The other day in Bible class, we briefly went through the story of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16, and as I often do when presented with Matthew 16:18, I started considering the debate about whether the rock in the text is Peter. The Catholic Church has argued for centuries that it is, that Jesus is making a wordplay between Petros/petra in Greek or Kepha/kepha in Aramaic (the likely original language). Those who feel like breaking lances with the Catholics over the issue generally claim in response that the rock is not Peter, that based on the change in gender between Petros and petra, Jesus is changing subjects.
I don’t have the training to evaluate those linguistic arguments, though it has always seemed strained to me to argue that Jesus is discussing Peter-not Peter-Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 rather than Peter-Peter-Peter. However, I do think that all of the back-and-forthing about Greek and Aramaic is irrelevant.
Here’s the deal. The Catholic Church likes Matthew 16:18 because it thinks it can use the passage to establish the authority of the Pope. This authority rests on two key doctrines: Petrine supremacy (Peter was the chief of the apostles and the head of the church) and apostolic succession (Peter and the other apostles handed down their authority in the church to other men who stepped into their place). Those doctrines would be significant if true, but I don’t think their truth can be established from the text even if Peter is the rock.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that indeed, Jesus is predicting that the church will be built on Peter. However, there’s no textual reason to assume that Jesus is saying that the church will be built exclusively on Peter.
In fact, there are other passages that out-and-out say that the church will be built on Peter, though not exclusively. Consider Ephesians 2:19-22. Even though this passage doesn’t use the word “church”, it’s clearly about the church, and in it, Paul reveals that the church will be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. Peter was both an apostle and a prophet, so the text leads us to conclude that the church was built on him (along with all the other apostles and prophets).
However, this is a far cry from Petrine supremacy. Even though Peter is there in the foundation (one is reminded here of Revelation 21:14), he isn’t the chief cornerstone. Christ is. Like every other text in the Bible that addresses the subject, Ephesians 2:19-22 emphasizes the supremacy of Christ in the church, not of Peter or anybody else. The text puts Peter on the same level as all of the other apostles.
These passages, along with 1 Corinthians 3:11 (in which Paul describes Christ as the only foundation), don’t contradict each other. Instead, they are different because the writers/speakers are using slightly different metaphors. In Matthew 16, Christ is doing the building, so logically He can’t be part of the foundation at the same time. That would be like building a house on your own back!
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul and other workers for Christ (possibly including Peter—see 1 Corinthians 1:12) are doing the building, so it’s their turn to be excluded from the foundation. In Ephesians 2, the Holy Spirit is doing the building, so all of the builders from the previous two texts (Jesus, apostles, and prophets) are included in the foundation. There’s no reason to cherry-pick one of these metaphors over both of the others and build a whole religious system on it. This poses an insuperable problem for Petrine supremacy, which additionally runs into serious trouble in Galatians 2:7-9.
The case is even worse for apostolic succession. Even though you’ll occasionally see Matthew 16:18 stuck in parentheses at the end of an assertion of the doctrine’s validity, there is literally nothing in the text that has anything to do with any succession of any kind. In fact, the logic of the metaphor implies that there won’t be a succession. Once you’ve got a foundation stone in place, you don’t go digging it out and replacing it with a different stone unless there’s something terribly wrong with it.
Instead, the only kind of Petrine succession that we encounter in Scripture appears in 2 Peter 1:12-15, where Peter says that he is preparing for the end of his life by committing his teachings to writing. The Biblically designated successor to the authority of Peter is the Bible itself.
In all of our discussions with others about our faith, one of the worst things we can do is to answer a bad/weak argument with another bad/weak argument. If we do, then people who see the problems with our argument will assume that they have proven theirs. In this case, I’m quite certain that the best way to address the false doctrine surrounding Matthew 16:18 is not to quibble about the gender of nouns in a language that few of us even know. That kind of argument may satisfy those who are already determined not to accept the authority of the Pope, but it won’t convince anybody else.
Instead, I think we should handle the issue by saying, “OK; I concede that Peter is the rock. So what?” At that point, those in opposition will assert all kinds of things about what that means, but they won’t be able to prove any of them from the text. Even giving them the reading most favorable to their position, Matthew 16:18 simply won’t take them where they want to go. I cherish no illusions that this will convince anybody who is determined to promote papal authority, but it’s still a stronger case to make. Only good arguments can reach the good heart.