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Seeing Peter Through Eastern Eyes

“Let’s not open that can of worms!” These are the words in which an Episcopal member of a local dialogue committee greeted a proposal to discuss the issue of abortion. The can was never opened. The Catholic ecumenist who relates this incident had been an official observer at the national convention of the Episcopal Church. In one session a bishop suggested that his denomination should discuss abortion in dialogue with Catholics. Immediately another bishop rejected the proposal with the same words: “can of worms.” No more was said on that subject.

Discussion of basic issues which divide the non-Catholic Eastern Churches from the Catholic Church seems wormy to some of This Rock‘s readers, to judge from the tone and content of their correspondence. They applaud and commend Pope John Paul’s letter on the Eastern Churches (Orientale Lumen), in which he explicitly avoids mentioning any divisive issues. They deplore and condemn This Rock‘s efforts to delineate some of those issues. They thereby rule out any possibility of genuine dialogue, and-perhaps unwittingly-choose disunity.

Dialogue between separated Christian churches serves several purposes, as the Holy Father tells us in his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, issued in May 7, 1995. It “serves as an examination of conscience,” requiring that “the consciences and actions of Christians” as brethren divided from one another, should be inspired by and submissive to Christ’s prayer for unity.” Dialogue also serves the essential function of leading participants to see clearly “real and genuine disagreements in matters of faith.”

In examining these disagreements, there are “two essential points of reference: Sacred Scripture and the great Tradition of the Church.” Furthermore, “Catholics have the help of the Church’s living Magisterium.” Although the Holy Father does not say it, Catholics and Easterners can and do agree on two of those points of reference, Scripture and Tradition. How we should use the reference points constitutes a (even the) basic issue which divides Easterners from the Catholic Church.

In any dialogue between Catholic and non-Catholic ecumenists, the issue of authority comes to focus in the papacy. This phase of a Catholic apologetic addressed to Easterners will examine Eastern views on the scriptural material bearing on the role of Peter in the Church. Catholics and members of Eastern Churches can readily agree on the prominence of Peter among the apostles in the Gospels. He is called “first,” he consistently acts as spokesman for and leader of the apostolic band. At issue are the promises to Peter (Matt. 16:16-19 and 18:18).

One’s interpretation of those promises will determine one’s understanding of Jesus’ command to Peter to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:31-32) and feed the sheep (John 21:5-17); Peter’s role in the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50 (Acts 10, 11, 15 and 1 Cor. 8); the relationship between Peter and Paul sketched in Galatians 1 and 2, the question of Peter’s successors, if any.

In a previous issue (“How the East Sees the Church,” October 1995) we discussed a split in modern Eastern thinking about the Church. From early days Easterners, like Catholics and later Protestants in general, have emphasized the universal Church as well as the local church. (For Easterners as for Catholics “local church” designates an individual diocese, not a local congregation.)

In this century there has emerged among Eastern theologians another school of thought advocating what they call “Eucharistic ecclesiology.” They focus on the local church as being fully and completely the Body of Christ, simply because it is a Eucharistic community. They minimize or even deny what they call “universal ecclesiology.”

They insist that the Pauline doctrine of the Body of Christ refers exclusively to the local church, not to an abstraction called “universal Church.” The idea that Matthew 16:17-19 refers to “universal Church” was totally unknown, they say, until the time of Cyprian in the third century.[ Nicolas Afanassief, “The Church Which Presides in Love,” in John Meyendorff, et al., The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church (London: The Faith Press, 1963), 83.]

An advocate of Eucharistic ecclesiology (John Meyendorff) declares that in our time “there is a remarkable agreement” among Eastern theologians in support of this approach. Indeed, says Meyendorff, it is “the basis, the nucleus of Orthodox ecclesiology itself” (italics his).[ John Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 135.] This appraisal requires qualification.

It is a fact that ecclesiology which begins from the Eucharistic nature of the Church to explicate the meaning of the Church as Body of Christ has a long history in the Catholic Church. It enjoys wide vogue among Catholic as well as Eastern theologians. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium reflects this perspective. But all Catholic theologians reject Afanassief’s exclusive focus on the local church which minimizes or even practically denies the reality of the universal Church. A document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992 made the same point.

Quite a number of modern Eastern theologians also decry exclusive focus on the local church. “No one doubts the value of this [Afanassief’s Eucharistic] theology,” writes Ion Bria, a Rumanian. “However, it seems that it does not take into consideration the factual universality, organised and realised, of the Church.” Bishop John D. Zizioulas has made the same criticism of Afanassief. Georges Florovsky, perhaps the preeminent Eastern scholar of this century, also emphasizes the universal Church in his writings. [Aidan Nichols, O.P., Theology in the Russian D.aspora: Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas’ev (1893-1966) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 184, 162.]

Proponents of Eucharistic ecclesiology admit that “universal ecclesiology” has dominated Eastern thinking since the third century. But the latter ecclesiology is not the original and correct understanding of the nature of the Church. It has in their eyes most unfortunate implications. Afanassief and Alexander Schmemann, for example, contend that if Easterners continue to hold universal ecclesiology, they must concede the truth of Roman Catholic claims about the papacy. And this, of course, is unthinkable. By itself it constitutes one of their chief arguments against universal ecclesiology.

Now to the Scriptures and Peter. To understand the role of Peter, says Afanassief, “we must begin with the presuppositions that were accepted in the Apostolic Age, and set aside all modern assumptions [which emphasize universal as well as local church].” [Afanassief, op. cit., 86.] This is no small task for Catholics and the Easterners who disagree with Afanassief. Remarkable indeed is the person who can truly set aside all modern assumptions on an important and controversial issue. Audacious indeed is that person if the proscribed assumptions have been universally held among Christians for seventeen (or twenty) centuries.

How do we arrive at correct understanding of the scriptural account of Peter’s role, according to Afanassief and his followers? We start with the apostolic presuppositions Afanassief has recovered for us. Then quite apart from what Scripture says about Peter and the Church, we must decide whether the scriptural doctrine of the Church allows or excludes Petrine primacy. In other words, before we can decide whether Jesus granted Peter jurisdiction over a universal Church (which is what Petrine primacy means), there is another preliminary question we must answer. Was there, in Jesus’ mind, such a thing as a universal Church over which Peter could have jurisdiction?

But at that point, who needs exegesis? We have our exegesis done even before we begin. Afanassief’s apostolic presuppositions tell us that in Matthew 16:18 Jesus referred to a local church (probably the church in Jerusalem) for which Peter would be the foundation. So before we look at Matthew 16:18 we know there was no universal Church and there could be no universal primacy even for Peter.

Except for some Baptist traditions which also deny the reality of the universal Church, Afanassief and his followers stand completely alone in the Christian world in their denial. Everyone else-Protestant, Catholic, Eastern-recognizes that while the Greek word ekklesia does sometimes denote a local congregation, here in Matthew 16:18 the context is clearly Messianic. The substance of Peter’s confession is Messianic. In Jewish thought, Messiah could never be detached from the messianic community, the whole body of his people. So here, when Jesus uses the term he is referring to all his people: the Universal Church.[ This interpretation is also held by the Protestant scholar whose classic work on Peter was the original stimulus to Afanassief’s thinking about the papacy: Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr [New York: Living Age Books, 1958].]

Eastern apologists generally, like Protestants, contend that when Jesus referred to the rock on which he would build his Church, he was referring to the confession of faith Peter had made, and not to the person of Peter himself. [This is the claim of Abbé Guettée, The Papacy: Its Historic Origins and Primitive Relations with the Eastern Churches (New York: Minos Publishing Co., no date), 36-38).]A number of the early Church Fathers also wrote that in this verse “rock” refers to Peter’s faith. But those same Fathers in fact accepted the primacy of Peter. They were not using their interpretation to deny that primacy, as Protestants and Easterners do.

Peter himself or Peter’s faith: which is “rock”? Perhaps the clearest and one of the most detailed arguments that “rock” refers to Peter himself, not to his faith, has been made by the eminent Protestant scholar mentioned above. The theory that “rock” refers to Peter’s faith, says Cullmann, falls to pieces when one puts the word “rock” in its context. In Matthew’s account “there is little concern with the faith of Peter, which here is anything but exemplary.” Moreover, the text itself does not support the equation of “rock” with Peter’s confession of faith. Here we have two statements: “you are rock” and “upon this rock I will build.” The parallelism shows plainly that the second must refer to the same as the first.

It is true, Cullmann notes, that elsewhere (as in Matt. 21:42) Christ himself is designated as rock. “But that is not what is said here; this passage says that Jesus’ role as rock is transferred to a disciple.” Another and telling argument of Cullmann is that if Jesus was designating Peter’s faith as the “rock,” there would simply be no point in Jesus’ giving Peter himself the name of “rock.”

Cullmann concludes that Jesus was saying that he would build his Church on the person whom he had designated “rock.” [Ibid., 206-207.] It should be noted, however, that Cullmann does not accept Petrine primacy. He agrees with Catholic teaching about the meaning of Matthew 16:18, but says it was to apply to Peter himself, not to any successors.

Cullmann argues that Jesus entrusted to Peter extraordinary authority in order to get the Church started. Once it was under way, he claims, there was no longer any need for Petrine authority. A Catholic would want to ask, if that authority was essential for the first generation of Christians, why is not essential for all succeeding generations?

Abstractly, a Catholic can argue that it is impossible to build an institution on the foundation of a principle. Institutions do have basic principles, but they cannot exist unless there are persons by whom and structures through which those principles can be embodied.

Put the issue into the Christian context. The statement that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, in itself has no power to unify those who say they accept it. It cannot interpret itself in the face of divergent (even contradictory) understandings. Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus cannot itself be the foundation of Christ’s Church. Peter can. Peter is.

But, say Easterners and Protestants, Scripture teaches that Jesus is the one and only Rock. How can Peter be “rock”? In response to this challenge, a Catholic would add that according to 1 Peter 2:45, every true believer is a rock, a living stone. These three dimensions of “rock” harmonize unless one interprets each in an exclusive sense which distorts its meaning.

It is Christ’s union with mankind that provides the foundation of the Church and the Christian life. Only he is “rock” in this ultimate sense. Why did Jesus establish his Church? What is its purpose? The answer is clearly stated by Pope John Paul II in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (13). He recalls the teaching of Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 22) that by his incarnation the Son of God has united himself with each person. Then he adds, “The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually.”

In other words, the Church is the context in which, the means whereby, Jesus actualizes in individual lives the union he effected with each person by his incarnation. The Church is the meeting place, so to speak, of God and man. Without the institutional Church, none of us would or could respond to God’s outreach to us, God’s embrace of each of us, in the incarnation.

In Jesus’ only recorded words about the establishment of his Church, he names Peter as foundation. As rock. Peter is the unifying basis of the institution. Individual believers become living stones (1 Pet. 2:4-5) by being united with Christ the Rock in the community Christ founded and established on Peter.

Further light is shed on the role of Peter as rock, as foundation of Christ’s Church, by the book of Daniel. Vladimir Soloviev, a member of the Russian Church but an apologist for the papacy, calls attention to two series of verses, Daniel 7:13, 18, 27 and Daniel 2:34-35, 45.

Daniel 7:13 is the key passage for the title “son of man” which our Lord applied to himself (see especially Matt. 16:13). The verses from Daniel 2 tell of a fifth kingdom which comes like a gigantic stone to destroy and supplant the four pagan empires. [Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), 114.]

Although the New Testament does refer to Christ as Rock, he never applied the image to himself Instead, he consistently used the language of Daniel 7:13, “son of man.” If the stone of Daniel 2 represented Christ, this would mean that Christ himself would become the great mountain which filled the earth and replaced the pagan empires. Christ himself, in other words, would be the institutional Church. But this interpretation would only confuse and distort the imagery used by the sacred writer.

It comes to this. Daniel 7:18 and 27 state unequivocally that the fifth kingdom is that of “the saints of the Most High.” Obviously (says Soloviev) the fifth kingdom is the universal Church which Christ established. Now both Daniel and Matthew give us the titles “son of man” and “rock” of the Church. There can be no doubt that “son of man” in both Daniel and Matthew denotes the same person, the Messiah. By analogy, “rock” must bear in the same sense in both passages. In Matthew, Peter is rock. Therefore the rock (stone) in Daniel must “equally foreshadow the original trustee of monarchical authority in the Universal Church,” that is to say, Peter.

In the fullness of time, Soloviev concludes, the stone of Daniel 7 turns out to be Peter, “the rock which was taken and hurled not by human hands [Dan. 2:34, 45] but by the Son of the living God and by the heavenly Father himself revealing to the supreme ruler of the Church that divine-human truth [Matt. 16:17] which was the source of his authority.” [Ibid., 115. ]

Note further that Jesus did not simply give Simon a surname. He gave him a title. Just as “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus, the Christ [Messiah],” so “Simon Peter” means “Simon, the Rock.” Three times in Scripture-and always at great turning points-God gave a man a new name. In his covenantal encounter with Abram (Gen. 17), God changed his name to “Abraham” (“father of a multitude”), father of all believers.

God chose Jacob as progenitor of the line of descent in which God’s Son would be born, and called him “Israel.” When God in Christ established the Church, he called Simon to be earthly head, center and source of unity, and called him “Peter” (the “rock” foundation).

Jesus further specified Peter’s role by giving him two distinct offices (Matt. 16:18-19). He gave him custody of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and the power of “binding and loosing.” On the basis of his presuppositions, Afanassief simply dismisses the power of the keys. Reject the whole idea of universal Church, he says, and you “shall not find the promised ‘power of the keys’ in our logion.” He does not tell us what we will find in Jesus’ words about the keys.

Other Eastern apologists interpret the two offices as being two ways of saying the same thing, and they lump them under the general heading of “binding and loosing.” Then they note that in Matthew 18:18 Jesus gave the power of binding and loosing to all the apostles. Therefore, they say, it follows that Jesus also gave the power of keys to the other apostles. Then they drop the subject of the keys.

Countering this argument, Soloviev points out that the language of binding and loosing is not appropriate for the use of keys. “A room, a house or a city may be shut and opened, but only particular beings or objects situated within the room or house or city can be bound and unbound.” [Ibid, 103.] If the second commission (bind and loose) was only an explanation of the first (power of the keys), then Jesus should have spoken of opening and shutting as he does in Revelation 3:7.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:19 about binding and loosing seem to apply to objects and things (“whatever you bind”). On the other hand, the context of Matthew 18:18 (Jesus authorizes the apostles to bind and loose) makes it clear that this special power applies to individual cases. “Only personal problems of conscience and the direction of individual souls falls under the authority to bind and loose which was given to the other Apostles after Peter.” [Ibid., 104.] The symbol of the keys must represent a wider, more inclusive authority than the symbol of binding and loosing.

What is the authority connoted by the imagery of the keys? Eastern scholars ignore the scriptural background of the phrase “keys of the kingdom.” Not so with Protestant scholars, who along with their Catholic counterparts have devoted a good bit of attention to this subject.

Standing clearly in the background of Matthew 16:19 is Isaiah 22:20-23, which relates the installation of Eliakim as custodian of “‘the key of the house of David.'” In the exercise of that authority “‘he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.'” This responsibility being placed on Eliakim, as all commentaries on Isaiah tell us, was that of the master of the palace. In the ancient Near East the office was widely established. Joseph was master of the palace of Pharaoh in Egypt (Gen. 41).

The master of the palace was second in command to the king (or in Joseph’s case, the pharaoh) himself. He had immediate access to the royal throne. All officials reported to him, all important documents required his seal, all matters of state came under his scrutiny. He governed in the name of the king, and acted for him when the king was absent. There are numerous Old Testament references to the work of the master of the palace in ancient Israel.

Our risen Lord identifies himself to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7) as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” To the visionary (John) he identified himself in these words: “I am the first and the last, and the living one, I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:17f.)

Jesus is the master of the house (the Church) which he established on earth. He has the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Cullmann sees a clear parallel between Isaiah 22:20-23 and Matthew 16:19. “Just as in Isaiah 22:22 the Lord lays the keys of the house of David on the shoulders of his servant Eliakim, so Jesus commits to Peter the keys of his house, the Kingdom of Heaven, and thereby installs him as administrator of the house.” [Cullmann, op. cit., 203.]

The Catholic Church’s catechism (section 553) says this. “The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church;. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.'” The Church makes it plain that Peter was “the only one to whom he [Jesus] specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.”

This latter conclusion is also the position of Cullmann and a number of other Protestant scholars. Like Cullmann, however, those scholars argue that the authority granted to Peter by Jesus died with Peter.

We have noted that Easterners attempt to dissolve the power of the keys into a generalized commission to “bind and loose.” What they really seek to do is “bind and lose” those keys. This attempt reminds one of a folk song entitled “The Cat Came Back.” The song tells the story of a pesky cat and its owner who went to astonishing lengths to rid himself of the cat. The cat was indestructible. He always came back. The keys Jesus gave to Peter are like that. The gifts Christ gave his Church are not disposable. For centuries non-Catholics have tried to lose those keys, but you can’t get rid of them. Especially if you don’t have them to begin with.

Easterners, then, subsume the power of the keys under the power of binding and loosing. “Binding and loosing is a reference to the teaching, sacramental, and administrative powers of the Apostles which were transmitted to the bishops of the Church.” [The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), footnote, p. 47.] The Catholic Church in her Catechism (section 553) explains our Lord’s words: “The power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.”

Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, 22) points out that “the office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.” Easterners and Catholics can readily agree on that statement, down to the last four words: “united to its head.” In early centuries we agreed on those words also, as we shall see in later articles. Now, however, the words formulate the basic issue which divides Easterners from Catholics.

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