A scholarly look at the meaning of Matt. 16:18

I have been doing some research into the foundations of Catholic Theology. Last night I studied a passage that is central to the Catholic Doctrine of Apostolic Succession. Here are some quotes from Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew with one from D.A. Carson.

“Although it is true that petros and petra can mean ‘stone’ and ‘rock’ respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover, the underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepha was used in both clauses (‘you are kepha‘ and ‘on this kepha‘), since the word was used both for a name and for a ‘rock.’ The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses. The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name.” (Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan, 1984], volume 8, page 368, as cited in Butler/Dahlgren/Hess, page 17-18)

Some scholars, especially from among the Roman Catholics, have insisted that Jesus is saying that Peter is the rock on which the whole church is to be built, and accordingly that only the church that can claim to be built on the apostle is the true church. But it is not easy to establish that the whole of the early church was built on the foundation of Peter, and what are we to say of the descendants of the non-Petrine churches? And so in later times with, for example, the churches of the Reformation that separated from the churches that professed a connection with Peter. Are we to say that because they understand this passage in a different way they are no part of the true church? Moreover, the statement that the rock is Peter is true only as we keep in mind what that apostle has just said; it is not Peter simply as Peter but Peter who has confessed Jesus as the Messiah who is the church’s foundation on whom the church is to be built. We must not separate the man from the words he has just spoken. From the earliest times it has been recognized that Peter’s faith is important for an understanding of the passage. Thus Chrysostom cites the words “upon this rock will I build my Church” and immediately goes on, “that is, on the faith of his confession” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew (NPNF, 1st ser ., p. 333). Any interpretation that minimizes the importance of the faith that found expression in Peter’s words is to be rejected. Barclay puts it this way: Jesus “did not mean that the Church depended on Peter, as it depended on Himself, and on God the Rock, alone. He did mean that the Church began with Peter; in that sense Peter is the foundation of the Church” (II, p. 141).

We should also bear in mind McNeile’s point that to address Peter as this would be strange immediately following the direct address “You are Peter.” Why would Jesus not continue with something like “and upon you I will build my church”? This would be more natural if Jesus were addressing the whole group rather than Peter himself. And if Peter was here given the chief place, the question of the disciples just a little later as to who would have that place (18:1) is inexplicable. They at any rate knew nothing of Peter as the supreme pontiff.

There is no doubting that Peter is assigned a preeminence (which we see clearly in the early chapters of Acts), but it is not an absolute preeminence and we must be careful in defining it. In any case there is no mention of any successors of Peter; whatever position is assigned to him is personal and not transmissible to those who would succeed him. Jesus is speaking of the apostle and not of those who followed him. The early church knows nothing of a personal headship over the church possessed by Peter. He, together with John, was “sent” by the church (Acts 8:14), he is called by the church to give an account of himself (Acts 11:1–18), it is James, not Peter, who presides over the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and Paul rebukes him sharply (Gal. 2:11–14). That Peter was a great apostle, widely honored in the early church, is clear. That he was the earthly head of the church is not.

What does it mean to bind and loose?
Jesus continues with the promise that he will make Peter a gift, where the future tense probably points to the time subsequent to the resurrection (about which Jesus is about to speak, v. 21). He says that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom, of course, is not to be identified with the church. The kingdom has reference to the divine rule; the church to the people of God. They are closely related, but not identical. The key lends itself to metaphorical uses (e.g., the key of knowledge, Luke 11:52). It is an obvious symbol for admitting people through a door, but it was also used for exercising authority (the steward rather than the porter). We should understand it here in close connection with Peter’s confession of faith: it was on the basis of his confession and not on that of personal abilities that Peter was given the keys. In the Lucan passage the lawyers were excluding people from the knowledge of God by their handling of Scripture. Later in this Gospel Matthew will report that Jesus spoke of the scribes and Pharisees as shutting up the kingdom before people and thus preventing them from entering (23:13). Peter, by contrast, was to open the way. We see him doing this in Acts 2 and 3, where his preaching brought many into the kingdom, and in Acts 10, where he opened the way for the Gentile Cornelius to come in. We should see another aspect of the use of the keys in Acts 8:20–23, where he is excluding an impenitent sinner. And while the gift of the keys indicates that Peter is clearly given a certain primacy, we should not exaggerate this. The right to bind and loose , here connected with the gift of the keys, is given to the disciples as a whole in 18:18; thus we are not to think of Peter as elevated to a plane above all the others.
Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (425–426). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

My concluding thoughts on Leon Morris and Matt. 16:18:

All of the apostles are the foundation of the church according to Eph. 2:20. It is the case with Peter that he is, chronologically the first apostle to preach and lead people into the kingdom (i.e. keys to the kingdom) as seen in Acts chapter 2. The church started with Peter preaching, and subsequently the other apostles came alongside of him. All of the apostles, in the form of their doctrines, are the foundation stones of the church. Peter was the first of these stones to be laid, and in that sense he has chronological preeminence. It is important to note here that the NT is the foundation of the church and it was written by the apostles, and in this manner their teachings are what the church is built on. The survival of the Apostolic writings, which was made possible through the preaching of Peter, is what the church has been built on for the past 2,000 years.