Church ‘On the Rock’
Introduction—“What’s the big deal?”
Even a cursory scan of the sheer volume of literature available for conducting research on the role of Peter in Matthew’s gospel—particularly in the verse at hand—proves quite daunting. In the words of one author, “Few verses in Scripture have generated more controversy or divisiveness than Matt 16:18.” This leads the thoughtful reader to ask, “Why?” What is so special about this one verse of the Bible that it demands so much time and attention?
The answer, on the most basic level, is ecclesiology. For Roman Catholics “this verse not only affirms the preeminence of Peter as the Prince of the apostles, but it also lays the groundwork for the establishment of a permanent Roman see with full Petrine authority.” This simply will not do for protestant theologians who reject the idea of a Pope in Rome with Petrine authority over all the church, so the text must mean something different. The question then becomes, “Which came first: the ecclesiology or the exegesis?”
Contrary to popular thought, the controversy over the interpretation of this verse and its application to the church-at-large did not begin with Luther and the Reformers. Rather, even a quick scan of the Early Church Fathers reveals that as early as the late second century there was dispute over the meaning of the text. Since then the debate has continued, with the structure, government, and authority of the church hanging in the balance.
Given the enduring nature of the dispute and the scope of this paper, it becomes quickly obvious that an exhaustive treatment of any issue cannot be given. Rather, this paper will seek to answer two fundamental exegetical questions from the text: (1) To whom / what does “the rock” refer? and (2) What does it teach us about Peter and his role in the church?
1. To Whom / What Does “the Rock” Refer?
While this understanding does seem to be a minority position in the contemporary church, it is not without much historical precedent. For example, later in his life Aurelius Augustine, the illustrious Bishop of Hippo, rejected Ambrose’s proposition that the rock refers to Peter in order to propagate the idea that Christ himself is the rock. Cullmann summarizes: “It does not say, ‘You are the rock,’ but ‘you are Peter’; the rock is mentioned only in the following sentence, and there it seems best to refer the word to Christ.” Cyril of Alexandria is said to have held to this position as well.
Burnette examines why she feels several of the Fathers would have been persuaded to hold this view:
It appears that the Pauline epistles, particularly 1 Corinthians, greatly influenced the writings of these fathers. The rock metaphor of Matt 16:18 stressed the strength of the Church’s foundation, but the foundation image itself was seen in 1 Corinthians 3, and that foundation is Jesus. Thus Jesus builds the church upon the firm rock, himself. Augustine, Cyril, and Eusebius all held a very high view of Peter, but they interpret the rock of Matt 16 to be Jesus, not the apostle.
So it seems then, that these men—even from such an early date—had allowed theological motifs to govern their exegetical methods in this verse.
As is typical of both Luther and Calvin, they find themselves in Augustinian tradition. In one place Luther declares openly, “Thus this rock is the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself and no one else.” Or again, “You are…the rock man, for you have recognized the true man who is the true Rock, and you have named him as the Scripture names him, that is, the Christ.”
This position is not merely held by scholars of antiquity, however. Several modern commentators such as Lenski, Gander, and Walvoord have articulated similar arguments. Ultimately, though, this position is baseless when the original languages are considered. The only hope for these scholars for dissociating Peter with the rock on which the church is built is based on distinguishing between πετρος and πετρα. There is no reason to do this, however, since Peter (Πετρος) is the masculine form of πετρα which could not be used as a proper name for a male. In any case, Jesus probably spoke the phrase in Aramaic where the same word is used both for the proper name and the word translated “rock.”
To the Confession?
A second common alternative for protestant scholars who desire to find something other than Peter as “the rock,” is to understand his confession to be “the rock.” Jesus’ statement is thus paraphrased by Allen in this manner:
Happy are you, Simon, son of Jonah, because the truth to which you have given utterance was revealed to you by God Himself. Your name is Petros, and this truth is a rock (πέτρα) upon which I will build My Church. It will be the foundation truth of the belief of My disciples i.e. of those who await the kingdom of heaven.
The idea, then, is that πέτρα refers back to what has been revealed to Simon by God the Father. This argument is based linguistically on the idea that since πέτρα is feminine, it cannot refer to Peter. Rather, it is this revelation of the identity of Christ that “shall be the central doctrine of the Church’s teaching.”
Similarly, McNeile acknowledges that “it can” be Peter to which Jesus is referring, but still it “does not follow from the word-play that ‘this rock’ must be Peter.” In fact, if this were the case it is at best “strange after the direct σύεἰ P.” Rather,
it would be more natural if the Lord were speaking of him in the third person to the other disciples. Nor is it more natural if the ‘rock’ is Jesus himself…. The reference is probably to the truth which the apostle had proclaimed; the fact of the Lord’s Messiahship was to be the immovable bed-rock on which His ‘ecclesia’ would stand secure.
He then goes on to argue that the next statement (“the gates of Hades…”) necessitates the Church being founded on the truth of Christ’s identity rather than on the person of Peter.
All of this argumentation, however, misses the point. As Carson insightfully notes, “if it were not for the Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter.” While early church history does in fact show that many prior to Roman Catholic interpretations did find alternative explanations of the identity of the “rock,” this was largely based on lack of exegetical wisdom and knowledge of the original languages. As Clowney notes with regard to the linguistic argument for this position, “This normal difference in the gender of the nouns carries no weight, however, in the face of the emphatic connection that Jesus made between the name he had given Peter and the position he assigned him.”
Ironically, the evidence shows that “prior to 1560, even in Roman Catholic circles, there was great diversity of interpretation of this verse, which only later hardened to viewing just Peter as the rock as a counterresponse to Luther’s protests.” The irony here is that Luther’s protests themselves were a response to perceived abuse of the text. In other words, much of what has passed for exegetical work in this passage since the Reformation has in fact been simple attempts to advance one’s own theological position rather than an attempt to have actual interaction with the text. Like Carson, Hill concludes that “attempts to interpret the ‘rock’ as something other than Peter in person (e.g. his faith, the truth revealed to him) are due to Protestant bias, and introduce to the statement a degree of subtlety which is highly unlikely.”
If the interpretation which equates “the rock” with Jesus has its roots in the Fathers, so does this view. Tertullian (c. 150-220) wrote these words around the year 197:
Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the rock on which the church should be built, who also obtained ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ with the power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth?
Or later, around 212,
From what source do you usurp this right to ‘the church’? Is it because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build My church’ and ‘to you have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom’? Or ‘Whatever you will have bound or loosed in earth will be bound or loosed in the heavens’? You presume that the power of binding and loosing has come down to you—that is, to every church of Peter. What sort of man are you! You subvert and completely change the clear intention of the Lord. For He conferred this power personally upon Peter.
Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-395), likewise, held the view that Peter was the only identifiable meaning of “the rock:” “Indeed this man, in accordance with the title conferred upon him by the Lord, is the firm and very solid rock upon which the Saviour has built his Church.”
Unlike the previous two alternatives, a strong case can be made for this interpretation linguistically. First, the Aramaic words which Jesus would have used both for “Peter” and “rock” are identical. Second, if Matthew had wanted to make some kind of a distinction between Jesus who was the true rock and Peter or between the truth confessed which would become the bed-rock for the church and Peter, the more probable word choice for him would be λιθοςrather than πέτρα. This option would have also eliminated the linguistic confusion created by a pun that would in that case have been of no use anyway. Third, Hendriksen insists that the natural reading of the Greek allows for only Peter to be in view, because of the connecting word, this. He argues, “Jesus is saying, ‘You are Rock and on THIS rock—or rocky ledge—I will build my church.’ The word THIS makes reference to anything else than the immediately preceding petros very unnatural.” It is also argued that since, in this metaphor, Christ is the builder, it would not make any sense to see him referred to (in the same clauses) as the foundation as well.
Seeing as how there is no historical advantage to be given to any of the interpretive options, and that the grammar, vocabulary, and natural reading of the original Greek text all provide persuasive evidence for the idea of Peter as the “rock,” we must conclude that this is the correct interpretation. But what does that mean for the church? Has Roman Catholicism won the day? What should we think of Peter?
2. What Are the Implications?
The Catholic Encyclopedia prefaces its treatment of the passage at hand with this explanation: “In Matthew 16:17-19, the office is solemnly promised to the Apostle. In response to his profession of faith in the Divine Nature of his Master, Christ thus addresses him: Blessed are you…”. The Roman interpretation of the “rock” is the same conclusion we have already seen:
The word for Peter and for rock in the original Aramaic is one and the same; this renders it evident that the various attempts to explain the term “rock” as having reference not to Peter himself but to something else are misinterpretations. It is Peter who is the rock of the Church.
The conclusion drawn from this is particularly Roman Catholic. Peter is now is to be
the principle of unity, of stability, and of increase. He is the principle of unity, since what is not joined to that foundation is no part of the Church; of stability, since it is the firmness of this foundation in virtue of which the Church remains unshaken by the storms which buffet her; of increase, since, if she grows, it is because new stones are laid on this foundation.
Thus permanence of Peter’s role is necessitated, and the apostolic succession with it. Moreover, it is only so long as the church maintains its ties with Peter himself that she will have victory over the gates of hell. In other words, the moment the church loses its identification with Peter, it becomes apostate.
Through this passage the Roman church wishes to establish Peter’s primacy and headship over all the other apostles. Kirsch declares that this statement of Jesus “admits of but one explanation, namely, that He wishes to make Peter the head of the whole community of those who believed in Him as the true Messias.” Additionally, he wishes to say “that the spiritual guidance of the faithful was placed in the hands of Peter, as the special representative of Christ.” Peter then becomes the head of the apostles and the church and his successors will have claim to all of his authority. The office of “Supreme Head conferred on St. Peter” is said to establish “the perpetuity of this office in the person of the Roman pontiff, the pope’s jurisdiction over the faithful, and his supreme authority to define in all questions of faith and morals.” Cardinal J. Gibbons sums it up this way:
Our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of his whole church, and that same spiritual authority has always resided in the popes, or bishops of Rome, as being successors of St. Peter. Consequently, to be true followers of Christ all Christians, both among the clergy and the laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome, where Peter rules in the person of his successor.
Suffice it to say, the problems with this view are legion. Some scholars, such as Cullmann, are content to simply say that Roman Catholic exegetes just assume their position, rather than attempting to develop it from the text. Even more bold is Blomberg who asserts that “there is obviously nothing in these verses of the distinctively Catholic doctrines of the papacy, apostolic succession, or Petrine infallibility.” Hendriksen, likewise is brief: “The passage does not support any such bestowal of well-nigh absolute authority on a mere man or on his successors.” Hill evaluates this position, saying, it is “hardly a legitimate deduction.” Here Roman Catholic exegetes are clearly guilty of eisegesis of the worst nature. Carson concludes,
The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority. These late interpretations entail insuperable exegetical and historical problems—e.g., after Peter’s death, his “successor” would have authority over a surviving apostle, John.
The textual evidence simply does not support the Roman Catholic doctrine here in any way.
In stark contrast to the exalted view provided by Roman Catholic scholars, many writers in modern works have preferred to view Matthew’s presentation of Peter as “typical” in nature: Peter’s character is an example of “what it means, both positively and negatively, to be a Christian.” Since Peter occupies the “role of speaker,” the instructions he receives are to be observed by all.
This position seems to be supported by the context in Matthew. Just a few verses after being praised for godly knowledge and faith, he receives the harshest of all Jesus’ rebukes as he is called “Satan” and a σκανδαλονby Christ himself. Again, if he receives keys of the kingdom here in 16:18, so the rest of the apostles receive the same authority in chapter 18. A few chapters earlier when Jesus comes to his disciples walking on the water “it is Peter who obtains permission likewise to walk on the water (14:28-29); it is also he who loses faith, becomes afraid, begins to sink, and must be saved by Jesus (14:30-31).” This is a pattern laid out consistently throughout the gospel of Matthew, that Peter is the “typical” disciple who speaks on behalf of the rest of the disciples and receives commendation and condemnation for his words and actions accordingly.
Origen wrote of this position from the perspective of the early church. According to him, if we make the good confession like Peter, enlightened by the Father, “we become a Peter. So to us there might be said by the Word, ‘You are Peter, etc.’ For every disciple of Christ is a rock.” If the statement applies to Peter alone, he asks, what about John and other apostles? Will the gates of Hades prevail against them? “Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only and will none other of the blessed receive them?”
While this position is altogether better than the Roman Catholic analysis of Christ’s statement to Peter, it still leaves something to be desired. If Jesus really direct this statement to all of his disciples at this point in time (through Peter), why would he use the singular “you”? Furthermore, what would be the point of Jesus’ statement here at all if there was really nothing meant by it other than what is broadly applicable to all disciples everywhere?
The redemptive-historical primacy of Peter is a theme built off of the picture that Matthew gives of Peter as primus inter pares. The basic thrust of the thought is encapsulated when Carson notes that “Peter is the first to make this formal confession and that his prominence continues in the earliest years of the church (Acts 1-12).” The idea is that
as a matter of historical fact no-one else could occupy the position of ‘foundation-stone’; as leader of the initial disciple group Peter was called upon to exercise the office of ‘key-holder’ after the death of Jesus both as the leading preacher of the Jesus movement in the early days in Jerusalem, and in taking the initiative in matters requiring decision for the life and discipline of the community (e.g. Acts 1:15-23; 5:1-11; 8:14-25; 10:1-11:18).
While Peter was still human and entirely fallible, Matthew presents him as the man whom God ordained to fill a leadership role at that particular place and time, amongst the disciples and eventually in the early church. The true meaning of Jesus’ declaration about building his church on the “rock” was that Peter would be the first leader who would carry his church through the time of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. As he bridges this gap in redemptive-history, he typifies the meaning of the gap between receiving his authority (16:8) and the rest of the disciples receiving there’s (18:18).
Conclusion: First Among Equals
Peter was indeed human and altogether fallible. He was sent by other apostles (Acts 8:14); and he is held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1-18) and rebuked by Paul (Gal 2:11-14). He is not shown in the NT as one who acts alone, “nor as a dictator with unquestionable authority…. (He) is not the only one initiating new developments in the church’s organisation and mission.” He was a “typical disciple.”
But, by the grace of God, he was more also. He was the first disciple to be called, the spokesman for all the other disciples, and the first disciple to make the good confession. He was the first to be named the “foundation of the church” and receive the “keys of the kingdom.” He was the first man to preach and take on an authority role in the post-Easter church. It was through his preaching that the world first heard the Good News of the gospel on Pentecost. Peter was indeed the first “rock” of many on which Christ would build his church (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14). Now that the church has been established by the apostles, who did not establish succession after them, there is no ongoing relevance to the authority of Peter except in the ways that he was typical of all believers. He has fulfilled his role in redemptive-history.
Allen, Willoughby C. St. Matthew. ICC. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
Bercot, David W., ed. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. NAC. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Burnette, Brittany C. “‘Upon This Rock’: an Exegetical and Patristic Examination of Matthew 16:18.” Th.M. thesis. Available online at http://www.bible.org/series.asp?series_id=142.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ford Lewis Battles, trans., rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
Carson, D.A. Matthew. EBC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clowney, Edmund P. The Church. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Cullmann, Oscar. Peter: Disciple—Apostle—Martyr. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.
France, R.T. Matthew: Evangelist & Teacher. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 14-28. WBC. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.
Hendriksen, William. Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973.
Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972.
Joyce, G.H. “The Pope.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, v.12. Online edition copyright 2003 by K. Knight. Article available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12260a.htm.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. “The Figure of Peter in Matthew’s Gospel as a Theological Problem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 98.1 (1979), 67-83.
Kirsch, J.P. “St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, v.11. Online edition copyright 2003 by K. Knight. Article available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11744a.htm.
McNeile, Alan Hugh. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980 (reprint of the 1915 edition).
Pelikan, Jaroslav and Helmut T. Lehmann, Gen. Eds. Luther’s Works: American Edition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
 Brittany C. Burnette, “Upon This Rock”. Available online at http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=2702.
 Contra Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 252. Oscar Cullmann writes in Peter: Disciple—Apostle—Martyr, “We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformers gave—though, as we shall see, it is questionable—was not first invented for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 162.
 “Upon This Rock”, http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=2704.
 As quoted in Burnette, “Upon This Rock”, http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=2703.
 G.H. Joyce, “The Pope,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, v.12. Online edition copyright 2003 by K. Knight. Article available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12260a.htm.
 J.P. Kirsch, “St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, v.11. Online edition copyright 2003 by K. Knight. Article available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11744a.htm.