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Is Peter Really the Foundation of the Church?

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How can the Catholic church teach that Peter is the rock or the foundation of the church when St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3:11 that there is no other foundation besides Jesus?


Cy Kellett:
Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus, I’m Cy Kellett, your host, joined in studio by Karlo Broussard, apologist here at Catholic Answers and author of a couple of very fine books, including Prepare the Way and Meeting the Protestant Challenge. Hello, Karlo.

Karlo Broussard:
Hey son. I thank you for saying they’re fine books. I appreciate that.

Cy Kellett:
They are fine books-

Karlo Broussard:
Because they could just be-

Cy Kellett:
Very fine print. I had trouble reading them. I put my glasses on. I’ve got a challenge for you today-

Karlo Broussard:
Okay, man, let’s take it.

Cy Kellett:
… regarding the person of Peter. This is one that we often hear in the contemporary world. Basically how can the Catholic church teach that Peter is the rock or the foundation of the church when Paul teaches in the first letter to the Corinthians 3:11 that there is no other foundation except Jesus? How do you fix that?

Karlo Broussard:
Yes. This is a common challenge that’s posed to us. And it would seem on the surface that when Paul says there is no other foundation to lay except Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians 3:11, that our belief that Peter is the foundation of the church seems to contradict that, right? How do we meet this challenge? Well, this is a challenge that I address in my book, Meeting the Protestant Challenge, and I offer a few ways that we can meet it. First of all, we have to keep in mind that in the Bible, metaphors and symbols are often used in more than one way. Or to state it differently, you can have one metaphor or motif that’s being used for two different reference, like to be used for two different things, right? For example, let’s take Jesus the builder in Matthew 16:18, right? “I will build my church.”

Cy Kellett:
Yes, right.

Karlo Broussard:
Well in that very same text in 1 Corinthians 3, just one verse before in verse 10, Paul tells us that other people are building on the one foundation who is Jesus, right? Notice Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10 is saying that there are others, besides Jesus, who are building up the church, okay? Within the context, he’s talking about Christian ministers, and then by way of extension, all Christians in some way participate in building up the church. But yet in Matthew 16:18 is Jesus who’s the one building the church. Notice the metaphor of the builder of the church. One metaphor can be used for two reference, two different things. In one case Jesus, in the other case Christian ministers and by way of extension, all Christians. We can use other examples, right? We can appeal to other examples within scripture. St. Peter tells us that Jesus is “the living stone rejected by men” in 1 Peter 2:4. But yet, that same Peter in the very next verse in verse five says we’re all “living stones built into a spiritual house”. A living stone, there’s the metaphor, but it’s being used for two different things here, right? It can be used in more than one way. Jesus is the good shepherd in John 10:11, but yet clearly, Jesus makes Peter the shepherd of his church in John 21:15-17, “Feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep, feed my sheep.” And then we could also throw in, this little light of mine, right? Jesus is the light of the world, John 9:5. But yet, we’re told in Matthew 5:14, that we’re all “the light of the world”. Notice how in all of these examples, you have one metaphor that’s being used for two reference, used for two different things. Now, we could employ an argument here based on this data and with this data, we could ask ourselves, “Well, okay, well, what happens if we applied the logic of the challenge to this data, this data set, that we’ve just looked at light of the world, living stones, being a builder of the church?” If we apply the logic of the challenge, we’re going to have to say, “Well, wait a minute, Paul was wrong for saying that Christians are building up the church because Jesus is the one builder, right? Well, obviously, that’s absurd. Or we could say Peter’s wrong for calling us living stones because Jesus is the living stone. Or we can’t be the light of the world, so Jesus must have been mistaken because he said that he was the light of the world, right?
Notice how the logic embedded in the challenge is a double-edged sword. It’s being attempted to undermine our belief, but it brings down a whole host of other things that Christians accept such as us being the light of the world, living stones, and us Christians cooperating with Christ to build up the church.

Cy Kellett:
All of those examples you use, it strikes me as you’re saying it, they seem to be that all of these things are because they are true about Jesus and he confers them on us, they’re also true about us. It’s not true that this is a natural quality of Peter. This is something that Jesus himself, drawing on his own power, has conferred upon Peter.

Karlo Broussard:
Yeah, and actually that’s the third way in my book when I address this challenge. That’s basically the third way that I help you meet the challenge is to show and say, “Well, listen, we’re not saying that Peter is the foundation of Jesus’s church here on earth apart from Jesus, it’s only in and through Jesus.” Just like, we’re not the light of the world apart from Jesus but only in as much as we’re in Jesus. We’re living stones only in as much as we’re in Christ-

Cy Kellett:
Yes, that’s what I was going to-

Karlo Broussard:
We’re building up the church, right, only in as much as we’re in Christ and being his hands and his feet here on earth to build up the church here on earth. The metaphor of being the foundation of Jesus’ church in no way takes away from Jesus as literally the one ultimate foundation. Of course, he’s the ultimate foundation, but you use the very key word side when you said confer. Christ confers upon Peter this participation in being the foundation. Now, speaking of foundation, what’s interesting is that even the metaphor of foundation itself is used in more than one way. For example, in Ephesians 2:19-20, St. Paul says that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” So there, Paul is using the metaphor foundation in reference to the apostles and prophets, okay? Think about this. If we’re not going to have a problem, if our Christian brethren out there, those who are posing the challenge to us, if they’re not going to have a problem with the apostles being a foundation of the church in light of Jesus being the one foundation; well, then they shouldn’t have a problem with us saying Peter is the foundation of the church, even though Jesus is the one foundation, you see? Or to state it differently, we construct the argument this way. If we reject the metaphor of foundation being applied to Peter, because Jesus is the one foundation, well, then we’re going to have to reject the metaphor of foundation being applied to the apostles because Jesus is the one foundation. But of course, that’s absurd, right? Even the foundation metaphor is being used in more than one way, being used for Jesus. But at the very same, Paul uses it in reference to the apostles. And so if that’s kosher, right, if that’s legitimate, if we can do that, if we can accept that, then we shouldn’t have a problem accepting the foundation metaphor being applied to Peter, even though Jesus is the one foundation. Metaphors can be used in more than one way. And what this does is it tells us that we need to be very careful in reading the context in which the metaphor is being used, in order to see how it’s being used, right? We can say as Catholics that the metaphor of foundation, the foundation metaphor, can be used for Peter and the apostles, right? Because in different contexts, the metaphor is being used in a different way. With regard to Peter is being used in a unique way because Christ is constituting Peter as this visible principle of unity of the entire church, including the apostles. And he makes him the foundation in an exclusive way in Matthew 16:18. When Paul’s referring to the apostles as “the foundation of the church”, we affirm that as Catholics and say, “Amen.” But those apostles were foundational members of the church only in as much as they are united with Peter, the visible foundation of Christ church here on earth.

Cy Kellett:
Right, right. Okay, so the objection then that it’s wrong to call Peter the foundation of the church, we can overcome that by, in part, by saying the metaphor is used in different ways when applied to Jesus and applied to Peter.

Karlo Broussard:
Metaphors in general, and then the specific metaphor of the foundation.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, but then what about the… What does that mean, that Peter is the foundation of the church?

Karlo Broussard:
Oh, yes. Yeah, so what is the import? What is the significance of him being the rock of the church or the foundation?

Cy Kellett:
Exactly.

Karlo Broussard:
Now, keep in mind, there are other challenges that our Protestant friends make to the belief that Peter is the visible foundation of the church. This is just one among many that we’re addressing in this particular episode. And maybe perhaps we can address other challenges in other episodes of Catholic Answers Focus. But the significance of Peter being the foundation is because it reveals to us that Peter is the visible principle and source of unity, the principle by which we’re able to identify the church of Jesus. Because wherever the foundation is upon which Christ promises to build his church, there will be the true church of Jesus. It serves as our identifying marker, the identifying marker that allows us to know or identify, right, the true church of Jesus Christ. As opposed to any other group that might splinter off or that might come up and say, “Hey, where are the true church of Jesus? We’re the original community.” Okay, well, are you built upon the foundation? Right?

Cy Kellett:
I see.

Karlo Broussard:
And the answer is no. You look for the foundation, namely Peter, and there you will find the true church of Jesus. Because remember, this metaphor of the rock upon which Christ is building his church should be read in light of. The parable Jesus gives, I think it’s in Matthew 7, if my memory serves me correctly here, where Jesus talks about “the wise man building his house upon the rock and the fool building his house upon sand,” right?

Cy Kellett:
Yes. Right.

Karlo Broussard:
There’s a clear parallel there. Jesus is the wise man building his church, his house, upon the rock who is Peter, this visible foundation. Wherever the foundation is, there’s going to be the true household of Jesus Christ, namely the church. Peter serves as that visible principle of unity in the church of Jesus Christ, and that’s the significance of Peter being the foundation of course. And of course being the visible principle of unity, that makes him the leader of the first century church, and by way of extension, his successors and the Bishop of Rome being leaders of Christ church throughout all generations.

Cy Kellett:
Most Christians acknowledge this. Even Orthodox Christians acknowledge, but they would disagree maybe about how it should be practiced. But they don’t deny Peter’s central role.

Karlo Broussard:
We have to parse it out a little bit. You have some Christians who will just say Peter didn’t have any primary leadership role in the early church amongst Protestant groups. Some Protestant Christians will say Peter, sure, yeah, he was the foundation of the church for the first century and he had a leadership role for the first century. But since all of the apostles died off, there is no such role of leadership in the church today, and so thus they will deny Apostolic succession. Allowing for Peter’s leadership role in the first century, but no role as such continuing in the church outside of the apostolic age. But then our Orthodox brothers and sisters, right, they will acknowledge that Peter has a primacy of honor, like he has a role of honor, but they will disagree with us concerning the implications of Peter, as you mentioned, exercising his role as an apostle in the sense of being the leader of the apostles and exercising an authority over and above the apostles in being that visible principal and source of unity. Now we acknowledged that Peter, like the other apostles, is an apostle, and he’s a Bishop like the other… Well, I mean, the bishop has the fullness of the Apostolic office, just not being a witness of the resurrected Lord. The apostles have a primacy there, right, as apostle. But they all possess the episcopate in full, right? But amongst that college of the apostles, as Catholics, we argue that Jesus appointed Peter to be that source of unity for the college of the 12, and then consequently by way of extension for the entire universal church itself. And by virtue of being that principle of unity, he has an authority to govern the universal church as the universal shepherd. And those are aspects where we’re going to differ with our Orthodox brethren.

Cy Kellett:
Got it. What seems to seal the deal for me, and I have to admit as a Catholic, it’s hard for me to see why this doesn’t seal the deal for other people, it’s the changing of Peter’s name.

Karlo Broussard:
Yes.

Cy Kellett:
The fact that you could argue about what the meaning of these other things are and whatnot, but to actually change the person’s name to the word rock. Can you get into that a little bit about…

Karlo Broussard:
Well, there’s two ways we can approach that. We could ask the question, what’s the significance of Simon’s name change to Peter? And one answer is because he is to be the metaphorical rock upon which Christ builds his church. In order to have the wordplay, you are Petros, the Greek word petros means rock. It means what kepha or cephas does in Aramaic, according to John 1:42. The purpose of the name change is for the sake of identifying Simon, now Petros or Peter, as this metaphorical rock upon which Christ is going to build his church. The second answer is that the significance of the name change can be seen in light of other significant name changes throughout salvation history. When God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Why, because that becomes that name signifies the role that he has to play within salvation history. And similarly, when Christ changes Simon’s name to Petros in Greek or Peter, which means rock, that’s to signify the role that he will play within salvation history, namely being the metaphorical rock upon which Christ promises to build his church. And that he is that metaphorical rock he serves as the principle of unity, a source of unity, for the visible church here on earth.

Cy Kellett:
Peter is the rock. And so if you could just, I suppose in a way, sum up for those who don’t fully understand, what is the Catholic understanding of this idea that Christ gives this foundational role to Peter? In a nutshell, what-

Karlo Broussard:
It makes him the identifying marker for the true church of Jesus Christ. For wherever the foundation is there’s the true church of Christ.

Cy Kellett:
Karlo Broussard has been our guest. Karlo, thank you very much.

Karlo Broussard:
Thank you, Cy.

Cy Kellett:
We’ll do some more of these because… By the way, you covered this in your book, Meeting the Protestant challenge, which has the subtitle, How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Beliefs.

Karlo Broussard:
That is correct.

Cy Kellett:
And you can get that at shop.catholic.com or Amazon or wherever you get fine Catholic books, because it is a fine book.

Karlo Broussard:
Thank you very much. And not just fine print.

Cy Kellett:
All right. Well, there is some fine print in it. All right, well, thank you very much for joining us on Catholic Answers Focus. Wherever you get your podcasts, if you wouldn’t mind giving us a five-star review, that helps to grow this podcast; and also share it with other people and maybe let them know they can find out all about us at catholicanswersfocus.com.

Our guest again has been Karlo Broussard, the author of Meeting the Protestant Challenge: How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Beliefs. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’ll see you next time right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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