A Response to James White's Comments on

Jesus, Peter and the Keys

By Robert Sungenis


Well, we've got to hand it to Mr. White. I really don't know where he finds the time to sit down and write all his rebuttals to Catholic apologists, but it is apparent that he somehow manages. We can safely conclude from observing his Web page that Mr. White is on a crusade. Clearly out-numbered by Catholic apologists who have taken the pen-sword in hand to challenge their Protestant brethren, White feels it his personal responsibility to slay the giant behemoth of the Catholic church, especially those nasty new converts who are just popping up everywhere. But take heart, dear Catholic friend, God allows the Mr. White's of the world to continue in their crusades because they actually do us more good than harm. For every clever argument that is raised by the Mr. White's, God is giving us a chance to sharpen our swords. Yes, we will answer every minutia of argumentation they bring forth and thereby vindicate the Catholic Church for all the world to see. With that said, let me briefly respond to some of Mr. White's arguments.

As he almost never fails to do, Mr. White opens his rebuttal by planting the seed of doubt in the reader's mind regarding the knowledge and credibility of his opponent. Mr. White writes:

In particular, this book often cites Robert Sungenis, a Westminster Seminary graduate, as their primary source of Greek scholar [sic]. 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.

Wrong, Mr. White. The book makes no mention of Robert Sungenis being its primary source of Greek scholar[ship]. The book merely thanks him for being a substantial contributor to the work in the words: "Robert Sungenis who also inspires us with his commanding knowledge of the Bible and biblical Greek." I'm sure there are many authors in the book who know as much or more than me about biblical Greek. I wanted to concentrate on Greek for the book precisely because of people like Mr. White who consistently attempt to counter arguments from Catholic apologists with his supposed knowledge of the language. His recent debacle on the Internet with the heous hou phrase ("until") in Matthew 1:25 is a case in point. Be that as it may, if Mr. White has any objections to my being cited in the book for Greek analysis then he should show where he thinks my knowledge of Greek grammar has fallen short, instead of taking pot shots at me or my academic career. So far, all we have seen from Mr. White is innuendo. Though I am reluctant to "toot my own horn," as they say, if Mr. White would stop trying to ‘muddy the waters' by unnecessarily casting doubt upon his opponents credibility then we wouldn't have to make pit stops to defend ourselves in the midst of our rebuttals against Mr. White. [Note Mr. White's appeal to his lack of information rather than factual information in his statement "We are unaware of any advanced study..."] For the record, I am presently pursuing doctoral studies at the Maryvale Institute in England. As for professional teaching experience, I had an accredited teaching position with Family Stations, Inc., (1980-1982) probably before Mr. White graduated college. And though I have been encouraged to take an academic position, rather than be confined to the rigors of the academic institutions, I made a decision to head up a Catholic apologetics organization, which has now been in operation since 1993 and gives me much latitude in my efforts to defend the Church. Yes, something very similar to Mr. White's organization. By the same token, has anyone seen those three little letters (Ph.D.) after Mr. White's name? I don't remember seeing them, but then again, Mr. White says I ignore a lot about him. As for published works, I have published Shockwave 2000 (New Leaf Press, 1994) which is a scholarly rebuttal to the varied predictions of Protestant evangelicals concerning the end of the world. The former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, John Walvoord, said it was one of the best book written on the subject, which prompted him to write the Foreword. As for other works, Queenship Publishing will be releasing the book Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence of the Catholic Doctrine of Justification in July 1997 (800 pages), and publishing the book: Is the Bible Our Only Authority: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura in the fall of 1997, of which I am the general editor. Is that enough for you, Mr. White? I suggest that the next time you want to plant doubt in your reader's mind about your opponent, check first with the person about whom you are writing and stop trying to make someone look bad by the things you don't know about them.

Let me mention one more thing: Mr. White is famous for accusing Catholic apologists of employing ad hominem arguments, of being accusatory and vitriolic. I want to point out, however, that it is precisely because of his subtle yet sharp attacks on the character and credibility of Catholic apologists, some of which I have noted above, that make Mr. White so irritating and repulsive to Catholic apologists. For example, Mr. White keeps complaining that Scott Hahn won't debate him and makes quite an issue of it on his Web page, attempting to make Scott look very bad. Anyone who has talked to Scott knows that the very reason he will not debate Mr. White, nor even be in the same room with him, is precisely for the subtle yet malicious attacks Mr. White has made against him and the Catholic Church. Listen closely to Mr. White's argumentation and you will invariably hear innuendos, insinuations and downright contempt for his opponents. Here is another case in point: Regarding our debate on the papacy in April 1995, Mr. White writes:

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).

This is vintage James White—insinuating something bad without really saying it explicitly. What makes it worse is that Mr. White continues to use this subtle character assassination even though I have told him explicitly in personal correspondence, several times, that I left the stage for none other than a simple bladder problem. I did this once, and it was for no more than five minutes. Instead of accepting this, Mr. White insinuates that I was either scared or disinterested in the debate, or who knows what his twisted thinking is trying to conjure up in the mind of his web-page reader. I assure you I was fully engaged in the debate, as attested by many in the audience. Anyone who wants the tapes, I have them available and you can judge for yourself. As for Mr. White's demeanor during the debate: Fr. Tacelli who attended the debate, though he congratulated White on a good job, told me that he felt White was so obnoxious he wanted "to go up there and slap him."

As for scholarship, well, we asked Mr. White to produce just three fathers prior to A.D. 400 who understood the rock of Matthew 16:18 to be Christ. Would you believe after two years and constant pleadings from me, Mr. White still hasn't given them to me? He tried to pass off four fathers, without giving the references, to an Internet inquirer who was also at the debate, but even that person realized that Mr. White was giving him a snowjob. The four fathers he gave said nothing close to what Mr. White was challenged with at the debate.

I could go on and on but now I would like to get to the technical portion of Mr. White's arguments. In regard to Matthew 16:18, he writes:

"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 epi tautee tee petra] is indeed singular; there is only one "rock" in view. The issue is, to what does [tautee tee] 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,"...But again, he didn't. Instead, he switches from direct address to the demonstrative "this."

Notice how White argues from silence. Yes, Jesus "could have easily said," but the fact that he did not say "and upon you the rock" does not prove or even suggest that he didn't want Peter to be the referent. Moreover, there are perfectly plausible reasons why he didn't say "you the rock." Here are some:

1) To say "you...you...upon you the rock" is a bit awkward, if not bad grammar. In fact, there is no place in Scripture where a second person pronoun is placed before a metaphor for clarification on the identity of the metaphor. Thus, Mr. White is asking for something that Scripture itself does not feel obliged to do.

2) Since in Matthew 16:18 Jesus has already assured us that he is addressing Peter by the use of the two singular personal pronouns ("you"), there is no reason, unless he wanted to engage in redundancy, to use a third personal pronoun. In fact, since Jesus has already established the person whom he wishes to emphasize (Peter), he now has the literary license to use another form of speech (a demonstrative with a metaphor) to give theological substance to the "you" he just introduced one clause earlier. Since Jesus happens to be in Caesarea Philippi which housed a rock structure, and Peter's name happens to mean "rock," gee, I wonder what would have made Jesus use the metaphor "rock" in his statement?

3) If, as Mr. White insists, the referent for rock is the faith of Peter but not Peter himself, where is the precedent for such an interpretation in Scripture? Where does Scripture ever employ the word "rock" for a non-person or mere volitional capacity such as faith? Nowhere. Scripture never equates "rock" and "faith" together. When "rock" is assigned to a referent it is always a personal being.

4) Where does Scripture ever suggest that the Church is to be built on the faith of someone as opposed to the person, or persons, themselves? Nowhere. Ephesians 2:20 says, "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets," not "built on the foundation of the faith of the apostles and prophets." Faith is but one part of a person's relationship to God, and thus we can understand why Scripture never singles it out as the foundation of the Church.

5) Why is Peter as the referent for "rock" so hard for Mr. White to see when we have the crystal clear testimony of John 1:42, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas (which, when translated, is Peter)" (NIV). Mr. White knows that "Cephas" in Aramaic means nothing but "rock." Thus, if the name "Peter" is identified as a "Cephas," what conclusion can we come to other than Peter is a genuine rock? Also significant is that in John 1:42 Jesus says "You are Simon son of John," which happens to be the same wording he uses in Matthew 16:17 ("Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah [John]"). It doesn't take much intelligence to see that Simon's name is being changed to Peter in both passages, and the only difference in the name exchanges is that John 1:42 couples the exchange with the addition of the word "Cephas" while Matthew 16:18 couples its exchange with the word "rock," but we're supposed to believe from Mr. White's analysis that it is just a coincidence that "Cephas" is equivalent to "rock." Go figure.

6) If Jesus said "You are Peter BUT upon this rock I will build my church," we could understand how the demonstrative "this" could be pointing to someone or something other than Peter. Since "but" (Greek: alla) serves to separate two clauses or phrases, the intensity of the demonstrative (i.e., "this very" rather than "this") would then serve to intensify the separation between Peter and rock. In this scenario one could admit that Peter is a rock, "but" there is a greater or another rock upon which the church would be built. But if "and" (Greek: kai) is used in place of "but" then the intensity of the demonstrative serves to join even more forcefully the nearest noun, that is, to join Peter to the word "rock." Thus, it is no surprise that Jesus says, "You are Peter AND upon this rock," not "...but upon this rock." Moreover, according to the companion passage in John 1:42, Jesus, in Matthew 16:18 could have said "You are Cephas and upon this rock." In this case there would be absolutely no room to argue against "rock" referring back to "Cephas," since both mean the same thing. Since in saying "Cephas which when translated is Peter," John 1:42 shows us that "Cephas" is equivalent to "Peter," thus Peter is equivalent to rock. This is a simple syllogism: If (1) Cephas = rock; and (2) Cephas = Peter; then (3) Peter = rock.

As I argued in Jesus, Peter and the Keys, another thing that compels us to identify Peter as the rock is what Jesus did not say. He did not say, "upon THE rock" or "upon A rock," both of which would have made the identity of the rock that much more ambiguous. Of "this," "the," and "a," the word "this" is the only one that would substantially limit the identity of the rock to Peter. This is especially noticeable when we add the words "this same rock" or "this very rock" to the sentence to clarify any apparent ambiguity, as I suggested in "Jesus, Peter and the Keys." The KJV translators had no problem translating the Greek tautee tee as "this same" or "the same" because they recognized the demonstrative force this adjective could carry (cf., 2 Cor. 9:4-5; 8:6; 1 Cor. 7:20; Acts 13:33), as did other translations such as the NIV, NEB, and NASB in other verses of Scripture.

8) The attempt by Mr. White to divorce Peter from his faith/revelation is not well supported by the testimony of the early fathers. In our papacy debate, we pointed out to Mr. White that the preponderant evidence shows that the fathers understood Peter's faith and Peter's person as one. If Mr. White would like us to reproduce that evidence we would be happy to do so. This makes perfect sense in light of #5 above. Since in John 1:42 Jesus had already assigned the word "rock" to Peter's person, not any sort of faith/revelation, then this should serve as the exegetical precedent in assigning the identity of the word "rock" in other places that use Peter's given name, i.e., Matthew 16:18. In other words, in John 1:42 there is no faith/revelation elicited from Simon that prompts Jesus to change his name to Peter, yet we know from John 1:42 that Simon is definitely given a name that only means "rock." Thus, there is simply no biblical precedent to conclude that his name change in Matthew 16:18 must necessarily be due to something other than Peter's person. We understand, of course, that the "person" encompasses all that Peter is, including his faith/revelation given from the Father, but this cannot be separated from his person, and it cannot exclude any other aspect of his person. Attempts to do so are simply not supported by Scripture.

9) Regarding my argument on page 25 of "Jesus, Peter and the Keys" that nouns do not have person and thus one cannot say that "you" must be divorced from "rock" in Matthew 16:18 based on the grammatical argument of "person," Mr. White writes:

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 [tautee tee]. 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!

Let's examine Mr. White's little tirade. First, I suspect that Mr. White realizes that he got caught with his grammatical pants down by claiming that an indirect address is equivalent to "third person." English grammars do not define indirect address in terms of "person." Hence, to argue, even on an elementary level which Mr. White claims he is doing, that "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 [tautee tee]), making the differentiation between "Peter" and "this rock" complete..." (Answers to Catholic Claims, 1990, p. 105) is very misleading, especially for the untrained and uneducated audience that Mr. White says he was appealing to. White's use of "person" implies that there is a well-recognized grammatical rule which negates any association of a direct address with an indirect address. Who among his novice audience would have been the wiser unless some Catholic apologist pointed it out? Even without the terminological details of "person" that I first used to rebut Mr. White's comments, his argument is still totally fallacious. Irrespective of "person," there is no English grammar rule that says that because an indirect address follows or is in the vicinity of a direct address then the indirect address cannot be identified with the direct address. That is totally bogus, and if Mr. White continues to propound such illegitimate arguments then I will continue to press the technical argument of "person" to his audiences, as well as the fallaciousness of his "direct/indirect" argumentation.

Mr. White continues:

Does he [Sungenis] 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!

Here we find Mr. White doing his usual grandstanding to his audience. The reality is that I touched on many of the "real issues" in Jesus, Peter and the Keys, having contributed over 20 separate pieces to the book, some of considerable length. By the way, one piece I am quite happy to have included was a rebuttal to Mr. White's arguments concerning the "imperative mood" of Acts 15:13 in which the bishop James says, "Listen to me, brothers" and of which Mr. White claims that by this "command" James is exerting indisputable authority over the assembly of elders and bishops at the Jerusalem council, which, in turn, does not place Peter at the top. This is one of the most lame arguments I have ever heard from a Protestant apologist. You will find my rebuttal on pages 96-97 of Jesus, Peter and the Keys. It shows that Mr. White does not know Greek as well as he thinks he knows it.

10) If Mr. White chooses not to accept these explanations, then he must give us a compelling reason why the reference to "rock" in Matthew 16:18, since Peter's name means rock (as proved from John 1:42), cannot, under any circumstances, refer to Peter. I have never heard him declare, verbally or in writing, that Catholicism possesses a perfectly plausible explanation of Matthew 16:18. He can claim all he wants that "rock" refers to Peter's confession, but what he must answer is this: if he requires his students not to see even the possibility that Peter is the rock of Matthew 16:18, what specifically in the text of Matthew 16 prohibits us from identifying the rock as Peter? If there is nothing that prohibits us from doing such, and if there is nothing in the text that requires us to divorce Peter's person from Peter's faith, then Catholicism has a perfectly plausible explanation of this passage. On the other side, the level of difficulty with the passage has been proven by no less than two competing Protestant interpretations of the account, one saying that the rock refers to Peter's confession, the other saying that rock refers to Christ. With such diametrically opposed explanations, we must insist that the text is not as clear as Mr. White presumes it to be. So much for sola scriptura. Hence, unless there is some overwhelming and compelling evidence to doubt the historic Catholic interpretation, then we're just going to continue on as before and Mr. White can go pound his Protestant sand. Regardless, let me offer again to Mr. White that I will debate him, anytime and anywhere, on this or any other subject. Let this serve as an open invitation to him.


Robert Sungenis

June 17, 1997

Any portion of this open letter may be cited and quoted by anyone wishing to use it.