Peter the Rock: Protestant Contra-Catholic Exegetical Bias


St. Peter (1326), by Simone Martini (1285-1344) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




Matthew 16:18 (RSV) And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

This curious phenomenon was one of the central themes of my book, The Catholic Verses (2004). I wrote in its Introduction:

No one comes to the Bible as a completely impartial and objective “observer” or reader. We all approach it, whether consciously or unconsciously, with some sort of preexisting theology, or at least a disposition towards a certain viewpoint. It is impossible not to do this. It is part of the very nature of the thinking process. . . .

I shall contend throughout this book that — far too often — Protestants do not take all of Scripture into account, and that they are guilty of eisegesis (reading into Scripture one’s own presuppositions), or seriously erroneous exegesis, at least as often as Catholics are, if not more frequently. . . .

I hasten to add – and emphasize to the greatest degree – that these tendencies of bias and subjectivism and subconscious influence of denominational traditions do not necessarily entail a deliberate attempt to ignore or to twist Scripture. Every serious student of the Bible comes to the biblical text with a theological framework, in order to interpret it and make sense of it in its entirety. This is proper and right, and no one should have any objection to it. . . .

. . . without questioning (at all) the sincerity or integrity of Protestants, I shall now proceed to offer a critique of common Protestant attempts to ignore, explain away, rationalize, wish away, over-polemicize, minimize, de-emphasize, evade clear consequences of, or special plead with regard to “the Catholic Verses”: 95 biblical passages.

In Chapter Four, on the papacy, I commented specifically on historic Protestant exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19:

Many Protestants are uncomfortable with Matthew 16:18-19, first because of its extraordinary implications for St. Peter’s preeminence as the supreme earthly head of the Church, or Pope; which he was appointed by our Lord Jesus himself. The Church, according to Jesus (and in the Catholic view), is built upon Peter. In the figure and leadership of Peter in the Bible, the Catholic Church sees a primitive (later highly developed) model for Church government and papal headship. (pp. 55-56)

Historically, the standard polemical response of Protestants to the phraseology of rock was to contend that it referred only to Peter’s faith, not Peter himself. In that way, the institutional element of the charge from the Lord to St. Peter is avoided. If faith is the exclusive key to the meaning, then Peter can be viewed as merely a representative of a general principle, rather than unique in the sense of institutional, concrete leadership and jurisdiction. (p. 56)

Somewhat surprisingly, the consensus among Protestant commentators today (including such eminent scholars such as R. T. France, D. A. Carson, William Hendriksen, Gerhard Maier, and Craig L. Blomberg), is that rock indeed refers to Peter himself, not his faith. They try to evade any further “Catholic” implication, though, by denying the notion of papal succession — that Peter as rock applies to Peter alone. (pp. 57-58)

Here we are concerned with St. Peter as the proclaimed leader of the Church. The finer points and particulars of such an office require another discussion entirely. Scarcely any biblical passages contain a fully developed doctrine. That is as true of the papacy and ecclesiology as it is of any Christian theological construct. (p. 58)

Situations like this usually arise when the Catholic exegetical argument is (quite arguably) superior to any Protestant alternative, and when (as in the present instance) the basic Catholic contention has become the consensus position of prominent biblical commentators across the board:

Though in the past some authorities have considered that the term rock refers to Jesus himself or to Peter’s faith, the consensus of the great majority of scholars today is that the most obvious and traditional understanding should be construed, namely, that rock refers to the person of Peter.

(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985 edition, “Peter,” Micropedia, vol. 9, 330-333. D. W. O’Connor, the author of the article, is himself Protestant and author of Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical and Archaeological Evidence [1969] )

Catholics have been contending all along that Peter himself was the “rock”: not his confession of faith; nor Jesus Himself. Now it is widely accepted that this is indeed what the passage teaches. But for centuries, many (most?) Protestant commentators denied this, and it looks they did so primarily due to mere polemical reaction against the Catholic claim and Catholic dogmatic beliefs about the papacy, in part built upon this passage.

This is not just my opinion, but that of several prominent Protestant exegetes, past and present, as I will now demonstrate. These eminent Bible scholars maintain that the passage is very clear, and was only interpreted otherwise out of polemical reaction to the Catholic exegesis. If this can occur (rather strikingly) with regard to Matthew 16:18, who knows how prevalent the same tendency has been elsewhere in Protestant exegesis, wherever issues arise that are key to the Protestant-Catholic dispute?

Ironically, while Catholics are routinely accused of eisegesis, it looks like Protestants have committed quite a bit of it themselves, in their rush to distance themselves from Catholic exegetical viewpoints. To “prove” that a passage has no “Catholic” implications whatsoever, many Protestant commentators have been quite willing to special plead and engage in outright eisegesis. I provided dozens of examples of this in The Catholic Verses. Here I need only cite Protestants chastising fellow Protestant commentators, to prove my point that it occurred:

Another interpretation is, that the word rock refers to Peter himself. This is the obvious meaning of the passage; and had it not been that the church of Rome has abused it, and applied it to what was never intended, no other would have been sought for.

(Presbyterian Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Philadelphia: 1832; see larger excerpt)

* * * * *

The application of the promise to St. Peter has been elaborately impugned by Dr. Wordsworth. His zeal to appropriate the rock to Christ has somewhat overshot itself. In arguing that the term can apply to none but God, he will find it difficult surely to deny all reference to a rock in the name Peter. To me, it is equally difficult, nay, impossible, to deny all reference, in “upon this rock,” to the preceding word Peter. Let us keep to the plain straightforward sense of Scripture, however that sense may have been misused by Rome.

(Anglican Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers, four volumes, London: Rivingtons, 1868; reprinted by Baker Publishing Group, 1983, Vol. 1, p. 319; see larger excerpt)

* * * * *

As Peter means rock, the natural interpretation is that ‘upon this rock’ means upon thee. No other explanation would probably at the present day be attempted, but for the fact that the obvious meaning has been abused by Papists to the support of their theory. But we must not allow the abuse of a truth to turn us away from its use; nor must the convenience of religious controversy determine our interpretation of Scripture teaching. (p. 355)

The Protestant reluctance to admit that the rock means Peter really plays into the hands of the Romish controversialists. It favors the impression that conceding that point would be conceding all that the Romanist claims . . . Now to take Peter as the rock is certainly the most natural and obvious meaning. And to make this the life or death issue is to give the Romanist a serious polemical advantage. In general, it is a great principle of Biblical interpretation to take the most obvious meaning of any phrase, unless it would thus yield a sense hopelessly in conflict with the unambiguous teaching of other passages. (p. 357)

(Baptist John Albert Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, 1886; reprinted by Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Classics, 1990; see larger excerpt)

* * * * *

In view of the background of verse 19 . . . one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the Messianic confession of Peter.

(Methodist William F. Albright, and C.S. Mann, Anchor Bible, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971, Vol. 26, 195, 197-198)

* * * * *

Attempts to interpret the “rock” as something other than Peter in person (e.g., his faith, the truth revealed to him) are due to Protestant bias, and introduce to the statement a degree of subtlety which is highly unlikely.

(Presbyterian David Hill, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in Ronald E. Clements and Matthew Black, editors, The New Century Bible Commentary: London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972, 261)

* * * * *

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’ . . . Others adopt some other distinction . . . Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter . . .

(Baptist D. A. Carson; in Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984, vol. 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke [Matthew: D. A. Carson], 368)

It is only Protestant overreaction to the Roman Catholic claim . . . that what is here said of Peter applies also to the later bishops of Rome, that has led some to claim that the ‘rock’ here is not Peter at all but the faith which he has just confessed. The word-play, and the whole structure of the passage, demands that this verse is every bit as much Jesus’ declaration about Peter as v.16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus . . . It is to Peter, not to his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied . . . Peter is to be the foundation-stone of Jesus’ new community . . . which will last forever.

(Anglican R. T. France; in Leon Morris, general editor, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, Vol. 1: Matthew, 254, 256)

* * * * *

The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny this in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock (e.g., most recently Caragounis) seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy.

(Presbyterian Donald A. Hagner, “Matthew 14-28,” in David A. Hubbard and others, editors, World Biblical Commentary, vol. 33b; Dallas: Word Books, 1995, 470)

See also the excellent, copiously documented article by fellow Catholic apologist Nicholas Hardesty: Protestant Scholars on Mt 16:16-19.


Meta Description: Protestant commentators have traditionally denied that Peter was the rock: oftentimes due to mere polemical reaction against the Catholic claim.

Meta Keywords: apostolic succession, Bible & Papacy, biblical authority, canon of Scripture, ecclesiology, papacy, Petrine primacy, popes, primacy of Rome, Rule of Faith, Sola Scriptura, St. Peter, Protestant exegesis. exegesis & anti-Catholicism, exegetical bias