James White on "This Very Rock"

James White and Robert Sungenis on Matthew 16:18

by David Palm, 11 June 1997

Protestant apologist James White recently placed on his Web site a reply to some observations made by Robert Sungenis in the latest major book on the papacy, Jesus, Peter, and the Keys (henceforth JP&K; see White's article here).  There Sungenis argued that the demonstrative pronoun (“this”)  in Matt 16:18 may be emphatic, thus the translation might run: “You are Rock, and on this very rock I will build my Church” (JP&K, 25).  It is a minor, albeit interesting, exegetical observation.  But the response it elicited from Mr. White raised so many of the fundamental questions that surface as we debate the meaning of Matt 16:18-20 that I was moved to respond myself.  No doubt Mr. Sungenis has his own set of replies to Mr. White’s arguments; the thoughts presented here are my own.  

[It is not easy to label concisely the different interpretations of Matt 16:18 without prejudice.  For  this paper, I will speak of the interpretation in which “this rock” is taken as Peter’s confession as the “confessional interpretation” and that in which “this rock” refers to the person of Peter as the “personal interpretation.”]

Mr. White acknowledges on strictly grammatical grounds the validity of Sungenis’s observation that the demonstrative (“this”) may be emphatic (“this very”).  But he continues to question the validity of the identification between Peter and the Rock.  He says, “the translation ‘and upon this very rock I will build My church’ does not shed any light whatsoever upon the identity of the ‘rock’” (emphasis his throughout, unless otherwise noted).  Indeed, he attempts to turn this argument against the Catholic view:  “The more [“this”] is emphasized, the less likely the antecedent is Peter.  That is, the stronger [“this”] is translated, the stronger the disjunction between Peter and this rock.”

I would note first that the basic rule of grammar is that a demonstrative generally refers to its nearest antecedent.  So Mr. White should acknowledge candidly that he is arguing against this rule from the start.  And strangely, he seems to be relying rather heavily on the English distinction between the proper name Peter and the noun rock.  The distinction he draws seems fairly plausible when one prints the verse as, “You are Peter and on this rock...” but I think that virtually anybody will see that to say (as we have in the Greek), “You are Rock and on this [very] rock I will build my Church” does seem to indicate and emphasize a direct connection between the demonstrative and its immediate antecedent.

Nor can any great mileage—either lexical or grammatical—be derived from the difference between the Greek words petros and petra.  As Greek scholar D. A. Carson says,

Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “stone” and “rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. . . . The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name. . . . Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that 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!  (“Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 8:368).

But before I rest my case, let’s look a little more closely at White’s argument.  White asserts that, “one is struck with how strange it is that Jesus takes the ‘long way around’ to get to the equation ‘Peter=rock’ if in fact that is His intention.  It would have been much simpler to say, ‘You are Peter, and on you I will build My church.’  But He didn’t say that.”

Actually, it does not strike me as strange at all that Jesus would take the “long way around.”  The Lord so frequently speaks in parables, metaphors, and aphorisms, all delivered with that typically Semitic delight in robust and colorful language, that to me this argument falls quite flat.  There is simply no inherent reason to expect the Lord to express Himself in the most pedestrian prose.  Indeed, we may turn this argument around.  Would it not be strange for the Lord, immediately after calling Simon the “Rock,” to expect His hearers to understand his next reference to “rock” to refer to a completely different antecedent?  Is this not the “long way around”?  If He meant to express what Mr. White insists that He does, then why not take the shortest route and simply say, “You are Peter and on your confession I will build my Church”?  Or better yet, as Mr. Sungenis has suggested elsewhere, why not use alla instead of kai to join these clauses and say, “You are Peter but on your confession I will build my Church”?  This is exactly what Mr. White wants the Lord to say, phrased in the most direct possible way.  There would be no possibility of ambiguity if this was our text.  But, to quote White, “He didn’t say that.”

White also asserts that, “A natural reading of the passage . . . makes it plain what must function as the antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun.”  To him, the “natural” antecedent is the confession made by St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ.  But Mr. Sungenis has, in private correspondence with me, noted that there is no explicit word or phrase in the preceding verses that can function as this “confessional” antecedent for the demonstrative.  Mr. White must supply some words such as “Peter’s confession” or “Peter’s faith” to act as the antecedent, since no such words actually appear in the text.  This is hardly a natural reading.  But there is an explicit antecedent sitting right next to the demonstrative pronoun, namely, “Rock,” to which “this rock” quite naturally refers.  For this reason Protestant scholars have almost universally abandoned attempts to link “this rock” to some remote and unspoken antecedent and have rightly labeled post-Reformation attempts to do so as the product of Protestant bias, not of grammatico-historical exegesis.  [This shift in Protestant scholarship is well documented in JP&K.  See my essay James White vs. Jesus, Peter, and the Keys for further details on patristic exegesis of this passage.]

But White develops his argument a bit further and here we get to the heart of a challenge that he and some other Protestant apologists have floated for a while.  He seeks to derive considerable mileage out of the fact that the Lord “begins with direct personal address to Peter” but then “switches from direct address to the demonstrative ‘this’.”  White asserts that this change in address proves that “‘This rock’ is referring to something other than the person who was being addressed in the preceding phrase. . .”

At most one may concede that such a switch might indicate the change that White avers, although it is far from the conclusive (or even compelling) argument that he supposes.  I think, rather, that White is simply being insensitive to common use of a rhetorical device.  A prime minister might say when eulogizing a famous humanitarian, “You are a Beacon of Hope, and to this beacon all Europe will look as a source of comfort in these dark days.”  Or a king says to his champion, “You are The Hammer, and under this hammer all the enemies of England will be crushed.”  These are solemn, even stylized pronouncements.  But we all understand immediately what is being said.  Far from inclining us to hunt for some separate referent to which the demonstrative refers, we see immediately that the same person is addressed.  To introduce (indeed, to insist on) a separate referent is not only foreign to the rhetorical device, but destroys it.  These examples  illustrate the almost jarring disjunction that the confessional interpretation introduces into the text.

But Mr. White argues that the context of Matt 16:18 makes this disjunction necessary:

The content of [Peter’s] confession is, in fact, divine revelation, immediately impressed upon the soul of Peter.  This is the immediate context of verse 18, and to divorce verse 18 from what came before leads to the errant shift of attention from the identity of Christ to the identity of Peter that is found in Roman Catholic exegesis.  Certainly we cannot accept the idea, presented in Roman theology, that immediately upon pronouncing the benediction upon Peter’s confession of faith, the focus shifts away from that confession and what it reveals to Peter himself and some office with successors based upon him!  Not only does the preceding context argue against this, but the following context likewise picks up seemlessly with what came before: the identity of Jesus as Messiah.

The careful reader will notice that Mr. White has had to jump around the true immediate context, both preceding and following this phrase, in order to make this point.  For immediately prior to proclaiming that “upon this rock I will build my Church,” the Lord focused His attention on the person of Peter:  “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter . . .”  And immediately following the statement concerning “this rock” our Lord declares to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  As New Testament scholar R. T. France says, “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” (Matthew, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, 256).  So Mr. White is trying to introduce a oblique and remote reference into what is rather a seemless declaration of Peter’s new role in the Kingdom.  Reformed theologian J. Knox Chamblin, taking quite a contrary view to White, very neatly packages all of these observations in his own exegesis of the passage:

By the words ‘this rock’ Jesus means not himself, nor his teaching, nor God the Father, nor Peter’s confession, but Peter himself.  The phrase is immediately preceded by a direct and emphatic reference to Peter.  As Jesus identifies himself as the Builder, the rock on which he builds is most naturally understood as someone (or something) other than Jesus himself.  The demonstrative this, whether denoting what is physically close to Jesus or what is literally close in Matthew, more naturally refers to Peter (v.18) than to the more remote confession (v.16).  The link between the clauses of verse 18 is made yet stronger by the play on words, ‘You are Peter (Gk. Petros), and on this rock (Gk. Petra) I will build my church.’  As an apostle, Peter utters the confession of verse 16; as a confessor he receives the designation this rock from Jesus (“Matthew” in W. A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, 742; cited in JP&K, 30)

White is also ignoring the broader Biblical context as well.  Too few Protestant apologists take sufficient notice of the name change, from Simon to Peter (Rock).  Name changes in Scripture indicate a change in role, usually bound up closely with that person’s new prominence in salvation history.  So, for example, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Scripture tells us of the significance of this change:

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you (Gen 17:5-6).

Similarly, the Angel of the Lord changes Jacob’s name to Israel and speaks of the significance of this change:

Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28).

So when Jesus declares to Simon that “You are Peter,” the biblically literate reader is primed by this name change to expect some explanation of the significance of this change and of Peter’s new role in salvation history.  And this they get in the traditional, Catholic understanding of this verse:  “I tell you, you are Peter [Rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”  So the view championed by Mr. White has to ignore not only the most immediate context of the pronouncement but this broader Biblical precident as well.

I believe that, far from being the “significant argument” that White supposes it to be, this appeal to the demonstrative as support of a switch in subjects misfires on many fronts.  Basic rules of grammar tell against it, it is forced to supply an implicit and remote antecedent when a near and explicit antecedent already exists, it is insensitive to stylistic language, it destroys the word play in the passage, the immediate context both preceding and following the phrase tells against it, and it ignores broader Biblical examples.  White insists that Catholic apologists cannot continue to rely so heavily on Matt 16:18-19 until they respond to his “meaningful challenge” to their exegesis.  We have so responded.  The challenge now goes the other way.  Will Mr. White, in light of massive testimony from the early Church Fathers as well as a host of exegetical observations, finally admit what even the finest conservative Protestant exegetes now readily admit, that Peter is the Rock of Matt 16:18?