Having considered yesterday Saint Peter’s great proclamation of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited New King Solomon (Matt 16:16), and having witnessed Our Lord’s expected response to this proclamation, that of building the house of the Lord upon the Rock (as King Solomon did in the Old Testament), let us turn this today to the common Protestant attack upon the Catholic interpretation of this text. Pay close attention to the linguistic gymnastics which a Protestant must go through, as well as the linguistic response that a Catholic must make to unravel the mess (a pen and paper may help to keep it all straight).
The Protestant author, Oswald J. Smith, D.D., a well known anti-Catholic, asks the question as follows, “Did Jesus say he would build his Church on Peter?” To this Oswald responds,
Jesus did say, and I quote . . ., ‘Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt 16:18). But He did not say He would build His Church on Peter . . . The Greek word for Peter is ‘petros,’ meaning ‘a little stone.’ The word for rock is ‘petra,’ meaning ‘The Rock.’ What Jesus said was, ‘I will build my Church on The Rock.’ He himself was The Rock. He never said He would build His Church on Peter, ‘a little stone.’ That would be too faulty a foundation. In 1 Peter 2:5-8, Peter himself speaks of believers as stones and of Jesus as a rock. So, in Eph. 2:19-21, Jesus is the Corner Stone, the Foundation. The Church, therefore, is built not on Peter or his successors but on Jesus Christ Himself—The Rock.
How can we respond to such an attack? First, before confronting the linguistic assault, let us remember that context is essential. In response, we should begin by explaining the context of the passage as we considered it last week. After the initial catechesis regarding Jesus as the King, we turn to the interpretation quoted above. In the Greek text of Matthew 16:18 there is a peculiarity that can be confusing. The word used for Peter, as Oswald notes, is Petros, whereas the following word translated as rock is petra. “Thou art Petros and upon this petra I will build my Church.” Why is there a difference? In the original Aramaic in which the text was written, there is only one word that would be used for “rock” in this case, and that is kepha, a masculine noun. “Thou art Kepha and upon this kepha I will build my Church.” Translating the text into Greek is where the difficulty occurs. In Greek, the word for rock is petra, a feminine noun, and according to Greek grammatical rules, a man cannot be named with a feminine case ending. Thus, to deal with this problem the translator was forced to replace the feminine ending of petra (-a) with a masculine ending (-os), modifying a Greek word to fit the particular circumstance. The exact translation into English would read, “thou art Rock and upon this rock I will build my Church,” leaving no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, since we see that Mr. Oswald’s argument regarding Matt 16:18 has no linguistic basis, we can now address the second part of his argument.
Reading Mr. Oswald’s argument carefully, we see that he identifies Peter with the believers mentioned as stones in 1 Peter 2:5-8, thus making Peter simply one of the believers with no special character as the foundation stone. Unfortunately for Oswald and other Protestants who make this argument, the Greek word used in 1 Peter 2:5-8 is not Petros as Oswald would have you believe but rather lithoi (pl.), the generic word for “stone” in Greek, having a range of possible meanings. In fact, when reading the context of this passage in Greek, we learn that Jesus, the corner stone, is also identified by the same Greek word (lithos, sing.) as that of believers. According to Oswald’s interpretation, we would be forced to conclude that Jesus is actually, ‘a little stone,’ an interpretation that even Oswald would reject as absurd.
But, is not Jesus the Corner Stone and the Rock of our Faith, as Mr. Oswald states (cf. Eph. 2:19-21; 1 Cor 3:11)? The answer is, yes. Jesus Christ became man for one reason: to give us a share in his own life (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). Through baptism into Christ we become part of the body of Christ. Each one of us is given a certain character proper to Christ alone. ‘One is an eye, one is a foot, another is a hand’ all members of the One Body of Christ, which is the Church (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31). Based upon this Catholic and Biblical understanding of our salvation, a salvation of participation in divine life, it is to be expected that Jesus would give a share in his character as the foundation stone to the one who is chosen to receive this gift.
Let us stand upon this sure foundation, which is Peter, and let us rest assured that this house, the Catholic Church, will not fall, for it has been built by the Wise Builder who builds upon the Rock; “and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matt 7:24-25).