Where the world comes to study the Bible

Report Inappropriate Ad

4. The PETRA = Fide School of Interpretation

This chapter will examine the fathers who asserted that the “rock” in question was neither Peter nor Christ, but Peter’s confession of faith. For these writers, the Church rests upon the firm belief that Jesus is the Christ. One of the reasons for the popularity of this interpretation may have been that it enabled an easy identification of the believer with Peter; he is a human being, weak, unstable, and not perfect.259 Instead of the apostle Peter, these theologians believed that the church needed to rest on something sturdier, something that could and would withstand the test of time. For these writers, that “rock” was faith in Jesus.260

Origen, c. A.D. 185-254261

Origen was probably born in Alexandria, Egypt, but whether he was of Egyptian, Greek, or mixed heritage is not known.262 He was born to Christian parents in the year 185, and he probably received baptism in early childhood, according to Egyptian custom.263  His father suffered martyrdom under the reign of Septimius Severus, and shortly after the persecutions, the bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, entrusted Origen with the task of teaching catechumens.264 During the persecutions under Decius, Origen was arrested and tortured; he was not put to death, but his wounds were so severe that he died shortly after release.265 He is best known for his compilation of the Hexapla (an Old Testament translation, including the Hebrew text, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, and four different Greek translations), his apology Against Celsus, and his systematic theology De Principiis (On First Principles).266

On one hand, it appears as though Origen clearly states that the “rock” of Matt 16:18 is the Apostle Peter. In a homily on Exodus, Origen writes the following words: “Look at the great the foundation of the church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church! And what does the Lord say to him? 'O you of little faith he says, why have you doubted?'”267 Here, the “solid rock” seems to be referencing Peter, whom Jesus later rebuked for his lack of faith. This is affirmed again in his Commentary on John, where he writes: “Peter, upon whom the Church of Christ, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, left only one Epistle of acknowledged genuinity.”268 In his Commentary on Matthew, though, Origen seems to indicate the “rock” is actually the profession of faith. Here, he states:

And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” not as if flesh and blood had revealed it to us, but by the light of the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said the Word, “Thou art Peter,” etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the Church, and the polity in accord 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.269

Here, Origen states that everyone who has confessed that Jesus is the Christ "becomes a Peter”; therefore, all disciples of Christ are “rocks”. It is not a title that Peter possesses alone. He later adds the following in his Matthew commentary:

But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but they shall prevail against the other apostles and the perfect? … For all bear the surname of “rock” who are the imitators of Christ, that is of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of the rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him, they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peters.270

Again, Origen confirms that the “rock” of the church is anyone who is an imitator of Jesus. Peter is a rock, but he is no more of a rock than any other true believer. What makes Peter a rock is the same thing that makes every believer a rock, namely, his/her faith. For Origen, that faith is shown by being an imitator of Jesus. It seems best, then, to classify Origen as a father who places the faith of Peter above the man himself. Origen’s writings on the verse do not shed any light on a succession of bishops to the office of Peter. Again, faith is lying at the center of Origen’s argument; therefore, it is not likely that Origen understood this verse as a basis for a permanent Roman see with Petrine authority.

Ambrose, c. A.D. 339-397271

Ambrose was born at Trier, the son of a Praetorian prefect at Gaul.272 He practiced at the court of the praetorian prefect of Italy, Probus, who appointed him magistrate of the provinces of Liguria and Aemilia.273 The episcopal chair of Milan, the second capital of Italy, was occupied by the Cappadocian Auxentius, the head of the Arian party in the West, but soon after the arrival of Ambrose, Auxentius died.274 The election of the next bishop could have easily turned violent because both the Arians and the orthodox wanted a member of their group to become the next bishop.275 Ambrose appeared at Auxentius’ church and spoke to the crowd.276 Tradition holds that while he was speaking to the people, the voice of a child suddenly rang out: "Let Ambrose be bishop!"277 Both Arians and Catholics cried, “Amen.”278 At the time, Ambrose was a catechumen and not even baptized, but he was obliged to submit and receive baptism.279 Eight days later, in 374, Ambrose was consecrated bishop of Milan.280 With Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, Ambrose is listed as one of the four traditional Doctors of the Latin Church.281

In his writings, Ambrose continually maintained that the “rock” of Matt 16:18 referred to Peter’s faith. In his work The Incarnation of Our Lord, Ambrose states the following: “He, then, who before was silent, to teach us that we ought not to repeat the words of the impious, this one, I say, when he heard: 'But who do you say I am,' immediately, not unmindful of his station, exercised his primacy, that is, the primacy of confession, not of honor; the primacy of belief, not of rank… . Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter's flesh, but of his faith, that 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' But his confession of faith conquered hell.”282 Here, Ambrose clearly states that it is not Peter’s flesh (meaning Peter, the man) but Peter’s faith that is the foundation of the Church. It is the confession of faith that will shield the Church from all heresies. Ambrose affirms this interpretation in his Commentary on Luke. There he states:

And therefore, Peter did not await the verdict of the people, but proffered his own, saying, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the Living God.’ … Christ is a rock – for they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them: and the rock was Christ. He did not deny that grace of even this title to his disciple, so that he is a true Peter because from the Rock he has the firmness of constancy, the steadfastness of faith. Then strive that ye too may be a rock. Therefore, seek the rock, not outside you, but within you. Your action is a rock, your mind is a rock. Your house is built upon this rock, so that it cannot be shaken by any storms of spiritual wickedness. Your faith is a rock, and faith is the foundation of the Church. If ye will be a rock, ye will be in the Church.283

Again, Ambrose upholds the “rock-faith” interpretation of the verse. It is true that Peter is held in high regard, but he has that place of eminence on account of his faith.284 Ambrose places the apostle’s faith, not the man, at the center of his exegesis. Thus Peter’s primacy appears to be a primacy of confession, not of honor; a primacy of faith, not rank.285 While it is true that Ambrose had a high view of Rome286, he does not link his understanding of this verse to Peter’s successors.287 In fact, Ambrose encourages his readers to become “rocks.” Anyone who shares in the faith of Peter can call himself a “rock upon which the Church is built.” It seems unlikely, then, that Ambrose understood this verse to lend full Petrine authority to later bishops of Rome.

Epiphanius, c. 310/320-403288

Epiphanius was born near Eleutheropolis in Palestine, between 310 and 320, and he died at sea, at a very advanced age, on his way back from Constantinople to Cyprus, in 403.289 Much of his early life was spent with the monks in Egypt, and there he learned not only a zeal for ecclesiastical orthodoxy but also an appreciation for the ascetic life.290 In 367, he was elected to the bishopric of Constantia (the ancient Salamis, in Cyprus) where he served for 36 years.291 He is known for his works, The Anchor, a defense of Christian doctrine, and the Panarion, a book that addresses heresies.292

Like many of the patristic fathers, Epiphanius appears to vacillate in his interpretation of Matt 16:18. In his Anocoratus (Anchor) he states the following about Peter: [Peter] is the first of the Apostles, that firm rock upon which the church of God is built, so that the gates of hell … will not prevail against it. For in every way was the faith confirmed in him who received the keys of he kingdom of heaven …”293 In this text, Epiphanius indicates that the “rock” in question is none other than the apostle himself. However, in his Panarion, Epiphanius states that the “rock” is the confession of faith. It reads:

Thus the Lord and his church accept the penitent, as Manasseh the son of Hezekiah returned and was accepted by the Lord – and the chief of the apostles, St. Peter, who denied for a time and still became our truly solid rock which supports the Lord’s faith, and on which the church is in every way founded. This is, first of all, because he confessed that “Christ” is the “Son of the living God,” and was told, “On this rock of sure faith will I build my Church” – for he plainly confessed that Christ is true Son. For when he said, “Son of the living God,” with the additional phrase, “the living” he showed that Christ is God’s true Son, as I have said in nearly every Sect.294

Here, Epiphanius links the rock to both Peter and his faith. On one hand, he states that Peter “still became our truly solid rock which supports the Lord’s faith.” On the other hand, Epiphanius declares that it was “on the rock of sure faith” that Jesus built his Church. Again in his Panarion, Epiphanius appears to hold the pevtra = fide interpretation: “All the sects are truly ‘gates of hell’ but ‘They will not prevail against the rock,’ that is, the truth.”295 Once again, Epiphanius leans toward the apostle’s true faith, not the man himself, as the “rock” of Matt 16:18.

John Chrysostom, c. A.D. 347-407296

John Chrysostom was born at Antioch probably in A.D. 347.297 His mother, Anthusa, was left a widow at age 20, but she refused all other offers of marriage and devoted herself completely to the education of her son.298 He chose to study law, and when he was eighteen years old, he began to attend the lectures of the well-known sophist Libanius.299 Three years later, he was baptized by Bishop Meletius of Antioch, and began to learn the discipline of the monastic life.300 His reputation as a great preacher soon became known throughout the Greek-speaking church, and he was later named “the golden-mouthed.”301 In 397, the bishopric of Constantinople was vacant, and the emperor ordered that Chrysostom fill the position.302 The fact that he often helped the persecuted Origenistic monks of Egypt pitted him against the empress Eudoxia, and she eventually ousted Chrysostom from his bishopric.303 He died in banishment on September 14, 407.304

Like the aforementioned writers, Chrysostom consistently argues that the “rock” in question is Peter’s confession of faith. He states the following in his Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew: “ ‘And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’; that is, on the faith of his confession.”305 In this case, Chrysostom clearly identifies the confession, not the apostle, as the “rock”. He does the same in Homily 82 on Matthew. In that work he states: “[Christ] speaks from this time lowly things … that He might show His humanity. For He that hath built His church upon Peter’s confession, and has so fortified it, that ten thousand dangers and deaths are not to prevail over it.”306 Yet again, it is Peter’s faith that is being praised. Once more, Chrysostom writes: “For Christ added nothing more to Peter, but as though his faith were perfect, said, upon this confession He would build the Church …”307 For Chrysostom, then, the rock on which the Church is built is regularly taken to be the confession of Peter, or the faith which prompted this confession.308 His interpretation of the verse yields no mention of an “office” of Peter. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Chrysostom would have understood this verse to provide the bishop of Rome with the authority of Peter.


For Origen, Ambrose, Epiphanius, and Chrysostom, the “rock” of Matt 16:18 was neither Jesus nor the apostle Peter. Instead, the “rock” is Peter’s confession of faith. In other words, the Church rests upon the firm conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Though Origen has a high view of Peter, he does not see Jesus give Peter any particular authority that is not given to the other apostles. In fact, Peter serves as a representative for all Christians. Whenever any believer imitates Christ, he becomes a “rock.” This view is echoed by Ambrose, who challenges all believers to become “rocks” by exercising their faith in Jesus. Finally, both Epiphanius and Chrysostom recognize the leadership of Peter, yet both men affirm that Peter’s faith trumps Peter the man in Matt 16:18. Though Chrysostom lists Peter as the chief of the apostles, it must be conceded that there is little or nothing in his writings which explicitly affirms that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter in his primacy.309 For these fathers, then, the confession of faith, not papal authority, is at issue in Matt 16:18.

259 Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 61.

260 For more writings of the fathers who held to a pevtra = faith interpretation, see Appendix C.

261 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 991.

262 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), 770.

263 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 786.

264 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1984), 78.

265 Ibid.

266 Ibid.

267 Homily 5.4. For English translation, see William Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970), 205. See also GCS 29:188.

268 Commentary on John 5.3. ANF 10:384. GCS 10:101.

269 Commentary on Matthew 12:10. ANF 10:456; GCS 40:85-86.

270 Commentary on Matthew 12:11. ANF 10:456; GCS 40:86-89.

271 Cross and Livingston, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 41.

272 Ibid.

273 Ibid.

274 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:962.

275 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 189.

276 Ibid.

277 Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, 3:962.

278 Ibid.

279 Ibid.

280 Ibid.

281 Cross and Livingston, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 42.

282 The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord 4.32-5.35. FOC 44:230-1; CSEL 79: 239-240.

283 St. Ambrose, “Commentary in Luke 6.98,” in Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke with Fragments on the Prophecy of Isaias, ed. and trans. by Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), 229. See also CIL 14:209.

284 Michael W. Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), 61.

285 Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), 83.

286 See Ep. 42.5, 11.4.

287 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1978), 418.

288 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:926.

289 Ibid.

290 Wace and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 300.

291 Ibid.

292 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:928-29.

293 Ancoratus 9:6. For English Translation, see Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, 57. See also GCS 1:16.

294 Epiphanius, “Cathari 59,” in The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, trans. by Frank Williams, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, vol. 35 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987), 109. See also GCS 31: 373.

295 Against Pneumatomachi 74. For English, see Williams, Panarion, 490. See also GCS 37:332.

296 Cross and Livingston, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 282.

297 Wade and Piercy, Dictionary of Early Church Biography, 158.

298 Ibid.

299 Ibid.

300 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 195.

301 Ibid.

302 Ibid.

303 Ibid.

304 Ibid.

305 Homily 54.3. NPNF 1, 10:333; PG 58:535.

306 Homily 82.3. NPNF 1, 10:494; PG 58:741.

307 Homily on the Gospel of John 21.1. NPNF 14:72-73; PG 59:428.

308 Dom John Chapman, Studies in the Early Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), 77.

309 Herbert Scott, The Eastern Churches and the Papacy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1928), 133.

Related Topics: History, Catholicism

Report Inappropriate Ad