Biblical Arguments for the Papacy: Reply to Gavin Ortlund

Biblical Arguments for the Papacy: Reply to Gavin Ortlund March 12, 2024

Including Gavin’s Exceptionally Ecumenical & Irenic Statements About the Catholic Church & Catholics

Dr. Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Baptist author, speaker, pastor, scholar, and apologist for the Christian faith. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. Gavin is the author of seven books as well as numerous academic and popular articles. For a list of publications, see his CV. He runs the very popular YouTube channel Truth Unites, which seeks to provide an “irenic” voice on theology, apologetics, and the Christian life. See also his website, Truth Unites and his blog.

In my opinion, he is currently the best and most influential popular-level Protestant apologist, who (especially) interacts with and offers thoughtful critiques of Catholic positions, from a refreshing ecumenical (not anti-Catholic), but nevertheless solidly Protestant perspective. That’s what I want to interact with, so I have issued many replies to Gavin and will continue to do so. I use RSV for all Bible passages unless otherwise specified.

All of my replies to Gavin are collected on the top of my Calvinism & General Protestantism web page in the section, “Replies to Reformed Baptist Gavin Ortlund.” Gavin’s words will be in blue.

This is my 25th reply to his material.


I will be responding to roughly the first half of Gavin’s video, “Why I Don’t Accept The Papacy” (1-1-21).

0:43 Let me just say at the beginning here — because I’m going to be criticizing Roman Catholic theology — I want to start off by saying several things that I admire about my Roman Catholic friends and about the Catholic tradition. . . . “irenic” means aiming for peace and that is really important to me now. Irenicism doesn’t mean that we don’t contend for truth  . . . I think arguing for truth is really healthy, but it’s really important to me to have these conversations in as peaceable a way as possible. Part of that is just the state of dialogue in our culture right now. I think those of us who are followers of Christ need to model something better . . . I think that’s what the gospel calls us to do. . . . I need to be gracious and I need to be kind because of what God has done for me . . . I know I talk about that a lot, but it’s not just sort of a stylistic thing for me or icing on the cake . . . First Corinthians 13 says without love we’re a “resounding cymbal or clanging gong.” Love is essential for these conversations. I really believe that. 

Amen! I appreciate this very much, and I’m sure many Catholics do.  So often critiques of Catholicism and/or Catholics (and vice versa) are done in a spirit of both ignorance and (usually also) malice and hostility. Well done! I’ve always thought, too, that we can and should have these theological discussions in a jovial, mutually respective manner, and learn from each other, while we are also defending our own views and critiquing the other side’s position. I have sought to use the same approach in my 27 years online, and before. So it’s refreshing to see this. Music to my ears . . .

2:39 Catholics — generally speaking (obviously these are generalizations) —  do better than Protestants [in] philosophy and logic; especially in the Thomist tradition, and a lot of evangelicals are kind of iffy on philosophy, which is unfortunate. Number two [and three]: literature and the arts. Almost all [of] my favorite writers are Catholic: Malcolm Muggeridge,  G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers [she was actually Anglican], J. R. R. Tolkien, many others; architecture and liturgy and . . . the aesthetics of worship. Not all Protestants are bad at that, but many are. Number four: history and Latin. Latin is my favorite language, . . . and number five: social and political philosophy and even certain areas of moral philosophy . . . whatever you think about the Roman Catholic view on contraception, they’ve thought about that way more than many evangelicals have, and I admire their consistency and I admire [the fact] that they don’t just move with the times. 

Excellent. Returning the “favor,” I would point to my own articles, My Respect for Protestants / Catholic Ecumenical Principles [2001; addendum: 1-8-03] ,Gratefulness for My Evangelical Protestant Background [3-18-08], and What I Like About Calvinism and Calvinists [June 2009].

3:41 I don’t know if it’s weird to mention those things, but I’m just trying to be as productive as possible in the way we talk about these things.

5:44 the main text I think that is at play when we’re talking about the papacy is Matthew 16. And the thing that’s been so helpful for me
6:32 one of the big questions is what is this rock? Is it Peter as a person or in his office, [or] is it the confession Peter just made or is it Jesus, and then if it’s Peter, is it Peter in such a way that could support the doctrine of the papacy or something that would get you to the doctrine of the papacy
In my many treatments of this topic, I have cited many Protestants in support of Peter being the Rock. This is believed by a remarkable number of eminent Protestant exegetes and reference sources, including 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 Commentary, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1985; article by D. W. O’Connor, a Protestant), Robert McAfee Brown, and Richard Baumann.
If we want to look at the claim that Jesus’ phrase “keys of the kingdom” has Isaiah 22 in mind, the following Protestants agree with that: W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Roland de Vaux, Craig S. Keener, M. Eugene Boring, The Interpreter’s Bible, S. T. Lachs, R. T. France, Ralph Earle (Beacon Bible Commentary), J. Jeremias, F. F. Bruce, Oscar Cullman, New Bible Dictionary, T. W. Manson, Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Martin Luther, New Bible Commentary.
F. F. Bruce, perhaps the most famous and well-regarded of the above group, 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)

If the argument is indeed so weak, as Gavin thinks, why do so many Protestant scholars agree with key and essential elements of it? They may deny papal succession, but that is a separate discussion. I think they have inadequate reasons to deny the succession and that it follows logically from Petrine primacy.

6:57 you need infallible teaching coming from this office 

Acts 15:28: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That’s not only infallible; it’s inspired. Peter was the key figure at the council. After “there had been much debate” (15:7), Peter spoke about how God revealed to him the inclusion of the Gentiles and stated, “by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel” (15:7). And he led because God had given him — as the leader — a vision, described a few chapters earlier. When he was done the text says, “And all the assembly kept silence” (15:12). Then James the bishop of Jerusalem, acting in effect as master of ceremonies, says, “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles” (15:14) and “with this the words of the prophets agree” (15:15). He adds nothing to Peter’s declaration; he only reiterated it. The “apostles and elders” worked together in the council with Peter, just as ecumenical councils function. Paul then went out and proclaimed the decree of the Jerusalem Council far and wide (Acts 16:4).

7:02 among the Church fathers you have all three of those major views represented: that the rock is Jesus, that the rock is Peter, [and] that the rock is Peter’s confession, and then what’s so interesting is you have a lot of hybrid views where it’s some combination thereof. And when we get into that we need to be asking what’s the logical relationship between these, so if it’s both Peter and Jesus how is that the case; how is it both of them and why is it both of them?

Jesus is the ultimate leader of the Church, of course, but Peter is the human leader on earth, who has successors. See my paper, Can Christ & Peter Both be “Rocks”? [4-21-22]. Gavin then mentions different views among the Church fathers concerning who the “rock” is. I would make note of two of the most respected Protestant exegetes of our time:

R. T. France wrote:
Jesus now sums up Peter’s significance in a name, Peter . . . 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 . . . (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)
D. A. Carson, another 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)

Here are fourteen explicit examples of Church fathers calling Peter the rock (one could also say that he was the rock based on his confession of faith; but nevertheless, he was the rock upon which the Church was established; that both things were true; also that Jesus was the rock, too, but in a different sense):

Tertullian, writing around 200-220, stated that “Peter . . . is called the Rock whereon the Church was to be built” (Prescription against Heretics, 22).

Origen writing around 230-250, called Peter “that great foundation of the Church, and most solid rock, upon which Christ founded the Church” (In Exod. Hom. v. n. 4, tom. ii) and “Upon him (Peter)  . . . the Church was founded” (In Epist. ad Rom. lib. v. c. 10, tom. iv) and “Peter upon whom is built Christ’s Church” (T. iv. In Joan. Tom. v.).

St. Cyprian, c. 246, wrote about “Peter, upon whom by the same Lord the Church had been built” (Epistle 54 to Cornelius, 7).

Firmilian, c. 254, wrote about “one Church, which was once first established by Christ on a Rock” (Inter Ep. S. Cyp. Ep. lxxv).

Aphraates (c. 336) stated that “the Lord . . . set him up as the foundation, called him the rock and structure of the Church” (Homily 7:15, De Paenitentibus).

St. Ephraem (c. 350-370) called Peter “the foundation of the holy Church” (Homilies 4:1).

St. Hilary of Poitiers in 360 held that Peter was “the foundation-stone of the Church” (On the Trinity, Bk. VI, 20).

St. Gregory of Nazianzen (370) stated that Peter “is entrusted with the Foundations of the Church” (T. i. or. xxxii. n. 18).

St. Gregory of Nyssa (371) wrote that Peter was “the Head of the Apostles . . . (upon him) is the Church of God firmly established. . . . that unbroken and most firm Rock upon which the Lord built His Church” (Alt. Or. De S. Steph.).

St. Basil the Great (371) stated that Peter “received on himself the building of the Church” (Adversus Eunomius 2:4).

St. Epiphanius (c. 385): “upon which (Rock) the Church is in every way built . . . Foundation of the house of God” (Adv. Haeres.).

St. Ambrose (c. 385-389): “whom when He styles a Rock, He pointed out the Foundation of the Church” (T. ii. l. iv. De Fide, c. v. n. 56).

St. John Chrysostom (c. 387): “Head or Crown of the Apostles, the First in the Church . . . that unbroken Rock, that firm Foundation, the Great Apostle, the First of the disciples” (T. ii. Hom. iii. de Paenit. n. 4).

St. Jerome (385): “Peter, upon whom the Lord has founded the Church” (Letters 41, 2).

St. Augustine got this wrong, as Gavin noted. We don’t regard Church fathers as infallible.

10:13 there’s many other passages that identify Jesus as the rock on which the church is built

Yes, because He’s God. I cited five of these passages in my paper about there being two “Rocks”. It doesn’t preclude an earthly leader. Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd. Does that mean there are no pastors (“shepherds”) because Jesus is the Ultimate One? No. The Bible doesn’t employ false dichotomies and the “either/or” approach that Protestants do. Christians were called “living stones” by Peter in 1 Peter 2:5.  Paul writes about “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20).

Thus, “apostles and prophets” being the foundation doesn’t contradict Jesus also being the foundation.  Then we come back to the question of, “who was the foremost apostle”? In terms of leadership, Peter was, because Jesus commissioned Him by name, even changing his name to symbolize this leadership, and made him the preeminent human foundation of the Church. We are “co-workers” with God (“we are God’s fellow workers”: 1 Cor 3:9; “Working together with him”: 2 Cor 6:1; “the Lord worked with them”: Mk 16:20).

Gavin mentioned that Epiphanius thought the rock was Peter’s confession (10:34), but I just showed above how he thought Peter was the rock, too (both things can be true, because they don’t exclude each other). The fathers thought in biblical and Hebraic “both/and” terms. They didn’t think like Greek rationalists.

10:42  when people go that route they almost always identify Peter as the rock because of his confession

Yes, of course they do, because that is what the passage strongly implies. Peter proclaimed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Then Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” (Mt 16:17). Then Jesus told him, “you are Peter [“Rock”], and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). It looks — at least prima facie — like Peter was made the rock upon whom the Church was built because he exhibited the sort of faith that the leader of the Church would necessarily have to have. Both things are true. We don’t have to choose. So if so many fathers highlighted his faith, and so many focused on Peter himself, both were right! And those who say that Jesus is the rock are also right; but that is expressed in other passages, not this one.

Moreover, we see Peter exercising his role as leader in the early Church, after Pentecost. Now that He had received the indwelling Holy Spirit, he could really fulfill his role as Jesus intended, with power and zeal: Peter is regarded by the Jews (Acts 4:1-13) as the leader and spokesman of Christianity, and by the common people in the same way (Acts 2:37-41; 5:15). Peter’s words are the first recorded and most important in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:15-22). He takes the lead in calling for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:22). He’s the first person to speak (and only one recorded) after Pentecost, so he was the first Christian to “preach the gospel” in the Church era (Acts 2:14-36). This sermon contained a fully authoritative interpretation of Scripture, a doctrinal decision and a disciplinary decree concerning members of the “House of Israel” (2:36) – an example of “binding and loosing.” He works the first miracle of the Church Age, healing a lame man (Acts 3:6-12). He utters the first anathema (Ananias and Sapphira) emphatically affirmed by God (Acts 5:2-11).

His shadow works miracles (Acts 5:15). 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). He is the object of the first divine interposition on behalf of an individual in the Church Age (an angel delivers him from prison – Acts 12:1-17). The whole Church (strongly implied) offers “earnest prayer” for Peter when he is imprisoned (Acts 12:5). He’s the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24). Peter is the first to preach Christian repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). He takes the lead in the first recorded mass baptism (Acts 2:41). He commanded the first Gentile Christians to be baptized (Acts 10:44-48). He was the first traveling missionary, and first exercised what would now be called “visitation of the churches” (Acts 9:32-38, 43).

If all of that doesn’t indicate that he was the leader, what in the world would prove it, pray tell? The Catholic view harmonizes perfectly with the biblical data. The Bible clearly presents him as both the leader of the disciples and of the early Church. St. Paul’s the foremost evangelist and theologian. But he’s not leading the entire Church (in terms of an office) as Peter did. Jesus didn’t say He would build His Church upon Paul. Rather, God said, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Peter is called the foundation of the Church and told to feed Jesus’ sheep. And Jesus prayed for him specifically, that his faith wouldn’t fail. And he gave him (only) the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It goes on and on.

13:44 the other passages that are generally brought into discussion — John 21 and Luke 22 for example — these passages just aren’t clear or explicit, and I’ve looked at the fathers on these as well and none of them are correlating these texts with peter’s rank or status within the church or something like that. Pretty consistently they’re looking at these passages as having to do with Peter’s restoration after his
14:11 It would be a it would be a proof of the papacy perhaps if Jesus said to Peter in John 21, “feed my sheep as my vicar” or if he said in Luke




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Photo credit: St. Peter, by Paolo Emilio Besenzi (1608-1656) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: I reply to Baptist apologist Gavin Ortlund’s arguments against the papacy: his analyses of Matthew 16 and John 21. I note the cumulative NT evidence for the papacy.

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