Note: I have since added an addendum to this blog post. Also, I mistook Christian of Stavelot’s work for Dungal of Bobbio’s. I have since made this correction.
This post has its origins on Catholic Answers Forums, where once again the topic of Matthew 16:16-19 came up for discussion. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this topic, Matthew 16:18-19 is used to justify the Catholic doctrine of Papal Supremacy. The logic is as follows: 1.) Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ; 2.) Christ renames Peter (formerly Simon) as Peter, which means rock; 3.) that the rock unto which Christ proclaims that he will build his Church is Peter himself; 4.) although the rest of the apostles themselves receive the powers of binding and loosing as is later detailed in John 20:23, Peter alone received the keys; 5.) therefore in conclusion Peter holds supreme authority over the other apostles and thus too do Peter’s successors (the popes of Rome). This can be seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
553 Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “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” (Matthew 16:19). 287 The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17; 10:11). 288 The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles 289 and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom. (881, 1445, 641, 881)
Most of the times that I see this topic discussed, it usually revolves around the discussion of certain dialects of Greek and Aramaic, the language that Jesus presumably spoke. However, what I noticed to be missing from every discussion was the verses’ interpretation throughout history. I grew curious, so I decided to sift through the various exegetical writings of holy men from Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. I focused only on exegetical writings solely because these writings are extremely difficult to take out of context, unlike decrees and letters, which apologists all too often do take out of context. I lack any knowledge of Greek, so I decided that I would engage the topic by concerning myself with only Latin writers, since I know Latin fairly well. What I found is that the present-day Catholic understanding of Matthew 16:16-19 is entirely alien to the understandings of the Latin Fathers, saints, and holy writers all the way up to at least the twelfth century. They understood the “rock” as being Peter only metaphorically, and that primarily it referred to either Christ or Peter’s confession of faith. Additionally, they understood the powers of binding and loosing to not be separate from the keys at all, and that these keys were at least given to all of the apostles. Listed below are the writings of St. Jerome, St. Hilary of Poitiers, pseudo-Bede, St. Paschasius Radbertus, St. Hrabanus Maurus, Christian of Stavelot, Rupert of Deutz, and St. Bruno of Segni. Note: Scriptural verses are not always translated, but when they are left untranslated, they are always unitalicized and bolded in the quotes.
et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus
et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam
et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam
et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum
et quodcumque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum in caelis
et quodcumque solveris super terram erit solutum in caelis
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter;
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven:
and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.
St. Jerome, who lived during the fourth and fifth centuries and is responsible for the Bible’s translation into Latin:
Quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Sicut ipse lumen apostolis donavit, ut lumen mundi appellarentur, caeteraque ex Domino sortiti sunt vocabula: ita et Simoni, qui credebat in petram Christum, Petri largitus est nomen. [Col.0117D] At secundum metaphoram petrae, recte dicitur ei: Aedificabo Ecclesiam meam super te.
Just as he himself gave the light to the apostles, so that the light of the world would be addressed, and the rest [of the apostles’] names are chosen by the Lord: and thus to Simon, who believed in Christ the Rock, the name of Peter is imparted. But following the metaphor of the rock, rightly it is said to him: “I will build my Church upon you.”
St. Hilary of Poitiers, who lived during the fourth century :
7. Confessionis merces.[Col.1009C] —Et dignum plane confessio Petri praemium consecuta est, quia Dei filium [Col.1010A] in homine vidisset. Beatus hic est, qui ultra humanos oculos et intendisse et vidisse laudatus est: non id quod ex carne et sanguine erat contuens, sed Dei filium coelestis patris revelatione conspiciens; dignusque judicatus, qui quod in Christo Dei esset, primus agnosceret. O in nuncupatione novi nominis felix Ecclesiae fundamentum, dignaque aedificatione illius petra, quae infernas leges, et tartari portas, et omnia mortis claustra dissolveret! O beatus coeli janitor, cujus arbitrio claves aeterni aditus traduntur, cujus terrestre judicium praejudicata auctoritas sit in coelo: ut quae in terris aut ligata sint aut soluta, statuti ejusdem conditionem obtineant et in coelo.
The Reward of Confession. And plainly the confession of Peter received a worthy award, because he had seen the Son of God in a man. Blessed is this man, who is praised to have seen and have contemplated [this truth] beyond human eyes: beholding not what was of flesh and blood, but seeing the revelation of the Son of God from the heavenly Father; and worthy and just, was he such that in Christ of God he was the first to recognize. Oh! By appellation of a new name the fruitful foundation of the Church, her rock is of a worthy build, [the rock] which (feminine) destroys the hellish laws, the gates of Hell, and all the barriers of death . O blessed door-keeper of heaven, by whose will had the keys of the eternal gates been delivered, by whose earthly judgment the authority was decreed beforehand in heaven : so that what was bound or loosed on earth, obtains the condition of the same status in heaven.
Had ye seen, O holy and blessed men (the apostles), who for the reward of your faith have received the keys of the kingdom of heaven and power to bind and to loose in heaven and earth, works so great, so truly Divine, wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and do ye yet profess that it was not until He had first told you that He had gone forth from God that you attained the knowledge of the truth?
Hilary of Poitiers’ On the Trinity 6.33
This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation; even the knowledge that we must not imagine a false Christ, a creature made out of nothing, but must confess Him the Son of God, truly possessed of the Divine nature. What blasphemous madness and pitiful folly is it, that will not heed the venerable age and faith of that blessed martyr, Peter himself, for whom the Father was prayed that his faith might not fail in temptation; who twice repeated the declaration of love for God that was demanded of him, and was grieved that he was tested by a third renewal of the question, as though it were a doubtful and wavering devotion, and then, because this third trial had cleansed him of his infirmities, had the reward of hearing the Lord’s commission, Feed My sheep, a third time repeated; who, when all the Apostles were silent, alone recognised by the Father’s revelation the Son of God, and won the pre-eminence of a glory beyond the reach of human frailty by his confession of his blissful faith! What are the conclusions forced upon us by the study of his words? He confessed that Christ is the Son of God; you, lying bishop of the new apostolate, thrust upon us your modern notion that Christ is a creature, made out of nothing. What violence is this, that so distorts the glorious words? The very reason why he is blessed is that he confessed the Son of God. This is the Father’s revelation, this the foundation of the Church, this the assurance of her permanence. Hence has she the keys of the kingdom of heaven, hence judgment in heaven and judgment on earth.
Hilary of Poitiers’ On the Trinity 6.37
Et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Metaphorice ei dicitur: Super hanc petram, id est, Salvatorem, [Col.0079A] quem confessus es, aedificatur Ecclesia, qui fideli confessori sui nominis participium donavit.
Metaphorically it is said: Upon this rock, that is, the Savior, which you have confessed, the Church shall be built, who had given a participation of his name to the sincere confessor [Peter].
Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Id est, discernendi scientiam potentiamque, qua dignos debeas in regnum recipere, et indignos secludere.
Et quodcunque ligaveris, etc. Haec potestas sine dubio cunctis datur Apostolis, quibus ab eo post resurrectionem dicitur generaliter: Accipite Spiritum sanctum, etc. (Joan. XX).
That is the knowledge and power for discerning by which you may ought to receive the worthy into the kingdom and exclude the unworthy [therefrom].
This power is without a doubt given to those apostles, to whom by Him it is generally said after the resurrection: Receive the Holy Spirit, etc. (John 20).
pseudo-Bede’s IN MATTHAEI EVANGELIUM EXPOSITIO, Patrologia Latina 92: 0078D – 0079A
St. Paschasius Radbertus, a Frankish monk and abbot of Corbie who wrote numerous important theological and hagiographical works during the ninth century:
Non enim, ut quidam male putant, Petrus fundamentum totius Ecclesiae est: Quia fundamentum nemo aliud potest ponere, praeter id quod positum est, quod est Christus Jesus (I Cor. III, 11). Licet super eodem fundamento primus, ac si caput Petrus recte positus credatur, tamen in ea petra, de qua nomen sibi ex dono traxit, et super eam tota construitur et constabilitur illa coelestis Jerusalem, id est, supra Christum, ut firma permaneat in sempiternum.
It is not in fact so that someone badly reckons that Peter is the entire foundation of the Church. For another foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). It is allowed upon the same foundation that the first, as if the head Peter rightly believed to have been fixed, but in it, the rock, from which itself the name derives by gift, and upon the entire rock that the heavenly Jerusalem is built and is established, that is upon Christ, so that it may be permanently strong and everlasting.
Tu es, inquit, Simon Joannis, tu vocaberis Cephas, quod interpretatur Petrus (Joan. I, 42). Et non dixit, tu vocaberis Petrus, quo jam vocatus erat nomine, sed ait signanter: Tu es Petrus, [Col.0560D] et super hanc petram, a qua petra factus es, aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Non quod jam, ut dixi, tam firmus esset, sed quod futurum erat ut fieret a Christo, Qui vocat ea quae non sunt, tanquam ea quae sunt (Rom. IV, 17). Et per Spiritum sanctum ita firmaretur: Ut neque mors, neque vita, neque instantia, neque futura, neque ulla creatura posset eum separare a charitate quae est in Christo (Rom. VIII, 38, 39).
And he did not say, “You will be called Peter,” by which name he was called, but distinctly he says: You are Peter, and upon this rock, from which rock you are made, I will build my Church. Not that now, so that it is said, so much that he was strong, but that he will be made in the future from Christ, He who calls those who are not, as if they are those. (Romans 4:17) And through the Holy Spirit he would thus be strengthened: So that neither death, nor life, nor present things, nor future things, nor any created thing is able to separate him from love, which is in Christ (Romans 8:38-39).
Petrus autem talem ac tantam expressit de corde confessionem, ut ejus confessio sit omnium apostolorum. Et sicut simul omnes interrogantur, ita in eo omnium est responsio una, supra quam fundatur Ecclesia, et contra quam portae inferorum non praevalebunt.
However Peter expressed such and such from the heart of confession, so that his confession (feminine) shall be [the confession] of every apostle. And just as at once all are asked, thus in him [Peter] is the one response of everyone, upon which [response/faith (feminine)] the Church is founded, and against which [response/faith] the gates of hell will not prevail.
Et tibi dabo, inquit, claves regni coelorum. … Omnis namque species virtutum cum ex corde fuerit adimpleta, quasi ipsa clavis regni videtur, ita ut inveniatur eadem virtus et clavis esse portae simul et porta per quam introitur ad regnum.
For with every type of virtue he will have been filled from the heart, as is seen with the keys to the kingdom, thus so that the same virtue and keys shall be discovered to be both the gates [of the Church] and the gate through which one is accepted into the Kingdom [of Heaven].
Et quodcunque ligaveris supra terram, erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis. Quaeso unusquisque circumstantiam lectionis hujus diligenter intendat, maxime tamen episcopi, quibus videtur cum Petro et cum omnibus apostolis haec potestas specialius a Domino attributa, licet et omni Ecclesiae eadem sit concessa…
I look at every circumstance of its reading diligently which he extends, but maximally to the bishops, to whom are seen with Peter and with all of the apostles to have been attributed this special power by the Lord, and granted that in the same way everyone of the Church is given…
St. Hrabanus Maurus, a highly influential Frankish theologian who was abbot of Fulda and archbishop of Mainz during the ninth century:
Et dabo tibi claves regni coelorum. Qui regem coelorum majori prae caeteris devotione confessus est, merito prae caeteris ipse collatis clavibus regni coelestis donatus est, ut constaret omnibus, quia absque ea confessione, ac fide, regnum coelorum nullus potest intrare. Claves autem regni coelorum ipsam discernendi scientiam potentiamque nominat, qua dignos recipere in regnum, indignos secludere deberet a regno.
He who has confessed the Kingdom of Heaven well before with heavenly devotion, merits before Heaven itself the gifted keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, so that it may correspond with all, because it is without this confession, and faith, that no one is able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. However, he names the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven as that knowledge and power for discerning, by which the worthy receive in the Kingdom, and the unworthy ought to be separated from the Kingdom.
Et quodcunque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis. Quae solvendi ac ligandi potestas, quamvis soli Petro data videatur a Domino, absque [Col.0992B] ulla tamen dubietate noscendum est quod et caeteris apostolis datur, ipso teste, qui post passionis, resurrectionisque suae triumphum apparens, eis insufflavit et dixit omnibus: Accipite Spiritum sanctum; quorum remiseritis peccata, remittentur eis, et quorum retinueritis, retenta sunt (Joan. XX). Nec non etiam nunc in episcopis ac presbyteris omnibus Ecclesiae officium idem committitur, ut videlicet agnitis peccantium causis, quoscunque humiles ac vere poenitentes aspexerit, hos jam a timore perpetuae mortis miserans absolvat; quos vero in peccatis quae egerint persistere cognoverit, illos perennibus suppliciis obligandos insinuet. Omni igitur electorum Ecclesiae, ut diximus, juxta modum culparum vel poenitentiae, ligandi ac solvendi datur auctoritas.
What power is for unbinding and for binding, as you will it may be seen as given only to Peter by the Lord, but without any doubt it is known that it is given to the rest of the apostles, witness yourself, he who after his passion and resurrection appearing to them in triumph breathed and said to all: Receive the Holy Spirit; the sins of all that you remit, they are remitted, and of all that you retain, they are retained (John 20). In fact, also presently in the bishops and presbyters is the same office committed to the everyone of the Church, so that clearly by the recognized causes of sins, whatever humble and true penitents he may have beheld, the compassionate person absolves them now from the fear of perpetual death; but those whom he knows who continue to persist in sin, the merciful one may command such people as bound by means of perennial supplications. Therefore, as we have said, just as the mode of culpability and the mode of penance, the authority for binding and loosing is given to everyone of the elect of the Church.
Christian of Stavelot, monk from ninth-century Aquitaine:
Et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Super hanc firmitatem fidei quam confessus es, aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et super me aedificabo te cum omni Ecclesia mea.
Upon this strength of faith that you have confessed, I will build my Church, and upon me I will build you with all my Church.
Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Claves regni coelorum scientia discernendi, potentiaque qua dignos recipere in regnum, indignos excludere debeat intelligitur. Et quodcunque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram erit solutum et in coelis. Hoc tam Petro quam omnibus apostolis et successoribus [Col.1397B] eorum qui in Ecclesia eumdem locum tenent recte credimus concessum, quia ipse post passionem apparens eis, dixit: Accipite Spiritum sanctum; quorum remiseritis peccata, remittuntur eis; et quorum retinueritis, retenta sunt…
The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are for discerning knowledge, and the power which receives the worthy into the Kingdom, and excludes the unworthy ought to be understood. And whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This [applies] as much to Peter as to the all of the apostles and their successors, who hold the same office rightly we lend permission, because he himself appears to them after the passion, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit; every sin that you forgive are forgiven; and every sin that you retain are retained…
Rupert of Deutz, abbot of Deutz Abbey who publicly debated a number of scholastic professors during the twelfth century:
Hinc est illud quod huic Simoni Petro dixit: «Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam (Matth. XVI).» Super petram fidei, quam confessus est Petrus, Ecclesiam suam aedificavit, eamque regendam illi, caeterisque apostolis eorumque similibus, commisit.
Upon the rock of faith, which Peter confessed, he built his Church, which for the sake of being guided by them, and the rest of the apostles and of those similar, he entrusted.
St. Bruno of Segni, the bishop of Segni and abbot of Montecassino as well as a supporter of the Gregorian Reform Movement in the eleventh and twelfth centuries:
Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Tu dicis, et verum dicis, quia ego sum Christus Filius Dei vivi: [Col.0213B] et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, fide fortis, et doctrina stabilis. Nisi enim in hoc nomine fortitudinem et stabilitatem Christus intellexisset, non ea quae sequuntur protinus addidisset, dicens; et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Si Petrum non intelligis, petram respice: petra autem erat Christus. Sic igitur a petra Petrus, sicut a Christo Christianus. Videamus itaque quid sit et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Super hanc petram, quam tu modo in fidei fundamentum posuisti; super hanc fidem, quam tu modo docuisti, dicens: Tu es Christus, Filius Dei vivi; super hanc petram et super hanc fidem aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.
You say, and you speak truth, because I am the Christ, Son of the living God: and I speak to you, because you are Peter, strong in faith, and in stable doctrine. In fact, unless in this name of fortitude and stability Christ would have had understood, not by it [the rock/petram] which onward it is followed to have had been joined, saying: and upon this rock I will build my Church. If you do not understand Peter, [then] look at the rock: but the rock is Christ. Yes, therefore, Peter [is] from the rock, just as a Christian [is] from Christ. Accordingly we may see what shall be and upon this rock I will build my Church. Upon this rock, which only you have laid in the foundation of faith; upon this faith, which only you have taught, saying: You are Christ, Son of the living God; upon this rock and upon this faith I will build my Church.
Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Hoc enim quod principaliter Petro [Col.0214B] dicitur, caeteris quoque apostolis dictum esse intelligi debet.
In fact, this is principally said to Peter, and it ought to be understood as being said to the rest of the apostles.
As it can be seen, all of these writers understood Peter as the rock only metaphorically. They focused on the rock as either being Christ or the confession of faith. Almost all of the writers considered the keys to be the exact same as the powers of binding and loosing, and not to be a distinct entity. The only exceptions are Jerome and Rupert, only because Jerome and Rupert do not discuss the keys. Therefore, they all believed that all of the apostles received the keys, with a few exceptions: Hrabanus Maurus, Paschasius Radbertus, and Hilary of Poitiers . Their positions were quite radical in that they believed that every Christian believer held the keys by virtue of faith, not just the apostles and their successors.
While my labors here by no means resolve the issue of Matthew 16:18-19 definitively, especially if one is more concerned with modern biblical hermeneutics, they do at least call into question if not falsify the idea that the present-day Catholic Church’s understanding of Matthew 16:18-19 is the same as how the Latin West understood it before the Great Schism of 1054 and shortly thereafter.
P.S. My sources come from the Patrologia Latina, which is freely available on Google Books, should anyone feel the need to check my sources.