During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, some might consider it gauche to bring up a point of classic dispute between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox: namely, the confession of Peter (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”), a statement of our Lord (“On this rock I will build my Church”), and the interpretation of the Gospel episode in which this exchange takes place, especially vis-à-vis the modern papacy. But avoiding such questions will get us only so far. Besides, the question of how papal primacy might serve the unity of the Church has been a theme in ecumenical discussions for about 40 years.
A better method is sometimes to “go back,” in the mode of ressourcement, to see how these issues were treated in a time before our present controversies, even to trace the emergence of certain themes or emphases. In such a spirit, I offer here a selection from the Venerable Bede’s Homily I.20 on Matthew 16:13-19. It functions also as a reading for today’s feast.
I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.
Peter, who before this was referred to as “Simon,” received from the Lord the name Peter, because of the strength of his faith and the constancy of his confession, for he clung with a stable and tenacious mind to him concerning whom it was written, “and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). And upon this Rock the Church was built — that is, upon the Lord and Savior. To his faithful one who recognized him, and loved him, and confessed him, he granted a share in his own name, so that he was called Petrus from petra [“rock”]. Only through faith in and love of Christ, through the reception of Christ’s sacraments, and through observing Christ’s commandments does one reach the lot of the elect, and eternal life, as the Apostle attests when he says, “For no one can lay any other foundation except that which has been laid, which is Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 3:11). […]
And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
The one who confessed the King of heaven with a devotion above that of others was himself rightly enriched by the conferral upon him beyond the others of the keys of the heavenly kingdom, so that it might be obvious to all that without this confession and faith no one could enter into the kingdom of heaven. He names “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” that knowledge and power of discernment with which Peter was to receive the worthy into the kingdom, and to exclude the unworthy from the kingdom.
Hence he adds clearly, “And whatsoever you bind upon earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you loose upon earth will be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. 16:18). Although it may seem that this power of loosing and binding was given by the Lord only to Peter, we must nevertheless know without any doubt that it was also given to the other apostles, as Christ himself testified when, after the triumph of his passion and resurrection, he appeared to them and breathed upon them and said to them all, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:23).
Indeed, even now the same office is committed to the whole Church in her bishops and priests, so that when she has come to know sinners’ cases, she considers which are humble and truly penitent, and in compassion she may then absolve them from the fear of perpetual death. But she suggests that those whom she recognizes to be persisting in the sins which they have committed should be assigned to everlasting punishments.
Hence in another place the Lord directed concerning a brother who has been rebuked once and again and a third time, but does not repent, “If, however, he does not listen to the Church, let him be to you as a pagan and a publican” (Matt. 18:17). And lest anyone should think it is a light thing to be condemned by the Church’s judgment, Christ continued with the terrible saying, “Truly I say to you, whatever things you bind on earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatever things you loose on earth will be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
Thus to each church of the elect is given the authority of binding or loosing, according to the measure of guilt or repentance. But since blessed Peter confessed Christ with true faith and followed him with true love, he received in a special way the keys of the kingdom of heaven and pre-eminence in the power of judging, so that all believers throughout the world might understand that any who separate themselves in any way from the unity of faith or this fellowship cannot be absolved from the bonds of their sin, nor can they enter the gate of the heavenly kingdom.
(Here ends the selection.)
Feel free to close your browser now, but if you remain interested, please do forgive a few private observations. For my part, one interesting point in Bede’s homily comes in the assertion that Peter’s name and rock-like character flow directly from his faith in Christ. That faith is itself the gift of grace. Peter is not the Rock on which the Church is built, at least not exactly; there is only one foundation for the Church, Jesus Christ, and the Church is built on Jesus by confessing him.
Yet Peter participates in Christ’s name and character, and thus can become like him. He can become a part of that Rock on which the Church is built. This is why Bede will explore elsewhere in his writings Ephesians 2:19-20: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” Participation in Christ’s name and character is precisely the reason for the status of the saints.
For example, in On the Temple 4.1, Bede writes:
“And the king commanded that they bring great costly stones for the foundation for the temple and square them” (1 Kings 5:17).
The foundation for the temple is to be understood mystically as none other than he whom the Apostle points out when he says, “For there is no other foundation anyone can lay than the one which has been laid, namely, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). Consequently, [Jesus] can rightly be called the foundation of the house of the Lord, because, as Peter says, “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Into this foundation, great and costly stones are carried when men eminent in deeds and sanctity adhere to their Creator by their habitual sanctity of spirit, so that the more firmly they place their hope in him, the greater is their capacity to direct the life of others, which is to act as a broad foundation supporting a massive building.
Therefore, the stones that were laid as the foundation of the temple to bear the whole structure are, properly speaking, the prophets and apostles who either visibly or invisibly received the word and mysteries of truth from the very wisdom of God. Then of us too, who in our modest way strive to imitate the life or teaching of these men, the Apostle says we are supported “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20).
The other interesting point is that Bede points to Peter’s exaltation (historical and, it seems ongoing) over the other apostles as a sign: that those who would enter the Church and be saved must remain in the faith of Peter and in the fellowship of the Church. Bede’s insistence here on the faith of Peter would aid certain Protestant polemicists in asserting that it is primarily continuity of doctrine, not apostolic succession, that guarantees the integrity of the Church. But Bede’s attention to the fellowship of the Church would trouble any easy support for Reformation departures or ongoing divisions.
We would also have to weigh here a statement from Bede’s homily for the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in which he paraphrases Cyprian’s On Unity 4:
The other apostles were Peter’s equals, but the first place was granted to Peter, so that the unity of the Church might be set forth. All are shepherds, but one flock is revealed. Then, it was fed by all the apostles with harmonious agreement.
 I can only gesture here at a broad and rich literature. From the Anglican-Roman Catholic side, see ARCIC’s “Authority in the Church II” (1981) and “The Gift of Authority” (1998), 45-47, 51-52, 56-57. The World Council of Churches published The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2013), 55-57. I recommend also Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (eds.), Church Unity and the Papal Office: An Ecumenical Dialogue on Pope John Paull II’s Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One) (Eerdmans, 2001)