E. Daniel Box
In an effort to avoid the Catholic interpretation of Mt. 16:17-19, wherein Peter is identified as the rock upon whom Jesus will build His Church, many Protestants highlight a subtle distinction present in the Greek version of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The subtle Greek distinction in this passage is the use of two apparently different words for "rock" in the text--"petra" and "petros"--such that the text, in Greek-English, would read, "You are petros and upon this petra I will build my church." Relying upon this distinction, many Protestants argue that Jesus is saying that Peter is simply a little stone ("petros"), whereas either Jesus or Peter's confession of faith is the big rock ("petra") upon which the Church is truly built.
Catholics too believe in the importance of Peter's confession of faith and of course agree that Jesus is the ultimate foundation and invisible head of the Church. But the biblical and historical evidence confirms that Jesus gave Peter the authority to "hold down the fort," so to speak, until Jesus returns.
In other words, the "petros/petra" argument regarding Mt. 16 is not a good one. It fails for several different reasons, not least among which is the fact that, by the 1st Century AD, there was no real difference in the meanings of "petra" and "petros" in Greek. Instead, it is almost certain that the only reason that the Greek contains two different words here is because "petra" is a feminine noun, and because Peter was a man, the word had to be made into the masculine "petros" when used as his name. Regardless, there are many other reasons to know that the "petra/petros" distinction is insignificant, if not irrelevant, among which are the fact that:
(1) the Gospel according to Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, despite what modern scholarship would have us believe, which means that Mt. 16:18 would have read, "You are 'kephas' and upon this 'kephas' I will build my church";
(2) in Mt. 16, Jesus is referencing Isaiah 22:20-24, in which God confers the authority of the King of Israel on the king's servant Eliakim, thereby making Eliakim the Royal Steward of the Kingdom. This reveals to us that Christ the King, in Mt. 16, is conferring His authority on Peter, thereby making him the Royal Steward under the new covenant; and
(3) the context and pattern of Jesus' speech in Mt. 16:17-19 show us three blessings directed at Peter--(i) that Peter is blessed, because the Father has revealed truth to him; (ii) that he is now to be called "Rock", and on that rock Jesus will build His church; and (iii) that Peter is given the keys, and so whatever he binds and looses on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. In order to believe the "petros/petra" distinction argument, you have to believe that Jesus is, in one breath, celebrating and blessing Peter, but also telling Peter how unimportant and little he is, which of course does not make sense.
Even non-Catholic scholars are starting to concede that the "petros/petra" argument fails. For example, Baptist scholar D.A. Carson has said:
"... 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," as Peter himself attests (1 Peter 2:5-8). Others adopt some other distinction: e.g. "upon this rock of revealed truth- this truth you have just confessed- I will build my church." Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken 'rock' to mean anything but Peter... Had Matthew wanted to say no more than 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!"
Jesus is establishing Peter in a position of authority in His Church, which is further affirmed by passages like Jn. 21:15-17 ("Feed my sheep") and Lk. 22:31-32 ("Simon...I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers"). And Scripture shows Peter exercising this authority when he orders that baptism be extended to the Gentiles (Acts 10:48), when he interprets Scripture to mean that another man should be selected to take Judas' empty office after Judas has killed himself (Acts 1:15-20), and when he decides the issue of circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7-12). Notice that at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter stands up, decides, and all fall silent.
The historical writings of the first Christians confirm that Peter and his successors have always held a position of authority and primacy in the Church. There are many examples from these writings that I could use to show this, but for now, let me share the words of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in 180 AD:
We shall "confound all those [believers in Jesus] who...assemble other than where is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul--that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition."
Daniel Box lives in Chicago with his wife, but is a proud Texan (Fort Worth native) and Mexican-American. He is a practicing real estate and zoning attorney, after having clerked with the Thomas More Society and served as the Board Chairman of the Chicago chapter of Young Catholic Professionals in 2015 and 2016. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from the University of Dallas in 2012.