The Biblical, Primitive Papacy: St. Peter the "Rock": Scholarly Opinion (Mostly Protestant)

Monday, March 12, 2007


Catholics contend that the Rock is Peter himself, not his faith, or Jesus (although arguably his faith is assumed by Christ in naming Peter Rock in the first place). Many prominent 
Protestant scholars and exegetes have agreed that Peter is the Rock in Matthew 16:18, including Henry Alford, (Anglican: The New Testament for English Readers, vol. 1, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983, 119), John Broadus (Reformed Baptist: Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1886, 355-356), C. F. Keil, Gerhard Kittel (Lutheran: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VI, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968, 98-99), Oscar Cullmann (Lutheran: Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, 2nd rev. ed., 1962), William F. Albright, Robert McAfee Brown, and more recently, highly-respected evangelical commentators R.T. France, and D.A. Carson, who both surprisingly assert that only Protestant overreaction to Catholic Petrine and papal claims have brought about the denial that Peter himself is the Rock:

Jesus now sums up Peter's significance in a name, Peter . . . It describes not so much Peter's
character (he did not prove to be 'rock-like' in terms of stability or reliability), but his
function, as the foundation-stone of Jesus' church. The feminine word for 'rock', 'petra', is
necessarily changed to the masculine 'petros' (stone) to give a man's name, but the word-play
is unmistakable (and in Aramaic would be even more so, as the same form 'kepha' would
occur in both places). It is only Protestant overreaction to the Roman Catholic claim . . . that
what is here said of Peter applies also to the later bishops of Rome, that has led some to claim
that the 'rock' here is not Peter at all but the faith which he has just confessed. The
word-play, and the whole structure of the passage, demands that this verse is every bit as
much Jesus' declaration about Peter as v.16 was Peter's declaration about Jesus . . . It is to
Peter, not to his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied . . . Peter is to be the
foundation-stone of Jesus' new community . . . which will last forever.

(R.T. France (Anglican); in Morris, Leon, General editor, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, 254, 256)

On the basis of the distinction between 'petros' . . . and 'petra' . . . , many have attempted to
avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Peter is a mere 'stone,'
it is alleged; but Jesus himself is the 'rock' . . . Others adopt some other distinction . . . Yet if
it were not for 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 . . .

The Greek makes the distinction between 'petros' and 'petra' simply because it is trying to
preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine 'petra' could not very well serve as a masculine
name . . .

Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the
Rock, the more common word would have been 'lithos' ('stone' of almost any size). Then
there would have been no pun - and that is just the point! . . .

In this passage Jesus is the builder of the church and it would be a strange mixture of
metaphors that also sees him within the same clauses as its foundation . . .

(D.A. Carson (Baptist); in Gaebelein, Frank E., Gen. editor, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, vol. 8:Matthew, Mark, Luke {Matthew: D.A. Carson}, 368)

Other Protestant scholars and works confirm the Catholic view that Peter is the Rock:

. . . That the rock is Peter himself . . . is found almost as early as the other [interpretation], for
Tertullian and the bishop, whether Roman or Carthaginian, against whom he thundered in De
Pudicitia, assume this, though with different inferences. Its strength lies in the fact that Mt
16:19 is in the singular, and must be addressed directly to Peter . . . Many Protestant
interpreters, including notably Cullmann, take the latter view.

(New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, 972)

Though in the past some authorities have considered that the term rock refers to Jesus
himself or to Peter's faith, the consensus of the great majority of scholars today is that the
most obvious and traditional understanding should be construed, namely, that rock refers to
the person of Peter.

(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985 edition, "Peter," Micropedia, vol. 9, 330-333. D. W. O'Connor, the author of the article, is himself Protestant and author of Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical and Archaeological Evidence [1969] )

Some interpreters have . . . referred to Jesus as the rock here, but the context is against this.
Nor is it likely that Peter's faith or Peter's confession is meant. It is undoubtedly Peter
himself who is to be the rock, but Peter confessing, faithful and obedient . . . The leading
role which Peter played is shown throughout the early chapters of Acts.

(New Bible Commentary, Guthrie, D. & J.A. Motyer, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary], 837)

In view of the background of verse 19 . . . one must dismiss as confessional interpretation
[i.e., biased by denominational views] any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the
Messianic confession of Peter . . . The general sense of the passage is indisputable . . . Peter
is the rock on which the new community will be built, and in that community, Peter's authority
to 'bind' or 'release' will be a carrying out of decisions made in heaven. His teaching and
disciplinary activities will be similarly guided by the Spirit to carry out Heaven's will.

(William F. Albright [Methodist] and C.S. Mann, Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, vol. 26, 195, 197-198)

Protestants are learning that the crucial passage in Matthew 16 about the 'rock' on which the
church will be built almost certainly refers to Peter himself rather than to his faith.

(Robert McAfee Brown, in McCord, Peter J., editor, A Pope For All Christians?, New York: Paulist Press, 1976, Introduction, 7. This book is an ecumenical project offering views on the papacy from many perspectives. Brown is a Presbyterian and very prominent ecumenist)

Precisely because of the Aramaic identity of 'Kepha'/'kepha', there can be no doubt that the
rock on which the church was to be built was Peter. Is this true also for Matthew in whose
Greek there is the slight difference 'Petros'/'petra'? Probably the most common view would
be that it is . . . It would be pointless to list all the commentaries holding this view, but it is
found in [a] popular one-volume commentary . . . ; K. Stendahl in Peake's Commentary on the
Bible (2nd rev. ed.; London: Nelson, 1962), p. 787.

(Peter in the New Testament, Brown, Raymond E., Karl P. Donfried and John Reumann, editors, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House / New York: Paulist Press, 1973, 92-93. This is probably the most important ecumenical work on Peter, and is thus cited first in a long bibliography in theEncyclopedia Britannica. It is a common statement by a panel of eleven Catholic and Lutheran scholars)

The great Protestant Greek scholar Marvin Vincent was among those who took the traditional view:

The word refers neither to Christ as a rock, distinguished from Simon, a stone, nor to
Peter's confession, but to Peter himself, . . . The reference of petra to Christ is forced and
unnatural. The obvious reference of the word is to Peter. The emphatic this naturally refers
to the nearest antecedent; and besides, the metaphor is thus weakened, since Christ appears
here, not as the foundation, but as the architect: "On this rock will I build." Again, Christ is
the great foundation, the chief cornerstone, but the New Testament writers recognize no
impropriety in applying to the members of Christ's church certain terms which are applied to
him. For instance, Peter himself (1 Peter 2:4), calls Christ a living stone, and in ver. 5,
addresses the church as living stones . . .

Equally untenable is the explanation which refers petra to Simon's confession. Both the play
upon the words and the natural reading of the passage are against it, and besides, it does not
conform to the fact, since the church is built, not on confessions, but on confessors - living
men . . . . . .

The reference to Simon himself is confirmed by the actual relation of Peter to the early
church . . . See Acts 1:15; 2:14,37; 3:2; 4:8; 5:15,29; 9:34,40; 10:25-6; Galatians 1:18.

(Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 [orig. 1887], 4 vols., vol. 1, 91-92; emphasis in original)

The Catholic scholar Stanley Jaki writes:

In the Old Testament only God is called rock . . . Even if Peter's faith is taken for the rock,
this still leaves one with much to consider about the fact that apart from the faith of Peter
only God is called rock in the written word of God . . .

Simon was now Rock, the rock foundation of his Master's church . . . The name obviously
had a far deeper meaning than boanerges (sons of thunder), the name Jesus gave to James
and John (Mk 3:17). While Yahweh thundered, he was never called thunder or thunderer.
Only pagan gods could be thunderers (Jupiter was one of them), sources of fright; and never,
like a rock, sources of safety . . . The name kepha could not help but evoke in pious Jews, as
all the Twelve were, a sentiment of awe and reverence.

Obviously, a name of such connotation could not be the vehicle of that disapproval which
lurks behind Jesus' calling James and John boanerges (see the parallel passage (Lk 9:54),
where James and John want to call down fire upon the inhospitable Samaritans). This name,
not at all praiseworthy, was for a passing moment, whereas kepha was a name to last for the
sake of everlasting praise.

(And on This Rock, Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 39, 77-78)

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), a leader of the Catholic Reformation, draws out the implications of this passage for the papacy:

Our Lord then, who is comparing his Church to a building, when he says that he will build it
on St. Peter, shows that St. Peter will be its foundation-stone . . . When he makes St. Peter
its foundation, he makes him head and superior of this family.

By these words Our Lord shows the perpetuity and immovableness of this foundation. The
stone on which one raises the building is the first, the others rest on it. Other stones may be
removed without overthrowing the edifice, but he who takes away the foundation, knocks
down the house. If then the gates of hell can in no wise prevail against the Church, they can
in no wise prevail against its foundation and head, which they cannot take away and overturn
without entirely overturning the whole edifice . . .

The supreme charge which St. Peter had . . . as chief and governor, is not beside the authority
of his Master, but is only a participation in this, so that he is not the foundation of this
hierarchy besides Our Lord but rather in Our Lord: as we call him most holy Father in Our
Lord, outside whom he would be nothing . . St. Peter is foundation, not founder, of the whole
Church; foundation but founded on another foundation, which is Our Lord . . . in fine,
administrator and not lord, and in no way the foundation of our faith, hope and charity, nor
of the efficacy of the Sacraments . . . So, although he is the Good Shepherd, he gives us
shepherds (Ephesians 4:11) under himself, between whom and his Majesty there is so great a
difference that he declares himself to be the only shepherd (John 10:11; Ezekiel 34:23).

(The Catholic Controversy, translated by Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1989 [orig. 1596], 242-243,245-247)

Other Protestant and Orthodox scholars who believe the Rock in Matthew 16:18 is Peter himself, include:

1) John Meyendorff (Orthodox) (in The Primacy of Peter, [he is editor], Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992, 67-90)

2) Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. c. 895): "On Peter repose the foundations of the faith" (Epist. 99 and Niceph., PG CII, 909 A, in Meyendorff, ibid., 72)

3) St. Gregory Palamas (Orthodox, d. 1359), called Peter the "foundation of the Church" (Triads, II, I, 38, in Meyendorff, ibid., 74). Meyendorff writes: "It is not difficult to present an
abundance of such quotations. All Byzantine theologians, even after the conflict with Rome, speak of Peter in the same terms as Photius . . . without any attempt to attenuate the
meaning of biblical texts . . . the Church . . . remains eternally founded on Peter." [Ibid., 74-75] It should be noted that many Orthodox (like Protestants cited in this section) would deny
the papal succession, which is another distinct aspect of the papacy.

4) Gennadios Scholarios (Orthodox; Patriarch of Constantinople, d.c. 1472): "Christ established the Church on Peter" (On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, I, in Meyendorff, ibid., 87).

5) William Hendriksen (Reformed) (New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973, 647}

6) Gerhard Maier (Lutheran) [The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993, 90]

7) Craig L. Blomberg (Baptist) [The New American Commentary: Matthew, vol. 22, Nashville: Broadman, 1992, 251-252]

8) Albert Barnes (Presbyterian) [Notes on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973, 170]

9) Herman Ridderbos (Reformed) [Bible Student's Commentary: Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987, 303]

10) David Hill (Presbyterian) [New Century Bible Commentary: Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972, 61]