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The Christological School of Interpretation

The examination will now focus upon the patristic writers who have a Christological interpretation of Matt 16:18. Unlike the writers in the previous chapter, these church fathers believe that the “rock” in question refers to Jesus. These fathers would not use Matt 16:18 to affirm a permanent Roman see with Petrine authority because in their understanding, Jesus, not Peter, lies at the heart of the verse. The writings of Paul (particularly 1 Corinthians) were a great influence on the Christological school. Thanks to Paul, the theology of some of the writers was so Christocentric that it was difficult for them to envisage a foundation other than Jesus217; therefore, when these authors approach Matt 16:18, they may find a degree of primacy being bestowed to Peter, but the real “rock” in question is Jesus. This interpretation would dominate the Western exegesis of the Middle Ages, and it would greatly influence the writings of the Reformers as well.218 Between the third and fifth centuries, this view can be seen in the writings of three major fathers: Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Augustine.

Eusebius of Caesarea, also known as Eusebius Pamphili, c. A.D. 260-340219

Eusebius was most likely born in Palestine, where he spent most of his early years.220 Even though it is not certain that Eusebius was born in the city of Caesarea, he did spend a number of years there and later became bishop of that city.221 Eusebius was in the middle of his life when fierce persecution broke out against the Church under the reigns of both Diocletian and Maximinus Daia.222 During the years of persecution, Eusebius was hard at work on what would come to be known as his magnum opus, the Ecclesiastical History.223 This work would prove to be of great importance to later historians, for much of the information that is now known of the people, places, and episodes in the life of the early church were recorded by Eusebius.224

A definitive judgment on Eusebius’ interpretation of Matt 16:18 is somewhat difficult to ascertain because he expresses different views.225 First, in his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius states: “Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, against which (Church) the gates of hell shall not prevail, has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful.226 Here, the historian clearly states that the Church of Christ is built upon the apostle Peter, but he does not mention any successors of the apostle or the transfer of apostolic authority.227 However, in his Commentary on Psalms, Eusebius identifies the “rock” with Jesus. There he writes: As Scripture says: 'Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it'; and elsewhere: 'The rock, moreover, was Christ.' For, as the Apostle indicates with these words: 'No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.' Then, too, after the Savior himself, you may rightly judge the foundations of the Church to be the words of the prophets and apostles.228 In this text, the reference to the foundations of the earth in Ps 17 leads Eusebius to consider the foundations of the church.229 The church, he states, is founded upon a rock, and that rock is Jesus. Here, Eusebius is clearly allowing 1 Cor 10:4 and 1 Cor 3:11 to influence his reading of Matt 16. While the words of the apostles and prophets are also viewed as “the foundations of the Church,” they hold that position “after the Savior Himself”. For Eusebius, then, Jesus lies at the center of the verse, not Peter. Again, in his work Preparation of the Gospel, Eusebius writes:

For instance, when He prophesied that His doctrine should be preached throughout the whole world inhabited by man for a testimony to all nations, and by divine foreknowledge declared that the Church, which was afterwards gathered by His own power out of all nations, though not yet seen nor established in the times when He was living as man among men, should be invincible and undismayed, and should never be conquered by death, but stands and abides unshaken, settled, and rooted upon His own power as upon a rock that cannot be shaken or broken …”230

Here, Eusebius states that the Church is rooted upon the power of Jesus. This power is likened to a “rock that cannot be shaken or broken.” Again, he does not even mention successors of Peter or the authority that comes from such an office. In fact, he speaks of Christ as the foundation of the Church in such a way that almost seems to exclude the primacy of Peter.231 Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that Eusebius used Matt 16:18 to support an argument for the apostolic authority of the papacy.

Cyril of Jerusalem, c. A.D. 315 – March 18, 386232

Cyrillus was probably born in Jerusalem or its immediate vicinity around A.D. 315.233 Much of Cyril’s public life involved the controversy over Arianism; for example, Acacius of Caesarea, an Arian, who had elevated Cyril to the episcopal chair, took issue with him over the Nicene faith and on a jurisdictional question, and subsequently deposed him at a council in 357.234 After the death of Emperor Constantius, he was restored to his bishopric in 361; ironically, in 363 his former adversary, Acacius, was converted to the orthodox faith.235 He attended the ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381, which confirmed him in his office praised him for suffering much from the Arians for the orthodox faith.236

Like Eusebius, Cyril also understood Jesus to be the “rock” of Matt 16:18. In his Catechetical Lectures, he writes: “Of old the Psalmist sang, Bless ye God in the congregations, even the Lord, (ye that are) from the fountains of Israel. But after the Jews for the plots which they made against the Saviour were cast away from His grace, the Saviour built out of the Gentiles a second Holy Church, the Church of us Christians, concerning which he said to Peter, ‘And upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”237 For Cyril, the Church is a spiritual society that God called into existence to replace the Jews, who conspired against their Messiah.238 For him, the Jews were cast away from God’s grace due to their rejection of Jesus and the gospel. Because of their unbelief, the Gentiles became the new people of God, the Church. The quotation does not specifically identify the “rock” in question, but the context again focuses upon Jesus and his work, not Peter; not surprisingly, many theologians understand this passage to affirm a Christological interpretation of the verse. While he attributes primacy to Peter in other passages239, he failure to identify Peter as the “rock” might come from a desire to safeguard those being catechized in the faith from any misunderstandings about Christ’s unique role and position in the Church.240 Even if the passage were understood to reference Peter (which seems unlikely given the context), it says nothing about the apostle’s successors or any authority that they might inherit.

Augustine of Hippo, A.D. 354-430241

Few scholars would argue the monumental impact of Augustine on Western theology. He was one of the most prolific writers in the history of the Church, and his abiding importance rests upon his keen, penetrating understanding into Christian truth.242 Aurelius Augustinus was born in Thagaste of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Monica.243 When Augustine was seventeen years old, his parents sent him to Carthage, a city that had been the political, economic, and cultural center of Latin-speaking Africa.244 He soon became involved with the Manicheans, and he practiced the religion for roughly nine years.245 Augustine later migrated to Rome, where he opened a school of rhetoric.246 He soon became disgusted by the behavior of his students there, and he left for a professorship at Milan shortly thereafter.247 At the urging of his mother, Augustine attended the sermons of Ambrose, bishop of Milan – these sermons would change the course of Augustine’s life.248 Ambrose was able to answer many of the questions that Augustine held about the Bible and Christianity,249 and he received baptism on the eve of Easter in 368.250 Augustine became a priest in 391, and from 396 until his death, he served as the bishop of Hippo.251 He is best known for his Confessions, City of God, and his numerous theological treatises (many of which were against heresies, such as Manicheanism and Pelagianism).

Like many others before him, Augustine strongly believed in apostolic succession. He did believe that the bishop of Rome was the rightful successor of Peter. In his writings, Augustine clearly affirmed his high view of Rome. In a letter against the Donatists, Augustine writes:

For if the lineal succession of bishops is taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!’ The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these: - Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Telesphorus, Iginus, Anicetus, Pius, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor, Zephirinus, Calixtus, Urbanus, Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Stephanus, Xystus, Dionysius, Felix, Eutychianus, Gaius, Marcellinus, Marcellus, Eusebius, Miltiads, Sylvester, Marcus, Julius, Liberius, Damasus, and Siricius, whose successor is the present bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found.252

Here, Augustine is arguing much like Tertullian in his treatise Prescription Against Heretics. Augustine is challenging the Donatists to prove their credentials. He is basically stating that the church of Rome has apostolic roots; he can trace the current bishop of Rome all the way back to Peter himself. Therefore, the doctrine of the church can be trusted, for it is an apostolic gospel that is being preached. By arguing in this manner, it is clear that Augustine views the popes as Peter’s legitimate heirs. Moreover, Augustine quoted Matt 16:18 as a proof-text for this succession list. However, it is important to note that in the text, Augustine is not referring to Peter as the “rock”; instead, he refers to Peter as “a figure [representative] of the whole Church”. This is an important distinction that is prevalent in Augustine’s writings on the subject. Although he has a very high view of both Rome and Peter, the apostle basically serves as the character who is representative of the universal Church of Christ; he is not the “rock” that sustains the Church. That position belongs to Jesus alone. This is confirmed in many of Augustine’s sermons. In The Retractations, he states the following:

In a passage in this book, I said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built.’… But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For ‘Thou art Peter’ and ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom, as also the Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is more probable. 253

Although Augustine leaves the final decision to the reader, his preference regarding the rock seems clear. According to Augustine, Peter represents the Church and Jesus is the “rock” of the Church. Peter is chief among the apostles because he serves as the figure of the church, but he is not the “rock” in question. That “rock” is Jesus. This is seen yet again in Augustine’s Tractate on the Gospel of John. There, he writes:

And this Church, symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. … 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 built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus.254

Again, Peter is representative of the universal Church and Jesus himself, as rock, supports that Church. The rock did not take its name from Peter, but Peter had his name taken from the “rock”; this interpretation expressed Augustine’s doctrine of grace, because Peter, and in him the whole church, is built upon Christ alone.255 The “foundation” reference clearly echoes the writings of Paul. It appears that Augustine is using 1 Cor 3:11 to substantiate his reading of Matt 16. Church historian Karlfried Frhlich adds:

In harmony with his ecclesiology, but against the meaning of the text, Augustine rigorously separated the name-giving from its explanation: Christ did not say to Peter: ‘you are the rock,’ but ‘you are Peter.’ The church is not built upon Peter but upon the only true rock, Christ. Augustine and the medieval exegetes after him found the warrant for this interpretation in 1 Cor. 10:4. The allegorical key of this verse had already been applied to numerous biblical rock passages in the earlier African testimonia tradition. Matt. 16:18 was no exception. If the metaphor of the rock did not refer to a negative category of ‘hard’ rocks, it had to be read christologically.256

Therefore, Peter served as a great prototype for the Church because in many ways, he was representative of the everyday Christian: sometimes he is strong (confessing that Jesus is the Christ); at other times he is weak (rebuking Jesus about his imminent death). Like everyone else, he is fallible, and needs to be grounded upon something stronger than himself, namely Jesus.


For Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Augustine the rock of Matt 16:18 was neither Peter nor his confession, but Jesus himself. It appears that the Pauline epistles, particularly 1 Corinthians, greatly influenced the writings of these fathers. The rock metaphor of Matt 16:18 stressed the strength of the Church’s foundation, but the foundation image itself was seen in 1 Corinthians 3, and that foundation is Jesus.257 Thus Jesus builds the church upon the firm rock, himself.258 Augustine, Cyril, and Eusebius all held a very high view of Peter, but they interpret the rock of Matt 16 to be Jesus, not the apostle. For Augustine, in particular, Peter and the popes are representatives of the entire Church; Jesus, though, is the firm rock upon which that Church rests, and it is he who supports and sustains the Christian body.

217 Michael W. Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), 53.

218 Ibid.

219 Henry Wace and William Piercy, eds., A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principle Sects and Heresies, 2nd ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 318.

220 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1984), 129.

221 Ibid.

222 Ibid., 130.

223 Ibid.

224 Ibid.

225 Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, 53.

226 Ecclesiastical History 6.25. NPNF 2, 6:25; SC 41:127.

227 Eusebius, does, though affirm apostolic succession. In book three of his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius writes the following: “So Timothy is recorded as the first to receive the bishopric of the diocese of Ephesus, as was Titus of the churches in Crete … Of the rest of Paul’s followers, there is no evidence from Paul himself that Cresens was sent to Gaul, and Linus, whom he mentioned in the second epistle to Timothy as being with him in Rome, has already been shown to have been the first after Peter to have been appointed to the episcopacy of the Church of Rome. And of Clement, also, who was himself appointed the third Bishop of the Church at Rome, there is evidence from Paul that he was his co-worker and fellow soldier” (3.4.5-3.4.9. See Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. by Roy J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church (FOC), vol. 19 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 142-43. See also SC 31:100-101). He does not state, however, that the succession of bishops is derived from Matt 16:18, nor does he imply that Peter’s successors inherit the apostolic office.

228 Eusebius, “Commentary on Psalm 17,” in The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, ed. and trans. by William Webster (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 176. See also Eusebius Caesariensis, Commentarii in Psalmos, Patrologiae cursus Completus: Series Graeca (PG), ed. J. P. Minge, vol. 23 (Paris: Garnier Freres, 1857), 176.

229 Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, 53.

230 Eusebius, “Preparation of the Gospel 1.3.8,” in A Commentary by Writers of the First Five Centuries on the Place of St. Peter in the New Testament and that of St. Peter's Successors in the Church, ed. and trans. by James A. Waterworth (London: Thomas Richardson, 1871), 34-35. See also Eusebius Caesariensis, Praeparatio Euangelica, ed. by Karl Mras, Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller (GCS), vol. 43 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1982), 11-12.

231 Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, 53.

232 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 234.

233 Ibid.

234 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., vol. 3, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-600 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 927.

235 Ibid.

236 Ibid.

237 Catechetical Lectures 18.25. NPNF 2, 7:140. See also Cyrillus Hierosolymitanus, “Catecheses ad Illuminandos,” in S. Patris nosti Cyrilli Hierosolymorum archiepiscopi opera quae superrunt omnia, 2nd ed., ed. J. Rupp, vol. 2 (Hildesheim: H. A. Gerstenberg, 1967), 326.

238 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1978), 401.

239 See Catechetical Lectures 11.3. NPNF 7:64; PG vol. 33, col. 693. See also Catechetical Lectures 17:17. NPNF 7:128; PG vol. 33, col. 997.

240 Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, 54.

241 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 71.

242 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 106.

243 Ibid.

244 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 208.

245 Ibid.

246 Cross and Livingston, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 106.

247 Ibid.

248 Ibid.

249 Ibid.

250 Ibid.

251 Ibid.

252 Letters of St. Augustine 53.2. NPNF 1, 1:298; CSEL 34:153-154

253 Retractations 20. FOC 60:90-91. CSEL 36:97-98.

254 On The Gospel of John Tractate 124.5. NPNF 7:450; CIL 36:684-85.

255 Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 60.

256 Karlfried Frhlich, “Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and The Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300,” in The Religious Roles of the Papacy, ed. Christopher Ryan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989), 8-9.

257 Ibid., 9.

258 Ibid

Related Topics: Christology, History, Catholicism