What is the Rock?

Here is a quick summary of the way that the Church Fathers interpreted that verse “Thou are Peter and upon this rock….” (Matthew 16:18)

Archbishop Kenrick, who was one of America’s extraordinary bishops, was opposed to the doctrine of papal infallibilty and at the First Vatican Council in 1869 he voted against it. He wanted to deliver a speech against the proposed doctrine at the Council but instead he ceased to attend the Council meetings. He published his speech in Naples the following year. It is important because he lists the five different patristic interpretations of Matthew 16:18.

Let’s look at how the Church Fathers line up over this verse:

  • “That St. Peter is the Rock” is taught by seventeen (17) Fathers.
  • That the whole Apostolic College is the Rock, represented by Peter as its chief, is taught by eight (8 ) Church Fathers.
  • That St. Peter’s faith is the Rock, is taught by forty-four (44) Church Fathers.
  • That Christ is the Rock, is taught by sixteen Fathers (16)

Archbishop Kenrick summarises:
“If we are bound to follow the greater number of Fathers in this matter, then we must hold for certain that the word “Petra” means not Peter professing the Faith, but the faith professed by Peter.” 

This is an important point by Archbishop Kenrick and it should be given its full weight. It is Roman Catholic doctrine that where there is something disputed the choice must be made for the consensus of the Fathers, the consensus patrum. You can look this up and check that I have it accurately in Friedrich, Docum ad illust. Conc. Vat. 1, pp. 185-246  As to who Archbishop Kenrick was. Please see the Catholic Encyclopedia here.

Peter’s confession as the rock was the majority view in the Early Church:

“In a remarkable pamphlete printed in fac-simile of manuscript and presented to the fathers almost two months ago, we find five different interpretations of the word “rock”, in the place cited; “the first of which declares (I transcribe the words) “that the church was built on Peter; and this interpretation is followed by seventeen fathers, among them, by Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine.

“The second interpretation understands from these words ‘on this rock will I build my church’, that the church was built on all the apostles, whom Peter represented by virtue of the primacy. And this opinion is followed by eight fathers – among them, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, Theodoret.

“The third interpretation asserts that the words, ‘on this rock’, etc, are to be understood of the faith which Peter had professed – that this profession of faith, by which we believe Christ to be the Son of the Living God, is the everlasting and immovable foundation of the church. This interpretation is the weightiest of all, since it is followed by forty-four fathers and doctors; among them, from the East, are Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Theophylact; from the West, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great; from Africa, Augustine.

The fourth interpretation declare that the words ‘on this rock’, etc, are to be understood of the rock which Peter had confessed, that is, Christ – that the church was built upon Christ. This interpretation is followed by sixteen fathers and doctors.

The fifth interpretation of the fathers understands by the name of ‘the rock’, the faithful themselves, who, believing Christ to be the Son of God, are constituted living stones out of which the church is built.

From this it follows, either that no argument at all, or one of the slenderest probability, is to be derived from the words, ‘on this rock will I build my church’, in support of the primacy. Unless it is certain that by ‘the rock’ is to be understood the apostle Peter in his own person, and not in his capacity as the chief apostle speaking for them all, the word supplies no argument whatever, I do not say in proof of papal infallibility, but even in support of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. 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.”
— Archbishop Kenrick in “An Inside View of the Vatican Council”

 Most Roman Catholics are surprised to find that the majority of the Early Church Fathers taught the other interpretations of Matthew 16:18. This information was compiled by Catholic scholars prior to Vatican I.

 Thus we see that it is clear the majority view of the Early Church Fathers was that the Rock was Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ or that the Rock is Christ Himself. The view that the Rock represents Peter is a minority view. This just shows how selective Roman Catholics are with data which doesn’t fit their position.

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