Petra vs. Petros: The Silence of Luther and the Greeks

Written by Boniface

If petros and petra are such astonishingly different words in the Greek that upon their meaning hinges the validity of the papacy, why did neither Martin Luther nor the Greek Orthodox take notice of this fact in their disputes with the popes? Most educated Catholics are probably familiar with the argument raised by non-Catholics about Peter being called the "Rock" in Matthew 16 that is based upon drawing a distinction between the two Greek words petra and petros.

If you are not familiar with this argument, Google it and you'll come up with a lot of material on it from Protestant and Catholic apologists. I think it is a rather weak argument; Patrick Madrid has dealt with it admirably here. Catholic Answers has a helpful tract about the topic as well, and Steve Ray's book Upon This Rock uses a plethora of sources, including Protestant scholarship, to dismantle this common Protestant objection.

 

If petros and petra are such astonishingly different words in the Greek that upon their meaning hinges the validity of the papacy, why did neither Martin Luther nor the Greek Orthodox take notice of this fact in their disputes with the popes?

Most educated Catholics are probably familiar with the argument raised by non-Catholics about Peter being called the "Rock" in Matthew 16 that is based upon drawing a distinction between the two Greek words petra and petros. If you are not familiar with this argument, Google it and you'll come up with a lot of material on it from Protestant and Catholic apologists. I think it is a rather weak argument; Patrick Madrid has dealt with it admirably here. Catholic Answers has a helpful tract about the topic as well, and Steve Ray's book Upon This Rock uses a plethora of sources, including Protestant scholarship, to dismantle this common Protestant objection.

These approaches that are based on etymology and grammar are helpful, but I do not necessarily think they are the strongest arguments. For one thing, unless you personally know Greek, or at the very least understand how inflected languages work, you won't really "get" the argument; you basically have to take somebody's word for it. When you start getting into arguments about inflected versus reflexive languages, Attic versus Koine Greek and word studies of other appearances of petros and petra in ancient Greek literature, you are perhaps moving out of the realm of where lay people can intelligently discuss the problem and into a place reserved to only a very small field of specialists.

I want to here propose two very strong arguments against the petros/petra objection that are based not on grammatical exegesis or etymology, but on history, and which, to my knowledge, has not been brought up by any Catholic apologists to date. My response to the Protestant petros/petra objection is as follows:

1. GREEK ORTHODOX NEVER USED THIS ARGUMENT

This is tremendously important. If anybody had a reason to deny papal authority or the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16, it would have been the Greek Orthodox. From the 5th century all the way through the Middle Ages the Greeks contested the papacy's claims over authority over the Church of God. Since this was the case, and since the Greeks, especially of the earlier centuries, were reading the Scriptures in their original languages, does it not stand to reason that if there was any import to Christ's use of the words petra and petros in Matthew 16, the Greeks would have noticed it? If such a distinction really did have the import that Protestants say it does, this argument would have been invaluable in the hands of the Greek apologists in the contest with Rome for primacy.

But, since the Greeks who read the New Testament in its original language and had a vested interest in debunking the claims of Rome to primacy never utilized this argument, their silence is telling. They attack Roman primacy, to be sure, but they never use the petros/petra argument. Instead they talk about the union between Church and Empire and Constantinople being the imperial seat; they talk about a fictional apostolic succession based on a legendary founding of the Byzantine Church by St. Andrew the Apostle; they bring forward different ecclesiological interpretations of what kind of primacy St. Peter was given; they drudge up the old canards of Vigilius and Honorious; but they never resorted to the petros/petra argument (at least until modern times, when they borrowed it from Protestants). If classical Greek Orthodox polemic at its height never utilized this argument, we are safe in presuming there never was an argument there to be utilized.


2. MARTIN LUTHER NEVER USED THIS ARGUMENT
 

We can go ahead and use this same sort of reasoning when we come to Martin Luther. Here, once again, we have a man with a solid knowledge of New Testament Greek (who even made his own German translation of the New Testament) and a vested interest in disproving Rome's claims to primacy. If there really was any sort of argument to be made by the petros/petra distinction, Martin Luther was the person to notice it. Yet Luther does not use this argument either.

He certainly attacks the papacy; he uses selective citations from the Fathers, heaps abuse upon the Roman pontiffs for alleged excessive use of power and even fabricates a variant reading of Matthew 16 where Jesus says to Peter "You are a rock" but then turns and points to Himself before saying, "Upon this rock I will build my Church," thus inferring some sort of extra-biblical gesture or motion of our Lord to explain away the passage. Yet, though he has gone so far as imagine an invented extra-biblical gesture to explain our Lord's words, he does not center in on petros/petra as a point of argument. This is because he knew there was no argument there.

I am not sure when the petros/petra argument first came into vogue; my guess is sometime around the early 20th century with the rise of the historical critical school. But the fact that neither the Greek Orthodox or Martin Luther ever used the argument, though they had the knowledge of Greek and the motivation against the papacy to do so, ought to be a clear reminder that this argument is just a fabrication - a non-argument.

Some will say these arguments are not strong because they are arguments from silence, and the absence of a particular argument from a set of arguments does not negate the validity of that particular argument. But I think this is not simply an argument from silence - the argument is that, if this distinction really were in the Greek, the Orthodox or Martin Luther would have picked up on it. It's not just that they didn't make the argument - it's that something that is alleged to be evident in the Greek really is not evident at all; if it were, these two groups, both of whom had axes to grind against the papacy, would have noted it.

So, it's not just an argument from silence; it is an argument based on what is or is not objectively in the Greek of the New Testament and whether it implies anything about the papacy. The fact that the papacy's enemies never "saw" this alleged implication suggests that no such implication exists in the original Greek, which is very telling for those who insist on the petra/petros distinction.