Was Peter Appointed by Christ to be the Head of the Church?

3524506166_129c91cc2a_zAnglican scholar Edward Denny, in the second chapter of his book Papalism A Treaty on the Claims of the Papacy as set forth in the Encyclical Satis Cognitum by Pope Leo XIII (1912), sets out answer the question “Was St. Peter Appointed by Christ to be the ‘Head of the Church?’” when Jesus said:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The First Vatican Council closed in 1870. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility was still in the air. Could a reunion take place between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church? If a reunion could happen with the Church of England it was possible to spread beyond. Finally the question was answered with the Satis Cognitum, reunion was through absolute submission to the claims of Papalism as expressed in the Satis Cognitum.

What was the Satis Cognitum? In June 1896 the statement from the Roman Catholic Church stated that Christ was “obliged” to designate a “vice-regent on earth”. If Christ was obligated to appoint someone to be in charge of the Church who was it? The answer according to the Satis Cognitum is Peter. The claim the Roman Catholic Church is making and stating in the Satis Cognitum is that when Jesus appointed Peter as head of the Church, he also asserted that the authority would continue to his successors. Bottomline: If Jesus appointed Peter as the head of the Church. He appointed that authority to continue to the next bishop of Rome. If the bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor The Pope is the successor of Peter. If the Pope is the successor of Peter we should be under the Pope. 

The text will become a “Charter of the Papacy” where the Satis Cognitum states:

From this text is is clear that by the will and command of God, the Church rests upon St. Peter just as a building rests on its foundation….It was necessary that a government of this kind, since it belongs to the constitution and formation of the Church as its principal element – that is, as the principle of unity and the foundation of lasting stability – should in no wise come to an end with St. Peter, but should pass to his successors from one to another, the Bishops of Rome” Satis Cognitum, Section 13 (Denny, 39)

The Roman Catholic Church interpreted Peter’s appointment as the head of the Church to continue to the next Bishop of Rome without end. The reasoning for their interpretation was that the office was needed to properly govern the Church.

The significance of this interpretation is not lost on us. If the Roman Catholic Church’s interpretation is the true interpretation, then there is little argument that it could be one of the most important statements in all of Scripture. In fact, if this is the mind of Christ when he speaks in Matthew 16:18, to think of this text in any other way than that of Christ would be heretical. According to their declaration, the understanding that Jesus made Peter the Head of the Church and that authority was to continue to his predecessors, is not a new idea. The claim is that this is not a new opinion but that it was held as the constant belief in every age by all Christians. There are a number of hurdles to jump before granting the Roman Catholic Church this position. Surely one of them would be the historic interpretation of this text. It’s one thing to say “This is what all Christians believed everywhere at all times.” It’s another thing to show it. When we read the Ancient Christians on this text we read that they weren’t so settled on the interpretation.

1. The text means the Church was built upon Peter – 17 Fathers held this view.

Cyril of Alexandria “He called him Peter, a name derived from Petros, a rock, for on him He was going to lay the foundation of His Church.”

2. The rock on which the Church is built signifies all the Apostles whom St. Peter represented when he made his memorable confession – 8 Fathers held this view.

St Jerome “But you say that the Church is founded upon Peter, although the same thing is done in another place upon all the Apostles, and all receive the kingdom of heaven, and the solidity of the Church is established equally upon all, nevertheless one is therefore chosen that by the appointment of a head an occasion of dissension may be taken away.”

3. These words are understood of the Faith which Peter had confessed, that is, that this Faith, this profession of faith, by which we believe that Christ is Son of the loving God, is the eternal and immovable foundation of the Church. – This is by far the most popular view, no less than 40 writers hold this view. People worth mentioning are Gregory of Nysa, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.

Chrysostom “Having said to Peter, “Blessed are thou, Simon Bar-Jonas” and having promised to lay the foundations of the church upon his confession, not long after He says “Get thee behind me, Satan” and again since he had said Son of God to point out that He was Son of God as the other son of Jonas, of the same substance of Him that begat Him, therefore He added this, “And I say unto thee, Thou are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church” that is, upon the Rock of his confession.”

Additionally, this interpretation is adopted in two liturgies – one from the East and one from the West.

4. These words are to be understood of that Rock Whom Peter confessed, i.e. Christ, so that according to the promise here made the Church was build upon Christ Himself. 16 Fathers held this view.

Ambrose “That starry sky…is the high firmament of heaven, nor is this other firmament unlike it, of which it is said, Upon this Rock will I build My Church….They sucked oil out of the firm Rock, for the Rock was the Flesh of Christ, which redeemed heaven and the whole world”

5. By this Rock is to be understood the faithful themselves who believing that Christ is the Son of God, are constituted the living stones out of which the Church is built.

Origen “The Rock is every disciple of Christ, from Whom they drank who drank of the spiritual Rock which followed them, and on every such rock every ecclesiastical word is builded, and the plan of life, according to HIs pattern.

All of this shows the Church Fathers were far from being unanimous in their interpretation of Matthew 16:18. Additionally, there are places where the same Father held different views and even sometimes conflicting views. We can safely conclude this: All Christians in all places and at all times did not believe the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 as given by Roman Catholic Church in the Satis Cognitum. Therefore it is wrong when it says that all Christians in all places and in all times have held this view.

I close quoting Augustine in his work Rectractiones where he writes:

I said in a certain place concerning the Apostle Peter, that the Church is founded on him as on a rock, which meaning is also sung by the mouths of many in the words of the blessed Ambrose, where he says of the Rock, “At his song the rock of the Church wipes away his crime.” But I know that I have afterwards most frequently so expounded the saying of the Lord, Though art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church, as to be understood of Him Whom Peter confessed saying, Thou are the Christ, the Son of the loving God, and so Peter named from this Rock would typify the person of the Church which is built upon the Rock and hath received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, for it was not said to him Though art the Rock [Petra], but thou art Peter. But Christ was the Rock Whom Simon was confessing, as the whole Church confesses Him, was called Peter, but of these two meanings let the reader choose the more probable.”