Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Early Church Fathers On The Meaning Of "Upon This Rock" (Matthew 16:18)

  • Defining The Issues:
          -The Roman Catholic Church treats Matthew 16:18-19 as though it decisively proves the truthfulness of its claims to being given the fullness of divine truth. It is claimed that Jesus Christ made Peter the Church of Rome's foundation and any spiritual gifts bestowed on him were passed on to succeeding popes of future generations. Thus, we see the reason that Rome's adherents fight so vigorously to protect their understanding of the meaning of the "rock" as found in Matthew 16:18-19. However, the church fathers were far from unanimous on accepting the "rock" metaphor found in that passage as being the Apostle Peter himself. Following are excerpts from various church fathers, which were originally taken from this article.
  • The Roman Catholic Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick Once Stated:
          -“If we are bound to follow the majority of the fathers in this thing, then we are bound to hold for certain that by the rock should be understood the faith professed by Peter, not Peter professing the faith.” (Speech of archbishop Kenkick, p. 109; An inside view of the Vatican council, edited by Leonard Woolsey Bacon)
  • Basil of Seleucia, Oratio 25:
          -"You are Christ, Son of the living God.'...Now Christ called this confession a rock, and he named the one who confessed it 'Peter,' perceiving the appellation which was suitable to the author of this confession. For this is the solemn rock of religion, this the basis of salvation, this the wall of faith and the foundation of truth: 'For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.' To whom be glory and power forever." (Oratio XXV.4, M.P.G., Vol. 85, Col. 296-297)
  • Cyril of Alexandria:
          -"When [Peter] wisely and blamelessly confessed his faith to Jesus saying, 'You are Christ, Son of the living God,' Jesus said to divine Peter: 'You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.' Now by the word 'rock', Jesus indicated, I think, the immovable faith of the disciple.” (Cyril Commentary on Isaiah 4.2)
  • Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Book XII):
          -“For all bear the surname ‘rock’ who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from it the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peters.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Book XII), sect. 10,11)
  • Augustine, sermon:
          -"Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter's confession. What is Peter's confession? 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' There's the rock for you, there's the foundation, there's where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer." (John Rotelle, O.S.A., Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, © 1993 New City Press, Sermons, Vol III/6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327)
  • Bede:
          -"You are Peter and on this rock from which you have taken your name, that is, on myself, I will build my Church, upon that perfection of faith which you confessed I will build my Church by whose society of confession should anyone deviate although in himself he seems to do great things he does not belong to the building of my Church...Metaphorically it is said to him on this rock, that is, the Saviour which you confessed, the Church is to be built, who granted participation to the faithful confessor of his name." (Homily 23, M.P.L., Vol. 94, Col. 260. Cited by Karlfried Froehlich, Formen, Footnote #204, p. 156.)
  • Eusebius:
          -"Yet you will not in any way err from the scope of the truth if you suppose that the 'world' is actually the Church of God, and that its 'foundation' is in the first place, that unspeakably solid rock on which it is founded, as Scripture says: 'Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it' and elsewhere: 'The rock, moreover, was Christ. For as the Apostle indicates with these words: 'No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus." (Commentary on the Psalms, M.P.G., Vol. 23, Col. 173,176)
  • Cassiodorus:
          -"It will not be moved' is said about the Church to which alone that promise has been given: 'You are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.' For the Church cannot be moved because it is known to have been founded on that most solid rock, namely, Christ the Lord." — Expositions in the Psalms, Volume 1; Volume 51, Psalm 45.5, p. 455
  • Even The Catechism Of The Roman Catholic Church Does Not Condemn The Interpretation Of The "Rock" In Matthew 16:18 As Being A Reference To Peter's Confession Of Faith:
          -"Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe and confess about Jesus: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). On the rock of this faith, confessed by Saint Peter, Christ has built his Church (cf. Mt 16, 18; Saint Leo the Great, Sermons, 4, 3: PL 54, 151; 51, 1: PL 54, 309B; 62 , 2: PL 54, 350C-351A; 83, 3: PL 54, 432A)" (CCC # 424)


Anonymous said...

The mistake in this article is from a lack of understanding of how Catholicism interprets scripture. Admittedly the average lay catholic makes the same mistake protestants do when we say Matthew 16.18 is not about Christ or Peter's faith. Catholicism sees multiple senses in Scripture. There is a moral sense, a prophetic sense, a spiritual sense and also a literal sense. The literal sense is the primary sense and in matt 16.18 the litteral sense is Peter. But from the standpoint of the spiritual sense Matthew 16.18 can be associated with Christ and certainly Peter's faith cannot be separated from the man himself and is key to his rockies.

I saw an article analyzing matt 16.18 in light of the church fathers once. It noted 51 citations or illusions to the passage. As your author indicates they did not just refer to Peter as the rock. I can't recall the exact numbers but some referred to chridt, some to Peter and a lesser number to Peter's faith.

What is interesting however is that some in different writing referred to two of the above and a few to ALL THREE. Were the fathers confused? Were they in disagreement? We see no argument in the early church regarding how the fathers interpreted the passage. That is because they were using the multiple senses of scripture to interpret the passage and all three in some sense are applicable.

Catechism of the catholic church

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

Jesse Albrecht said...


I am conscious of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church perceives different "senses" of biblical interpretation, but do not accept your approach as valid. The purpose of this article is to simply demonstrate that "Protestant" views of Matthew 16:18 are not without historical precedent. There are Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars who have recognized this point. I have, therefore, achieved what I aimed to do here.

I doubt that the "rock" of Matthew 16:18 has any twofold or threefold sense as to its meaning whatsoever. For example, it does not describe Peter's confession of faith and Christ as the rock upon which the church is built at the same time. He is described as the builder rather than a foundation in this context. Christ is called the rock (1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:7-8), just not so in Matthew 16.

Even if we interpret the "rock" of Matthew 16:18 as being the Apostle Peter himself, it does not follow that he was made the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. We are not obligated to believe the claims to authority and infallibility made by Rome. This passage does not support the Papacy. I think that the "rock" in Matthew 16:18 refers to Peter's confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Jewish Messiah.

The church fathers were anything but perfect people. There were several passages from the Old Testament and four gospels allegorized beyond recognition as to their actual meaning. The church fathers were not always correct in their beliefs and practices. Different interpretations of Matthew 16:18 did not just fall from the sky. They presuppose the existence of debate as to its meaning.

The Roman Catholic Church is guilty of the same error as the scribes and Pharisees of the Law. They too elevated ancient human traditions to the authority of Scripture. Yet, Christ rejected them wholesale. How dare anyone dispute the tradition of the elders! That sounds an awful lot like Rome, does it not? I could approach Scripture and allow my imagination to go berserk with the system of hermeneutics that you bring to the table.