“Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” Matthew 16:18, 19 (New Living Translation – no additions made)
Oh what contention has come from this verse!
Very simply, from a Catholic perspective, it means exactly what it says. A commentary from Bishop Richard Challoner says this, “Peter is here declared to be the rock, upon which the church was to be built: Christ himself being both the principal foundation and founder of the same. Also note that Christ, by building his house, that is, his church, upon a rock, has thereby secured it against all storms and floods, like the wise builder (cf Matt. 7:24,25). For as the church is here likened to a house, or fortress, built on a rock; so the adverse powers are likened to a contrary house or fortress, the gates of which, that is, the whole strength, and all the efforts it can make, will never be able to prevail over the city or church of Christ.”
From this point forward Peter is considered to be a leader of the Apostles and thereby retains that leadership until he passes it on, by his martyrdom, to his successor. It makes for quite a contention among certain anti-Catholics since there is not any mention whatsoever of a “Pope” in the Bible. I will try explaining why it is that Catholics consider Peter the head of the Apostles and the leader of the early Church and how it is that the authority passed through until this current day into what the world knows as the office of the Pope. While there are many examples in the Bible I’ll only cover the verse mentioned above and that which I do not cover, well there are many, many sources out there which are sure to take up the slack. However, as with most apologetic work, we must start in the Bible.
The verse cited above is a primary one in which we see the intentions of Christ creating in Peter a role of primacy and leadership authority. Detectors will attempt to mangle the verse and ignore the straightforward reading of Scripture. They attempt to state that when Christ says, “… upon this rock I will build my church,” He is referring to Himself or to Peter’s profession of faith two sentences earlier. However, it is grammatically impossible for Jesus to be referring to Peter’s profession since “this rock” must grammatically refer back to the nearest noun, “Peter”. It is also erroneous to conclude that Jesus suddenly – and without indication – switches direction of address from Peter to himself and then back to Peter again.
Therefore, we must recognize what it is here that Jesus is doing. Upon Simon’s confession of faith, Jesus confers upon him an entirely new name: Peter. To this point he was called only Simon. Much like when Jacob was renamed Israel and Abram was renamed Abraham, God changes the names of his followers to denote covenants. Detractors will try to say that because the Greek terms used here for his name, petros, and the word ‘rock’, petra, are different, Jesus cannot be referring to Peter as the rock on which He will build his church. Petra is a feminine word. The name Peter is one that had never been used before this time. Therefore, when Jesus gives Peter his name the Greek translators would not call him Petra as that is feminine and an obvious insult to Peter; therefore they used a masculine word petros. In the Aramaic, in which Jesus spoke, he would have used the word kepha in both instances. Therefore, Peter or Kepha was the only rock referred to in this sentence. Proof of this is found in Galatians 2:11 when Paul calls Peter “Cephas” which is the anglacanized word for kepha.
Also, the typology for having the keys of the kingdom can be traced back to the Old Testament in Isaiah 22. “First, in verse 19 it says, ‘I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, 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.’ Now the House of David is… a dynastic reference. We know this because David has been dead for hundreds of years when this is happening in Isaiah 22, ‘I will give you the key of the House of David. He shall open and none shall shut, and he shall shut and none shall open. He will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.’ Look at all of the symbols of dynastic authority that are being given to this individual. First of all, an office, second, a robe, third, a throne and fourth, keys, the key of the House of David, these royal keys.
Now, Eliakim is… being granted the Prime Minister’s position. Because he is given what the other ministers do not have, the keys of the kingdom, the key to the House of David. That symbolized dynastic authority entrusted to the Prime Minister and dynastic succession. ‘The keys are the symbol of authority… the same authority as that vested in the vicar, the master of the house, the chamberlain of the royal household of ancient Israel.’ In other words, the Prime Minister’s office. When Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom, Peter is receiving the Prime Minister’s office, which means dynastic authority from the Son of David, Jesus, the King of Israel, but also an office where there will be dynastic succession. Nowhere else, when other Apostles are exercising Church authority are the keys ever mentioned.”¹
As I have stated there are many other passages which appear to give Peter primacy such as in the synoptic Gospels the listing of the Apostles always lists Peter first – Judas Iscariot last (or sometimes simply Peter and his companions). Christ prayed specifically for Peter and that he would turn and strengthen the others – “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31) (Although, for some strange reason, once again, even though Jesus is only talking to Peter here, some Protestant translations insist on Him referring to all the disciples and translate it as such in order to avoid the appearance of Peter having preference over the other brethren.) John was the first to reach the empty tomb of Jesus, but out of deference to Peter, he did not enter. (John 20:3-6) Peter was the one who spoke first at the gathering in Acts and all those who were there were silent and they adhered to his ruling. (Acts 1:16-22) Now, these are not necessarily proof texts, but they do provide context. Let us move forward into ancient history.
It is historically supported that Peter went to, and died in, Rome. He established a church there before he died and appointed a successor to take his place. We see, starting in Acts, how, when there came to be a vacancy of a position, that a new person was appointed to take their place. The Church, starting with the Apostles, did not simply leave the role vacant. People need a shepherd; therefore, in Acts the first appointment to a vacant leadership position was to fill the spot left open by Judas Iscariot’s death. We see Peter himself stand up among the brothers and address them in a speech. (Acts 1:16) He tells those present that Judas was a leader and that he had a role as a minister among them. (v17) Then he gives the qualifications necessary for a new appointment to this role (v21,22) and from that they chose two men and relied on Divine Guidance to determine the successor.(v23,26) The practice of appointing a successor has not changed in over 2,000 years for leaders of the Catholic Church who leave a vacancy through retirement or death. Today when a Pope dies what is known as a conclave – an assembly of cardinals – meet to determine, through Divine Guidance, who the next Pope should be.
Now, since Peter established a church in Rome (along with Paul), and Peter was considered the leader of the church, his successors, who remained in Rome were being appointed with the clear understanding that they were being appointed as the leader of the church. The successors of Peter were given primacy because they took the Chair of Peter – or the leadership role – of the Church and those successors can be traced all the way through to this very day. In every century the leadership of the entire church appealed to Rome for a ruling on any matters that they themselves in their own church were unable to resolve. As St. Augustine said, “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.” This is where the Papacy received its primacy, its authority. Christ handed it to Peter, who chose a successor and so forth down. Thus, the See of Rome became the seat of authority for the Church. To support this claim let me offer you some history.
Clement, was the third successor of Peter, and is believed to be the same Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. It is also believed that Peter himself confirmed Clement as a bishop. When presbyters (priests) in the church at Corinth were improperly deposed, the issue was taken to Clement in Rome. The Letter of Clement to the Corinthians became regularly read in the church there along with the letters which became Biblical cannon. This letter is one of the oldest extant Christian documents alongside canonized Scripture that is not included in the New Testament.
“So why did the Corinthians appeal to Rome, far away in the West, and not to Ephesus, so near to home in the East, where the Apostle John still lived at the time? Because the jurisdiction of Ephesus was local while Rome was universal.”²
“Around 150 AD, martyr and Bishop Polycarp journeyed to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus about the proper date for the celebration of Easter.
In the late second century, bishop Irenaeus of Lyons refuted false teachers by referring to ‘the tradition which that very, great, oldest, and well-known church, founded and established at Rome by those two most glorious apostles Peter, and Paul… every church must be in harmony with this church because its outstanding pre-eminence.
In the fourth century, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, stated, ‘Where Peter is, there is the church.’ Also, in the fourth century the great bible scholar Jerome wrote to Pope Demasus, ‘I follow no one as leader except Christ alone, and therefore I want to remain in union in the church with you, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock the church is founded.'”³
The word ‘Pope’ in Latin means “papa” and in Greek “pappas” (obviously an informal word for “father”). The term was often applied to bishops and other members of the clergy until it gradually came to be applied to the head of the Church only. So the strict concept of a “pope” or “papacy” was a term that came to be solidified by the late third and into the fourth century. Contrary to belief, the Pope is not there to “lord over the people” but works, as the bishop of Rome, with the entire bishopric (making up what is call the Magisterium – the teaching authority) to determine the truth of faith.
The Church, for all the different subjects that it has spoken about, has, contrary to what many may think, a rather unique position in defining doctrine. The Church works on the rule of the negative which means that they cannot invent new doctrine. They can only define what the Church has always believed and clarify it for the world. So, in really simplistic terms, doctrine and dogma is really only talked about formally if there is a need. For example, the Apostle’s Creed was a dogmatic statement pronounced by early Christians which was believed to be from the Apostles themselves, hence the name. As different heresies started teaching erroneous ideas about Christianity the council of Nicene (325 AD) felt it proper to expand on the Apostle’s Creed and thus pronounced a longer dogmatic statement which addressed the errors of what was being taught by stating what it is that Christianity stood for, hence we have the Nicene Creed recited by Catholics to this day. (In fact, there is a third creed created in the late fifth, early sixth century called the Athanasian Creed which is far more stern in its tone than these two). Therefore, there is nothing new in the teachings of the Church, but only a formal definition of what has been believed for all time.
Such as the case with the definitions and declarations surrounding the office of Pope. In 1870 the Church formally proclaimed the dogma of Papal Infallibility. This simply means that when the Pope defines and teaches dogma ex cathadra (lit: “from the chair” – that is the Chair of Peter) it is, through Divine Promise given by Christ (Mt 16:18) through the Holy Spirit, to be free from error. This does not give the Pope free reign to simply declare anything he wants ex cathedra and the Church must go along. A Pope teaching ex cathedra is a very seldom and very rarely used exercise in Papal authority and it can only be used in defining doctrine of faith and morals. “It extends only as far as the deposit of Revelation extends….” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25). This is Divine or Public Revelation – what was given to the Church and which ended after the death of the last Apostle – “There is to be no further public revelation until Christ comes again.” (Dei Verbum, 4) i.e. – Anything taught or claimed which is contrary to revealed Revelation (that given from the Apostles) cannot be accepted as Divine Revelation or a “new” Revelation. (Think of Mormon doctrine.) Therefore, what the Pope can do ex cathedra is extremely limited and that is why it is rarely exercised. In fact, the last time this power was exercised was back in 1854 when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception ex cathadra. Something Catholics always believed in, but which was not formally defined until 1854. This is an example of the dogma of Papal Infallibility being exercised before Papal Infallibility was defined.
That is all Papal Infallibility means. It never has meant at all that the Pope is sinless or that everything the Pope says as a matter of opinion is free from error or that the Pope can never do anything wrong. Peter himself was wrong and Paul tells us that he told Peter to his face that he was wrong. (Gal. 2:11) In fact, if you look at Scripture, poor Peter was wrong an awful lot! That doesn’t mean that Peter stopped being the leader because he was wrong, nor does it mean the Papacy is no longer legitimate because there were some bad Popes that filled the Chair of Peter. It doesn’t negate the office of the Pope just because the man filling the role was wrong, or in some cases downright evil, no more than a corrupt man as mayor negates the office of mayor. The office is still valid, the man filling it was bad. It is this example which shows that “infallibility” and “freedom from error” is limited to matters of faith and that human behavior and choices still very much rule in the Church hierarchy.
As Cardinal Gibbons explains, if, in secular life, humans require government and leadership – as is only natural human nature – how much more so should it be needed and wanted in spiritual life. Just as a president is elected in the United States and has a Congress to work with, so also does the Catholic Church have a Pope and a congregation of Bishops. These came from the Apostles and have been kept, along with the authority of the Apostles throughout the ages.
Moreover, if there be any [heresies] bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origin of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. For this is the way in which the apostolic Churches transmit their lists: like the Church of the Smyrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the Church of the Romans where Clement was ordained by Peter. In just this same way the other Churches display those whom they have as sprouts from the apostolic seed, having been established in the episcopate by the Apostles. Let the heretics invent something like it. – Tertullian
1. Scott Hahn on the Papacy
2. The Faith of our Fathers, Cardinal Gibbons
3. Catholic and Christian, Alen Schreck