Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Nature of the Apostolic Office

“Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Hence the Church teaches that the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ”.310

“It was to Simon alone, to whom he had already said You shall be called Cephas, that the Lord, after his confession, You are the Christ, the son of the living God, spoke these words: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the underworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’… Therefore, if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the lord as the prince of the apostles and visible head of the whole church militant; or that it was a primacy of honour only and one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ himself: let him be anathema. That which our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain for ever, by Christ’s authority, in the church, which founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time… . Blessed Peter … received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race; and that to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood. Therefore, whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains, by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received… . Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself, (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.”311

To this point, Matt 16:18 has been examined from an exegetical and historical point of view. On an exegetical level, scholars have largely fallen into three camps regarding the identity of the pevtra of v. 18. Some theologians, such as Luther and Zwingli, stated that the “rock” is Jesus. Others, such as Caragounis and McNeile, maintain that the “rock” is Peter’s confession of faith. However, the majority of modern exegetes, both Catholic and Protestant, affirm that the “rock” is the apostle Peter. At a time in which audiences were questioning his identity, Jesus asked his own disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). Only one apostle, Peter, answered and declared Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:16). Just as Peter singled out his Lord, Jesus now singles out his apostle and explains his name. For the staunch expression of his faith, Peter was to become the “rock” of the Church. Given the intentional use of the pevtra-Pevtro" pun in Matt 16:18, the only verse in the entire NT corpus that contains both words, it seems unlikely that Jesus was referring to anyone/anything other than the apostle Simon Peter. Peter was not made the “rock” because he was inherently more worthy than the other disciples; his later condemnation by Jesus affirms this (16:23); instead, Peter was made the “rock” because he boldly proclaimed the truth about his Lord.312 However, nothing in the exegesis, leads one to conclude that the office was meant for anyone other than the apostle Peter. The findings have indicated no real basis to assume that the text is outlining the basis for a succession of supreme pontiffs who claim their authority from Peter.

Furthermore, a survey of the major patristic writers, from both the east and the west, has proven that there is no real consensus on the identity of the “rock” of Matt 16:18. It is true that from the third to the mid-fifth century, many theologians held a Petrine interpretation of the verse; however, many other notable scholars (such as Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Origen) did not even believe that the rock in question was Peter. For them, the rock was either Jesus or Peter’s confession of faith. Clearly, they did not use this verse as the foundation for a permanent Roman See with Petrine authority – Peter isn’t even the rock! It should be noted that Augustine’s Christological position would largely hold the day throughout the Middle Ages. This is important because the Catholic Church maintains that the institution of the papacy is of divine, not human, origin.313 Matt 16:18 is used to substantiate this. If this claim is true, then one would certainly expect to find the “doctors of the church” referring to the institution of the papacy and linking it to this verse. For the most part, though, (with the exception of Jerome and the bishops of Rome), such references are not present in the writings of the fathers. Yes, it is true that Rome possessed a position of pre-eminence in the early Church; no historian or theologian would dispute this314. However, the question is whether the primacy promised to Peter in Matt 16:17-19 and actually exercised by him is to be transferred to bishops of the Roman Church.315 That a church occupies a position of pre-eminence still does not prove that it stands in such a relation to Matt 16:17-19 as to give it a divine right to that superior position for all time to come, yet the Catholic Church has claimed exactly that.316 Granted, Rome was the center of the Empire at the time and therefore wielded a considerable amount of authority. Even if it were also granted that both Peter and Paul taught, established churches, and died in the city (as tradition holds), that would certainly add to the city’s ecclesiastical authority, but it would not mean that the Roman church then becomes the primary and best spokesman for the Christian faith for all time.317 Moreover, it should be noted that the popes did not even begin to make a claim to Peter’s office and authority until the beginning of the third century.318 How is this to be explained if the papacy is a perpetual institution? Why do more than one hundred years pass before the primacy of Rome is linked to Jesus’ promise to Peter?319 Did Peter not know that those who were to succeed him (such as Linus and Clement, according to tradition) were to inherit his office as apostle and therefore his authority? If he does know of succession to his office, he does not mention it in his epistles320, and such knowledge does not appear to be attributed to him in the Gospels either.

Quite simply, there is nothing in Matt 16:18 that even mentions successors of Peter. The fathers who held to a Petrine interpretation almost universally maintain that the “rock” was Peter alone (only Jerome seems to agree with the papal reading of the verse). When the church fathers did discuss others becoming “rocks” (such as Origen and to some extent, Tertullian), they were not referring to the successors of Peter becoming “rocks”; instead, they maintained that Peter was the representative for all Christians, not just the bishops of Rome. Again, it must be conceded here that many of the church fathers affirmed the idea of apostolic succession. In fact, many (such as Firmilian and even Augustine) believed that the popes were the legitimate successors of Peter. However, their writings do not indicate that they used this verse to substantiate that claim. They believed that historically (for Peter’s successors are not named within Scripture) Peter chose leaders in the church to take his place as shepherd and teacher after his death in order to preserve right teaching. This was the chief function of apostolic succession: the preservation of true doctrine. In other words, information by Clement could be trusted because he received that information from Linus, who received his information from Peter, who received his information from the God-man, Jesus. Truth, not an office, seemed to be the primary concern of the fathers. To take the apostle’s place as shepherd-teacher, though, does not mean that his “successors” inherit his apostolic office. Except for Jerome, not one of the church fathers reviewed referred to the bishop of Rome as anything other than that – a bishop; they did not refer to him as an apostle, let alone an apostle like the original Twelve. Surely, the pope had authority, even considerable authority as one in the line of Peter (if that were to be conceded), but the writings of the fathers do not give the impression that they viewed the pope as the “rock” in the same way that Peter was the “rock.” Moreover, before Leo, there does not seem to be any indication that Peter was somehow mystically present with the pope.

The exegetical examination in chapter one concluded that the pevtra was the apostle Peter, and Jesus’ charge to the apostle established his role as leader among the Twelve. The import of that apostolic office cannot be overestimated. According to the entire witness of the New Testament, the apostolic office, particularly that of the Twelve, is unique office that can never be repeated; the church may have elders, bishops, and deacons, but it can never again have apostles like that seen in Scripture.321 After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter himself outlines the parameters for the apostolic office (Acts 2:21-22): the man must have been with the original twelve while Jesus interacted with them, beginning with Jesus’ baptism until his Ascension, and he must be a witness to the resurrection. No matter how righteous the bishop, deacon, or elder, no one today may claim such a position. Paul substantiated his role as an apostle by affirming that he had seen and interacted with the Risen Lord (Acts 10:41).

While the church is ultimately grounded on Jesus (1 Cor 10:4), there is a sense in which it is also grounded upon the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). Their ministry and work helped to establish the church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Moreover, he mandated that his apostles go out and make disciples, and thereby create a body of followers (Matt 28:19-20). Matt 16:18 states that of that apostolic group, Peter was simply chief. He is no way trumps Jesus, who is also His head, but Jesus does leave the leadership of the apostolic fellowship to Peter. So just as Eph 2:20 (and Romans 15:20) is understood in a chronological way, the same is true of Matt 16:18.322

Essentially, nowhere does Scripture state that a saying or charge given to an apostle is simply conferred onto future bishops.323 Other church offices are important and necessary for the life and function of the church, but they do not have the authority of the apostolic office. Even Paul recognizes this in his spiritual gifts inventory; without fail the office of apostle is listed first (Rom 12:28; Eph 4:11). This office had a place of primacy, and when a new church was established the Twelve did not command others to be apostles but bishops and elders.324 Theologically, then, the Roman church cannot adequately justify a succession of popes with the authority of Peter.

If Matt 16:18 does not provide either an exegetical or theological basis for the papacy, the next logical question is: Where did it come from? Most Protestant scholars believe that the first reference to a pope claiming Petrine authority is either Callistus (217-22) or Stephanus (254-57)325; Frhlich, though, offers Leo I and Gelasius I as the first rulers to claim the office.326 As seen in Tertullian’s comments above, it does appear that the man to whom he is writing (most likely Callistus) is claiming some kind of Petrine authority, but this claim that is unabashedly assailed by Tertullian. Interestingly, the Catholic Church has used this verse to substantiate the claim that Jesus instituted the papacy. As this thesis has shown, nothing from the text of Scripture or the tradition of the patristic writers substantiates this. Even those fathers who have a high view of Peter give no indication that a successor is implied in the text, let alone that the successor will have the same authority as Peter. Based upon the evidence presented, the following conclusion can be made: While it is true that the “rock” of Matt 16:18 points to the apostle Peter, neither the exegesis nor a historical examination of the patristic writers affirms a continuation of his apostolic office.


310 “Paragraph 862,” Catechism of the Catholic Church with Modifications from the Editio Typica, 5th Ed. (New York and London: Doubleday, 1997), 249.

311 “Session 4, July 18, 1870 of the First Vatican Council: 1869-1870,” in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, vol. 2, Trent to Vatican II (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 812-813.

312 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 552

313 See paragraph 862 above from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

314 Oscar Cullman, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 237.

315 Ibid.

316 Ibid.

317 Ibid., 238.

318 Ibid.

319 Ibid.

320 Here, the author is assuming that the apostle Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter.

321 Cullman, Peter, 220.

322 Ibid., 222.

323 Ibid., 223.

324 Ibid, 224.

325 Ibid, 238.

326 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), 3

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Catholicism, Leadership