“Catholic Verses” #9: The Papacy

“Catholic Verses” #9: The Papacy November 2, 2023

[see book and purchase information for The Catholic Verses]

“excatholic4christ” (Tom) was raised Catholic, lost his faith in high school, attended Mass for a while after he married and had children, and then “accepted Jesus Christ” as his Savior, leading to his sole attendance at an independent fundamental Baptist church for eight years. He claims that the “legalism” of this church and the fact that his “trust had been in men rather than God” caused him to “walk away from the Lord for 23 years.” He “returned to the Lord” in 2014. As of April 2020, Tom stated that he was “somewhere in the middle of the Calvinism-Arminianism debate,” but “closer to Calvinism.” I couldn’t determine his denomination. See Tom’s index of all of his replies. I will systematically refute them. His words will be in blue. When he cites my words, they will be in black. I use RSV, unless otherwise specified.


This is a reply to Tom’s article, Papal Authority and Succession? (10-8-23).

Citing the two passages below, Armstrong argues for “St. Peter as the rock and possessor of the keys of the kingdom”:

Matthew 16:18-19 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Isaiah 22:20-22 “In that day I will call my servant Eli′akim the son of Hilki′ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; 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.”

Directly beneath the two passages, Armstrong writes, “Many Protestants are uncomfortable with Matthew 16:18-19, first because of its extraordinary implications for St. Peter’s preeminence as the supreme earthly head of the Church, or Pope, which he was appointed by our Lord Jesus himself….Furthermore, the passage also expresses indefectibility: the idea that the (institutional, historical) Church founded by Jesus can never be overcome by the powers of darkness; that it will always preserve the true Christian teaching handed down by Jesus to the Apostles.” – pp. 55-56

In its efforts to bolster its claims regarding the alleged supremacy of the bishop of Rome, the pope, Roman Catholicism had to scour Scripture looking for validating proof texts. They found their primary “evidence” in Matthew 16:18-19.

Catholic apologists argue that the passage teaches that Jesus promised to build his church upon the apostle, Peter, who they claim was the first bishop of Rome, but Protestants disagree. In the original Greek text, the word used for Peter is “petros,” which means a small stone or pebble, while the word used for rock is “petra,” which means a massive rock formation. Jesus was using a play on words to indicate that while Simon was an insecure, rolling pebble, the truth that he had proclaimed, that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah and Savior, would be the massive, unmoveable truth that would be the bedrock foundation of the church.

Many reputable Protestant commentators recognize that Peter is indeed the rock, upon which Jesus Christ would build His Church, and that all the relevant data considered together teaches us that Peter had extraordinary authority, and by logical extension, so would his successors, the popes. These include New Bible Dictionary, Word Studies in the New Testament (Marvin Vincent), Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Bible Commentary, Anchor Bible (William F. Albright and C. S. Mann), Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (R. T. France), Expositor’s Bible Commentary (D. A. Carson), Eerdmans Bible Commentary, Henry Alford, Herman N. Ridderbos, Albert Barnes, David Hill, M. Eugene Boring, William Hendriksen, John A. Broadus, Carl Friedrich Keil, Gerhard Kittel, Oscar Cullmann, Peake’s Commentary, Gerhard Maier, J. Knox Chamblin, Craig L. Blomberg, William E. McCumber, Donald A. Hagner,  Philip Schaff, Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: The Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 8, The Layman’s Bible CommentaryEncyclopaedia Britannica (1985; article by D. W. O’Connor, a Protestant), Robert McAfee Brown, and Richard Baumann. For much more on this, see:

Primacy of St. Peter Verified by Protestant Scholars [1994]

The Papacy and Infallibility: Keys of the Kingdom [9-16-93; rev. May 1996]

Protestant Scholars on Matthew 16:16-19 (Nicholas Hardesty) [9-4-06]

D. A. Carson, a highly respected Protestant exegete, observed:

[I]f 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 . . . 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 . . . (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)

F. F. Bruce, one of the most famous and reputable Protestant Bible scholars, wrote:

The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or majordomo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him. 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 . . . . (Isaiah 22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward. (The Hard Sayings of Jesus [Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity, 1983], 143-144)

The Anchor Bible (William F. Albright and C. S. Mann) opined:

In view of the background of verse 19 . . . one must dismiss as confessional interpretation [i.e., biased by denominational views] 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. (Garden City, New  York: Doubleday, 1971, vol. 26, 195, 197-198)

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1985) added:

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. (D. W. O’Connor, the author of the article, is himself Protestant and author of Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturqical & Archaeological Evidence [1969] )

Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (R. T. France) concurs:

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. (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)

As to whether there can be two “rocks” of the Church — Jesus and Peter — I addressed that, in my article, Can Christ & Peter Both be “Rocks”? [4-21-22].

But Protestants are not the only ones who correctly exegete this passage. Church “fathers,” Augustine, Chrysostom, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril also interpreted Matthew 16:18-19 to mean that Jesus was going to build His church upon the truth proclaimed by Peter; that He was the long-awaited Messiah and Savior.

That’s fine. It has no bearing on the Catholic position. The fathers had all sorts of views in interpreting the Bible. They’re not infallible, nor do they carry binding authority in the Catholic system.  The consensus today (even among Protestant commentators) is that Peter, not his confession, was the Rock. Any given position is only as good as the arguments made in favor of it.

Tom cites St. Augustine, writing that the Rock was Peter’s confession. But elsewhere Augustine uses the phrases, “Peter the Rock” (On the Christian Conflict, 32) and “Peter, that Rock” (Lectures on the Gospel of John, 11, 5). And he certainly regarded him as the leader of the early Church as a whole (i.e., the first pope):

But that after this sin Peter should become a pastor of the Church was no more improper than that Moses, after smiting the Egyptian, should become the leader of the congregation. (Against Faustus the Manichee, xxii, 70)

For who can be ignorant that the primacy of his apostleship is to be preferred to any episcopate whatever?  (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, ii, 1, 2)

As always, Augustine is a Catholic, or perhaps we could use the phrase, “far closer to present-day Catholicism than to Protestantism”.

But an even more convincing case against Catholicism’s misinterpretation is Scripture itself. As in most cases with God’s Word, one passage of Scripture clarifies another and that is the case for Matthew 16. Just four chapters later we find:

Matthew 20:20-28 “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

This poses no problem whatsoever for the Catholic doctrine of the papacy, since we see at the end that Jesus Himself came to “serve” (thanks to Tom for providing the answer in his own retort!). He called the disciples His “friends” (Jn 15:13-15) and when He was young, He was “obedient” to Joseph and Mary (Lk 2:51). Does that mean, then, that Jesus wasn’t Lord and Savior, because all these terms of seeming equality or even subjection are applied to Him? No; likewise, with Peter. The leader can and should serve those whom he leads. Servanthood is not inconsistent with being a leader or above others in some way. Hence, St. Paul, who was certainly a huge leader in the early Church, too, wrote: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5; cf. 8:23; 11:8; 3 Jn 1:5).

If Jesus had already granted apostolic primacy to Peter in Matthew 16 as Catholics claim, then why would James and John have requested apostolic primacy in Matthew 20? Does not compute. If Catholics are right, James and John would not have bothered to request apostolic primacy as they had.

They weren’t talking about being “apostolic” leaders in this life, but rather, prominent in the next life. But their attitude was wrong, which is why Jesus rebuked them.

We see in the passage that Jesus gently rebukes James and John for their ambition and also forbids the Catholic notions of apostolic primacy and an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

He does no such thing, as I showed in my comment on servanthood. Tom is reading into the passage what isn’t there (eisegesis). Far from denying anecclesiastical hierarchy”, Jesus  clearly presupposes that Peter is the leader, in saying to Him, “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15) and “Tend my sheep” (21:16) and “Feed my sheep” (21:17). That’s the clear imagery of shepherds of sheep, as a metaphor of leaders in the Church who shepherd the faithful.

The Old Testament confirms this understanding: “. . . a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (Num 27:16-17). God called King Saul the “shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Sam 5:2; cf. 1 Chr 11:2), and said the same about the prior judges (2 Sam 7:7; cf. 1 Chr 17:6). This is not inconsistent with David saying, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1), because both things are simultaneously true, as the Bible clearly indicates. God is the Ultimate Shepherd (Ps 80:1; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15), and bishops and other clergy are the human-level shepherds (Jer 3:15; 23:4). 

Hierarchy involves bishops and pope. Paul talks about bishops being leaders, in stating that they function “as God’s steward” (Titus 1:7) and must be “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (1:9). The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 was a clear indication of hierarchy and leadership in the Church, as I have written about in two past installments in this series. Peter’s leadership and primacy is indicated in the Bible at least fifty times.

Further, in the apostle Paul’s epistles, not only is there NO mention of Peter’s alleged primacy – zero, zip, zilch, nada – 

Galatians 1:18-19 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. [19] But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

There was a reason he visited Peter alone for fifteen days, and then other leaders (functioning as bishops): James (1:19), and James with John and Peter (Gal 2:9). The three decided to extend to Paul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal 2:9), which certainly implies that they were in a superior office to him in some fashion. And this is why he specifically went to them: to legitimize his ministry in the eyes of the Church. If you want to play an important role in any given group, you go right to the top.

Peter was certainly a leader of the apostles and was used by God to spread the Gospel, but he was not the pope or the foundation of Jesus’ church.

I have abundantly shown above that he indeed was that.

Regarding the other claims Armstrong makes with these passages, Jesus states only two chapters later that the keys of the kingdom, the authority to bind and loose, were given not just to Peter, but to all of Christ’s disciples:

“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18

All that proves is that Peter had the gift in a preeminent sense, and the others in a secondary sense. “Both/and” once again.

What is the power to bind and loosen? As caretakers of the Gospel, the apostles and disciples were charged to spread the Good News throughout the world by which Heaven would be opened to all those who trusted in Christ.

That’s not what it meant. Binding and loosing were technical rabbinical terms meaning, respectively, to forbid and permit, with regard to interpretations of Jewish Law. In secondary usage, they also could mean condemn and acquit. This power is also given to the Apostles in Matthew 18:17-18, where it apparently refers particularly to discipline and excommunication in local jurisdictions (whereas Peter’s commission seems to apply to the universal Church). In John 20:23 it is also granted to the Apostles (in a different terminology, which suggests the power to impose penance and grant indulgences and absolution). Generally speaking, binding and loosing usually meant the prerogative to formulate Christian doctrine and to require allegiance to it, as well as to condemn heresies which were opposed to the true doctrine (Jude 3).

See, for example, Protestant works: Allen C. Myers, editor, Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987 [English revision of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, edited by W. H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J. H. Kok, revised edition, 1975], translated by Raymond C. Togtman and Ralph W. Vunderink, p. 158; D. Guthrie, and J. A. Motyer, editors, The New Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 3rd edition, 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary], p. 837; France, ibid., p. 256.

Marvin Vincent writes:

No other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic canon-law than those of binding and loosing. They represented the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office. These powers Christ now transferred, . . . in their reality, to his apostles; the first, here, to Peter, as their representative, the second, after his resurrection, to the church (John 20:23) . . . (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1946 [originally 1887], 4 volumes, vol. 1, 96)

Only Peter was given the “keys to the kingdom” (Mt 16:19). 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. (J. D. Douglas, editor, The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, p. 1018.) 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). [Douglas, ibid., pp. 1018, 1216; Guthrie, ibid., pp. 603, 837; France, ibid., p. 256; Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, 2nd revised edition, 1962, pp. 183-184 in 1952 French edition. Cullmann describes Peter as Jesus’ “superintendent.” ] 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). (See Stanley Jaki, The Keys of the Kingdom, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986, pp. 27-28).

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 Chronicles 27:33, 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]. (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)

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.

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Summary: Tom tries to run down every biblical indication of the papacy, but I run rings around him, Scripture- and history-wise. He’s way over his head in this area, as usual.

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