Robert Sungenis and evpi. tau,th

The book, Jesus, Peter & the Keys, attempts to provide responses to some of the arguments that have been put forward against the unique, and sometimes very strained, exegetical claims of Rome. In particular, this book often cites Robert Sungenis, a Westminster Seminary graduate, as their primary source of Greek scholar. While we are unaware of any advanced study in the field on the part of Mr. Sungenis beyond a Master’s degree, and have never been informed that he has professional teaching experience, published scholarly works, etc., his opinions on the grammar of the Greek text are presented as the “final word” by Jesus, Peter & the Keys (see our summary review elsewhere on this page)

On page 25 of JP&K, Sungenis is cited in response to an argument that I have presented a number of times. In fact, Sungenis’ comments on pages 24 and 25 are taken directly from those he made in our debate at Boston College in 1995. Beginning on page 24, Sungenis attempts to strengthen the Roman Catholic identification of Peter as the rock of Matthew 16:18 by discussing, briefly, the demonstrative pronoun tau,th|, which is the dative feminine singular form of ou=toj, meaning “this.” He points out that at times this term can be translated “this very” as in “this very night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20). While this is quite true, it is also quite irrelevant, for even the translation “and upon this very rock I will build My church” does not shed any light whatsoever upon the identity of the “rock.” In fact, I believe such a translation would argue against the position Sungenis takes, for there would be no reason to use a demonstrative pronoun with such emphasis immediately upon saying su. ei= Pe,troj (You are Peter) if Jesus was identifying Peter and the “rock.” The more tau,th| is emphasized, the less likely the antecedent is Peter. That is, the stronger tau,th| is translated, the stronger the disjunction between Peter and this rock.

The main argument I have presented in the past, and to which Sungenis and Scott Butler are attempting to respond in JP&K, is this: when one reads the text as it stands (i.e., when one does not immediately abandon the Greek and run to a mythical, unverifiable “Aramaic original”), one is struck with how strange it is that Jesus takes the “long way around” to get to making the equation “Peter = rock” if in fact that is His intention. It would have been much simpler to say, “You are Peter, and on you I will build My church.” But He didn’t say that. Instead, here are His words:

kavgw. de, soi le,gw o[ti su. ei= Pe,troj( kai. evpi. tau,th| th/| pe,tra| oivkodomh,sw mou th.n evkklhsi,an

As we simply translate the passage and attempt to ascertain the meaning, we note that Jesus begins with direct personal address to Peter. “And I say to you (soi)” is singular, addressed to Peter and to Peter alone. This is continued in the first part of the main statement, “You (su,) are (singular) Peter.” This is known as direct address. Jesus is speaking in the first person, and Peter is in the second person, being directly addressed by the Lord. Up to this point, all is clear and understandable.

Then we run into the phrase at issue. kai. evpi. tau,th| th/| pe,tra is indeed singular; there is only one “rock” in view. The issue is, to what does tau,th| refer? As a pronoun, it has an antecedent, a referent that it is pointing back to. Rome insists the referent is Peter.* But if it is, why use a demonstrative pronoun at all? Jesus has used two personal pronouns of Peter already in this sentence, soi and su,. He could have easily said, “and upon you the rock,” (evpi. se, or evpi. soi, th/| pe,tra). But again, He didn’t. Instead, he switches from direct address to the demonstrative “this.” I have expressed this, in non-technical language, as going from second person, “you, Peter,” to third person, “this rock.” “This rock” is referring to something other than the person who was being addressed in the preceding phrase, something that we find in the immediate context. A natural reading of the passage (one that I truly believe would be nigh unto universal if history had not fallen out as it did, with only one “apostolic see” in the West, the continuance of the Empire in the East, etc.) makes it plain what must function as the antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun:

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

The confession that Peter gives of the Messiahship of Jesus is the central thought of the entire passage. It is the reason for the trip to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus indicates that Peter has just been the recipient of divine revelation. God, in His grace, has given to Peter an insight that does not find its origin in the will of man, but in God the Father Himself. The content of that confession is, in fact, divine revelation, immediately impressed upon the soul of Peter. This is the immediate context of verse 18, and to divorce verse 18 from what came before leads to the errant shift of attention from the identity of Christ to the identity of Peter that is found in Roman Catholic exegesis. Certainly we cannot accept the idea, presented in Roman theology, that immediately upon pronouncing the benediction upon Peter’s confession of faith, the focus shifts away from that confession and what it reveals to Peter himself and some office with successors based upon him! Not only does the preceding context argue against this, but the following context likewise picks up seemlessly with what came before: the identity of Jesus as Messiah. Hence, the logical antecedent for tau,th| is Peter’s confession. Such not only commands the most logical grammatical sense, but it also commands the obvious teaching of the rest of the New Testament itself! While Peter falls out of view by Acts 15, the centrality of the Messiahship of Jesus continues in the forefront throughout the recorded history of the primitive Church.

Hence I have suggested that the shift from the direct address of Peter to the use of the demonstrative pronoun, pointing us back to something prior, specifically, the confession of faith, that will function as the foundation of the Church Christ promises to build, is significant and must be explained by the Roman apologist who seeks to present an interpretation that is to be binding upon all Christians. It is this argument that forms the background of what we find in JP&K, p. 25:

A Protestant grammatical argument sometimes made in trying to interpret Matthew 16:18 away from the traditional Christian interpretation centers on the “person” to whom statements are addressed; that is, Peter is addressed in the second person but the rock is referred to in the third person, thereby making for different referents. Robert Sungenis has a response:

“The first thing we must point out is that on strict grammatical grounds nouns do not have person, only pronouns have person. The pronouns, ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘he’ are first, second and third person, respectively. Nouns, on the other hand, have number, gender and case but not person. Hence, it is not correct to say that ‘rock,’ which MacKenzie and Gerstner have claimed is a ‘third person’ noun, cannot be matched up with the second person pronoun ‘you’ from the phrase ‘you are Peter’ in Matthew 16:18. One cannot claim a disjunction between ‘you’ and ‘rock’ based on person since technically speaking no such comparison is grammatically legitimate. Although one could possibly advance the argument that nouns have an inherent third person, this would not prohibit the coupling between ‘you’ and ‘rock.’ If MacKenzie’s and Gerstner’s argument were true, then they would also have to argue that ‘I’ and ‘church’ in Jesus’ statement, ‘I will build my church’ could not be linked with one another since the former is in the first person and the latter would be a third person. One can plainly see that this would be a fallacious line of argumentation. In regard to Peter, Jesus could have said either ‘you are Peter’ or ‘you are rock’ in which the second person ‘you’ is directly identified by either of the nouns following.” Robert A. Sungenis, letter to authors, 7 November 1995, 2-3.

There is thus strong evidence in the Greek language that Peter is the rock upon which the Church of Christ will be built.

First, we note that the authors of JP&K are quite in error in stating that anyone is wishing to turn someone aside from “the traditional Christian interpretation” of this passage. Unless our authors are wanting to redefine “traditional” to merely “Roman,” they need to deal with the conclusions of von D€llinger, in his work The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1869), 74:

Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt 16:18, John 21:17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the twelve being together the foundation-stones of the church. The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as—what is obvious to any one at first sight—they did not regard the power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred on all the Apostles, as any thing peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing.

And Oscar Cullman in Peter, Disciple, Apostle, and Martyr (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), p. 162, rightly concluded regarding Matthew 16:18, “We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformation gave . . . was not first invented for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition.”

But this aside, we turn to Sungenis’ comments. First, a small issue: he confuses the late John Gerstner with Norman Geisler, who co-authored Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995) with Ralph MacKenzie. Secondly, he is quite right: on a strict grammatical ground demonstrative pronouns do not have “person” as in “first person, second person, third person.” However, I note the date on this letter: November, 1995. This is many months after I had explained, in public debate, his error in understanding this argument the way he does. While he tries to recover some in this attempted rebuttal, he is still in error. He has yet to seriously interact with the comments I have made on this topic in the context in which they have been offered. It’s not like I only recently came up with this argument: we can find me presenting it in my book, Answers to Catholic Claims (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, 1990), p. 105. Note that this is from 1990. Dr. Geisler makes note of this work on page 208 of his work, the page immediately following the one that contains the argument Sungenis cites. Dr. Geisler derived the form of the argument Sungenis cites from my own work. Hence, the original context in which I presented this argument, and have expounded this argument, even personally to Mr. Sungenis in debate, is decisive. I quote from Answers to Catholic Claims:

Next, note that when Christ speaks to Peter, He does so in the second person; that is, direct address. Yet, the term “this rock” is third person (indirect address indicated by the use of tau,th|), making the differentiation between “Peter” and “this rock” complete, even if one accepts the Catholic apologists’ contention of an Aramaic original without differentiation of the genders, masculine and feminine, of “rock.” He is speaking to Peter, about the “rock.” Hence the text differentiates between Peter and the rock in two ways: the form of the word, and the person of address.

Please note that I have always defined my use of “person” by proper grammatical forms, “direct address” and “indirect address.” I am well aware of the fact that pronouns do not have person. I have consistently used the term “person” in its English equivalent, attempting to communicate the fact that Jesus is shifting in His terminology by referring to something other than Peter by using tau,th|. It is a hollow victory indeed that only proves that I do not always use technical terminology when attempting to communicate a point to non-Greek speaking audiences.

Hence, leaving the matter of the term “person” aside and dealing with the argument as I have presented it above, and as I presented it in 1990 in my published works, does Sungenis succeed in responding to the argument itself? No, he does not. In fact, if one removes the terminological issue, Sungenis fails completely to interact with the argument as presented! Why is it invalid to point out the insertion of a demonstrative pronoun when the personal pronouns already used in the prior portion of the sentence would have made things so much clearer, if in fact Jesus was just continuing on in referring to Peter himself? Does Sungenis deny the fact that tau,th| must have an antecedent, and that it is not immediately provable that this antecedent is Peter? Does he deny that the context and flow of the passage must be taken into account to answer this question? None of the real issues are touched upon at all by Sungenis, and this despite the fact that I pointed these things out to him in the Boston College debate earlier the same year! [I should note that it is possible Mr. Sungenis did not hear my rebuttal of his comments: both he and Mr. Butler frequently left the stage for long periods during the debate, and he may well have missed my rebuttal due to such an absence. It is not, however, my recollection that he was gone at this particular juncture.]

We should point out that Sungenis is completely in error to attempt to correlate the argument concerning tau,th| with Jesus’ statement “I will build my church.” The passage is not even remotely similar. You have no demonstrative pronoun, you have no direct address in one clause, followed by an interruption using a demonstrative in the second. You have no question as to what the antecedent of the demonstrative is. In fact, one has to truly wonder how Mr. Sungenis came up with such an argument, unless he is truly thinking that anyone, whether myself or Geisler and MacKenzie, are so naive as to assert that every verb and noun has to agree in every respect in every clause of a sentence (person, number, etc.)! Such has never been anyone’s argument, so why set up and then beat down a straw man?

We can only hope that the authors of JP&K, and Robert Sungenis, will someday take the time to actually interact with the argument that has been presented to them now for nearly seven years. Until they do so, their exegesis of Matthew 16 will continue to be questionable, having failed to respond to a meaningful challenge to its validity.


*We are glad that many Roman exegetes acknowledge that Peter’s confession of faith must be taken into account in this passage. Indeed, the Council of Trent even made reference to this! However, modern Roman dogma, in attempting to elevate the Pope to the height of “Infallible Head of the Church,” has had to rely so strongly on this singular passage, that allowance of other viewpoints or interpretations is difficult for the Roman apologist to accept.


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