It is argued by the Catholic Church that the apostle Peter is the rock that the Church is built on. This is their primary defense for the entire Papal system and indeed the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
This argument is built on it’s own rock – this one verse in Matthew’s gospel.
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.Matthew 16:18
What is the “rock” that Jesus tells Peter he will build his church on? The Catholic Church says it’s Peter and this is a position they have held for a very long time. For example, way back in 445AD, Pope Leo I justified his papal authority with these words:
“[Christ] wished [Peter] who had been received into partnership in his undivided unity to be named what he himself was, when he said: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’, that the building of the eternal temple might rest on Peter’s solid rock”Pope Leo I (Letters 10:1)
And in 451AD, the Council of Chalcedon describes Peter like this:
“…The thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith.”Council of Chalcedon (Acts of the Council, session 3)
“Peter, your name means rock, but you’re not THE rock”
Now, as you can tell from the title of this article, I disagree with the Catholic Church on this one. I was recently asked by a Catholic friend to explain my reasoning as in his mind, the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 seems so clear.
He also insisted that as Peter was given the “keys to the kingdom” and the other disciples weren’t, this was another sign that he was being established by Jesus as the first Pope. I disagreed on this point too, stating that whatever these “keys” meant, I believe they were given to all the disciples.
I addressed this “keys” point first, so I’ll put this below and get on to my argument about why I don’t think Peter is the “rock” the church is built on.
The keys were given to all disciples
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.Matthew 16:19
So the text (and indeed the rest of the bible) doesn’t give any other explanation of what it means to be given “the keys of the kingdom” other than “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
So if we accept that this is what it means to be given the keys of the kingdom, then we must accept that that was something given to all the disciples, not just Peter. Why? Because this privilege (or role or responsibility) to bind and loose is mentioned in other passages.
Just two chapters on, in Matt 18:18-20, Jesus is talking to all the disciples (as is made clear at the start of the chapter), and he says:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.Matthew 18:18-20
In fact, by that last line, one might be fair to extrapolate that wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, this role of binding and loosing is present. But either way, it’s clear that these “keys” are not only given to Peter, but to all the disciples.
Another passage that uses very similar language to the binding and loosing concepts in Matthew, is in John 20:23, where Jesus says to the disciples:
If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.John 20:23
As the context of Matthew 18:18-20 shows that Jesus is talking about sin and forgiveness, I think it’s fair to say that John 20:23 is talking about the same thing.
Why Peter is not the rock, Jesus is
The issue for Catholics usually rests more on the fact that they have been taught that when Jesus says “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church”, he is saying that Christ’s church will be built on Peter.
This is an incorrect reading of this passage I believe and I encourage you to, for a moment, try to read it with fresh eyes. I think it’s pretty obvious that Jesus, the disciples and definitely Peter, did not think of Peter as the foundational rock that the church was built on. The whole passage of Matthew 16:13-20, reads like this:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20
So what is the focus of the story? Who is Jesus. It starts with that question and it ends with that as well.
Peter is the key person who gets who Jesus is and he makes the grand confession of Jesus’ identity: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus honour Peter for this confession and says “You are Peter and on THIS rock, I will build my church”.
What is the “THIS” that is the foundation of the church that Jesus will build? Is it Peter? No. If it were Peter Jesus would have said, “on YOU I will build my church”.
[Side note: I acknowledge that I am not addressing what to some Catholics might feel like the elephant in the room. Namely, the argument that Peter’s name means “rock”. Technically, in the original Greek the word translated as “Peter” is Πέτρος (Petros) and “rock” is πέτρα (petra) and so it’s not identical, but definitely can be considered a bit of wordplay by Jesus. The fact is though, this is not where Peter is originally given his name by Jesus. That happens early on in Jesus ministry (see John 1:42). It may indeed have been given by Jesus in anticipation of this moment in Matthew 16, but it still does not suggest that Peter IS the rock that is being referred to. Just that his name sounds similar to the word “rock”.
So when Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” it is like him saying, “You are Matthew and on this mat I will wipe my feet.” I know that’s a crude analogy, but hopefully you get my point. In the bible people can be given a name that points to something other than themselves. For example, John the baptist was also specifically given that name by an angel and his name means “Yahweh is Gracious”. It doesn’t imply that he himself is Yahweh, but rather that his life and ministry should declare the grace of Yahweh. Likewise, Peter’s life and ministry should declare the “rock” which is, as I argue below, not himself, but the confession of Jesus as the Messiah.]
The rock that Jesus is referring to is the confession that Peter spoke about who Jesus is. The fact that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the foundational rock that the church is built on. Peter is NEVER in all Scripture referred to or thought of a the foundational rock of the church. You’d think that if that’s what Jesus meant and it was so important, that it would be repeated elsewhere.
But even in the other gospel where this story is repeated (see Mark 8:27-30 & Luke 9:18-20) the whole section about the rock is not even mentioned. This seems odd, if indeed this is the key verse that establishes the entire Papal structure of the church.
No, I think the foundational rock that Jesus’ church is built on is not Peter, it is Jesus himself and the confession that he is the Messiah. And although there is no other Scriptural support for Peter being the rock, there is LOTS of support for Jesus being the rock.
Multiple times, Jesus and the epistle writers quote Psalm 118:22 which says:
The stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.Psalm 118:22
The cornerstone was the foundational rock that the building was built on. In other places like Romans 9:33, they talk about Jesus by quoting Isaiah 8:14 which says:
See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.Isaiah 8:14
If you’re looking for what or who Scripture says is the foundation the Church is built on, it speaks of Christ, not Peter.
For example 1 Corinthians 3:9-11:
For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.1 Cor 3:9-11
In fact, the whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 3 is worth a read, because Paul specifically refers to Peter (or Cephas) and describes him as not one that Christians should say they follow as they are just “mere human beings” (1 Cor 3:4, 21-22).
Peter’s own words
The most compelling argument to me though is from the words of Peter himself. His first epistle is full of this language of foundational rocks and cornerstones, and he is always talking about Jesus and not himself. I will leave you with Peter’s words.
I want you to consider, in Peter’s mind, when Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church”, did Peter end up thinking Jesus was talking about Peter or Jesus?
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”1 Peter 2:4-8