Is the “Rock” Peter, or His Faith?

HocCogitat asked, in response to Part V of my series on the role of St .Peter in Scripture:

But even Augustine holds that Christ was referring to Peter’s confession as the rock, not his person. And this is obviously the only reasonable interpretation because Christ calls Peter Satan later in the same chapter. Obviously, what he calls him refers to something he has done and not something he is. Agreed?
I disagree. The case is quite clear that Simon fundamentally became Peter in a radical, unique, and irreversible way.  This transformation was because of his faith, but was unique to Peter individually.

I. Turning Simon into Peter

It is true that there is a very narrow sense in which it’s accurate to say that Simon is Peter, the Rock, because of his faith. In the same way, we might say (for example) that Obama is president because of his charisma. But when we say this, we’re giving a reason for why a certain individual was selected.

So we need to be careful with what this implies, and what it doesn’t. We’re not saying that (a) that anyone with charisma automatically becomes co-president, or that (b) Obama ceases to be president anytime he’s not charming.

Likewise, Simon Peter was individually selected because of his faith. But no, that doesn’t mean that (a) anyone with faith becomes Peter, or that (b) Peter ceases to be Peter when his faith falters. This is an authentic transformative change. It’s a name he carries with him for the rest of his life (unlike “Satan,” which referred to his conduct in a specific instance, and a name Jesus never calls him again).

For example, in Galatians 2, when Paul rebukes Peter’s behavior, he still calls him Cephas (the Greek transliteration of Kephas, the Aramaic word for Rock). So Peter isn’t a title that only belongs to Simon when he’s on his best behavior.  It’s his name, just as Abram forever becomes Abraham (because of his faith), and Jacob became Israel (same reason).

Nor is it a title that anyone else ever receives. In John 11:27, St. Martha says to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” That’s almost verbatim what Peter confessed in Matthew 16:16. Yet Jesus doesn’t change Martha’s name to Rock, doesn’t bestow the Keys upon her, doesn’t give her the power to bind and loosen, doesn’t promise to build the Church upon her, etc.  If Protestants were right, that Jesus is just building His Church upon “faith like Peter’s” (which isn’t what He says He’s doing), then we’d expect Him to similarly bless Martha.  That doesn’t happen.

II. Simon:Peter :: Jesus:Christ

I’m glad that HocCogitat wants to look at the context of Matthew 16, but there’s something he’s missing.  Here’s a bit of the context, from Mt. 16:16-18:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, 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.”

What should jump out (the added emphasis helps) is that Simon identifies which Jesus is (the Christ, the Son of the Living God), and Jesus responds by identifying who Simon is (Peter, the Rock, who He’ll build His Church upon).

To say that Jesus calling Simon “Rock,” “refers to something he has done and not something he is” would likewise suggest that “the Christ” refers to something Jesus will do, rather than something He Is. But Jesus is the Christ, as Peter tells us above (and others, like St. John, confirm: see John 20:31).  Christ isn’t just a role Jesus plays: it’s a part of His Person.  Likewise, Peter isn’t just a role Simon plays.  Simon is Peter.  Jesus is Christ.

III. A Rock, and a Stumbling Stone

The verse HocCogitat refers to, Matthew 16:23, actually suggests the opposite conclusion he draws. Jesus says, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling stone to Me.” As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out in Belief of Catholics, calling Peter a stumbling stone plays upon his new name, “Rock.”

It’s a nod towards the fact that Peter is, at once, a rock upon which Jesus will build the Church, and a scandalon, a rock which gets in the way. The papacy has always possessed both of these characteristics, as can be expected of an office which is of Divine origin and oversight, but occupied by sinful man. So Peter’s not conditionally Rock. He’s always Rock. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes it’s a scandal; often, it’s both at once.

IV. Misusing St. Augustine 

Finally, I should note two things.  First, in various writings, St. Augustine equated the Rock with Peter (individually), with Peter’s faith, and with Christ.  So you can proof-text Augustine for anything on this point. At a minimum, Augustine didn’t find Peter’s confession “obviously the only reasonable interpretation,” since he suggested two alternative interpretations.

Second and more importantly, there’s no question that Augustine still believed that Christ founded the papacy with Peter as the first pope, and that this papacy continued in Rome. So to take his exegesis of Mt. 16 in this way isn’t faithful to his own views on the papacy.  That’s poor Patristics.  I know it’s a popular Protestant meme, but I think it’s  a misleading one.


I think that the case from Scripture is quite clear: Jesus chooses one man, Simon, to become the earthly leader of His flock.  Jesus chooses him because of his faith, but this blessing stays with him both when his faith is strong and when it is weak.  Others (like Martha) come to share the faith of Peter, but in doing so, they don’t become the Rock upon which Jesus will build His Church.

Happy Feast of the Assumption, by the way!


  1. I’ve been disappointed myself by the fact that the very early Patristic suport for the papacy is not as unambiguous as it is for, say, the Real Presence. On the other hand, I don’t think this is a serious objection either, as can be shwon by a couple of admissions of party-opponents (as it were):

    Evangelical Protestant German scholar Gerhardt Meier writes in his article “The Church and the Gospel of Matthew” on pages 58 through 60:

    “Nowadays, a broad consensus has emerged which, in accordance with the words of the text applies the promise to Peter as a person… “On this point liberal and conservative theologians agree,” and he names several Protestant theologians from the liberal to the conservative side. “Matthew 16:18 ought not to be interpreted as a local church. The church in Matthew 16:18 is the universal entity, namely the people of God. There is an increasing consensus now that this verse concerning the power of the keys is talking about the authority to teach and to discipline, including even to absolve sins.”

    And from prominent evangelical scholar R.T. France’s “The Gospel of Matthew,” p. 622

    “A second escape route, beloved especially by those who wish to refute the claims of the Roman Catholic Church based on the primacy of Peter as the first pope, is to assert that the foundation rock is not Peter himself, but the faith in Jesus as Messiah which he has just declared. If that was what Jesus intended, he has chosen his words badly, as the wordplay points decisively toward Peter, who whom personally he has just given the name, as the rock, and there is nothing in his statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words ‘this rock'”.

  2. I believe that The Rock is Christ Jesus. Or…maybe better put, Peter’s confession of faith in Christ Jesus.

    So, the Church is built upon that confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God…therefore..He is God.

  3. Old Adam,

    There are a lot of reasons that interpretation doesn’t work very well. I outlined some of those reasons in the post above, others in the post I linked to in the beginning of the post. What say you to the reasons laid out?

    In Christ,


  4. Two rock referents in one sentence with the switch being implicit, old adam? That’s a pretty strained interpretation. How do you reconcile it with the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture?

  5. Joe,

    For Jesus to choose one sinful man to head up His Church is antithetical to how God works and creates faith in Himself.

    He does this by the proclamation of His Word. In preaching and teaching and in the administering of the sacraments. This is not dependent on the proper finger prints of any particular man or person…but is dependent upon God alone, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

    Thanks, Joe.

  6. I keep thinking of two guys planning a presentation and the boss says “john, you are a workhorse and this workhorse is going to deliver the presentation”. The boss, of course, is referring to himself who is also a workhorse. Plain as day.

  7. Old Adam,

    What about Abraham? Or Jacob? Or Moses? Or David? Or Solomon? Or even Caiaphas? What about the Twelve, for that matter?

    I can think of exactly no times where the people of God were free from the secular or religious rule of God-appointed sinful men. So what are you basing this on?

    God bless,


  8. “I keep thinking of two guys planning a presentation and the boss says “john, you are a workhorse and this workhorse is going to deliver the presentation”. The boss, of course, is referring to himself who is also a workhorse. Plain as day.”

    I don’t think that’s a an appropriate analogy because john is called *a* workhorse, and you also changed the phrasing. In Peter’s case he was called “rock,” not *a* rock. Given that, the phrasing should be more like this:

    “John, you are Workhorse, and upon this workhorse will the presentation be delivered.” If you asked 100 people who would be delivering the presentation, I would bet that every one would say it was John. Plain as day.

  9. I’m confused. I was being sarcastic with my last two sentences, presumably, you aren’t?

    And while your structure obviously bears a closer relation to the text, I think mine carries its essence by showing the strangeness of having two referents to the same word with the switch being implicit. And the point is to do it in a more familiar sentence structure for us moderns rather than just changing “rock” to something else. So I was purposefully taking a greater departure from the Biblical text.

    Nevertheless, my guess is that, basically, we are of the same mind on this.

  10. “I believe that The Rock is Christ Jesus. Or…maybe better put, Peter’s confession of faith in Christ Jesus.”

    Do you get that from the text or from something that you’re imposing upon the text?

    “And so I say to you, you are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church”

    Given this sentence, what makes you think that they are two different rocks being talked about?

  11. I believe that Christ creates faith by the preaching and teaching of His Word (“faith comes by hearing”).

    And that creating faith (God’s main business here on earth) and keeping us in faith, is not dependent upon any one man’s finger prints being on it.

    I know many here will disagree with that…and that’s ok. Just wanted to present another side of it.


  12. Steve,

    (1) It’s remarkable, because the same passage from Romans came to mind for me, too… but for the opposite point. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” But right before that, in v. 14-15, he asked:

    “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?

    Paul’s vision of salvation isn’t through Scripture alone, but through the Church. Faith is through hearing the Gospel, rather than reading. And he’s quick to point out that those preaching the Gospel are sent. Sent by Whom?

    The answer to that comes in Acts 15:22, in which “the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” They send with them a letter which says, in part (Acts 15:24-26):
    “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    So the Church sends the only authorized preachers of the Gospel. No man validly commissions himself. And of course, this puts the Church is an instrumental role in salvation. (Certainly, Christ could appear to each of us in a “Road to Damascus” moment, but He chooses to work through the Church instead.)

    (2) I think that the better question isn’t whether you can find support for your view from Scripture (all sorts of people find support for all sorts of views from Scripture), but how you address the fact that other parts of Scripture appear to contradict you. Surely, you can’t just jettison those parts of Sacred Scripture which suggest you might be wrong? If not, then how do you address the substance of these points particular to Matthew 16:17-19? Restless Pilgrim’s question (above) is a good one.

    Finally, I appreciate you being such a good sport about this — I hope we Catholics aren’t ganging up on you. I think you’ve just said things worth responding to. In Christ,


  13. Joe,

    You seem to think that only the Catholic Church can send people to preach the gospel, and we believe that the Word stands on it’s own no matter what sinner is preaching it.

    Like I said, I knew you would not agree, but I prefer clarity to agreement, anyway.

    Thanks, Joe.

  14. Joe,

    You seem to think that only the Catholic Church can send people to preach the gospel, and we believe that the Word stands on it’s own no matter what sinner is preaching it.

    Like I said, I knew you would not agree, but I prefer clarity to agreement, anyway.

    Thanks, Joe.

  15. Old Adam,

    The point is that on such important points, particularly when we start talking about the REAL PRESCENCE of Christ, there MUST be agreement… there is no room for disension. What Luther didn’t realize was that through his proclomation he disavowed the right to preach anything as being authentically true, because he made it a personal choice of understanding.


  16. Matthew 16:23 what is the original Greek for stumbling stone? I show skandalon—what does that translate to?

    Thanks for the help!

  17. What is the Greek translation of stumbling stone Matthew 16:23? I show skandalon which means cause for stumbling not stone right ?

  18. Never mind I see now it was a nod to a stumbling stone not actually translated stone. Could you delete my comments since you already answered my question ?

    Thanks :-).

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