Canon Macdonald-Radcliff is the Executive Director of the World Dialogue Council and formerly the Dean of All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Today’s specific Gospel verse poses some rather interesting challenges not only in the passage we heard, but also because of the wider complexities presented by Chapter 16 as a whole.

While on top of that,  I am faced with a problem that calls to mind the curious story of  Sophia Rawlins, who became the wife of the celebrated nineteenth century Swiss painter, adoptive Englishman and member of the Royal Academy,  Henry Fusile or Johann Heinrich Füssli as he was originally known.

As many of you will recall,  the Royal Academy in London houses the famous Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo,  portraying The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John. It is however famously incomplete   and the story I am reminded of is that the said Mrs. Fusile, considering herself something of a sculptor, is reported to have proposed that she would like to “finish it” and thus complete the work of Michelangelo.  An awkward proposal which one has to say reflected a certain forwardness on her part that was manifestly ill advised.

I bring this up, since, in a manner of speaking, I am left to propose something of a like rashness this morning since Fr Wood addressed the most famous part of today’s chapter in his Sermon last week and I now get the second part of the Gospel this week, so I am thus in a sense obliged to try and “finish” the sculpture he crafted for us so elegantly last week.

So with that said, while others might fear to tread I have no choice but to rush in.

Now one of the foremost problems in the Gospel is the portrayal of Peter by St Matthew in this chapter 16 where as we heard last week Christ utters the famous words so beloved of the mediaeval Papacy:

thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

But this week and a mere few lines later, Christ says to Peter something rather terrifyingly negative

Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.

At the very least,  there could hardly be a sharper reminder that deriving large scale theology from single texts is simply impossible and neglects the nature of the Bible itself.[1]

But such niceties aside, the mere juxtaposition of these words points to the complexity of Matthew’s understanding and portrayal of Peter which is of great historical moment given the legacy with which the image of the Petrine rock has had down the centuries.

And that very legacy has had a dramatic impact on how the texts themselves have been read and understood with at least three broad approaches to Matthew’s presentation of Peter emerging.

In the first – for the very reason I have just pointed to —  the external context of systematic theology dominates, with a clear focus on ecclesiological concerns (the impact on our understanding of the Church) to the fore,  even though it was remote from the context of  St Matthew himself.

And with the Reformation something of a battle set in either to dismantle the view of Peter as the rock of the church or to reinforce it.

Then, rather later, it was the quest for biographical data on Peter and for tracing the history of the tradition itself that became dominant, with the result that the gospel text was seen as a quarry  from which to extract information relative to the task of reconstructing the historical Peter and the development of textual tradition.

While in a third option, the rise of redaction-critical concerns has resulted in the attempt, on the part of exegetes, to determine Matthew’s own portrait of Peter by examining those strands of texts which seemed pertinent to this goal — a somewhat analytical method which — as in each of the other cases —  runs some risk of self-referential circularity.

But the end result is that we surely do have to look at the Petrine texts by analyzing them in relation first, to the wider whole of Matthew’s theology in his Gospel and secondly to  that of the Canon of the New Testament beyond it — not simply as stand-alone proofs for this or that position.

Yet it has to be recognised that this is not a simple task –as the elements are all in some degree of mutual relation.

Indeed,  if I had to single out one lesson that emerges here, it is that the task of understanding the heritage that is ours, in our Christian faith in general, is always with us. Aside from the creeds, which merely set essential boundaries, there is no short circuit to this task and we are obliged to grapple with the various strands that come down to us in our formularies and our Prayer Book liturgy itself,  as we seek to grapple with the fullness of what it means to believe our faith. (Something I would see as entailed by thinking of this life as a vale of soul making.)

Perhaps in illustration of this, it is striking at the moment,  that among those Roman Catholics who had, in the wake of John Paul II and Pope Benedict,  been most drawn to a strong model of Papal powers, as a bastion against revisionism,  there is now a process of reflection underway in response to the rather different reign of the  current Pope Francis. Indeed,  the noted Dominican theologian, Aidan Nichols has occasioned a flurry of  articles by observing that in the wake of the Papal text Amoris Laetitia there is now a crisis that may be “providentially intended to call attention to the limits of primacy” in regard to the Papacy.

Such things are for the Roman Catholic church to consider and it is not my place or intention to intrude.

However,  insofar as a there has been a case made for a universal and juridical Roman primacy that is de fide and of itself in some (hard to define way) infallible,  then there is entailed some need to reflect upon the territory to which today’s gospel invites us.

Yet I say that with caution, for we have to be aware of the wider cultural context which is all too willing here – to borrow a phrase —to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And by that I mean the context in which casting off religious boundaries can be a prelude to taking leave of our cultural heritage more generally and even of the possibility of access to truth and meaning itself — for those tempted to be truly post-modern.

Perhaps I can illustrate by citing a famous if rather controversial Bostonian from history and one of his typically inflammatory speeches during the time of what I might call the Anglo-American disruption:

By way of incitement he shouted out to his fellow Bostonians

Our forefathers threw off the yoke of Popery in religion, for you is reserved the honor of leveling the popery of politics. They opened the Bible to all and maintained the capacity of every man to judge for himself in religion. Are we sufficient for the comprehension of the sublimest spiritual truths and unequal to material and temporal ones?

The words are those of Samuel Adams  and they throw into sharp relief a powerful relationship between what is usually seen as a quintessentially religious idea, often understood as central to the Reformation, and the world of public affairs and politics, namely private judgement.  Indeed, the late Dr. David Samuel of the Church Society in Britain and redoubtable defender of the Reformation heritage in Anglicanism, helpfully set out to exhibit in his writings the centrality of this belief to Protestantism, starting with Martin Luther’s famous declaration at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scripture, or by evident reason [ratione evidente]—for I neither believe the Pope nor the Councils alone, since it is clear that they have often erred and contradicted one another—I am overcome by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is taken captive by the words of God [capta conscientia in verbis dei] , and I neither can nor will retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. (Quoted from Henry Wace, Principles of The Reformation, London, 1910, p. 17. (certain original Latin phrases here added) [2]

Dr. Samuel goes on to argue that the nub of the Reformers’ position was that;

‘They did not believe that they were opposing their private interpretation of Scripture to that of the church; they believed that they were opposing the testimony of Scripture itself to the erroneous teaching of the church. In other words, this was not the private view of Luther or Melancthon to which they appealed….It was the teaching of the Bible itself… They believed that there was an objective truth in Scripture independent of themselves, that Scripture had its own doctrines and faith to which they had been granted access by faith, and it was that truth and teaching which they were opposing to the teaching of the Church of Rome, not anything of their own. (‘The Place of Private Judgment’, Churchman, 1994, 108,1. Emphasis added here.)

And Samuel goes on to quote Tyndale’s approving invocation of 2nd Peter, 1:20, 21 stating that ‘no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation. For Prophecy came not of old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ even though this suggests that private judgement is, in the end, not so private after all.[3]

But what then of Samuel Adams?

Clearly,  he stands at some remove from the actual Reformation theology which he invokes to his aid out of mere seeming expediency

For him the value of the Reformation was, as we would say now, the privatization of religious insight. No longer is it something to be accepted as truth institutionally mediated through priests and the church, or somehow by the Scriptures themselves. Rather, truth is something each person can sort out individually.

Concomitant with this is the absence of a sense that Christianity contains an objective content that stands over, and potentially even challenges the individual believer, and there is no mechanism implied by which to resist an ultimate conclusion –so redolent of today, that ‘anything goes’ and that all interpretations are equally valid.

Contemporary society suggests that the fruits of this truly revolutionary type of thinking have been in marked tension and are ultimately even mutually opposed.

On the one hand, there is the characteristically post-modern idea that there are no authorities and that all opinions are equally valid.

Yet on the other hand, there is something completely different unfolding through the role in society of civil law and the language of rights.

What is manifestly emerging –despite the seeming chaos of post-modern epistemology and philosophy– is an entirely new edifice through which institutionally mediated truth is to be dispensed and whose authority is increasingly creative and impatient of dispute.

–As they would have cried out in ancient Rome, we are invited now to ‘Make way! Make way! For the Noble Judge’ as it is through the engine of the Judiciary that it seems we are now to suppose we can gain access to ultimate truths and an ultimate objective reality.

But now you must be wondering how all this connects to Peter in today’s Gospel?

There are a number of stereotypical approaches to the task of unpacking the role ascribed to Peter by Matthew.

One[4] portrays Peter, in analogy to developments within contemporary pharisaic Judaism, as the “supreme Rabbi” whom Jesus has invested with the “office of the keys,” or the authority of teaching, and on whom Jesus has therefore built his church.

This means that in the eyes of Matthew’s church, Peter has become both the “guarantor” and the “transmitter” of its tradition of teaching. He is the bond assuring that its disciplinary regulations and observances of  the law derive from the earthly Jesus himself and have been faithfully preserved.[5]

A second approach[6] sees the primary significance of Peter in Matthew’s gospel as “typical” in nature: In other words, Peter provides the members of Matthew’s church with an example of what it means, both positively and negatively, to be a Christian.

Thus Peter can be understood[7] as a  “type” for the Christians of Matthew’s community because he occupies the “role of a speaker” and hence receives instructions that are to be observed by all.

However (as Kingsbury has pointed out) while very different, both these approaches actually share the presupposition that the “understanding Matthew’s presentation of Peter is a theological problem.[8]

And using this method of approach, there is reason to suggest that in the church as conceived by St Matthew, it is the entire community, gathered together in the name and consequently in the presence and on the authority of  the exalted Son of God, which “binds and looses,” that is to say on matters of church doctrine and church discipline (18:18-20).

In these  matters, the community strives for one thing, namely, that their decisions made in the name of the exalted Son of God (18:20), are in keeping with the injunction given them by Jesus to “observe all that I have commanded you” (28:20).

And Peter emerges, not as some quasi monarch above the other disciples, but rather as one remaining on the level of his “brothers” for it is always Jesus himself that is “presiding” over them and the eschatological maxim holds also  that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (23:12).

A strong sign of this is the circumstance that Peter  shares with the other disciples the authority of binding and loosing (16:19; 18:1)  and the church of St Matthew’s Christians, was built on Peter, as the “rock” of Peter who was first among equals (primus inter pares)  by virtue of being (as Matthew repeatedly stresses), simply the first called to follow Christ.

What that points to, is something predictably congenial to the Anglican mind – namely a collegial vocation to discern and to follow – that might be expected to lead in institutional terms to sympathy with Conciliarism.

But while that might sound very congenial – the fact is that Anglicans are finding it very hard indeed to live this out now. Indeed it may well be that the next Lambeth Conference due in 2020 will be our last chance to explore what it means to submit ourselves in each of our Provinces to the mind of the whole.

And yet nothing less is the task to which we are called if we are to be a true church and to grapple successfully with the complex body of resources from the Bible and the creeds,  to our historic formularies and Books of Common Prayer, that collectively capture the substance of our faith.

And that brings me back to where we came in,  and one of the lessons derived from Michelangolo’s Tondo and the seemingly frustrating fact that he never finished it.

According to the nineteenth-century French sculptor and critic Eugène Guillaume, Michelangelo’s “non finite” was in fact  “one of the master’s expressive devices in his quest for infinite suggestiveness.”[9]

Could there be a better image for the work of theology which must of necessity in this life never be finished and always underway?

And in ending thus,  where I began with a reference to the Tondo I am of course indulging in a little spot of Matthean style chiasmus all of my own.


[1]In such a highly rhetorical work as Matthew’s Gospel this particular juxtaposition even calls to mind the Greek rhetorical devices of  of Stichomythia (Στιχομυθία) in which single lines of text can dramatically alternate in antithesis as well as synthesis (as we also find so much in the Psalms a point that underlies our characteristic attention to the caesura in this parish when we say them!) or even the reversal of fortune or peripateia (περιπέτεια) familiar in the discussion of Tragedy by Aristotle and others (and illustrated in the Biblical context by the conversion of St Paul and the road to Damascus).

[2] The practical claim in dispute was, as Melancthon had put it earlier, in a ‘little treatise in 1519’, ‘that the Scripture was not to be expounded according to the Fathers, but that the Fathers were to be understood according to the sense of Scripture’, and that the purpose of Church Councils was therefore simply to ‘…confess and defend the primitive faith against new articles of belief, and not the new to the disparagement of the old’,  (as Luther put it in the Authority of Councils and Churches, translated by C. B. Smyth, London, 1847, p. 165).

[3] But perhaps the key to resolving the tensions here lies in the point argued by Gerhard Ebeling: namely that the idea that we all live coram deo, was ‘…the very basis of Luther’s mode of thought convincing him as it did that all of life is lived (and judged) by the conscience, ‘before God’, ‘in front of God’,  ‘in the presence of God’. (Luther: An Introduction to his Thought, Philadelphia, 1972, 193.) As Luther wrote a few months after the Diet of Worms,

‘…Conscience is not the power to do works, but to judge them.  The proper work of conscience (as Paul says in Romans 2:15), is to accuse or excuse, to make guilty or guiltless, uncertain or certain.  Its purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God’s sight.’

Martin Luther (On Monastic Vows, 1521, LW 44, 298). Cf., also, Randall Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 2.

[4] Cf. Reinhart / Hummel: in Die Auseinandersetzung zwischen Kirche und Judentum im Matthausevangelium, ( BEvT33)  Munich: Kaiser, 1963) 59-64. The rudiments of this position can be found in the earlier  B. H. Streeter on the origins of Matthew’s Gospel (cf. The Four Gospels [London 1924] 515) and in K. Stendahl’s comments on Matt 16:13-23 (cf. Matthew, PCB, 787-88),

[5] Indeed, it can be said (after Kahler), that this approach can end up so singling Peter out as to depict him as being uniquely invested as the bearer of revelation (16:17-19), with   the “Matthew-Gospel” become a “Peter-Gospel.” Instead!

[6] Cf. Strecker, Weg der Gerechtigkeit, 205

[7] C.f.. R. Walker, Die Heilsgeschichte im ersten Evangelium (FRLANT 91) Goettingen Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967, 118)

[8] C.f. Kingsbury, Peter in Matthew’s Gospel, p.  69.  The very different results of Hummel and Strecker are all consequent upon the manner in which they integrate the textual  data into the overall thought, or theology of Matthew” and Kingsbury duly attempts to do this anew

[9] (Lightbown, Ronald W. (1969). “Michelangelo’s Great Tondo: Its Origins and Setting”. Apollo. 89: 22–31

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