He built this city on rock and scroll

Jesus is no longer with us as he was with his first disciples—at least not in the same way. He’s no longer walking around teaching by word and example. Nevertheless, he didn’t leave us to grapple with life’s questions all by ourselves. Jesus left his community of disciples ways of recalling his presence and preserving his teachings. On Pentecost, he gifted the young church with the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” who would guide the church “into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). He instituted rituals like the Eucharist to act as the church’s living memory, calling to mind the life of Christ.

Jesus has given his followers two other means of connecting with him in particular: the written Word of God and its servants, the church’s pastors. In a sense, Jesus founded his church on these two gifts, the apostolic writings and on apostolic leaders—on the Bible and on bishops.

That’s right, Starship. He built this city on rock and scroll.

Most people  recognize the role of the scroll—the Bible—in Christianity. Of great importance are the twenty-seven documents of the New Testament. They contain accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings as well as other writings that provide a peek at early Christian life and practice.

Besides acting as historical witness to Jesus and the first Christians, the New Testament came to be regarded as divinely inspired, and therefore on par with the Jewish scriptures (or Old Testament). With such ease of access to the Bible today, we tend to view the Bible as a single leather-bound book properly used for devotion, bible study, and self-help. However, for the first centuries of Christianity, the written Word of God’s significance primarily related to its proclamation at the Eucharistic liturgy. Christians would gather together to partake of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper). In fact, “New Testament” originally referred to the Eucharist, since Jesus used this term in reference to the Last Supper.

Since the New Testament writings reflected the larger context of the Christian life and worship, one could say that Christians were “doing church” long before the Bible was ever a single-volume work—even before there was an official determination of what belonged in the Bible, in the first place.

This brings us to the other foundation of the church, the rock.

Even when Christians were without the Bible’s table of contents, Christians still knew the contents of the faith. Jesus charged his Apostles to preach the gospel to all nations. There is actually no indication that Jesus asked his disciples to write anything down; instead, he gave them his own authority to teach in his name (Mt. 28:18-20), forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23), lead the Christian community (Mt. 18:18), and, of course, preside at the Eucharist (Lk. 22:19).

The New Testament writings reveal that the early church gathered around Christ’s appointed shepherds, the Apostles, who in turn appointed other pastors as well. One shepherd of the church, the Apostle Peter, occupied a chief place of leadership.1 At one critical point in the gospels, after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus in turn declares Peter to be the “rock” upon which Jesus would “build [his] church” (Mt. 16:18). Additionally, Jesus gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” which signify the Old Testament role of royal steward in the Davidic household.2 Jesus, the new king of the Davidic Kingdom, is in effect making Peter the shepherd and steward of his church.

So even though the first Christians were without a Bible, Jesus did not leave the early church without guidance. Instead, Jesus left human shepherds as his representatives to teach and govern the church. They acted as the “foundation” of the church (Eph. 2:20), with the rock Peter holding a preeminent position of leadership.

This rock of the church was not only for the first century, when the Apostles were still around. Christians of the second century immediately picked up on this principle of apostolic authority. They not only regarded the Apostles but the men they appointed as legitimate leaders of the church. These successors to the Apostles, the bishops, were looked to as a source of Christian unity and teaching. Second-century Christian Ignatius, who himself was bishop of Antioch, was firm that union with the bishop meant union with the church and, in turn, Jesus Christ:

Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop…” Letter to the Trallians 2, ~AD 110

And as one may expect, these second-century Christians also identified a certain bishop as occupying an important place of leadership: the bishop of Rome, who succeeded Peter, the original rock:

But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all […] by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul […] With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” -Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3:3:2, ~AD 180

So Jesus built his “city,” the church, on rock and scroll. Both are important. They are complementary, and each makes sense only in reference to the other. Jesus didn’t leave us a book to be the only foundation of the church and faith. He is still with us in the scriptures, to be sure, but his truth also comes from his appointed shepherds as well.

What does this mean on a daily, practical level? For me, it ultimately means respecting the authority of scripture as well as the authority of the church’s pastors. On the one hand, this involves learning about Jesus through the perspective of those closest to him, the Apostles and other disciples, whose writings are in the Bible. I seek God’s will by paying attention to the teachings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, the prophets, Moses, and the other biblical writers—as well as the overall patterns and themes of the Bible.

I attempt to respect the church’s pastors by remembering those that have come before me: the bishops, priests, and theologians of the church who have, in turn, received teachings from those that came before them. I seek to faithfully adhere to the church’s historic doctrine as maintained by the bishops throughout the world—and not just rely on my own interpretation of the Bible, which may be misguided. I intend to attentively listen when the church’s leaders speak to important issues of the day. This includes reading the writings of the Pope, who occupies the role of rock like Peter first did. By respecting the Pope’s role—and that of all the bishops and pastors—I acknowledge that Christ did not leave us to figure out everything by ourselves. When we honor their positions of leadership, we remember that Christ has left us shepherds to guide us to himself, the Good Shepherd.

[1] In John 21, Jesus emphasizes Peter’s role as shepherd of Christ’ “sheep.”
[2] In Matthew 16, Jesus references Isaiah 22, which speaks of the steward of the Davidic household. The steward held the “keys” and the authority to “open” and “shut,” thereby representing the Davidic king and sharing in his authority.
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10 thoughts on “He built this city on rock and scroll”

  1. Patric,

    I too believe and affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ established His Church on Rock and Scroll, that is, the inspired confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the Scroll which was then the entire Jewish Scriptures and the epistles and Revelation as they were written and disseminated.

    The Rock is well-known in the Old Testament to be GOD Himself, and the Apostles Peter and Paul both testified that the Rock is Christ:

    1 Peter 2

    4 And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture:
    “Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone,
    And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
    7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,
    “The stone which the builders rejected,
    This became the very corner stone,”
    8 and,
    “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”;

    Romans 9:33

    33 just as it is written,
    “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,
    And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

    1 Corinthians 10

    10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.

    Also I respect Ireneaus of Lyons but would think that the Church in Jerusalem was the most ancient.

    Thank you for reading my comment,

    Maria

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    1. It doesn’t have to be either-or, however. “Rock” can be used in different senses. The Lord is our rock in one sense, and Peter is a rock in another sense—or else it wouldn’t make sense for Jesus to in fact re-name Simon “Peter,” meaning “Rock.” In Ephesians, Paul calls the Apostles the “foundation” of the church. Chris is the Good Shepherd, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t shepherds as well—in fact in John’s gospel, Jesus makes Peter a shepherd when he tells him to “feed” and “tend” his sheep. Again, two different senses of the same word. Of course, Ireneaus was using lofty language to express why Rome was the preeminent church. The oldness of a church didn’t make Rome the leader—the foundation in Peter did.

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  2. As for Matthew 16, where Jesus declares he’s going to build his church on the “rock,” I think context makes it clear that Peter is the rock, and for two reasons: (1) Peter literally means “Rock” —and Christ gave him this name. If Peter is not the “rock” upon which Christ builds the church, then why else would he be given this name, in the first place? (2) in this passage, Jesus also gives Peter the Keys of the Kingdom and the ability to bind and loose. The parallelism of the passage should lead us to believe that “rock” is also telling us something about Peter. Even if one believes Peter is not the rock in this passage, one still has to accept that Jesus is giving the Keys to Peter, thereby expressing Peter’s place of stewardship under the King, Christ.

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    1. Patrick, you make a strong case for your view. My question is, why the Church which claims the Apostle Peter as the rock bears bad fruit in the form of unbiblical doctrines coming from the Chair of Peter, particularly in making the Eucharist (thanksgiving in sharing bread and wine to remember Christ’s death) into a sacrifice, when we know that His offering for sin was once for all?

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      1. Sorry that I reply so quickly… I’m at my computer and have no other obligations at the moment. But I enjoy speaking with you :). First off, there’s no doubt that people in the Church — even Popes, even the APOSTLES can bear bad fruit (think of Peter denying Jesus, or Judas betraying him, or Thomas doubting, etc.). As for unbiblical doctrines, I assume you mean doctrines that you think are untrue or are against the Bible. Well, I think Jesus promised that his Church would maintain the truth when, again, he told Peter that the “gates of hell” would not “prevail” against the church (Matt. 16:18). Saying that the (Catholic) Church in fact preaches unbiblical doctrines is an assertion, one that you and have different opinions on. The fundamental question is this: How do we know what is Christian truth, to begin with? How did Christ want us to know? Is it just the Bible? If so, why are there so many approaches to the Bible? I do not think Jesus meant for us to have the Bible by itself. He never told the Apostles to write anything, instead, he told them to preach all truth. Some of this was indeed written down. But the scriptures tell us that the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). As for the Eucharist, the Catholic understanding is that it is the same sacrifice of Christ’s, but made present under a different form. It is not an additional sacrifice. Indeed, St. Paul suggests that the Eucharist is a sacrifice in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, when he compares the Eucharist to both the sacrifices of Pagans and the Israelites. Very interesting is the fact that the earliest Christian writings all call the Eucharist a sacrifice. They often referenced a prophecy from Malachi that says, in the future, all the “nations” or Gentiles would offer a *pure* sacrifice. Only Christ is the pure sacrifice, once-for-all put to death. But he presents himself to the Father as the sacrificial lamb even now, continuing to intercede for us.

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    1. Okay I’m not really an apologetics blog and I don’t have many followers, so I may not dive into it in a public way … but if you ever want to talk about it in private, feel free to message!

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