Upon this Rock

A. Burt Horsley, “Upon This Rock,” in Peter and the Popes(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 29–41.

Around the inside of the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome are inscribed these words: “Tu es petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meant . . . et tibi daba cloves regni caelorum” (A Latin translation of Matthew 16:18–19). These are words spoken directly to Peter by Jesus and not to all the apostles as a quorum.

Many authors, interpreters, and translators have sought to determine from this text the original intent of the writer. However, we are not concerned with the intent of the writer but with that of the speaker, Jesus Christ. The best translation of this text in the Catholic version (the King James Version is practically the same) is, “. . . thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18–19).

It is obvious that the position of the Catholic church, relative to the primacy of Peter rests upon this scripture. Both the doctrine of Petrine priority and the principle of Roman supremacy are derived either directly or by implication from this text. It was to Peter that the revelation was given, “. . . flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

The claim of the Catholic church rests on the idea that the authority bestowed upon Peter has been perpetuated through the centuries in the papacy.

Latter-day Saints accept the presidency of Peter but take the position that the Church was to be built upon the rock of revelation—not on Peter. Further, the point at issue between Latter-day Saints and Catholics is whether there has been an inspired perpetuation and transmission of Petrine primacy or a deviation and departure from the spirit and intent of the conferred divine commission, as recorded in the New Testament.

Of particular significance is the fact that there are various textual problems, not only canonical and theological, but semantic ones. There are also problems that have to do with interpolations and interpretations that we might consider. A person who is inclined to refute the Catholic position on a basis of semantics, that is on the basis of the language, will find that though we may not have the original or true text, that which we do have is quite exact; it is quite clear, and the intent seems to be rather definite if the specific text is read within its context. The Savior had just completed an exchange of compliments with Peter. In the conversation, which was rather casual, Peter had referred to Jesus as the Son of God and had indicated that he knew he was. The Savior had told him that he did not know it by any empirical or rational experience, but that it was through the revelation of God unto him, through the witness of the spirit, that Peter was able to so testify. The Lord then turned and used this idiomatic form, “Thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

If it were a singular situation, the first time that this kind of idiom had been used, we might be inclined to say that the language is twisted a bit; but it is not true. There are other references in the scripture, and it is typical of the Hebrew poetic way of doing things to use this kind of metaphor. Peter is not the only one in scripture who is referred to as a rock on whom the Lord will establish that which he is to establish. For example, writers in the Old Testament, make reference to others as a rock. The Savior himself was referred to as “the rock” or “stone” as was also Abraham, among others (see Deut. 32:4; 2 Samuel 22:32; Ps. 18:2; Isaiah 8:14, and especially in 28:16). In rabbinical literature, this device is used sometimes with parables. In Isaiah 51:1–2, Abraham is designated as the rock, “look unto the rock [from] whence ye are hewn, . . . Look unto Abraham, your father. . . .

There are additional accounts in rabbinical literature which make use of this form. The Midrash refers to Abraham as the rock upon which the world was built. We find in other rabbinical sources similar parables, especially with reference to the patriarchs. In the Pearl of Great Price, the Messiah is referred to as, “the Rock of Heaven” (Moses 7:53).

Philologically speaking, any attempt to interpret the text to suit specific needs is not justified. Some have assumed that a case can be made both for rejecting Peter as the “rock,” since the feminine form of the word rock is in the text in apposition with the feminine word church, and for substituting either revelation or faith. These ideas can be read in only on the basis of one’s own theology or from further knowledge not available within the text itself. The meaning of the text seems to be clear, that if we go back to the original language in which Jesus made the expression, Aramaic, the word “rock” is genderized both masculine and feminine. Some German translators and scholars (Gontard 43) have not developed the semantic implications. There is no reason to assume that Jesus said anything in the original tongue as he spoke it, other than, “thou art a rock and upon this rock I will build my church.”

That revelation is the rock upon which the Church would be built is, however, inescapable. When the Lord gave the injunction to Peter and the Apostles to go forth and establish his kingdom, he made them co-partners with him in a joint enterprise. To be one with him is to be spiritually sensitive to his counsel, to be in accord with his mind and will through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This oneness was one of the “gifts of heaven” to which Peter was entitled as a co-partner. “. . . Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

Though it is true that we do not have revelation in a vacuum, but rather through or unto a “chosen vessel,” it is equally true that without that revelation the “chosen vessel,” whether it be Peter or Abraham or Joseph, would be ineffective and unqualified or unauthorized. In fact, it would be by revelation that such an agent would qualify to be the “chosen vessel.” It is reasonable to assume that the neglect of this principle—Church leaders not honoring, respecting and identifying themselves with continuing inspired direction—would eventually prevent the pure Church from flourishing. It indicates that the concept of needed revelation began to disappear at a very early time. Tertullian accused Proxeas, an early Roman Bishop, of fighting against the gifts of prophesy (Roberts and Donaldson 3:598). It may well be the key to the encroachment of apostasy. The words of the psalmist seem to have prophetic relevance at this point, “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance” (Ps. 79:1).

Before the end of the first century A.D., the Greek mind was doing the thinking for the Church. By the time the Latin-Roman leaders took control of the Christian movement, a pattern was already well established.

Man, as a child of God, has been inclined to assert his independence. There have been historic moments in which he has said, I can do it. I can do it alone. I know, I know, myself.

God seems hesitant to force, to impose His will and counsel. Rather, revelation and inspiration come as a result of felt need for it. There is seldom a reaching down until there is a reaching up. When men are satisfied with the results of their own efforts, with the fruits of their own minds, they often shut themselves off from this source of enlightenment, thus depriving themselves and their whole generation of the gifts of heaven which might otherwise have been theirs.

One cannot read the writings of the early fathers without being impressed that there were vast influential movements contemporary with the developmental period of Christianity And, although Eusebius refers to mid-second century Quadratus as a bishop of great spiritual gifts and leadership; the fact of the matter is, that Christianity had taken a step away from Christ and “into all the world” before the end of the first century (Roberts and Donaldson 3:598). God did not withdraw His spirit suddenly at any one historical moment; rather, man gradually withdrew from the Spirit of God over a longer period of time.

Some change was good, reflecting progressiveness, but much was ill-conceived and uninspired. The process was slow enough in developing that it is possible for us to trace its course. In the writings of some earlier fathers, we find no mention of “gifts of heaven,” “illumination,” and “power” that had been claimed in the New Testament. That an occasional distressed soul had some misgivings about this trend is apparent in the third century writing of Tertullian:

The Lord sent the Paraclete (The Holy Ghost) . . . I have many things to say to you, but ye are not yet able to hear them: When that Spirit of truth shall have come, He will conduct you into all truth and will report what is still to come. . . . What, then, is the Paraclete but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the reform of intellect, the advancement toward the better things? . . . (Ibid.)

Eventually, the combined minds of council and committee solved problems, determined policies, established rituals, and proposed doctrines. In subsequent periods, there were numerous instances of complete confusion and loss of direction. God was being patient while man groped and stumbled in a world gone dark, catching an occasional glimmer of light, but still confused as to its source.

Now let us examine the Roman claims that Peter presided in Rome using the title of bishop and, that from that time on, the title bishop could be used as synonymous with apostle, that the bishops are the successors of the apostles. A polity statement relative to the perpetuity of the primacy of Blessed Peter and the Roman pontiffs, and the fellowship taken from the canons of the Vatican Council of 1870 make clear the traditional position of the Catholic church: “. . . the Roman pontiff is the successor of Peter, . . . full power was given to him . . . by Jesus Christ” (Dogmatic Canons and Decrees 246, ft. nt. 6).

For a long time, Rome based her claim to central authority on the idea of the apostolic founding and the presence of the chief Apostle. [1] After the death of Peter, the idea of Petrine founding alone was not sufficient. Other cities claimed that same distinction (Antioch and maybe Corinth). To establish a stronger case for Roman supremacy, the fiction was invented and became tradition that Peter consecrated his followers in the Roman hierarchy—not merely as bishops, but as successors in his place as apostolic bishop of the Church universal—with the seat of ecclesiastical centrality at Rome.

In the minds of those who cherish the concept of Petrine priority and apostolic presidency, there can be no doubt but that Jesus gave the commission to Peter to feed his sheep. He gave him the keys of the kingdom. This is something that is dear, not only to the Catholics and the Latter-day Saints, but to certain others whose traditions depend upon such a principle. To most Protestants, however, it is unnecessary to perpetuate the idea of Peter’s sole possession of keys of apostolic presidency.

Latter-day Saints have much in common with the Catholics, in contrast with the Protestant position, but it is at this point that they come to a parting of the way.

The question as to whether or not Jesus intended that there should be primacy of one church congregation and one locality over all others, and that it should be vested in the successors of Peter, resident in a specific place, is left in grave doubt because of the text itself. Here the semantics approach can be explored without apology. There is no reference to the fact that his successors are to have the keys perpetuated in them in the bishopric of Rome. There is no reference to the possibility that Peter should be the founder of the church at Rome, and, there is no historical justification for the assumption that he was, although tradition has implied it for a long time. Peter may or may not have preceded Paul to Rome, but the fact is that both of them came to an already existing group of Christian believers.

Another question comes immediately to mind with reference to what Peter was doing in the time prior to his arrival at Rome. If he founded another church before he arrived in Rome, then certainly, that church should be the church of primacy and the See of Peter, not Rome. There was a strong tradition in the early centuries that Peter founded the church at Antioch and was its bishop. Neither Catholic nor Protestant historians have historically resolved the question of Rome’s status of primacy or the identity of Peter as exclusive successor in any final sense of the word.

Is it possible that Peter did, perhaps with the assistance of Paul, ordain one or more bishops to preside over the separate congregations in Rome? The answer might well be in the affirmative. If this is so, does that in any way do away with the apostolate? Does not the apostolic authority continue to function in spite of the fact that there are also bishoprics established? Certain of our early fathers have provided us with some insight in this matter. Addressing Bishop Gaudentius in his preface to Clement’s Book of Recognitions, Rufinus Tyrannius, one of our earliest sources wrote:

For some ask, since Linus and [Ana] Cletus were bishops in the city of Rome before this Clement, how could Clement himself, writing to James, say that the chair of teaching was handed over to him by Peter? Now of this we have heard this explanation, that Linus and Cletus were indeed bishops in the city of Rome before Clement, but during the lifetime of Peter: that is, that they undertook the care of the episcopate, and that he fulfilled the office of apostleship; as is found also to have been the case at Caesarea, where, when he himself was present, he yet had Zacchaeus, ordained by himself, as bishop. And in this way both statements will appear to be true, both that these bishops are reckoned before Clement, and yet that Clement received the teacher’s seat on the death of Peter (Roberts and Donaldson 8:76).

This in no way implies that Peter himself was a bishop at the expense of his apostolate, but rather that he was functioning as an apostle who consecrates bishops. Another thing which seems to provide a good deal of controversy and was one of the earliest stumbling blocks for the Catholic claim is the fact that traditionally, in the first lists of the bishops of Rome which we have available (the first one being from Irenaeus), Peter was not listed as the first bishop of Rome, but as the consecrator of the first bishop of Rome who was Linus. In the first list of Irenaeus, with reference to the early pontiffs of Rome, Peter was left out of the lineup. In subsequent references, he began to be included as the first bishop, preceding Linus, Anacletus, Clement and Evaristus, etc. It is significant to note, for example, that Eusebius says, “Linus was the first to obtain the episcopate of the Church at Rome” (Ibid. 1:416). Irenaeus writes, “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of episcopate” (Ibid. 415). Yes, the early lists of bishops are very explicit in listing Linus as the first bishop, and yet, in the quote from Rufinus already cited, it is clear that some considered Clement to be Peter’s direct successor but distinguished as late as the end of the fourth century between the office of bishop and apostle.

There may be some justification for the conclusion that Peter took on the role of presiding bishop as well as apostolic president, but there is no evidence that he telescoped all of the apostolate into the bishopric. This was accomplished by subsequent Christian leaders. Thus, history leaves us with several unanswered questions.

The issue of Petrine authority in Rome is further confounded by the fact that the Apostle Paul seems to have played a very prominent role. The question may well be asked: If Peter was the authority in Rome, and spoke for the church from Rome, did not Paul exercise apostolic authority and counsel also, since the letters to the early church, for the most part, were written by Paul, some, apparently from Rome? Could there have been a Pauline congregation or branch in Rome, contemporary with that of Peter’s? There is also a further complication in the matter of establishing the Petrine authorship of the letters ascribed to Peter. With the exception of some adamant Catholic writers, many scholars today, including some Latter-day Saint authors, are inclined to refute the Petrine authority of the epistles of Peter primarily on the basis of an anachronism because they contain information and make reference to things not associated with his time but with a later period. With reference to such anachronisms and similar problems, one Latter-day Saint author has the following to say:

Scholars are divided as to the time when [1 Peter] was written. . . . The chief reason which makes scholars regard the letter as not from Peter is the remarkably high quality of the Greek, the close similarity and even dependence upon not only the thought, but even the language of Paul’s Letters (at that time not yet collected). And most difficult of all is the problem of the persecution itself. There was no known outbreak during the life of Peter, even the attack of Nero, which could in any sense be called widespread as was the situation of the saints to whom this epistle was addressed (“Acts and Epistles” 264–84).

With further reference to 2 Peter, the work continues to justify such a conclusion:

No New Testament document is more obviously the work of another hand than that of its purported author. . . . From 2:1–23 it follows quite literally the account of Jude 4–18. It is inconceivable that the Apostle Peter would have to depend upon a secondary source like that for his teachings (Ibid.)

If Peter died in the Neronian persecution at Rome, and the letters ascribed to him were composed in a later period, then obviously Peter could not have written them. Thus the controversies and questions posed with reference to this problem make for interesting study, but the theories and purported answers have never provided conclusive evidence for the support of one position or another (Ibid.) It is significant, however, to note that Rome assumed this general role of superintendency quite gracefully, and emerged gradually as the mother church. In the very earliest centuries there is evidence of an attempt to claim this exclusive role. On the other hand, there were frequent attempts made to resist the exercise of it on the part of Rome. It was not until much later that the Roman church could proceed without fear of counterclaims against its assumption of Petrine priority and Roman supremacy.

Certain incidents stand out in which Rome began to emerge, in the thinking of the Catholic church, as the ecclesia, or the church built upon the rock—the rock of the authority vested in Peter.

By 1909, however, there was divided opinion even among Catholic writers as to the explicit establishment of the church on the rock. For example, of about 85 Catholic Fathers polled, 17 regarded Peter as the rock; 44 regarded Peter’s confession, that is, his faith, as the rock; 16 felt that Christ himself was the rock; and 8 were of the opinion that the church is built upon all of the Apostles (Drummelow 681).

What are some of the situations in which Rome did begin to emerge as the ecclesia built upon the rock? Some have contended that Clement’s epistle from Rome to Corinth, written about A.D. 96, implies more than mere counsel and, indeed, could be interpreted as an assumption of superintendency and authority at that early time. Clement was the third of the popes according to Irenaeus, and his letter is, perhaps, one of the most interesting of the early noncanonical writings relative to the New Testament era. It reveals a great deal of information and is considered by some to be one of the finest writings to come out of this period. He was, possibly, the first bishop of Rome to issue what we would call an encyclical—a letter from Rome explaining the counsel and instruction of the bishop there in certain matters. Others have failed to recognize that any such assertion of Roman primacy is even implied in the letter.

About the same time, the peculiar position of the bishop was acknowledged by Ignatius of Antioch in his famous letter which was written about A.D. 107, on the eve of his martyrdom (Petry 9). Although the Roman traditionalists have held that Ignatius had in mind the bishop of Rome, there is no explicit reference to him as such.

Reference has already been made to the first list of Irenaeus which shows Linus as first bishop of Rome, but it also indicates instances in which his successors attempted, very early, to play the role of general superintendents. Shortly thereafter, in the time of Victor I (Victor I being about the thirteenth or fourteenth pope, reigning during the years A.D.I 89–198), there is a striking example of Roman authority which was exercised to compel the apostolic church of Ephesus in matters of liturgy (Fremantle 36–38). And, it has been asserted that around A.D. 249, Saint Cyprian of Carthage was influenced by the counsel of the bishop of Rome, who was also credited with correcting the theology of the bishop of Alexandria.

Among these accounts there are also the examples of both resistance to such central assertion of authority, and of situations in which other churches have asserted authority. An example is the later period of Saint Ambrose of Milan. There is no question but that he was the great leading light and figure of the church of that time. A man who not only controlled emperors and dominated the society and happenings around him, Ambrose is a rather impressive example of what could happen in the early church. He was not even a Christian when he supervised the election of a new bishop in the city of Milan—at that time bishops were elected by the voice of the people as well as by the voice of the clergy. However, Roman governmental agents refereed the church electors and, Ambrose, working for the government—attempting to find out the wishes and the will of the people in this respect—was inquiring around the great hall of Milan. In the midst of his supervisory work there, some child from the gallery seems to have spotted him and cried out, “Ambrose is Bishop.” The words electrified the people. The chant was taken up and the whole electorate was fired with enthusiasm. Ambrose, who was not even a member of the church, was elected bishop of Milan by acclamation. Of course, the formalities of baptism were duly seen to and he was consecrated to take over the position. So it happened, that in a very early period of the church, at the beginning of the fourth century, a Christian convert bishop, who did not live in Rome and was not of the See of Peter, was more influential in the church and had greater power and influence than any of his contemporaries, including the Pope.

There are, of course, other instances of influence outside Rome, particularly in the Eastern church, where an autonomous attitude was persistently maintained. Nevertheless, Rome did begin to emerge as the mother church. This may have been, in part, due to Rome’s unique position as hub of the empire, at least until Constantine’s removal of the capital to Byzantium. And, even when the assumption of primacy met with resistance, there were enough times when it was asserted with authority and backing that Rome perpetuated herself in this role. The significant thing is that the church did eventually emerge with emphasis on the authority of the See of Peter. The episcopate of Rome began to appear, to most of Christendom, to be the seat of government of the whole church.

Because of Rome’s distinctive position in the West and the church’s support of the state, the eventual intrusion of politics helped to solidify the Roman primary. Yet, still unanswered by the historians, however, was the question, was the church built upon Peter in Rome or upon revelation to and through the chief apostle wherever he might have been?

The ecclesiological emphasis up to this point has not accounted for the process by which certain foreign elements crept into the Christian movement, with the gospel itself evolving into a philosophical doctrine as well as a theological pattern. With the persistent attempt to identify not only Peter, but also the central life source of the whole movement with Rome, the outcome would be inevitable. The Roman way of life, with its many cultural components—including some Greek enlightenment and nominal portions of the religion of Jesus—eventually became synonymous with the increasingly popular, though clandestine, religion known as Christianity.


[1] David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964), p. 89. After relating the story from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Book 35, of Peter’s returning to Rome after meeting the Lord, the author suggests that, if it is true, it is based on legend and tradition. Many assert that where Mark was, there also was Peter, since Mark was his secretary. Several references in the scriptures have Mark in Rome. Whether written by Peter or not, 1 Peter 5:13 has Peter referring to Mark as “my son.” “[The Church] that is in Babylon (i.e. Rome), elect together with you, saluteth you, and so doth Mark my son.” In Revelations 17:5, 18, “Babylon”/ Rome, that Mother of Harlots “the great city which reigneth over the Kings of the earth.” 41