St. Augustine agrees: in his earlier writings, he argued that the rock was Peter, but later, changed his mind. These men, while a minority view among Church Fathers, are some of the most brilliant minds Catholicism has ever produced, and some of the holiest Saints. So what to make of this?“Having said to Peter, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonas, and of having promised to lay the foundation of the Church upon his confession; not long after He says, Get thee behind me, Satan. And elsewhere he said, Upon this rock. He did not say upon Peter for it is not upon the man, but upon his own faith that the church is built. And what is this faith? You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
I. Understanding What This Is (and Isn't) About
First, I think that we need to put things into perspective. As I've mentioned recently, the same St. John Chrysostom, while Bishop of Antioch, also wrote this:
It is a prerogative of the dignity of our city [that is, Antioch] that, from the beginning, it received as master the prince of the apostles. In fact, it was a just thing that this city - which was glorified by the name of "Christians" before the rest of the earth - should receive as shepherd the prince of the apostles. When we received him as master, however, we did not keep him forever but rather yielded him to the royal city of Rome. Therefore, we do not hold the body of Peter, but we hold the faith of Peter as we would Peter himself. As a matter of fact, as long as we hold the faith of Peter, we have Peter himself.So Chrysostom is quite clear that the authentic faith is Petrine, and by extension, Roman. No denier of the papacy was he, readily acknowledging that Peter was “the prince of the Apostles,” and that he went from being the master and shepherd of Antioch to the “royal city of Rome.”
In other words, St. John Chrysostom isn't denying Peter's earthly headship: he doesn't say that since we can all hold the faith of Peter, we're all equal with the Apostles; or that because the Apostles (besides Judas) all held the faith of Peter, they were all his equals. No, St. John Chrysostom simultaneously affirms that we can all affirm the faith of Peter, and yet there are some (shepherds and Apostles) who are placed over us as “masters,” and within the ranks of even the Apostles, one man stood as “prince of the Apostles.”
With St. Augustine, you'll find the same belief. One need only read the canons of the Council of Carthage from 417 A.D., in which Augustine and the other North African Fathers met, to see their respect for, and submission to, “the Apostolic See” (Rome) and the “holy and most blessed pope.” Or read Augustine's own writings, in which he speaks of the same. Rome stands in a place of authority, capable of settling disputes authoritatively.
It's important that we're clear what the Fathers were claiming, and what they weren't. Protestants use these passages to say things that the Fathers they're quoting would have been shocked and appalled by, and which run against the teachings of these very same Fathers. That's a shallow and ineffective way of approaching the Fathers.
II. Is Matthew 16:18 About Peter or Everyone?
With that in mind, the issue at hand is much, much narrower. No question about Peter's primacy, only about whether Jesus means to refer to Peter (as a man) or Peter's faith as the Rock. The best answer to this is that it's both. Peter is chosen as a man because of his faith.
We see both of these characteristics in the passage. Simon declares who Jesus is (Christ: that is, the Anointed One) in Mt. 16:16. Jesus responds by blessing him for this declaration of faith in Mt. 16:17, and proceeds to tell Simon who he is (Peter: that is, the Rock). Both titles, Christ and Peter, become so tied to the individual that they're treated as proper names.
In that light, it's quite sensible to say that the Church is built upon Peter and Peter's faith. Most of the Church Fathers seem to agree on this point, as well: the two I cited above are something of outliers, in thinking it has to be one or other other.
Other parts of Scripture make it clear that Simon is selected as a man, that the title of Rock doesn't just go to any Christian who accurately declares faith in Christ. From John 1:40-49,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
So Andrew is the first Disciple to call Jesus the Messiah (that is, the Christ). And Nathanael is the one who first calls Jesus “the Son of God.” Both men's proclamations of faith are almost indistinguishable from the one Simon would later make in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Simon, for his part, doesn't seem to have said anything noteworthy yet. Yet it's Simon who Jesus says He'll be renaming Peter, not Nathanael or Andrew (John 1:42).
If the meaning of the name Peter is simply “small rock,” and it's a title properly given to any Christian, it's odd that Jesus would rename only one Disciple this. But if it's tied to simply recognizing Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, two other Disciples had already done that (to say nothing of John the Baptist, who seems to grasp more than any of the Disciples -- see John 1:29-34).
All the evidence suggests that Jesus hand-picked Simon personally to become Peter. What it was in Peter that lead Him to this choice may be beyond our grasp, but that it was the decision of God Himself seems transparent from the passage.
When Christ says that He'll build His Church upon the Rock in Matthew 16:18, what does He mean? The strongest answer from Scripture is Peter (because of his faith), and this has plenty of Patristic Support. That said, some Fathers claimed it was Peter's faith or Jesus Himself.
But bear in mind always that these Fathers didn't reject the papacy. On the contrary, you'll hear these very same men proclaim Peter as the Prince of the Apostles and Shepherd of Rome, and the Apostolic See as head of the earthly Church. This wasn't a battle between Catholic and Protestant Church Fathers. This is a dispute over between Catholic Church Fathers over how to understand a single word in Matthew 16:18.
I raise this for a simple reason. If we're looking to St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine because we're genuinely seeking to understand how the Christian Church looked, and what these great Saints thought about the form of the Church, these things matter. Both men clearly taught and believed in a Church that was distinctively Petrine and Roman in its Catholicism. If we're not interested in that, in having the same Faith as Chrysostom and Augustine, who cares what they said? We're simply proof-texting Fathers we don't believe in. So by all means, the argument raised by Chrysostom and Augustine is an important one. Is the Rock upon which Christ built His Church Peter or Peter's faith,or Jesus, or something else? But in asking and answering that question, we should be thinking with the Church and with the Fathers, not proof-texting them for shallow polemical purposes.