Is Peter’s Primacy Disproved by His Personality?

Jesus chose Peter and called him “the Rock” despite his tempestuous personality, not because of it.

Carl Bloch [1834-1890], “Peter’s Denial”
Carl Bloch [1834-1890], “Peter’s Denial”

Some Protestant critics of the Catholic Church make out that Peter’s strident, impulsive personality accounts for many of the ostensible instances of his being prominently mentioned in many biblical narratives (something that no one denies). But such people war against even many prominent Protestant commentaries that agree that Peter was the leader of the disciples. Here are five of them:

  • “acknowledged preeminence.” (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers)
  • “This accords with the pre-eminence which he had among the apostles as primus inter pares ... which was recognized by Jesus Himself.” (Meyer’s NT Commentary)
  • “At the head of the list stands Peter, first not only numerically (Meyer) but in importance, a sure matter of fact ...” (Expositor’s Greek Testament)
  • “Peter is named first, not without an indication of rank ...” (Bengel’s Gnomen)
  • “…the leading position that St. Peter held among the twelve.” (Pulpit Commentary)

What these critics miss, is that this is not just a personality thing, but also a will thing. It’s a fine Christian quality to have a willingness to serve the Lord without hesitation: (Matthew 10:37-38; Luke 9:59-62; Romans 12:11; 1 Peter 3:13; 2 Peter 1:10; 3:14; Revelation 3:19).

Peter responded first so often because he had more zeal, and that is a great trait for a Christian believer and disciples of Jesus to have, along with similar traits like being firm, having a strong faith, and being steadfast and persevering and having endurance. Peter is consistently presented as prevailing and being the leader and first to do things.

Many biblical leaders and heroic figures had quite strong personalities (not to mention big faults as well). I don’t see that this suggests that they weren’t leaders or especially selected by God. One can think of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Job, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, St. Paul and many others. In other words, it largely coincides with leadership, and so is hardly a contraindication of same. 

Wavering people (another trait of St. Peter) who were also zealous and extraordinary leaders of the faith and chosen by God is not unusual; in fact, it might be said to be the norm. Abraham lied about his sister, Moses murdered a man, and seemed to have quite a temper (striking the rock for water a second time, etc.); he complained to God about not being eloquent. Saul and Solomon fell away from the faith (yet Solomon built God’s temple); King David famously had a man killed so he could take his wife.

It didn’t stop God from making an eternal covenant with him, and making him a prototype of the Messiah Jesus (who was called “Son of David”). St. Paul persecuted Christians. Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. Peter could be overzealous, precisely because he was zealous in the first place. So he wound up being rebuked by Jesus and denying him three times. But he repented.

Another glaringly obvious thing (if one reflects on it for not too long) is that Jesus chose Peter and called him “the Rock” (changing his name) despite his tempestuous personality, not because of it, just as he chose similar hotheads and “uneven” people like Moses, Samson, David, Jonah, Elijah, and Paul. He wasn’t the leader of the Church because of his personality or a supposed perfection, but because he was the man for the job according to God, in His providence and knowledge of all things.

  • Luke 22:31-32 (RSV) “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, [32] but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

This is supposedly one of the “personality-dominated” Gospel scenes because after this portion, Peter claims, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (22:33): which, of course, he actually did, later in his life. It’s allegedly in the Bible because Peter’s impulsive, overzealous temperament required for it to be in there; not because it has anything to do with his papacy.

But think for a moment about what is entailed in that view. Jesus prays for Peter, that his faith may not fail. Are we to believe that no other disciples would have instances of failed faith? Only one of them, after all, was present at his crucifixion (St. John). Did none of them experience a lack of faith during that terrible time of his Passion? Of course they did! “Doubting Thomas” is an obvious example. So the relevant question is: why is it that Jesus is praying only for Peter’s faith? And why is Satan after him: so much so, that Jesus mentions it as something to pray for?

In trying to search for it, I can’t find any other passage where Jesus is described as “I have prayed for you” or “I will pray for you” in reference to a single person. Peter’s the only one I can find. I’m not claiming that Jesus didn’t pray for people. What I’m saying is: the fact that Holy Scripture seems to highlight only Peter as one whom Jesus specifically prayed for, must be significant. Then Jesus adds: “when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). He is to do that precisely because he is the leader, whose job it is (among many other thing) to edify and strengthen other believers.

Jesus in the Gospel of John asks Peter three times if he loved him, and when Peter replies, Jesus tells him to “Feed my lambs” (21:15) and “Tend my sheep” (21:16) and “Feed my sheep” (21:17). Why does he do that? It’s because Peter was the leader, and that’s what leaders do: the shepherd and the sheep who follow him: the sheep he cares for. It seems rather obvious that the deeper meaning is Peter as the chief shepherd of other Christians. No one else is singled out in this fashion as he is.