Thinking about Matthew 16 and the Papacy

Recently, I participated in a discussion over at a forum with some of the folks from Called to Communion. It was interesting that, although Greenbaggins, the moderator, set the discussion as dealing with the Papacy, almost all these Catholics were doing is attacking Sola Scriptura. So, I of course, jumped in, and dealt with the arguments. The only real surprise here is that they tried to argue that they followed evidence that Rome was true. Of course, that is self-defeating, as that means they are following their own “private interpretation,” which they have already decried us for doing. However, the response was a post of this article which, again, bases the validity of these interpretations of history and scripture on the church. So, we have made the circle bigger, but it is still a circle:

How do you know the church is infallible?
Because of examining evidence.
How do you know your examination of the evidence is correct?
Because the church is infallible.

They have made the circle bigger, but it is still a circular argument. It still all rests upon a limited, finite church, rather than upon God himself, and any view of language that makes validity dependent upon the limited and finite is simply not strong enough to keep it from sinking down into the sands of postmodernism. Worse than that, they kept on saying that they denied that they were arguing that the Papacy is true because the church says so. However, if you are not arguing that, then why did we start with an attack on Sola Scriptura, and why did the thread go for hundreds of posts before we finally got to the topic of the Papacy?

Thankfully, I had an opportunity to dialogue with Jason Stellman, who recently left my denomination through the influence of these folks. Thankfully, he did not go back to Rome as the foundation for why his interpretations are right. However, again, you have to be able to answer the question “How do you know that your private interpretation is correct, and not someone else’s such as James White or William Webster?” He had the answer which I believe is right, and that is that we are all responsible before God for how we interpret these things. And, of course, I agree, but why can’t that be applied to scripture as well? Why can’t we say that it is a moral and ethical issue as to how you handle scripture?

However, that is not what I wish to focus on here. All of that was fascinating, and Sola Scriptura is foundational to this discussion, but what got my wheels turning is a discussion of Matthew 16. The Roman Catholics from CtC were absolutely certain that this text teaches that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built. I decided to pull out my Greek New Testament, and see if I could make some observations. I have written on New Testament before, but I admit, I am not as good in New Testament as I am in Old Testament. However, the more time I have spent with this text in devotion over the last few days, the more I have come to the conclusion that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Church authority, much less some office called the Papacy.

The text is very well known. It reads:

Matthew 16:18-19 “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Of course, Catholics will argue that Peter is the Rock, and that the church is built on him. However, in my mind, this whole interpretation is way too atomistic. Let us go back, and examine this episode, what led up to it, and apply some linguistic principles to see if we can come to a more accurate conclusion as to what Jesus was saying.

The text begins with Jesus asking two questions of his disciples. He says:

Matthew 16:13-16 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I believe these two questions need to be taken as a unit. They are clearly parallel. However, what is also interesting from a textlinguistic point of view is the pronouns. Jesus is speaking to his disciples [verse 13]. The way Jesus uses the pronouns to refer to his disciples in this passage is very interesting. I am particularly referring to the use of the personal deictic pronoun “you” in verse 15. First of all, very clearly, the “you” in verse 15 is referring to the disciples. Second person deictic pronouns refer to the addressee, who is, in this case, the “them.” However, there is a very clear parallel to verse 13, and the phrase “He was asking His disciples,” and thus, it makes it more than certain that the addressee of verse 15 is the disciples. This is confirmed by the use of the plural pronoun υμεις for “you” in verse 15.

However, what is more interesting is how the distribution of pronouns can show the distinctions in a speaker’s view of reality. What I am referring to here is what Barbara Johnstone states in her textbook on Discourse Analysis:

Any choice about what to say or how to say it can function strategically, or can be interpreted as having a strategic goal. The only way to discover what aspects of discourse are in ideological service in a given instance is by looking at particular texts; [Johnstone, Barbara. Discourse Analysis. Second edition. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, Massachusetts. 2008. p.61]

Johnstone goes on to list the following as one question we should be asking ourselves:

How do pronouns help “position” speakers, addressees, characters in discourse? [Johnstone, ibid.]

Now, going back to our text, let us examine a crucial distinction in pronouns between Jesus’ first question and his second question:

Matthew 16:13 He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Matthew 16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Very clearly, because of the use of the “you,” Jesus is now trying to draw a distinction between the average people around him, and his disciples. Very clearly, Jesus views his disciples as different from the rest of those with whom he has interacted. Whether that is because he knows their heart, and thus, what their answer to the question is, or because he is simply their friend, or both, he clearly is “positioning” his disciples as distinct from the rest of men.

What is interesting is, because of the fact that the “you” of verse 15 is referring to the disciples, the answer that Peter gives in verse 16 is what *all* the disciples believe about who the Son of Man is. Hence, the force of the text would be thus:

Matthew 16:15-16 He said to them, “But who do you [my disciples] say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “[We say that] You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The added “we say that” can be arrived at via I-implicature. Peter does not have to repeat the words “we say that” in order to get across the point that this is what the disciples say. Other examples of such implicature can be found in statements like:

What do you think about the murder last week?
It is horrible.
+>The responder thinks that the murder is horrible.

In this conversation, very clearly, the responder intends a particularized conversational implicature from the context that when he says the “It is horrible,” he is expressing what he thinks.

The same thing holds true for our text. Peter is expressing, not only what he believes, therefore, but what *all* the disciples believe.

However, what is interesting is another kind of positioning that takes place in this text. Notice the way in which the pronoun “they” verses the personal name “Simon Peter” “positions” the speakers differently:

Matthew 16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Matthew 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In the one case, you have all of the disciples answering, and giving various things that men think about him. However, in verse 16, you have Peter alone specifically answering. That will become important as well.

Now, we move on to the next portion of the text, and that is Jesus’ blessing. However, we must keep this background material in mind:

Matthew 16:17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Now, interestingly enough, the pronoun “you” changes from the plural to the singular. Now, very clearly, Jesus is addressing Peter. Before we answer this question, we must answer why Jesus says Peter is blessed. Some will say that Peter is blessed because he is the only one who spoke up, and the fact that, as we have previously pointed out, all the disciples spoke up the first time, and only Peter spoke up the second time would seem to confirm that. However, it doesn’t fit very well with Jesus’ statement. Jesus says that Peter is blessed because this truth was revealed to Peter by the Father, not because he was the one who spoke up.

I think at this point one has to ask, given that Peter has just said that this is the confession of all the apostles, and given that such faith comes from the working of God, is it really rational to conclude that Peter was the only apostle to whom the father revealed this, and the other apostles learned it through flesh and blood? Makes no sense whatsoever. Hence, we have to reckon with the fact that the foundation of Peter receiving this blessing is the same foundation all of the apostles have. And yet, Peter is singled out. I believe that this conflict will be answered as we go through the rest of the passage.

Matthew 16:18 “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

Much ink has been spilled over this verse. Some say Peter is the rock. Some say the confession is the rock. Some say Peter is the rock, but that all the bishops of the church hold the chair of Peter. However, as we have already said, the blessing found in these verses is ultimately because Peter believes something that was revealed to him from the father, but not only to him, but the rest of the disciples as well. Hence, it seems more likely to take this as Peter’s confession of faith, with the two different words for “rock” here, Πετρος and πετρα, simply used as a word play.

Matthew 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

The interesting thing about this text is that you have something similar in Matthew 18, and all the disciples receive the keys:

Matthew 18:15-19 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.

The language here is extremely similar to Matthew 16. Not only that, we are in the same book only two chapters later. However, here, in verse 18, the “you” is very clearly plural [υμιν], and thus, Jesus is bestowing this power upon all of the disciples, not just Peter. This should not surprise us since, as we have seen, all the disciples hold to this confession, and this confession is the basis for the blessing Peter receives.

I believe we have enough information now to solve the afore mentioned problem. The Roman Catholic is using Matthew 16:19 in such a way that he is garnering several Q-implicatures:

Matthew 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
+>I will give you alone the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
+>Whatever you alone bind on earth will be bound in heaven
+>Whatever you alone loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

However, as I have pointed out before, Q-implicatures can be defeated by context, and in the context, as we have already seen, the text says that the father has revealed this to all of the disciples, as Peter’s answer is not to the question of who he says Jesus is, but who *all* the disciples say Jesus is. It is this contextual consideration that I would say defeats the above Q-implicatures.

Now, one last crucial problem, and that is why it is that Peter seems to be the only one who is addressed in verses 17-19. I think the key comes in the distinction in pronouns we have already made. Remember, we said that *all* the disciples answered the question as to who other men said Jesus was, but it was only Simon Peter who answered the question as to who the disciples said Jesus was:

Matthew 16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Matthew 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Also, what is interesting is the division of plural pronouns used to refer to the disciples verses singular pronouns used to refer to Peter. The patterning goes like this:

Plural vrs. 13-16
Singular vrs. 17-19

The interesting thing about this is that the singular pronouns referring to Peter begin right after Peter’s statement of the disciples’ faith in verse 16. So, the author very clearly making Peter speaking up crucial here. It is this reason that I believe Jesus starts addressing Peter directly. While all the disciples have this blessing, the reason Peter is singled out is because he is the one who spoke out.

Hence, one begins to see that the issue here is not really authority, but boldness in proclamation of the truth of who Christ is. All the disciples should have answered Jesus’ question as to who he was every bit as fast they answered Jesus’ question as to who men say that he is. The problem is that they didn’t do it. This showed they were more comfortable proclaiming what men think than what the Father had revealed to them. Jesus completely reverses this, and points out that proclaiming who Christ really is shows just how blessed you really are. The point of the message then is that the disciples should not be afraid to proclaim who Christ is, because, in so doing, they are showing that they are blessed of God, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to them, and, as a result, they have the foundation of the church as well as the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

I think we can show that our interpretation is on the right track by what follows:

Matthew 16:20-21 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Obviously, the text does not mean that the disciples should never tell anyone ever that Jesus is the Christ. The point is that Jesus has a mission he needs to accomplish first, and hence, he cannot have them proclaiming this message just yet. However, what is the reason he would have to charge them not to tell anyone? Some would say because they just found out that he was the Christ. However, that doesn’t work, since, as we have already seen, this is what all the disciples believed. However, if Jesus had just finished telling them how blessed they are, and how they can show their blessedness by proclaiming such truth, he would need to charge them to not do this until after he and died and risen from the grave.

That also makes Peter’s response all the more understandable. He is [so he thinks] still trying to proclaim the truth of who Christ is. If he is the messiah, the Son of God, there is no way anyone is going to kill him! Yet, Jesus rebukes such thinking as Satanic, because it is rooted in the things of man, not the things of God. Peter has a misconception of what the Messiah, the Son of God, should be. He thinks he should be someone who could never suffer this fate. Yet, this is not the things of God. God’s plan and God’s purpose must be fulfilled, and it is Satanic to suggest otherwise.

Also, the parallel passages add an interesting verse at the end of this pericope which really helps in understanding the context of confession of Christ:

Mark 8:38 “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

Luke 9:26 “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

The significance of these two texts should not be underestimated. Peter, although he rightly confessed who Christ was, still did not truly understand the full extent of what that meant. Peter should not be ashamed of a Messiah who will suffer and die. He should be every bit as bold in proclaiming a suffering Messiah as he is a Messiah that is indestructible. However, proclaim he must, and admit who Christ is, he must. This fits very nicely with our understanding of Matthew 16:13-19.

Hence, I would say that the text is not about church authority at all. The text is talking about proclaiming Christ, and that those who truly have had the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God revealed to them by the father all bear the foundation upon which the church is built, and the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we should not be ashamed to proclaim who Christ is before men. Christians truly are a blessed people, and we should not be ashamed to say who the giver of these blessings is.

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