Vs. J. Engwer Re Church Authority, #1: Preliminaries

Vs. J. Engwer Re Church Authority, #1: Preliminaries October 12, 2023

Including St. Augustine on the Visible Catholic Church; St. Irenaeus on Church Infallibility; Biblical Data Regarding Infallibility & Indefectibility; Peter & the “Keys”; Jesus’ Prayer for St. Peter

[see book and purchase information]


Jason Engwer is a prolific Protestant anti-Catholic apologist and webmaster of the site, Tribalblogue. (where I have long since been banned). We used to dialogue, from 2000 to 2010. His words will be in blue.


This is my reply to his article, The Church, Authority, And Infallibility: (Part 1): Introduction [3-21-10].


When considering issues about the church and its authority and infallibility, keep the following in mind:

– The conclusion that God should give us an infallible church needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed on the basis of personal preference or allegedly unacceptable consequences of not having an infallible church, for example. How many modern advocates of church infallibility would have governed the world as God did prior to early church history, sometimes working through patriarchs or judges, other times working through prophets or small remnants, commanding Israel to be divided into two kingdoms, allowing the religious leaders at the time of the Messiah to be so wrong about the Messianic prophecies and how they responded to the Messiah, etc.? Philosophical presuppositions play a major role in modern arguments about church infallibility, and unjustified assumptions are often made about what God supposedly should do. If He didn’t govern the world as you think He should in earlier history, why think He’s following your standards now?
Fair enough. I’ve written about this general issue several times and in many ways. One Bible passage in particular is highly relevant:
1 Timothy 3:15 = Church Infallibility (vs. Steve Hays) [5-14-20]
The Jerusalem Council also highly suggests a hierarchical and infallible Church. See my many articles on that, on my Church web page. The following three 1000-page articles offer a good summary of all of my arguments in that regard:
Apostolic Succession as Seen in the Jerusalem Council [National Catholic Register, 1-15-17]
Were the Jerusalem Council Decrees Universally Binding? [National Catholic Register, 12-4-19]
I’ve also made several additional scriptural arguments in favor of the notion of infallibility:
Another biblical argument I would make is the constant emphasis (especially from St. Paul) on “the truth” and against any concept of relativizing or minimizing it. It’s common sense and straightforward logic to hold that Paul considered this “truth” (whatever it was, which can be argued, too) to be unassailable and infallible, and synonymous with apostolic tradition. Here is a compilation of Paul mentioning “truth”:

Romans 2:8 (RSV) but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

1 Corinthians 2:13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 4:2 We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

2 Corinthians 11:10 . . . the truth of Christ is in me . . .

2 Corinthians 13:8  For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.

Galatians 5:7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?

Ephesians 1:13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, (cf. 6:14)

Colossians 1:5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel

2 Thessalonians 2:10-13  and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.  But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 3:15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

1 Timothy 4:3    . . . those who believe and know the truth.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me . . . guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:18 who have swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already. . . .

2 Timothy 2:25 . . . God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth,

2 Timothy 3:7-8 who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;

2 Timothy 4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.

Titus 1:1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness, (cf. 1:14)

– The concept of an infallible church can be defined in many ways. An argument for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular as the infallible church, for example, would require argumentation that leads to the specific organization in question. As I noted in my 2008 article that originated my exchange with Dave Armstrong, if Protestants are going to be asked to defend a specific canon of scripture, then those who argue for an infallible church should be expected to defend something comparably specific. What we’ve gotten from Dave instead, as I’ve documented, is a vague appeal to apple seeds or mustard seeds to justify the oak tree of Roman Catholicism. The same sort of reasoning by which he derives prayers to the dead from Revelation 5:8 or his Catholic notion of apostolic succession from Papias is what leads him to his conclusions about church infallibility.

I have done this in many hundreds of articles on my Church, Papacy, Bible & Tradition, Church Fathers, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Development of Doctrine web pages. The statement here is so broad that I can’t possibly reply to it. I can only appeal to several hundred articles related to the issue. Once Jason gets more specific, we can discuss it with a particular focus and specificity. But he hasn’t replied to me since 2010, while I have continued to reply to him in many articles since 2020.

– If church infallibility is going to be defined as church perpetuity, meaning that the church won’t cease to exist, then many Protestants can be said to believe in the infallibility of the church in that sense. There are characteristics that an entity must have in order to be the church. Saying that there will always be an entity with those characteristics isn’t the same as saying that the church is sure to be correct on every issue or that it has Divine guidance in the specific manner claimed by a group like Roman Catholicism. Biblical and patristic passages on the perpetuity of the church are often cited in support of church infallibility, but such a concept of infallibility can be so broad as to include many Protestant views of the church. As I documented in my series on apostolic succession earlier this year, men like Irenaeus and Tertullian believed that a core set of doctrines defined Christian orthodoxy, doctrines such as monotheism and the resurrection. They didn’t include concepts like the veneration of images and the assumption of Mary. If somebody believes that there will always be a church that maintains such core doctrines, and that the church is infallible in the sense that it will always maintain those doctrines (otherwise it wouldn’t be the church), then such a concept of church infallibility isn’t equivalent to what a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox wants us to accept.

Here Jason is talking about the concept of indefectibility, which I have written about many times as well. See the section, “The Indefectibility of the Church” on my Church web page, and “Papal Infallibility, Supremacy, and Indefectibility” on my Papacy web page. Many Protestant denominations have obviously defected from passed-down Christian orthodoxy (hence, they have defected), since they have adopted theological liberalism and rejected many traditional Catholic doctrines and moral teachings.

For example, virtually every Protestant denomination accepts contraception, whereas none did so before 1930, and Luther and Calvin both thought it was murder. Most have endorsed divorce. All of the mainline denominations have endorsed legal abortion, and are now rapidly “normalizing” homosexual acts and so-called “marriages.” And that is just the moral issues. When we get to doctrine, many traditional Protestant doctrines (and many held in common with Catholics) have been rejected as well. But Catholicism is what it has always been, and whatever has developed, has maintained the same essence from the beginning (development of doctrine is not evolution).

– We have to allow for the possibility that an early source, such as a church father, was mistaken or even inconsistent in his reasoning on the subject. For example, the patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly noted that Augustine had a concept of a visible church and a concept of an invisible church, and Kelly concluded that Augustine was inconsistent in defining the two and never fully reconciled the two concepts (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], pp. 416-417). . . . 

As J.N.D. Kelly notes (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 412), Augustine’s dispute with the Donatists over their appeal to Cyprian represents three different ecclesiologies. Not only did Augustine and the Donatists define the church differently, but so did Cyprian. He partially agreed and partially disagreed with both sides of the dispute, which is why both Augustine and the Donatists appealed to him.

Catholics do not believe in “patristic infallibility.” Individual Church fathers could be and were in fact wrong on any number of topics, as later determined by orthodoxy, as defined by the Catholic magisterium. When they reach a consensus on an issue, their words are highly authoritative and relevant. The Catholic Church decides which doctrines era true or false, through its ecumenical councils and popes. But given denominationalism, Protestants disagree on hundreds of issues and have no way to resolve these conflicts.

As for St. Augustine and the visible / invisible Church, it’s a complex discussion (not given to brief summary), but nothing that Kelly describes about him in this regard contradicts Catholic teaching (or, I would argue, is even internal consistency in Augustine). We, too, believe in an elect group of those who will be saved in the end (see mentions of that in the Catechism). In the final analysis, it’s clear that Augustine thoroughly disagrees with Protestant ecclesiology. Kelly himself referred to “Augustine’s solution” which was that “this invisible fellowship of love’ is only to be found in the historical Catholic Church” (p. 416 in my HarperSanFrancisco 1978 edition). Kelly also wrote the following about Augustine’s ecclesiology and rule of faith (I provide Kelly’s full view of Augustine’s view of Church authority, whereas Jason alludes to one snippet with no direct citations):

According to him, the Church is the realm of Christ, His mystical body and His bride, the mother of Christians [Ep 34:3; Serm 22:9]. There is no salvation apart from it; . . . It goes without saying that Augustine identifies the Church with the universal Catholic Church of his day, with its hierarchy and sacraments, and with its centre at Rome . . . (Kelly, 412-413)

The three letters [Epistles 175-177] relating to Pelagianism which the African church sent to Innocent I in 416, and of which Augustine was the draughtsman, suggested that he attributed to the Pope a pastoral and teaching authority extending over the whole Church, and found a basis for it in Scripture. (Ibid., 419)

According to Augustine [De doct. christ. 3,2], its [Scripture’s] doubtful or ambiguous passages need to be cleared up by ‘the rule of faith’; it was, moreover, the authority of the Church alone which in his eyes [C. ep. Manich. 6: cf. De doct. christ. 2,12; c. Faust Manich, 22, 79] guaranteed its veracity. (Ibid., 47)

For Augustine the authority of ‘plenary councils’ was ‘most healthy’, [Ep. 54, 1] (Ibid., 48)

Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff adds that Augustine:

adopted Cyprian’s doctrine of the church, and completed it in the conflict with Donatism by transferring the predicates of unity, holiness, universality, exclusiveness and maternity, directly to the actual church of the time, which, with a firm episcopal organization, an unbroken succession, and the Apostles’ Creed, triumphantly withstood the eighty or the hundred opposing sects in the heretical catalogue of the day, and had its visible centre in Rome. (History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, Chapter X, section 180, “The Influence of Augustine upon Posterity and his Relation to Catholicism and Protestantism,” 1019-1020)

As I noted earlier with regard to Irenaeus, it’s understandable why he would have thought highly of the Roman church and other churches in his day. The churches had been largely faithful to apostolic teaching to that point in time, and they had been especially faithful on the core doctrines Irenaeus was emphasizing in his disputes with the Gnostics and other heretics. But, as I documented, people writing shortly after Irenaeus (Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.) began noting some significant problems with some of the churches Irenaeus had referred to, including the Roman church in particular, even on matters they considered foundational to Christianity. If somebody is anticipating the church’s future status partly or entirely on the basis of its past status, but we know from later church history that its status significantly changed over time, then we have to take that later history into account. If somebody like Irenaeus hasn’t experienced the Arian lapse, the rise of the veneration of images, or some other widespread contradiction of his theology that would occur in future generations, then his judgment might be distorted by what he had experienced. Maybe his judgment wasn’t distorted, and maybe he was allowing for the possibility of such widespread errors in the future (or would accept those later beliefs as corrections of his own beliefs), but we have to consider the possibility that he made a misjudgment based on his own experience. We can’t just assume, without evidence, that every church father who commented on a subject related to church authority or infallibility agreed on the subject and was passing down what had always been believed. We have to allow for the possibility of diversity of belief and the possibility that other factors influenced what these sources believed, as historians do when considering the history of other ideas as well. Just as we today can reach some false conclusions based on personal experience, the popular ideas of the culture of our age, or some other factor, so could the church fathers and other people who lived in earlier times.

Here, Jason plays his notorious, habitual “death by a thousand qualifications / cuts” and what I have called the “coulda woulda shoulda” card. In a nutshell, or bottom line, he argues that St. Irenaeus did not hold to a position of Catholic indefectibility, or else that if he did, we can’t know for sure, or know that he wouldn’t have changed his mind (because he lived prior to the Arian crisis, etc.). It’s Jason’s way of rationalizing when a Church father clearly differs with his Protestant ecclesiology. He starts questioning him up and down and being hyper-skeptical. Well, in my Chapter One of my book, Catholic Church Fathers: Patristic and Scholarly Proofs(Nov. 2007 / rev. Aug. 2013), entitled “The Bible, the Church, Tradition, and Apostolic Succession,” I devote 21 pages to St. Irenaeus’ views in this respect.

J. N. D. Kelly described St. Irenaeus’ view:

Indeed, the Church’s bishops are on his view Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’ (charisma veritatis certum [Ib. 4, 26, 2; cf. 4, 26, 5] ) (p. 37)

This is literally a statement of infallibility and indefectibility (both quite contrary to the Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura). Let’s look up the exact citations:

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth [charisma veritatis certum], according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. (IV, 26, 2; my bolding and italics)

Such presbyters does the Church nourish, of whom also the prophet says: I will give your rulers in peace, and your bishops in righteousness. Isaiah 60:17 Of whom also did the Lord declare, Who then shall be a faithful steward (actor), good and wise, whom the Lord sets over His household, to give them their meat in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his Lord, when He comes, shall find so doing. Matthew 24:45-46 Paul then, teaching us where one may find such, says, God has placed in the Church, first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers. 1 Corinthians 12:28 Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behooves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love [which we have] for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvellous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.(IV, 26, 5; my bolding and italics)

– We know that different patristic sources defined the church in significantly different ways, as I’ve documented in some of my earlier responses to Dave. The papacy, a foundational ecclesiological issue that separates Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups to this day, is an example. Robert Lee Williams writes:

“Irenaeus, in attacking Gnostic claims to spiritual, but not episcopal, authority, assumed the orthodoxy of bishops in Rome (Haer. 3.3.3). In the Refutation (9.12.15), however, the author [often thought to be Hippolytus] was confronted with [the Roman bishop] Callistus’s claim to episcopal authority without doctrinal orthodoxy. Appraising this situation, he declares that Callistus only ‘supposed’ that he had episcopal authority. In fact, he was ‘an imposter and knave’ with his ‘strange opinions.’ The decade preceding the writing of the Chronicle [of Julius Africanus] found presbyter-bishops in significant debate over acceptable beliefs for both ‘faith’ and ‘life.'” (Bishop Lists [Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005], p. 175)

Anglican scholar Leighton Pullan (1865-1940) wrote about the conflict between Pope St. Callistus I and St. Hippolytus:

When Pope Callistus, A.D. 218, offered to grant absolution to those who repented of adultery or fornication, he was bitterly criticised by Hippolytus and Tertulian. The Montanists, in particular, regarded absolution for such sins as a shameless condescension to human weakness. Callistus and his supporters appealed with great fitness to the action of St. Paul at Corinth, to Christ’s forgiveness of the adulteress, and to the parable of the prodigal son. Callistus had no intention of condoning sin, or even of granting absolution twice to the Christian who had fallen into such gross sins. (Early Christian Doctrine, New York: Edwin S. Gorham / Church Missions House, 3rd edition, 1905, p. 81)

Hippolytus was simply wrong, and Pope Callistus was right. Hippolytus, Tertullian, and others had fallen into the error of legalistic rigorism, which was contrary to the biblical teaching on related mercy and forgiveness and absolution, as Pullan rightly points out. As I noted above, individual Church fathers can be wrong about many things. The current task is to determine what the correct teaching — according to biblical guidelines — ought to be, which would apply both to patristic times and our own era (being timeless moral issues). People can always be found, who disagree with it. Forgiveness of a repentant sinner is, I submit, a no-brainer, and something where most Protestants and Catholics can — and ought to — agree.

– Church infallibility is considered an issue of major importance to Protestants because groups like Catholicism and Orthodoxy are so different than Protestantism. If a Protestant were to accept the infallibility claims of Catholicism, for example, then he would have to make many changes in faith and practice.

Exactly! That’s why many refuse to even study Catholicism due to this fear that it may be right, which would require changes in their beliefs and practices. This was one of my own biggest objections to Catholicism. I thought the claim was patently absurd. It’s much easier to simply follow the truth where one believes that it leads (we converts to Catholicism did that, in good conscience), and to not live in fear and avoidance. As I contended above, Church infallibility is a biblical teaching, before we even get to the Church fathers and the legitimate task of determining where the one true Church resides. Any denomination that spurns infallibility is already highly suspect on biblical grounds.

But what if we were to conclude that there’s an infallible church like the church referred to by Irenaeus and Tertullian, for instance?

Then the only feasible choices are Catholicism and Orthodoxy: not any form of Protestantism.

What if the church is to always be correct on core doctrines like monotheism and the resurrection, but can err on other matters?

That’s one of the games that Protestantism plays: this notion of primary and secondary doctrines, which is also unbiblical. See:

The Protestant “Non-Quest” for Certainty [3-15-06; abridged and links added on 7-12-20]

Bible vs. Denominationalism and Against “Primary / Secondary” Doctrines [8-18-06]

Radically Unbiblical Protestant “Quest for Uncertainty” [2-12-14]

“Reply to Calvin” #4: “Primary” & “Secondary” Doctrines [4-3-17]

The fact that so much is at stake in the dispute between Protestants and Catholics doesn’t prove that every concept of church infallibility would have such significant implications for a Protestant.

Protestants can choose to go their own way and be radically individualistic, or follow the actual biblical teachings and course of Church history, incorporating apostolic succession and an authoritative sacred tradition and Church. Any form of Protestantism, in my opinion, though all contain much truth, run into inexorable difficulties with Scripture and Church history (meaning, primarily, patristic teachings).

– What’s said of the church, or a church, is often said of other entities in other places in scripture or elsewhere in the church fathers. The fact that the church has a role like upholding the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) doesn’t imply that it’s infallible in that role, much less that it’s infallible in the specific manner claimed by a group such as Catholicism or Orthodoxy. 

Ah, but it does, as I argued (I think, rather strongly) in my article on this verse, linked above.

The Israelites had a role as God’s witnesses (Isaiah 43:10), every believer has a role as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14), the state has a role as a minister of God (Romans 13:4), etc., yet we don’t conclude that they’re infallible in those roles in a way similar to how the Roman Catholic Church claims to be infallible.

The prophets were certainly infallible. In fact, if they erred, it was under a penalty of death. That tended to identify and “weed out” the false prophets rather effectively.

Not only do Catholics and other advocates of church infallibility not apply their reasoning consistently to these other entities, but they aren’t even consistent in applying their reasoning to the church. In scripture and elsewhere, believers are often referred to as members of the body of Christ, yet a group like Catholicism will define church infallibility in such a way that it involves the actions of a particular church leader or group of church leaders acting without the approval, even without the knowledge, of believers in general. Why should references to the church in scripture and other sources be thought to be referring to the hierarchy of a particular denomination, but not to believers in general or even church leaders in general?

Because the Bible itself teaches a Church hierarchy, in, for example, the Jerusalem Council, in references to bishops and other church offices, and in how St. Peter is presented as the leader of early Christianity and first pope.

Often, a passage like Matthew 28:20 will be cited in support of church infallibility, as if the concept is implied by Jesus’ promise to be with His disciples. But no such interpretation is applied to God’s promise to be with Israel (Isaiah 43:1-7) or His promise to be with all believers (Hebrews 13:5). How do we get from Jesus’ promise to be with His original disciples to the conclusion that Roman Catholic clergymen are infallible under the specific circumstances in which they claim to be infallible? . . . 

When God promised that Israel would never be destroyed (Jeremiah 30:11, 31:35-37), was that promise kept by means of an organization like Roman Catholicism? What if God’s promise that His name would be in Jerusalem forever (2 Chronicles 33:4) had been said of Rome? What would Catholics make of such a promise? Ask yourself whether Catholics are being consistent in their interpretations.

I gave several related arguments above. As to Old Testament analogies, I wrote about that in one of my articles, too:

Dialogue with a Lutheran on Ecclesiology & Old Testament Indefectibility Analogies [11-22-11]

Here are some excerpts:

Here are the biblical arguments from St. Francis de Sales’ book, The Catholic Controversy, that caused me to revise my position on the indefectibility of the old covenant institutional religious system (passages: RSV; all comments are his own, except for a few of my bracketed interjections):

Exodus 32:26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.

Did not Aaron the High Priest adore the golden calf with all his people? [Protestant argument for complete defectibility] Answer: Aaron was not as yet High Priest, nor head of the people, but became so afterwards. And it is not true that all the people worshipped idols: — for were not the children of Levi men of God, who joined themselves to Moses? (pp. 60-61)

2 Chronicles 15:3 For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law;

Elijah lamented that he was alone in Israel (1 Ki 19:14) [“I, even I only, am left”]. Answer: Elijah was not the only good man in Israel, for there were seven thousand men who had not given themselves up to idolatry [1 Ki 19:18: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Ba’al”], and what the Prophet says here is only to express better the justice of his complaint. It is not true again that if all Israel had failed, the Church would have thereby ceased to exist, for Israel was not the whole Church. Indeed it was already separated therefrom by the schism of Jeroboam; and the kingdom of Judah was the better and principal part; and it is Israel, not Judah, of which Azarias predicted that it should be without priest and sacrifice. (p. 61)

Isaiah 1:4-6 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. [5] Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. [6] From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, . . .

. . . these are forms of speaking, and of vehemently detesting the vice of a people. And although the Prophets, pastors and preachers use these general modes of expression, we are not to understand them of each particular person, but only of a large proportion; as appears by the example of Elijah who complained that he was alone, notwithstanding that there were yet seven thousand faithful. [1 Ki 19:14, 18] S. Paul complains to the Philippians (2:21) that all seek their own interest and advantage; still at the end of the Epistle he acknowledges that there were many good people with him and with them. [4:10, 14-18] (p. 61) . . .

The Church is also obviously after Jesus, and He is with us as well, which makes it doctrinally protected all the more (Matthew 28:20: “I am with you always, to the close of the age”). . . .

The promises are unconditional. God will do what He promises regarding protection of the Church and her doctrine: “the powers of death shall not prevail against” the Church (Matt 16:18); period. It’s not based on obedience. God brings it to pass. End of story. “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20); no conditions again. It’s an absolute statement. God wills and declares and promises it, so it will happen, and cannot not happen.

Peter falters and denies Christ three times, but after he is filled with the Holy Spirit it is a different story. Jesus prays for him in a special way because he is the leader of the Church: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk 22:32); and indeed it doesn’t, after Pentecost. This is a type and shadow of papal infallibility, as is being given the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19): only given to Peter; and all the implications of that (rightly understood, in light of its OT precursors). All of this goes to show that your attempted analogy between old covenant disobedience and unfaithfulness and the Church (because of the greater protection of and promises to the Church), doesn’t fly. . . .

The difference in the new covenant is that God promises to protect the institutional system of the Church from error (“it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” — Acts 15:28: the Jerusalem Council). The Church is a far more spiritually advanced entity.

When Catholics cite the keys of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, do they apply the same sort of reasoning to other Biblical passages about keys (Isaiah 22:22, Matthew 23:13, Luke 11:52, Revelation 9:1, etc.)?

I’ve written at length about this matter of the “keys”:

No Papacy in the NT? Think Again (vs. Jason Engwer). With Special Emphasis on the Protestant Exegesis of “The keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19) [8-1-22]

Odd James White View Re Matthew 16:19 & the “Keys” [8-15-22]

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #20: St. Peter the Rock; Hades; Peter & the Keys; Peter’s Betrayal & Jesus’ Prayer for His Faith; One Church vs. Denominationalism; Baptism in Acts [5-30-23]

I also addressed this way back in 1996: by which time I had finished my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. It includes the following:

Matthew 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .

Isaiah 22:20-22 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, . . . and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Revelation 3:7 [Christ describing Himself]:. . . the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.

The power of the “keys,” in the Hebrew mind, had to do with administrative authority and ecclesiastical discipline, and, in a broad sense, might be thought to encompass the use of excommunication, penitential decrees, a barring from the sacraments and lesser censures, and legislative and executive functions. Like the name “rock,” this privilege was bestowed only upon St. Peter and no other disciple or Apostle. He was to become God’s “vice-regent,” so to speak. (25) In the Old Testament, a steward was a man over a house (Genesis 43:19, 44:4, 1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, 18:3, 2 Kings 10:5 15:5 18:18, Isaiah 22:15). The steward was also called a “governor” in the Old Testament and has been described by commentators as a type of “prime minister.”

In the New Testament, the two words often translated as “steward” are oikonomos (Luke 16:2-3, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 4:10), and epitropos (Matthew 20:8, Galatians 4:2). Several Protestant commentaries and dictionaries take the position that Christ is clearly hearkening back to Isaiah 22:15-22 when He makes this pronouncement, and that it has something to do with delegated authority in the Church He is establishing (in the same context). (26) He applies the same language to Himself in Revelation 3:7 (cf. Job 12:14), so that his commission to Peter may be interpreted as an assignment of powers to the recipient in His stead, as a sort of authoritative representative or ambassador.

The “opening” and “shutting” (in Isaiah 22:2) appear to refer to a jurisdictional power which no one but the king (in the ancient kingdom of Judah) could override. Literally, it refers to the prime minister’s prerogative to deny or allow entry to the palace, and access to the king. In Isaiah’s time, this office was over three hundred years old, and is thought to have been derived by Solomon from the Egyptian model of palace functionary, or the Pharaoh’s “vizier,” who was second in command after the Pharaoh. This was exactly the office granted to Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41:40-44, 45:8). (27)

The symbol of keys always represented authority in the Middle East. This standpoint comes down to us in our own culture when we observe mayors giving an honored visitor the “key to the city.” The reputable Commentary on the Whole Bible (1864), by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, a Protestant work, expounds Isaiah 22:15,22 as follows:

[The steward is] the king’s friend, or principal officer of the court (1 Kings 4:5; 18:3; 1 Chronicles27:33, the king’s counsellor) . . .

Keys are carried sometimes in the East hanging from the kerchief on the shoulder. But the phrase is rather figurative for sustaining the government on one’s shoulders. Eliakim, as his name implies, is here plainly a type of the God-man Christ, the son of “David,” of whom Isaiah (ch. 9:6) uses the same language as the former clause of this verse [and the government will be upon his shoulder]. (28)

One can confidently conclude, therefore, that when Old Testament usage and the culture of the hearers is closely examined, the phrase keys of the kingdom of heaven must have great significance (for Peter and for the papacy) indeed, all the more so since Christ granted this honor only to St. Peter.


25. J. D. Douglas, editor, The New Bible Dictionary (NBD), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, p. 1018.

26. Ibid., pp. 1018, 1216; Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary (NBC), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 3rd edition, 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary],  pp. 603, 837; R. T. France, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, p. 256; Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, 2nd revised edition, 1962. Cullmann describes Peter as Jesus’ “superintendent.” The ecumenical work Peter in the New Testament [Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried and John Reumann, editors, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House / New York: Paulist Press, 1973], also espouses the same view (pp. 96-97).

27. See Stanley Jaki, The Keys of the Kingdom, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986, pp. 27-28.

28. Robert Jamieson, Andrew R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1961 (originally 1864) [Fausset and Brown were Anglicans, Brown Presbyterian], p. 536.

The same Catholic who sees so much significance in Peter’s “strengthening the brethren” in Luke 22:32 doesn’t see as much significance in other passages in which other people “strengthen the brethren” (Acts 14:22, 15:32, Romans 16:25).

I dealt with this in a reply to Jason’s mentor, the late Steve Hays:

[Hays] Peter is singled out, not because he outranks the other disciples, but because he will betray Jesus. The prayer anticipates his denial. Jesus prays for Peter’s restoration in advance of his betrayal. [p. 319]

I see. Well, Jesus also said about the disciples as a group (John was the only exception):

Matthew 26:31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (cf. Mk 14:27)

John 16:32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; . . .

According to Hays’ reasoning above, Jesus would have had to pray for all the disciples (save John), who would “fall away” and be “scattered” and “leave” Him “alone” when He was led away to His trial and passion and crucifixion. But He only prays for Peter (and I believe this is the only time the NT shows Him praying individually for a disciple, by name). We believe He did because Peter was the Rock, and he had to repent in order to fulfill his duties as the first leader and pope of the new Christian Church that Jesus built upon him. The “strengthen your brethren” implies (or is at the very least consistent with) this leadership. In other words, Peter was so important that the NT made it a point to show how Jesus prayed for him to have the strength to perform his ministry.

– If an advocate of church infallibility is going to claim that his group is infallible and has existed throughout church history, then we ought to ask whether early sources like the church fathers interpreted scripture the same way that modern advocate of church infallibility does. For example, as the Eastern Orthodox patristic scholar John McGuckin notes regarding one of the most commonly cited passages on church authority:

“It is often said that the meeting of the apostles (Acts 15) to discuss whether circumcision was required of Gentile converts was the primary model of the church’s practice of leaders’ meetings for debate and resolution of problems, but the example of the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ is not alluded to in patristic writing until the fifth century. It is more likely that the Hellenistic world (organized as a chain of cities in dependence on the emperor) provided a ready example of the necessity of provincial leaders to establish common policies by meetings of town councils and occasions when delegates could represent the town to the provincial governor concerning regular fiscal and political affairs.” (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 77)

Whether the Jerusalem Council was referred to or not in the Church fathers in the first four centuries (St. John Chrysostom [c. 345-407] did comment on it at length, in his Homily 33 on Acts) is an interesting point, yet it carries no force against the inspired biblical example of that council. We can safely say that everything in God’s revelation, the Bible, is present for a good reason, ultimately known and determined by God. Many things in Christianity (including the Holy Trinity and Christology and the canon of the Bible) took as many as four to seven centuries to be fully developed and understood.

Here was the first gathering of the “apostles and elders” in council, determining a serious point of contention in the Church. Clearly, that has to have relevance for the future governance of the Church, whoever wrote or didn’t write about it (as a model or example) for the first four centuries.

Similarly, if a church father says that the words applied to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 can be applied to all Christians (Origen, Commentary On Matthew, 12:10-11) or that passages like Titus 1:5-7 equate presbyters and bishops before the later rise of the monepiskopos, for example, then modern arguments about the church have to be weighed in light of such interpretations.

Patristic opinions that dissent from the consensus can always be found. That’s neither here nor there.

It’s not enough to cite what a source said in one place, in support or apparent support of a high church ecclesiology, while ignoring qualifications he added elsewhere. A church father who speaks highly of Peter, bishops, councils, or the church in general at one point may add significant qualifications at another point. Those qualifications may contradict the interpretation an advocate of high church ecclesiology wants to read into the first passage.

I have cited a lot more from the fathers than Jason, in accord with my patristic research: three books (one / two / three) collecting their writings, adding up to 832 pages, and a huge Fathers of the Church web page. I also habitually cite patristic scholars summarizing what individual fathers believe. So I try my best to do what he calls for.



Practical Matters: Perhaps some of my 4,500+ free online articles (the most comprehensive “one-stop” Catholic apologetics site) or fifty-three books have helped you (by God’s grace) to decide to become Catholic or to return to the Church, or better understand some doctrines and why we believe them.
Or you may believe my work is worthy to support for the purpose of apologetics and evangelism in general. If so, please seriously consider a much-needed financial contribution. I’m always in need of more funds: especially monthly support. “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18, NKJV). 1 December 2021 was my 20th anniversary as a full-time Catholic apologist, and February 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of my blog.
PayPal donations are the easiest: just send to my email address: apologistdave@gmail.com. You’ll see the term “Catholic Used Book Service”, which is my old side-business. To learn about the different methods of contributing, including 100% tax deduction, etc., see my page: About Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong / Donation InformationThanks a million from the bottom of my heart!

Summary: I debate several points about patristic & biblical views of Church authority with evangelical anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer. I provide far more documentation.


"1) About high Christology, some evangelicals complain about the scene with Nicodemus in Season 1 ..."

“The Chosen”: Best Cinematic Gospel Ever
"Definitely, The Passion is one of the three best. But of course it only deals ..."

“The Chosen”: Best Cinematic Gospel Ever
"The series, so far as I have watched (I am only on Season Two, 4th ..."

“The Chosen”: Best Cinematic Gospel Ever
"“1) Eastern non-Latin or non-Catholic Christians possessed seven valid sacraments, including ordination.”Just because they possessed ..."

Catholicism & Non-Catholic Salvation (vs. Gavin ..."

Browse Our Archives