Biblical & Patristic Basis for the Papacy (vs. Calvin #13)

Biblical & Patristic Basis for the Papacy (vs. Calvin #13) January 4, 2019

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


IV, 6:1-7


Book IV


1. Brief recapitulation. Why the subject of primacy not yet mentioned. Represented by Papists as the bond of ecclesiastical unity. Setting out with this axiom, they begin to debate about their hierarchy.

Hitherto we have reviewed those ecclesiastical orders which existed in the government of the primitive Church; but afterwards corrupted by time, and thereafter more and more vitiated, now only retain the name in the Papal Church, and are, in fact, nothing but mere masks, so that the contrast will enable the pious reader to judge what kind of Church that is, for revolting from which we are charged with schism. 

Yet Calvin has not yet proven that the Catholic Church completely fell away (and I’m beginning to suspect he may never even offer an argument: good or bad). He simply reports cases of corruption and “concludes” (i.e., assumes) from that, that there is a total apostasy. That doesn’t follow at all. It ignores the biblical aspect of indefectibility, and even clashes with Calvin’s own previous treatment of the topic of sinners in the Church.

He assumes the Catholic Church is not what it is, or has always claimed to be; it is not (so he “reasons”) the Church of the fathers, that he thinks much more highly of; therefore, to dissent from it is not schism or scandalous; indeed, it is altogether necessary. This is viciously circular “logic.”

But, on the head and crown of the whole matter, I mean the primacy of the Roman See, from which they undertake to prove that the Catholic Church is to be found only with them, we have not yet touched, because it did not take its origin either in the institution of Christ, or the practice of the early Church, 

That remains to be established. It’s one thing to have honest disagreements and for each side to give its reasoning; quite another for one side of a dispute to casually assume the opposing position is false and one’s own true, without argument, and proceed accordingly, by building a system on an unproven axiom. That’s a castle of sand or house of cards.

as did those other parts, in regard to which we have shown, that though they were ancient in their origin, they in process of time altogether degenerated, nay, assumed an entirely new form.

“Entirely new” has not been proven. Calvin throughout his work has a dim understanding of development of doctrine: a tendency quite pronounced in his followers today and in many other species of Protestants.

And yet they endeavour to persuade the world that the chief and only bond of ecclesiastical unity is to adhere to the Roman See, and continue in subjection to it. 

That’s how it always was from the beginning. It developed, and the Orthodox eventually dissented after a thousand years, but it has always been there. The historic proofs are extremely abundant.

I say, the prop on which they chiefly lean, when they would deprive us of the Church, and arrogate it to themselves, 

The Church is what it is. It doesn’t change simply because someone like Calvin comes along and claims that it is now something quite essentially different from what it had always been for almost 1500 years. That is not “arrogating” anything or “depriving” anyone of anything. It is reality. There is a history here, and a background. Christianity consists of objective, verifiable entities and concepts; not subjective pick-and-choose relative, “make-something-whatever-you-want-it-to-be” mush.

is, that they retain the head on which the unity of the Church depends, and without which it must necessarily be rent and go to pieces. 

There had always been a pope, and there always will be. The office continues in full force today, almost 500 years after the “Reformation” tried in vain (mostly by smearing and propaganda) to discredit and eliminate it.

For they regard the Church as a kind of mutilated trunk if it be not subject to the Romish See as its head. Accordingly, when they debate about their hierarchy they always set out with the axiom: The Roman Pontiff (as the vicar of Christ, who is the Head of the Church) presides in his stead over the universal Church, and the Church is not rightly constituted unless that See hold the primacy over all others. The nature of this claim must, therefore, be considered, that we may not omit anything which pertains to the proper government of the Church.

Good; maybe Calvin will start to make actual arguments now. That makes my burden of reply infinitely more interesting than mere replies to unsubstantiated statements, over and over, and pointing out that circular reasoning (or none whatever: not even circular) is occurring. If Calvin makes recourse to biblical and historical arguments, then he can be soundly and roundly refuted, and there is actually something to rationally discuss, so that readers can make an informed choice of which viewpoint is more true to both Scripture and consistent Church history and received apostolic tradition.

2. Question stated. An attempted proof from the office of High Priest among the Jews. Two answers.

The question, then, may be thus stated, Is it necessary for the true order of the hierarchy (as they term it), or of ecclesiastical order, that one See should surpass the others in dignity and power, so as to be the head of the whole body? 

Yes. The Bible reveals again and again that Peter was the head of the apostles. He possessed the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus built His Church upon Peter (not just his “faith”: an antiquated, polemical position which is overwhelmingly rejected by the best exegetes of all persuasions today). The papacy is modeled after that.

We subject the Church to unjust laws if we lay this necessity upon her without sanction from the word of God. 

But we do have plenty of sanction; it is Calvin who has none for his ecclesiological position.

Therefore, if our opponents would prove what they maintain, it behoves them first of all to show that this economy was instituted by Christ. 


50 New Testament Proofs for Petrine Primacy & the Papacy

The Biblical Argument for Papal Succession


For this purpose, they refer to the office of high priest under the law, and the supreme jurisdiction which God appointed at Jerusalem. But the solution is easy, and it is manifold if one does not satisfy them. First, no reason obliges us to extend what was useful in one nation to the whole world; nay, the cases of one nation and of the whole world are widely different. 

Calvin often makes analogies from ancient Israel to the present Church, as we have seen several times thus far in this very examination of his views. Yet when Catholics do so, all of a sudden it is improper, simply because we draw conclusions he disagrees with? He may disagree with our explanations for the papacy, but it is far different to go after the very mode of argument that we use (in this case, analogy to ancient Israel). He is applying two standards, based on what he agrees and disagrees with. That won’t do, and so I have called him on it. For my part, I think the better analogy of popes is to the prophets, as I argued in one of the papers above.

Because the Jews were hemmed in on every side by idolaters, God fixed the seat of his worship in the central region of the earth, that they might not be distracted by a variety of religions; there he appointed one priest to whom they might all look up, that they might be the better kept in unity. But now when the true religion has been diffused over the whole globe, who sees not that it is altogether absurd to give the government of East and West to one individual? It is just as if one were to contend that the whole world ought to be governed by one prefect, because one district has not several prefects. 

The Church is in no less need of unity because it is more universal. That is fallacious logic. If anything, the need for unity by virtue of a central figure, would be even more necessary, the large an entity becomes. But there are still bishops, who have a local jurisdiction. It’s not “either/or.” Calvin has neither bishops nor a pope, so I fail to see how that is a superior state of affairs.

Hence, the absurd sectarianism and denominationalism that has flourished ever since in Protestantism. Orthodoxy has not fragmented to nearly that extent in its rejection of the papacy (only about 17 major divisions), because it retains Holy Tradition, the sacraments, and bishops. But when Protestantism mostly rejected all these things, the way was opened for rampant chaos and doctrinal relativism. And indeed that has come to pass.

But there is still another reason why that institution ought not to be drawn into a precedent. Every one knows that the high priest was a type of Christ; now, the priesthood being transferred, that right must also be transferred. To whom, then, was it transferred? certainly not to the Pope, as he dares impudently to boast when he arrogates this title to himself, but to Christ, who, as he alone holds the office without vicar or successor, does not resign the honour to any other. For this priesthood consists not in doctrine only, but in the propitiation which Christ made by his death, and the intercession which he now makes with the Father (Heb. 7:11).

But this misses the whole point. God is always the Head and reigns supreme. That was true under the Old Covenant and it is in the New Covenant. That never changes. So why have human figureheads in the Old and then suddenly we have no need of same in the New? God was the King then, and had high priests and patriarchs and prophets, and he made covenants with folks like Noah and David, and gave the Law to men like Moses.

He is the king now and has bishops and popes. Why should there be any radical change? Men are involved in both covenants. It doesn’t go from “concrete leadership” to, all of a sudden, “no leadership of men because this clashes with God.”

The common sense law of analogy mitigates against that. And this is why we see all sorts of indications of human leadership in the New Testament. Why would Jesus, for example, bother to say that He was building His Church upon Peter (of all people to choose: a vacillating, impulsive weak reed!)?

If Jesus alone were the head of the Church, in the sense that no created human being is also a head, in human, jurisdictional, administrative (etc.) terms, then it seems clear to me that He would not have said that. He would have simply said that He was building His Church, and would have left Peter or any other man out of it. Would that not follow if Calvin were correct? Rejection of Petrine primacy and leadership makes no sense at all, from a biblical perspective.

3. Arguments for primacy from the New Testament. Two answers.
That example, therefore, which is seen to have been temporary, they have no right to bind upon us as by a perpetual law. 

But, as I have said, the high priest was but one sort of leader or authority figure in the Old Covenant, so this is a red herring.

In the New Testament there is nothing which they can produce in confirmation of their opinion,

There are all sorts of things, detailed in my papers above, that Calvin seems to have overlooked. Plenty of Protestants can see that the arguments are at least legitimate and respectable, though they may personally disagree in the end with the papacy as an ongoing office.

but its having been said to one, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18). 

This is simply untrue. Calvin greatly underestimates the power of the Catholic argument. He consistently does this; it is nothing new. As for what this saying meant, in context, incorporating the literary and historical background, see my relevant paper above.

Again, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). But to give strength to these proofs, they must, in the first place, show, that to him who is ordered to feed the flock of Christ power is given over all churches, and that to bind and loose is nothing else than to preside over the whole world. 

It is not necessary for all the aspects of an office to be proven in any one prooftext. The Catholic argument (like the biblical argument for the Trinity and many other positions) is a cumulative one: deduced from many different proofs of different sorts. Having, for example, the “keys of the kingdom” (which is only said of Peter and no one else) means, once the background is understood, that the one possessing these keys is a sort of superintendent or supervisor of the Church. And the Church is in turn, universal.

That is but one proof of several. Peter’s epistles have a universal character to them: sort of like papal encyclicals. Peter is clearly regarded as the leader of the early Church, as seen in the book of Acts. He is the Rock that the Church was built upon. He appears to preside over the proceedings at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Even Paul consults with him and is confirmed in his apostolic ministry, at the beginning of it. The clues for his primacy are all over the place in Scripture. It’s as if Calvin can’t see the sun (the papacy) at high noon on a clear summer day, when he looks all around the “sky” of Scripture.

But as Peter had received a command from the Lord, so he exhorts all other presbyters to feed the Church (1 Pet. 5:2). 

Of course. The pope exhorts bishops. It doesn’t follow that there is no pope. The very fact that he is exhorting all the others suggests preeminence, as I have just argued above. This is how his epistles read. They have a general character because they are directly intended for the whole Church, not just one local congregation, or one person, as in St. Paul’s letters.

Hence we are entitled to infer, that, by that expression of Christ, nothing more was given to Peter than to the others, or that the right which Peter had received he communicated equally to others. 

That can’t be sustained from the data, because there is too much prominence given to Peter. He alone has the keys. He alone was the “Rock” upon which Jesus built His Church. The others were given the power to bind and loose, because that is a power that all priests possess (to absolve sins and impose temporal penalties for sin). But even there, Calvin neglects to see that Peter was given the power individually by name, whereas the others receive it collectively. This also shows preeminence, not equality, precisely because he was singled out. The biblical data (taken all together) does not allow an interpretation of Peter being not a whit different from all the other apostles.

But not to argue to no purpose, we elsewhere have, from the lips of Christ himself, a clear exposition of what it is to bind and loose. It is just to retain and remit sins (John 10:23). The mode of loosing and binding is explained throughout Scripture: but especially in that passage in which Paul declares that the ministers of the Gospel are commissioned to reconcile men to God, and at the same time to exercise discipline over those who reject the benefit (2 Cor. 5:18; 10:16).

That’s right. But this is no disproof of Peter’s primacy, as just explained. Calvin is operating on fallacious logic once again.

4. Another answer. The keys given to the other apostles as well as to Peter. Other two arguments answered by passages of Cyprian and Augustine.
How unbecomingly they wrest the passages of binding and loosing I have elsewhere glanced at, and will in a short time more fully explain. It may now be worth while merely to see what they can extract from our Saviour’s celebrated answer to Peter. He promised him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and said, that whatever things he bound on earth should be bound in heaven (Mt. 16:19). The moment we are agreed as to the meaning of the keys, and the mode of binding, all dispute will cease. 

But the power of the keys goes far beyond binding and loosing. This is the flaw in Calvin’s reasoning (see my paper above, for much elaboration). All the apostles (and priests thereafter) could bind and loose, but they didn’t all possess the keys.

For the Pope will willingly omit that office assigned to the apostles, which, full of labour and toil, would interfere with his luxuries without giving any gain. Since heaven is opened to us by the doctrine of the Gospel, it is by an elegant metaphor distinguished by the name of keys

That is not at all how Protestant exegetes today interpret the keys. I cited virtually all Protestants in my paper on the topic. Here are a few examples:

In the . . . exercise of the power of the keys, in ecclesiastical discipline, the thought is of administrative authority (Is 22:22) with regard to the requirements of the household of faith. The use of censures, excommunication, and absolution is committed to the Church in every age, to be used under the guidance of the Spirit . . .

So Peter, in T. W. Manson’s words, is to be ‘God’s vicegerent . . . The authority of Peter is an authority to declare what is right and wrong for the Christian community. His decisions will be confirmed by God’ (The Sayings of Jesus, 1954, p. 205). (New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, 1018)

Not only is Peter to have a leading role, but this role involves a daunting degree of authority (though not an authority which he alone carries, as may be seen from the repetition of the latter part of the verse in 18:18 with reference to the disciple group as a whole). The image of ‘keys’ (plural) perhaps suggests not so much the porter, who controls admission to the house, as the steward, who regulates its administration (cf. Is 22:22, in conjunction with 22:15). The issue then is not that of admission to the church . . . , but an authority derived from a ‘delegation’ of God’s sovereignty. (R. T. France; in Leon Morris, general editor, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, 256)

And what about the “keys of the kingdom”? . . . About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim . . . (Isa. 22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward. (F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1983, 143-144)

Again, the only mode in which men are bound and loosed is, in the latter case, when they are reconciled to God by faith, and in the former, more strictly bound by unbelief. 

But of course this is a completely novel take on what “binding and loosing” mean. It has an Old Testament background having to do with human intermediaries for the forgiveness and blessing of God. It can’t simply be redefined by Calvin at his late date, to mean something entirely different. That is eisegesis at its worst. It’s not how one approaches the Bible: molding it into whatever one’s specific desire or polemical purpose might be. It is what it is.

Were this all that the Pope arrogated to himself, I believe there would be none to envy him or stir the question. But because this laborious and very far from lucrative succession is by no means pleasing to the Pope, the dispute immediately arises as to what it was that Christ promised to Peter. From the very nature of the case, I infer that nothing more is denoted than the dignity which cannot be separated from the burden of the apostolic office. For, admitting the definition which I have given (and it cannot without effrontery be rejected), nothing is here given to Peter that was not common to him with his colleagues. 

Again, this is patently untrue, as I have been showing, and demonstrate at great length and in many ways in my cited papers on the question. I can’t go through all that evidence here; interested readers have to do that reading, to get the background and the current exegetical consensus.

On any other view, not only would injustice be done to their persons, but the very majesty of the doctrine would be impaired. They object; but what, pray, is gained by striking against this stone? The utmost they can make out is, that as the preaching of the same gospel was enjoined on all the apostles, so the power of binding and loosing was bestowed upon them in common. Christ (they say) constituted Peter prince of the whole Church when he promised to give him the keys. But what he then promised to one he elsewhere delivers, and as it were hands over, to all the rest. 

No; the “keys” and all that that represented, understanding the OT background of Isaiah 22 and common usage at that time, was given to him alone. Since it had to do with superintendence, obviously, Peter was regarded as the leader, above and beyond the others. They shared many things with him, but not all. That’s why Jesus singled Peter out by name, many times. He was to strengthen his brothers; Jesus prayed for him in particular to do that, etc.

If the same right, which was promised to one, is bestowed upon all, in what respect is that one superior to his colleagues? 

I deny the premise here. Calvin is wrong.

He excels (they say) in this, that he receives both in common, and by himself, what is given to the others in common only. What if I should answer with Cyprian, and Augustine, that Christ did not do this to prefer one to the other, but in order to commend the unity of his Church?

Then I would say this is exactly what we’re talking about: the unity of the Church. That is why one needs a pope; a leader.

For Cyprian thus speaks: “In the person of one man he gave the keys to all, that he might denote the unity of all; the rest, therefore, were the same that Peter was, being admitted to an equal participation of honour and power, but a beginning is made from unity that the Church of Christ may be shown to be one” (Cyprian, de Simplic. Prælat.). 

The same St. Cyprian also wrote:

Nevertheless, Peter, upon whom by the same Lord the Church had been built, speaking one for all, and answering with the voice of the Church, says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we believe, and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God:” signifying, doubtless, and showing that those who departed from Christ perished by their own fault, yet that the Church which believes on Christ, and holds that which it has once learned, never departs from Him at all, and that those are the Church who remain in the house of God; . . . After such things as these, moreover, they still dare—a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics—to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. (Epistle LIV [LIX], To Cornelius, Concerning Fortunatus and Felicissimus, 7, 14; ANF, Vol. V)

That is not a sentiment one would find Calvin writing! It doesn’t fit with his thinking. One can quibble with St. Cyprian about his exegesis of the “keys”; but it is undeniable that he accepts Petrine primacy and the papacy. To read much more about St. Cyprian and the papacy, see Dom John Chapman’s treatment, with commentary by Phil Porvaznik.

Augustine’s words are, “Had not the mystery of the Church been in Peter, our Lord would not have said to him, I will give thee the keys. For if this was said to Peter, the Church has them not; but if the Church has them, then when Peter received the keys he represented the whole Church” (August. Hom. in Joann. 50). 

Yes; the pope represents the whole Church. That’s the whole point. In the pope, the unity of the entire Church resides.

Again, “All were asked, but Peter alone answers, Thou art the Christ; and it is said to him, I will give thee the keys; as if he alone had received the power of loosing and binding; whereas he both spoke for all, and received in common with all, being, as it were, the representative of unity. One received for all, because there is unity in all” (Hom. 124).

St. Augustine, perhaps did not adequately take into account the Jewish thought-background of this, on this particular exegetical matter. But whether he is wrong about the “keys” or not (and Catholics do not regard individual fathers as infallible), in any event, he was a very strong advocate of the papacy. For an extremely in-depth treatment of St. Augustine’s view of Peter and the papacy, see Steve Ray’s and Joe Gallego’s response to William Webster.

5. Another argument answered.

But we nowhere read of its being said to any other, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”! (Mt. 16:18); as if Christ then affirmed anything else of Peter, than Paul and Peter himself affirm of all Christians (Eph. 2:20; 1 Peter 2:5). The former describes Christ as the chief corner-stone, on whom are built all who grow up into a holy temple in the Lord; the latter describes us as living stones who are founded on that elect and precious stone, and being so joined and compacted, are united to our God, and to each other. 

Sure; but how is that any alleged disproof of the papacy and Petrine primacy? We’re all the Body of Christ, too. It doesn’t follow that Christ is not the Head. Likewise, humanly speaking, the pope is the head of the Church.

Peter (they say) is above others, because the name was specially given to him. I willingly concede to Peter the honour of being placed among the first in the building of the Church, or (if they prefer it) of being the first among the faithful; but I will not allow them to infer from this that he has a primacy over others. 

Why? And why did the unbroken tradition of the Church for almost 1500 years believe this? How did they get so off-track, if Calvin is right?

For what kind of inference is this? Peter surpasses others in fervid zeal, in doctrine, in magnanimity; therefore, he has power over them: as if we might not with greater plausibility infer, that Andrew is prior to Peter in order, because he preceded him in time, and brought him to Christ (John 1:40, 42); but this I omit. 

It’s not based on individual excellence, anymore than God’s commissions to Moses and David or Paul were. At least Peter didn’t commit murder or adultery, as they did. The office is contingent upon God’s special protection.

Let Peter have the preeminence, still there is a great difference between the honour of rank and the possession of power. We see that the Apostles usually left it to Peter to address the meeting, and in some measure take precedence in relating, exhorting, admonishing, but we nowhere read anything at all of power.

Then “we” have not read the Bible very closely. The “keys” and being called “Rock” closely examined, suggest a great deal of power, as the Protestant exegetes cited above concede. Here are some other examples, from my list of 50 NT proofs:

Peter is specified by an angel as the leader and representative of the apostles (Mk 16:7).

Peter utters the first anathema (Ananias and Sapphira) emphatically affirmed by God (Acts 5:2-11)!

Peter is the first person after Christ to raise the dead (Acts 9:40).

Cornelius is told by an angel to seek out Peter for instruction in Christianity (Acts 10:1-6).

Peter is the first to receive the Gentiles, after a revelation from God (Acts 10:9-48).

Peter presides over and opens the first Council of Christianity, and lays down principles afterwards accepted by it (Acts 15:7-11).

Peter is the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24).

Paul went to Jerusalem specifically to see Peter for fifteen days in the beginning of his ministry (Gal 1:18), and was commissioned by Peter, James and John (Gal 2:9) to preach to the Gentiles.

Peter acts, by strong implication, as the chief bishop/shepherd of the Church (1 Pet 5:1), since he exhorts all the other bishops, or “elders.”

As I stated before, the strength of the biblical argument concerning Peter and the papacy is not compelling due to any one prooftext, but as a result of many taken together, like strands in a rope, that become very strong when wrapped together. Calvin has not even begun to deal with the number of biblical evidences that can be set forth. He seems to not even be aware of most of them.

6. Answer to the argument that the Church is founded on Peter, from its being said, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.”
Though we are not yet come to that part of the discussion, I would merely observe at present, how futilely those argue who, out of the mere name of Peter, would rear up a governing power over the whole Church. For the ancient quibble which they at first used to give a colour—viz. The Church is founded upon Peter, because it is said, “On this rock,” &c.—is undeserving of notice, not to say of refutation. Some of the Fathers so expounded! But when the whole of Scripture is repugnant to the exposition, why is their authority brought forward in opposition to God? nay, why do we contend about the meaning of these words, as if it were obscure or ambiguous, when nothing can be more clear and certain? Peter had confessed in his own name, and that of his brethren, that Christ was the Son of God (Mt. 16:16). On this rock Christ builds his Church, because it is the only foundation; as Paul says, “Other foundation than this can no man lay” (1 Cor. 3:11). Therefore, I do not here repudiate the authority of the Fathers, because I am destitute of passages from them to prove what I say, were I disposed to quote them; but as I have observed, I am unwilling to annoy my readers by debating so clear a matter, especially since the subject has long ago been fully handled and expounded by our writers.

This has been the standard Protestant polemical response, through the centuries: the Church was built on Peter’s confession of faith, not he himself; and since any Christian can make such a profession, the Church is built equally on all of us (i.e., in the sense that would exclude a pope), and thus, this traditional proof for the papacy is supposedly refuted. Calvin (like so many Protestants, in their methodology) proclaims that the Scripture in this instance is crystal-clear, and that is the end of that; case closed! The only problem is that Protestant exegetes today (which have every bit as much right to comment on Scripture, as Calvin had, by virtue of the same rule of faith) do not agree with this, and agree that the rock is indeed Peter. Here are but a few examples:

Jesus now sums up Peter’s significance in a name, Peter . . . It describes not so much Peter’s character (he did not prove to be ‘rock-like’ in terms of stability or reliability), but his function, as the foundation-stone of Jesus’ church. The feminine word for ‘rock’, ‘petra’, is necessarily changed to the masculine ‘petros’ (stone) to give a man’s name, but the word-play is unmistakable (and in Aramaic would be even more so, as the same form ‘kepha’ would occur in both places). It is only Protestant overreaction to the Roman Catholic claim . . . that what is here said of Peter applies also to the later bishops of Rome, that has led some to claim that the ‘rock’ here is not Peter at all but the faith which he has just confessed. 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 . . . It is to Peter, not to his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied . . . Peter is to be the foundation-stone of Jesus’ new community . . . which will last forever. (R. T. France [Anglican]; in Leon Morris, general editor, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, 254, 256)

On the basis of the distinction between ‘petros’ . . . and ‘petra’ . . . , many have attempted to avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Peter is a mere ‘stone,’ it is alleged; but Jesus himself is the ‘rock’ . . . Others adopt some other distinction . . . Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter . . .

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! . . .

In this passage Jesus is the builder of the church and it would be a strange mixture of metaphors that also sees him within the same clauses as its foundation . . . (D. A. Carson [Baptist]; in Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984, vol. 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke [Matthew: D. A. Carson], 368)

Though in the past some authorities have considered that the term rock refers to Jesus himself or to Peter’s faith, the consensus of the great majority of scholars today is that the most obvious and traditional understanding should be construed, namely, that rock refers to the person of Peter. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985 edition, “Peter,” Micropedia, vol. 9, 330-333. D. W. O’Connor, the author of the article, is himself Protestant and author of Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical and Archaeological Evidence [1969] )

In view of the background of verse 19 . . . one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the Messianic confession of Peter . . . The general sense of the passage is indisputable . . . Peter is the rock on which the new community will be built, and in that community, Peter’s authority to ‘bind’ or ‘release’ will be a carrying out of decisions made in heaven. His teaching and disciplinary activities will be similarly guided by the Spirit to carry out Heaven’s will. (William F. Albright [Methodist] and C. S. Mann, Anchor Bible, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971, vol. 26, 195, 197-198)

The word refers neither to Christ as a rock, distinguished from Simon, a stone, nor to Peter’s confession, but to Peter himself, . . . The reference of petra to Christ is forced and unnatural. The obvious reference of the word is to Peter. The emphatic this naturally refers to the nearest antecedent; and besides, the metaphor is thus weakened, since Christ appears here, not as the foundation, but as the architect: “On this rock will I build.” Again, Christ is the great foundation, the chief cornerstone, but the New Testament writers recognize no impropriety in applying to the members of Christ’s church certain terms which are applied to him. For instance, Peter himself (1 Peter 2:4), calls Christ a living stone, and in ver. 5, addresses the church as living stones . . .

Equally untenable is the explanation which refers petra to Simon’s confession. Both the play upon the words and the natural reading of the passage are against it, and besides, it does not conform to the fact, since the church is built, not on confessions, but on confessors – living men . . . . . .

The reference to Simon himself is confirmed by the actual relation of Peter to the early church . . . See Acts 1:15; 2:14,37; 3:2; 4:8; 5:15,29; 9:34,40; 10:25-6; Galatians 1:18. (Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1946 [orig. 1887], 4 vols., vol. 1, 91-92)

Other prominent Protestant exegetes of our time who express the same position on Matthew 16:19 that Calvin mocks, include William Hendriksen (Reformed), Gerhard Maier(Lutheran), Craig L. Blomberg (Baptist), Albert Barnes (Presbyterian), Herman Ridderbos (Reformed), and David Hill (Presbyterian). Many of these are within Calvin’s own Protestant tradition. Calvin is simply wrong on this. He is no more infallible than the Church fathers he cites for his case (oftentimes out of context or with extreme selectivity, bordering on intellectual dishonesty, or otherwise fallaciously).

7. Answer confirmed by passages of Scripture.
And yet, in truth, none can solve this question better than Scripture, if we compare all the passages in which it shows what office and power Peter held among the apostles, how he acted among them, how he was received by them (Acts 15:7). Run over all these passages, and the utmost you will find is, that Peter was one of twelve, their equal and colleague, not their master.

I don’t see that, and many do not. Peter didn’t Lord it over the others, because that was how a Christian leader should properly act, just as Jesus taught: that the greatest of all is the servant of all. But it doesn’t follow from this that he did not have the authority and leadership. There is plenty in Scripture to establish that. Calvin doesn’t see it because he is either ignorant of it, or because (in my opinion, though it is mere speculation) he doesn’t want to see it, for his own self-interested purposes of separating from the Church and setting up a counter-“church.”

He indeed brings the matter before the council when anything is to be done, and advises as to what is necessary, 

As popes have always done, especially in recent centuries . . .

but he, at the same time, listens to the others, not only conceding to them an opportunity of expressing their sentiments, but allowing them to decide; and when they have decided, he follows and obeys. 

Where in Scripture does it show that Peter “obeys” anyone else?

When he writes to pastors, he does not command authoritatively as a superior, but makes them his colleagues, and courteously advises as equals are wont to do (1 Pet. 5:1). 

As popes have usually done also . . . This proves nothing. Even Jesus started calling the disciples His “friends”:

Luke 12:4 (RSV) I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.

John 15:14-15 You are my friends if you do what I command you. [15] No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

Does it follow, then, that they were equals to Him, because of this courtesy? Calvin is grasping at straws.

When he is accused of having gone in to the Gentiles, though the accusation is unfounded, he replies to it, and clears himself (Acts 11:3). 

So what? How does that undermine his papal authority? These men were wrong, in retrospect, since the Church, in the Jerusalem Council, presided over by Peter himself, and James, bishop of Jerusalem, decided that circumcision was not a requirement, and that Gentiles were to be freely admitted into the Church without it. The Judaizers (who were Christians, not non-Christian Jews) lost their battle within the Church.

Being ordered by his colleagues to go with John into Samaria, he declines not (Acts 8:14). The apostles, by sending him, declare that they by no means regard him as a superior, while he, by obeying and undertaking the embassy committed to him, confesses that he is associated with them, and has no authority over them. 

This is at least some semblance of a decent argument, which is refreshing. But it, too, falls, when the scope of biblical language in the matter of being “sent” is understood. For example:

John 20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”

Note the word “even.” If Jesus’ sending of them is in the same category as the Father sending Jesus (cf. Mk 9:37; Lk 20:13; Jn 11:42; 17:8,18; Rom 8:3), then by Calvin’s logic, if the disciples were inferior to Jesus simply because they were sent by Him (following the logic here), then Jesus would also be inferior to the Father, because He was sent by the Father.

But this is not the case, In Christian trinitarian theology, including Calvin’s own, the Father and the Son are equal in power, glory, and majesty. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:26; 16:7); so does the Father (Jn 14:26). None of this implies any inequality; therefore, Peter being “sent” somewhere by others in the Church does not necessarily imply that he is inferior in authority to others.

Likewise, the fact that Paul was sent out by the Thessalonian and Berean brethren, doesn’t prove that he was not “over” them in authority:

Acts 17:10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroe’a . . .

Acts 17:14 Then the brethren immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there.

These are not even fellow disciples, but plain old “brethren.” We know that Paul had authority over the Thessalonian church, just as he did the other churches he was associated with. For example:

1 Thessalonians 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, . . .

1 Thessalonians 2:6-7, 11-13 nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. [7] But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. . . . [11] for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you [12] to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. [13] And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

Yet Paul calls the Thessalonians “brethren” too. So Calvin’s argument regarding Peter being “sent” by the Church; therefore supposedly disproving his leadership, falls flat. It shows a weak understanding of the broad “both/and” latitude Hebraic concepts and language and inability or unwillingness to properly compare Scripture with Scripture, and interpret it as a cohesive whole. Protestants are often notorious for isolating one Scripture and drawing out of it a certain meaning, while ignoring relevant similar Scriptures. Calvin repeatedly exhibits the same traits in his Institutes.

But if none of these facts existed, 

They don’t exist: not in the sense that Calvin fallaciously and eisegetically presents them.

the one Epistle to the Galatians would easily remove all doubt, there being almost two chapters in which the whole for which Paul contends is, that in regard to the honour of the apostleship, he is the equal of Peter (Gal. 1:18; 2:8). 

Neither of these passages proves anything of the sort. The first says he went to visit Peter. If anything that shows a preeminence of Peter. In the verse before, he says he didn’t even visit the other apostles. Then he says he went to visit Peter for 15 days. All Galatians 2:8 says is that God worked through both Peter and Paul, in missions to the Jews and Gentiles, respectively. That proves nothing as to relative rank or position.

In Galatians 2:9 Paul was commissioned by James, Peter, and John, which implies that he was in subjection to them, not in an absolutely equal position, let alone superior position related to Peter or, for that matter, James and John. The same is evident at the Council of Jerusalem, where Peter takes the lead, and James has a certain presiding eminence, while Paul basically reports to the council like a field missionary coming in to report what has been accomplished on the mission field.

I’ve dealt with this whole business of a “Pauline primacy” at length in dialogue with a Protestant apologist who was also trying to undermine the authority of Peter, as Calvin is doing:



Hence he states, that he went to Peter, not to acknowledge subjection, but only to make their agreement in doctrine manifest to all; that Peter himself asked no acknowledgment of the kind, but gave him the right hand of fellowship, that they might be common labourers in the vineyard; that not less grace was bestowed on him among the Gentiles than on Peter among the Jews: in fine, that Peter, when he was not acting with strict fidelity, was rebuked by him, and submitted to the rebuke (Gal. 2:11). 

A rebuke for hypocrisy has nothing to do with rank, either, let alone doctrinal authority. I’ve dealt with this incident, too:

Jesus scathingly rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, yet right before doing this, He instructed His disciples that they had authority to teach:

Matthew 23:2-3 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

The hypocrisy rebuke from Paul to Peter proves nothing with regard to authority.

All these things make it manifest, either that there was an equality between Paul and Peter, or, at least, that Peter had no more authority over the rest than they had over him. This point, as I have said, Paul handles professedly, in order that no one might give a preference over him, in respect of apostleship, to Peter or John, who were colleagues, not masters.

I think the biblical evidence suggests quite otherwise, as shown. Let the reader make up his own mind.


(originally 5-21-09)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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