, we will turn to two famous Protestant scholars for comment. W. F. Albright, often called in his last years the "Dean of U.S. Scripture scholars," and C. S. Mann, who wrote, "In view of the background of verse 19 . . . one must dismiss as confessional interpretation [biased by denominational views] any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the Messianic confession of Peter."104 They strongly reject any attempts to deny the authenticity of the words, "On this rock I will build my Church." "Such attempts are biased," they say. Further, they observe, all Jews expected the Messiah to have a Messianic community. Then, to explain the gift of the keys, they add, "The keys are the symbol of authority."105

Finally, Albright and Mann say, "The general sense of the passage is indisputable ... Peter is the rock on which the new community will be built, and in that community, Peter's authority to 'bind' or 'release' will be a carrying out of decisions made in heaven. His teaching and disciplinary activities will be similarly guided by the Spirit to carry out Heaven's will."106

As Albright and Mann said-and we agree-the sense of the passage is beyond doubt. Yet, as we might expect, some critics raise objections. They claim "retrojection" is the reason for Peter calling Jesus "The Christ, the son of the living God" and is also the reason for the praise Jesus gives Peter and the promise of the primacy.

What is retrojection? Some scholars believe that Jesus and Peter spoke those words after the Resurrection, but that the Evangelist decided to retroject when writing, that is, to record it as if the words were spoken before the Resurrection.

Is such retrojection possible? We ask first about the Synoptics, later about John. We established in Chapter 8 that the genre, the literary pattern of the Synoptics, is intent on giving facts needed for eternal salvation, plus the addition of interpretations. With regard to the Synoptics, a few distinctions must be made: 1) To retroject a prophecy, or even to make a vague prophecy clear, would be fakery. It would not be a prophecy at all if it were made later, after the event. As a result, the Synoptic genre cannot possibly include retrojection of prophecies. 2) To retroject a saying other than a prophecy, or to make it clearer with the help of post-resurrection words than it was when first uttered, would not really be a falsification, or contrary to facts, and so would be possible in the Synoptics. It has been established that Scripture writers did not always follow chronological order anyway. In this case, as long as Jesus really said it, the timing is not crucial.

Thus, it is possible within the Synoptic genre to suppose that the words in question were retrojected. Yet, even though the genre would not forbid it, the actual case makes it seem impossible. The scene created involves Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which is established in Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21), Matthew's account of Jesus' praise of Peter, the words about the primacy, and especially the words, "the Son of the living God."

It would make no sense to suppose that this scene happened after the Resurrection. Jesus then appears glorified, not asking questions. For Peter, then, to call Him Messiah would be a tremendous anticlimax. So the basic scene must have happened before the death of Jesus.

What about the added words? If the basic scene happened before Jesus' death, it is still possible that Jesus promised the primacy to Peter only after the Resurrection; yet, there is no good reason to suppose it was done that way. And even if it was, it would still be true that Jesus said that to Peter, and that is all that matters.

It is most unlikely that the whole episode was retrojected. Jesus, in all three Synoptics, asks who people say He is. That question would make no sense after the Resurrection. And Matthew and Mark specify that it happened at Caesarea Philippi. Again, this would be very odd after the Resurrection because it was in pagan territory. There is no hint in any Gospel of appearances there after the Resurrection. Luke pictures Jesus praying before this event, as He did before many great events. There is no positive evidence of any retrojection unless one believes the false notion that Jesus was unaware of being the Messiah before the Resurrection. Nor is there a problem if Peter did not know the divinity of Jesus before the Resurrection. But it is not required by the words Matthew puts on his lips to suppose Peter did know that Christ was God. (See Appendix 1.7).

Further, if we suppose the whole scene was retrojected, what would we make of Mark, whose account lacks the words about the primacy and the words "the Son of the living God?" We would have to suppose Mark did not know when the scene took place-he would have no reason to retroject.

And even if we suppose the whole scene is retrojected, the fidelity of the Evangelists to truth-eternity depending on it-would not allow them to say what Jesus had not said at all. So Jesus still would have given the primacy to Peter.

What about the fact that Mark, who was a follower of Peter, does not record the words about the primacy? Quite simply, Mark was not present, but Matthew who was present did record them. Peter, quite plausibly, might not have been accustomed to preaching things laudatory to himself, and Mark would not have picked up these words.

In Chapter 8, we deliberately limited our discussion of genre to the Synoptics because many think the genre of John is somewhat different. Some believe he retrojects, since he represents Jesus as speaking clearly about His own divinity. We do not think that there is a lot of retrojection in John, but since it is so difficult to prove, we decided to bypass such debates. A very plausible explanation is that the clear statements about divinity are put by John at the very end of the preaching of Jesus. We know that Jesus deliberately chose to reveal things about Himself gradually. So it would be likely that at the end, when opposition to Him had so hardened, He would drop restraint and speak clearly.

Further, some authorities think the Gospel of John was revised several times by members of John's circle. This theory would be difficult to disprove; but if it happened, we know, by the teaching of the Church, that the final form is protected by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

So it is because of these difficulties that we decided to get our proofs without having to appeal to John's Gospel. This does not mean we do not value the history contained in this Gospel.

Since we have answered the questions concerning John, we can make use of a very important passage which no one can claim was retrojected, since it took place after the Resurrection. In Chapter 21 of John we read about the time Jesus appeared to the Apostles at the lake. They had been fishing and had caught nothing. He came to them and told them to try on the right side of the boat. They did and took in a huge catch. After that, Jesus ate some of the fish with them, to prove He was not just a ghost who had come. After eating, Jesus asked Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? He said to him: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. He said to him: Feed my lambs." (John 21:15-17).

Jesus asked Peter the same question again and then, finally, a third time Scripture continues, "Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Do you love me? And he said to him: Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you. He said to him: Feed my sheep."

The imagery of this passage is easy to grasp if one knows the background. From Babylonian times (Hammurabi, 18th century B.C.) down through the Old Testament times, the shepherd stood for authority. In ancient Egypt, too, one of the symbols of the power of the Pharaohs was a shepherd's crook. Similarly, in Homer, kings are regularly given the epithet, "shepherds of the people." Therefore, this clearly was a grant of authority to Peter, the authority promised in Matthew 16:16-19. As R. Brown points out, "Two Protestant scholars of such different persuasions as Cullmann and Bultmann are quite firm in interpreting the command of 15

17 in terms of an authoritative commission for Peter, a view already espoused by Von Harnack, W. Bauer, Loisy and others."107

Thus, we have here more prime Scriptural support for Peter's authority, which even some very radical Protestant scholars have accepted.

Finally, many Scripture scholars have noted that Peter once denied Jesus three times; so it was quite fitting that Jesus would insist that Peter confess Him three times before actually receiving the promised primacy.


91 Clement I, Epistle to Corinth 5.
92 Ibid. 1.
93 Ibid. 59.
94 St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2.
95 DB 112. Cf. DS 3056.
96 Cf. J. Harduin, Conciliorum Collectio, Paris, 1715 II. 305-06.
97 Cf. J. D. Mansi, Collectio Conciliorum 11. 665, Florent. et Venet. 1759-98.
98 DS 861.
99 DS 1307.
100 DS 3073-75.
101 Vatican II, On the Church ยง 25.
102 Ibid.
103 Ibid. 22.
104 Albright & Mann, Anchor Bible 26, pp. 195.
105 Ibid. p. 196.
106 Ibid. pp. 197-98.
107 R. Brown, John, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, Garden City, 1970, 26 A p. 1113.

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