"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, August 17, 2009

Confessionalism in Matt 16?


Some say the church is people. Not traditions or doctrines or confessions, but people. I would like to say that this idea denies the very biblical foundational nature of the church. So first we must ask the question:

What is the nature or essence of the Church? By nature, I mean, what makes a church a church and not merely a Christian social gathering. What makes a church God-ordained?

The best description of what the nature of the church is at its essence, may be found in the text that explains the means by which Christ builds his Church. Here, Christ asks the disciples an important question:

Mat 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
Mat 16:14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
Mat 16:15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Mat 16:16 Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Mat 16:17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Mat 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Mat 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."


The passage has several movements. First, Christ asks what others say about Him and the disciples answer him. Then Jesus asks Who they say He is, personally. Peter answers Him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus gives a short monologue about the church.

The words from 16:17-19 become highly debated, especially verse 18. Typically, there are two camps that debate this verse in what Jesus is talking about when He says “on this rock.” Is it Peter? Or is it Peter's confession?

To answer this question, we should do two things. One, we ought to leave some prejudices behind. Two, we ought to make this align with the rest of the canon.

We must leave behind some prejudices. We think that Protestants say confession of faith (Peter saying “you are the Christ”), and Catholics say Peter. Let's first look at what the language of the text suggests and then reconcile that to the rest of the canon.

The language of the text. Jesus replies after Peter has answered “And I tell you, you are Peter (Πέτρος), and on this rock (πέτρᾳ) I will build my church” One cannot ignore in honesty the play on words that occurs in this passage. Peter or “Petros” is compared to rock or “petra.” This comparison in which would have been “Cephas” in Aramaic, Peter is the one referred to as the rock. Yet, how can this be?

Does this reconcile to the rest of the canon? Does this deny a Protestant doctrine, that Jesus is the only foundation ala:

1 Cor 3:11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Yet, we indeed find such a thing said elsewhere in Paul's letters:

Eph 2:20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,

Indeed, the church is build on and uses people, as well as on Christ. They are not mutually exclusive. But these are not any people, given authority and raw power to do with as they please. The church is not merely build on a man (Peter) but on a man with a confession. A few verses later Jesus will call Peter "Satan" as Peter tries to deny Christ His mission on the cross. Though the church is built on people with a confession, when the people lose that confession, they cease to be the church.

A confession without people is no church. Jesus does not build a church on a mere document of beliefs. Yet, a people without a confession is no church either. The church is not a voluntary association of people with like interests and desires for potlucks, but the people God has given his message and who confess His message and doctrine.

So Matthew 16 refers both to Peter and His confession. Both are required for the church to be the church as it does what Christ commands it to do in proclaiming that confession in word and sacrament (Matt 28:19). The nature of the church is made up of people and confession. This is what is meant by saying the church is, by its very nature, confessional.

7 comments:

Andrew said...

"when the people lose that confession, they cease to be the church"

I have a question about this logic. Isn't this Donatism? In the Old Covenant God's people were corporately elected (Israel) not their confession (The Law), when Israel continued in disobedience, they didn't cease to be Israel, they were just made to suffer temporal judgment (Babylonian Captivity). Even if St. Peter is called "Satan" he doesn't cease to be the rock, Jesus still calls him Cephas.

This is just my question, I haven't studied theology or anything, but those were just the thoughts that came to my mind. I really liked the post. Have fun for the rest of your trip!

M. Jay Bennett said...

Excellent post Jared. I agree. I don't like disregarding the play on words in this passage. There certainly seems to be a sense in which Jesus is talking about Peter when he says, "On this rock I will build my church." But, as you point out so well, it is a confessing Peter. I think Jesus is speaking to Peter and all the Apostles who continue to confess the true faith (of course, Judas would be excluded later not because he ceased to be Judas but because he ceased to confess the true faith).

On Andrew's excellent question, I would point to the Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 9. Answering the question of how God's covenant people could have rejected their Messiah and therefore ceased to be his people, he replies, "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring but 'Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring" (Rom. 9:6-8) Who are the children of promise? All those who believes and confesses the truth. "For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Rom. 10:10).

Jared Nelson said...

Andrew -

The issue, I believe, is more complicated than my simple description suggests. There is a level of corporate community and individual status.

INDIVIDUAL: Jay's example of Judas is great for this. Judas was a part of the confessing community, upon which is entrusted the identity of the church (Matt 18). But Judas winds up apostate. Yet, even hanging on the tree Judas is still part of the community, yet not in a saving way. Judas is the best example of a Hebrews 6 person. Within the community, tasting the fruits but never cross the final line of regeneration. The church did not fall apart on Judas' exit. The corporate entity remains, but the individual status of Judas changes as an apostate member. Both of our traditions see a person this way. The leave the community but remain a baptized member of the community and they may be restored through repentance, but not through re-baptism. Hence Peter is restored to a church he apostated from through a re-confession, even though in a sense it never disowned him as a circumcised/baptized member.

CORPORATE: The position would be Donatist if we were talking about the corporate structure in regards to morality. It has never been historically orthodox to believe that non-Christian/anti-Trinitarian communities are validly administering the sacraments or preaching the word. A group of people (even in Roman terms, tracing a bishop back to Peter) who are Arian are not a valid church. Both Presbyterians and Romans would accept each others' baptism but neither would accept one from the Arians. It is not a Christian faith and the baptism is not made to a Trinitarian God (even if the formula is used). Hence the rejection of Mormon baptism as valid.

Andrew said...

Jay I'm assuming you believe the children of the elect/baptized infants are children of the promise as well now that you are Presbyterian.

Jared, thanks for the clarification. I was actually just reading in Pelikan today about how the Hussites believed this passage was about Peter being the rock but only as a preacher and missionary and not as a prelate.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Andrew- Rather than import our own meaning to the text, we have to consider what Paul means by the phrase "children of the promise" in Rom. 9. According to Paul, the children of the promise are the elect of God who come to believe the gospel of Jesus (those like Isaac and Jacob). These are contrasted with those Paul calls the "children of the flesh" (Rom. 9:8), by which he means simply physical descendants of Abraham (those like Ishmael and Esau).

Presbyterians maintain this distinction, though we believe there is a sense in which the covenant extends to both believers and our children so that they are properly called covenant children. This distinction is implied in our confession on the sacrament of baptism. WCF 28.5,

"Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated."

Here we see the distinction between covenant membership in the sense of visible church membership and covenant membership in the sense of invisible church membership. Paul's designation in Rom. 9 has to do with the invisible church, which is bounded according to the mystery of election.

Aaron said...

Yes this is a great post Jared. Very close to a Reformed Baptist postion. Confessors make up the church which is why we practice confessors Baptism and church membership. We can not tell perfectly but we hold to a confessing church and an unbreakable new covenant. No such thing as a new covenant breaker. Just false confessors.

Jared Nelson said...

I'm interested in how you hold to an unbreakable New Covenant:

I assume you still believe that people in the Old Testament could break the covenant (ala Deut 31).

How did OT people break the covenant? How were OT people initiated into the covenant (circumcision?) and were there stipulations that could be broken?

Does the New Covenant have any initiation? (what does baptism have to do with the covenant?) and does the New Covenant have any stipulations? Why practice discipline/excommunication if once in, no one can break the covenant?

When the author of Hebrews speaks of “falling away,” what is the person falling away from? A previously held salvation or from the covenant? (Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29) Does Hebrews 10:29 describe a covenant breaker?

(Heb 10:29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?)

If not, how can one profane a covenant one was never in?

Why does the author say there is worse punishment? What status does the person receiving "worse punishment" hold that another is not holding?