“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.”—Matthew 16:18
“I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”—Joseph Smith—History 1:18-19
The teaching of the Church of Latter-day Saints is that shortly after the death of the last apostle, the Church went through a Universal Apostasy leading the authentic LDS Church to be destroyed and eventually replaced with the Catholic Church. The LDS Church was not restored until the time of Joseph Smith. But now, they say, “Daniel, who foresaw and foretold the establishment of the kingdom of God in the latter days, never again to be destroyed nor given to other people.” (D&C 138:44)
Now obviously Latter-day Saints feel the need to reconcile their doctrine with the Bible, including Matthew 16:18, as quoted above. Following, we will discuss what is meant by “rock” and what is meant by “gates of hell”.
Now first of all, an LDS apologist would contend that the “rock” refers to Revelation from God. The Gates of Hell seem to be unable to prevail against Revelation as in they cannot keep out Revelation. So Christ’s Church would not preach out among the living alone, but also among the dead.
The first problem with this is that Jesus says specifically: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. So He seems to clearly equate Peter with Rock. Now the usual objection to this, frequently brought up by Protestants for which reason I would not be at all surprised if I were to learn that Mormons make the same claim, is that there is a distinction between “Peter” and “rock”. The former is Πέτρος (pétros) and the latter πέτρᾳ (pétra). Now allegedly, pétros means “pebble” and pétra means “large, immovable boulder”. Although this is technically true and sometimes petra stresses immovability, both words basically mean “rock” or “stone”.1 We need to remember, first of all, that there is no such distinction in Aramaic. The word our Lord actually used is Cephas or kepha (see John 1:42). This simply means “rock”, so there should have been no such distinction in the Aramaic. So Jesus actually said: “You are kepha and on this kepha I shall build my church.” Petra was a feminine noun, for which reason it was thought that petros would fit better for a man’s name in a Greek translation. Besides, if Jesus had really intended to make a distinction, He would have said: “You are Peter, but on this rock I shall build my church.” Nor indeed can Jesus be talking about Peter’s acclamation as can be found in John 1.
“He [Andrew] first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’” John 1:41
“Philip found Nathana-el, and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.’” John 1:45
“Nathana-el answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” John 1:49
Peter is practically the only person in John 1 who does not affirm Jesus are Christ. Even Protestant scholar Dr. Oscar Cullman affirms:
“It is thus evident that Jesus is referring to Peter, to whom he has given the name Rock. He appoints Peter, the impulsive, enthusiastic, but not persevering man in the circle, to be the foundation of his ecclesia. To this extent Roman Catholic exegesis is right and all Protestant attempts to evade this interpretation are to be rejected.”
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 108
To this some Mormons would point out 1 Corinthians 3:11, which states: “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” They say the Rock is revelation by the Father through Christ and therefore Christ is also the Rock, excluding the possibility of Peter. However, all the apostles could be called foundations of the church. (see Revelation 21:14) Catholics accept Christ as the chief foundation. However, Peter, as the chief of the apostles, could be considered after Christ, the foundation of the Church. Mormons accept the Primacy of Peter, considering him roughly the equivalent of the First President, so perhaps they would not find this too difficult to believe.
Next, we should probably treat with the “gates of hell”. Now a Mormon would claim this means that the Church would go down and preach to those in Sheol and the “gates” would not keep them out. However, I think this is a misunderstanding of what “gates of” generally means in Scripture. In Genesis 24:60, people say to Rebecca: “Our sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them!” And in Genesis 22:17, God says to Abraham, “I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.” Surely this did not mean that the Israelites were going to simply steal the gates of the Philistines’ and the Moabites’ cities, but rather that the Israelites would take authority over them. On the contrary, this is a use of synecdoche, meaning the powers of hell will not prevail against the Church.
The word κατισχύσουσιν (katischusousin) “will prevail against”, generally means as in “overpower” or “have power over”, not necessarily as in “keep out”.1 At least, to my mind, it seems to suggest that hell is the aggressor.
When our Lord’s is understood that way, a Latter-day Saint might see how it makes logical sense how the rock on which the Church is built can be a person, namely Peter. It also makes sense to me that he would have a perpetual line of successors until the end of time (sans a seventeen-century-long interregnum).
Bonum Certamen Certemus
I am the Catholic of Honor
1Liddell & Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon,Oxford University Press, 1843
All Scripture verses are from the Revised Standard Version