Which “rock” was the church founded upon?
In Matthew 15:18, Jesus tells Peter after his confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God that he will build his church on this rock. Throughout centuries of church history, scholars and theologians have argued two main possibilities for what Jesus meant.
The first is often taken by the Catholic Church, that Peter himself is the rock that Jesus speaks of. Peter’s name means “rock.” And so the Catholic Church says that Peter is the rock the church is built on. Jesus builds his church on Peter himself after his confession.
They use this interpretation to say that Peter was the first Pope of the Church. Every Pope since has a spiritual connection with Peter as the foundation of the church. They say that because Peter’s name means rock, Jesus was saying that he was building the church on Peter as a leader.
The other approach, popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation, is to understand Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, two verses before, as the basis for Jesus’ statement.
The way Jesus response to Peter’s confession of faith is that God revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17). And then he says, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). “This rock” would then refer to Peter’s incredible statement of faith (Matthew 16:16).
The interpretive problem is that both of these interpretations are possible in the text. Looking closely at Matthew 16:18, Jesus prefaces his statement with, “You are Peter.” By saying this, you could understand the immediate context of that verse alone to refer to Peter as the rock. His name meaning “rock” makes it even more interesting. Jesus is the one who named Simon, Peter.
Because he named Simon, “Rock,” you could say that Jesus referred to Peter as the rock because of the grammar of the sentence and his name change. But you could also say that Jesus changed his name to rock to reflect his personality and his importance in the first century church.
After all, after Jesus restores him in John 21, Peter becomes a firebrand preacher for the Lord in the book of Acts. So you could easily make the inference that Jesus refers to Peter as the rock.
But the Protestant reading of this verse also makes a strong case. Would Jesus found his church on a person, or would he found it on a fundamental statement about his identity and divinity? Protestants side with Martin Luther that the rock Jesus builds his church on is the statement of faith by Peter, not the man Peter.
As a Protestant, it is easy for me to say that this is the way to interpret this verse. But as I said before, both interpretations are exegetic leave valid. Philosophically, I agree with Protestants that it would be stronger to build the church on the fundamental statement of Jesus’ identity rather than a human being, no matter how powerful he was when empowered by the Holy Spirit.
But each person must make their own interpretive conclusions. Will the gates of hell not prevail against a person who leads the church or a doctrinal statement that is the basis for Christian belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ, Messiah), the divine Son of God? These are the possible interpretations, but you must make your own decision.