Saturday, April 08, 2006

Patristic interpretation of "upon this rock I will build my Church..."

By rights this should really be just one more post in the thread of discussion about "searching for Peter", but I find that adequately addressing Gabriel's response to my response will require a better post-editor than is supplied by Blogger's comment feature! So, with apologies for this intrustion of marginalia into the mainstream life of the blog...

Gabriel writes:
Fr. Justin finds unfair my statement "the passages which show the particular role of Peter are given no effect in the Church in Orthodox interpretation." He's right- but the significance of Peter in the passages is minimized, if not wholly eliminated in a manner entirely inconsistent with the way we approach Scriptural passages about the Apostles as a whole or the Sacraments. And I'm afraid that the interpretation Fr. Justin offers for Mt. 16:18 is poor not only for being incongrous with how we approach other New Testament passages, but on a more basic exegetical level. According to Fr. Justin: "This is, in fact, where I believe the problem lies with the Roman interpretation of Christ's remark ("upon this rock, I will build my Church..."): the focus is shifted from Peter's confession to Peter himself."

This interpretation is predicated on the suggestion that the rock (petra) which Christ founds his Church is not precisely the same as Peter (Petros). Protestant interpreters often attempt to draw a distinction between the two words, using questionable semantic differences derived from Attic Greek (the NT is in Koine Greek)- but overlooks the fact that the two words are grammatically necessary since they are gendered nouns. Moreover Aramaic, in which Jesus presumably spoke uses only one word for rock: Kephas.
Actually, the intepretations I offered (I actually offered two, not one) were not mine, but rather interpretations common in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

Gabriel does not engage with what I said about St. Cyprian's reading of this passage "as referring to Peter himself in his office of bishop" and then extending "this foundational authority to the office of the episcopate as a whole, not to Peter alone" - which was actually the context within which I found his claim that we nullify/minimize Peter's role to be unfair. Instead, he suggests that our Lord intended no distinction to be made between Peter (Petros) and the rock (petra) on which He will found His Church, and characterizes any attempt to make a distinction between these two words in the Greek as a Protestant innovation.

In fact, while the (Greek-speaking) Church Fathers all recognize the word-play on Peter's name that our Lord was engaging in, this does not seem to have prevented them from making exactly such a distinction - or from interpreting the "rock" on which Christ would build His Church as a reference to Peter's confession. St. John Chrysostom, for example, says in his homily on this passage in Matthew,
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.
John Cassian glosses this passage similarly in his Seven Books on the Incarnation:
"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?
Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew, develops this same line of thought even more thoroughly (as is usual with him!):
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, add 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.

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 that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, "The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it," hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, "Upon this rock I will build My church"? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," be common to the others, how shall not all the things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them? For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only, "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," etc; but in the Gospel of John the Saviour having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit," etc. Many then will say to the Saviour, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God; "but not all who say this will say it to Him, as not at all having learned it by the revelation of flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven Himself taking away the veil that lay upon their heart, in order that after this "with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord" they may speak through the Spirit of God saying concerning Him, "Lord Jesus," and to Him, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. 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 it 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. And taking occasion from these things you will say that the righteous bear the surname of Christ who is Righteousness, and the wise of Christ who is Wisdom. And so in regard to all His other names, you will apply them by way of surname to the saints; and to all such the saying of the Saviour might be spoken, "Thou art Peter," etc., down to the words, "prevail against it." But what is the "it"? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the church, or is it the church? For the phrase is ambiguous. Or is it as if the rock and the church were one and the same? This I think to be true; for neither against the rock on which Christ builds the church, nor against the church will the gates of Hades prevail; just as the way of a serpent upon a rock, according to what is written in the Proverbs, cannot be found. Now, if the gates of Hades prevail against any one, such an one cannot be a rock upon which Christ builds the church, nor the church built by Jesus upon the rock; for the rock is inaccessible to the serpent, and it is stronger than the gates of Hades which are opposing it, so that because of its strength the gates of Hades do not prevail against it; but the church, as a building of Christ who built His own house wisely upon the rock, is incapable of admitting the gates of Hades which prevail against every man who is outside the rock and the church, but have no power against it.

Even the Blessed Augustine in his Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta, speaks of the "rock" on which the Church is founded not as referring to Peter, but rather to the active faith of the Church in the Trinity:
the Church, ... increases in the increase of God in its members through connection and contact with Christ. 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.
Whether you agree with all of these patristic interpreters or not (as, admittedly, their interpretations do not always exactly coincide with one another), it should at least be plain from them that the idea that the "rock" upon which the Church is founded is the confession/faith of Peter - and, by extension, of all the faithful - is not a recent Protestant innovation, but rather has its roots deeply embedded in the writings and the thoughts and the Scriptural interpretation of the fathers of the Church.


Simply Victoria said...

Gabriel, we're only a stone's throw away in Langley.
you must come and visit.
it would be great to meet you.

gabriel said...

I will indeed- and thank you for the invitation. But the pleasure will have to wait until after exams, I'm afraid.

Simply Victoria said...

ah yes, I've got one more on the horizon too.
strange, I'm one exam away from a BA. is there life after school?
I guess I'll find out.

gabriel said...

Sorry- I noted this on the other thread, but it more properly goes here- I've responded to Fr. Justin's comments (again) here.