The Problems with the Pope’s Authority and the Inadequacy of the Protestant Response


Recently a Protestant friend of mine asked my opinion about a written conversation he had with a Roman Catholic convert. In the conversation the convert explained that, for him, the most convincing point of Roman Catholic doctrine was the doctrine of Petrine succession. My Protestant friend didn’t really know how to respond. I shared with him the problems with arguing for Petrine succession from Scripture, and I think it’s worth sharing my response with you here.

Things Jesus Never Said - Peter

For those not familiar with this Catholic doctrine, it essentially states that according to Matthew 16 and other biblical passages we can see that Peter — and Peter alone — was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven to decide whom he will let into and heaven and whom he will not. According to church tradition, Peter was later the bishop at Rome. The claim of Petrine succession, then, is that whoever subsequently occupies Peter’s office in Rome possesses the keys to the kingdom. I’m sure you can see where this is going: the pope is the current occupant of Peter’s office at Rome and he alone possesses the keys to the kingdom.

Here’s the relevant passage from Matthew 16:

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell 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.

Many Protestants often try to get around the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 using interpretations that are more of a problem than the Catholic interpretation they are trying to avoid.

There are predominately two ways that Protestants try to get around saying that Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. (1) They claim that “this rock” on which Christ will build his church is not Peter, but Peter’s confession that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (2) They claim that when Christ says “this rock” he is pointing to himself as if he was saying, “You are Peter, but on this rock, that is myself, I will build my church.” In support of this interpretation they often cite 1 Corinthians 3:10, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

These interpretations of Matthew 16 are simply untenable. What is clearly motivating them is not a desire to understand of the text but a desire to avoid the Catholic interpretation. These interpretations fear identifying Peter as the rock on which Christ builds the church since it seems to lend credibility to the Catholic doctrine of Petrine succession. But this fear grants too much to the Catholic interpretation. Understanding the “rock” as Peter, isn’t just a Catholic interpretation — it’s a legitimate interpretation, and, as we will see, it does not entail Petrine succession.

In support of the interpretation that the “rock” is Peter, we must recognize that the name Peter means “rock” or “stone”. So when Jesus says, “you are Peter, [petros] and on this rock [petra] I will build my church”, it is clear that he is relating the person of Peter and the rock on which he will build his church. Furthermore, he clearly gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This demonstrates that Peter is the rock on which Christ will build his church. Attempts to introduce foreign elements such as Christ gesturing to himself while saying “on this rock”  where “rock” means Christ are prime examples of forcing one’s theology onto the text, since without this foreign element, the interpretation doesn’t make any sense. And, of course, neither of these interpretations do anything to explain why Christ would give a gift to Peter as significant as the keys to the kingdom if Peter isn’t the one on whom Christ builds the church.

So what’s the most that we could establish from Matthew 16 alone? Just this: that Peter — and only Peter — was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What we don’t get is a doctrine of Petrine succession. There’s nothing here about the keys being tied to Peter’s office or an ongoing passing-down of the keys to the kingdom.

We can see from other texts, however, that Christ doesn’t give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone — he also gives them to the rest of the disciples and to the church itself.

In Matthew 18, Jesus gives his disciples commands for dealing with those who have sinned against them. After earlier attempts to make peace have been rebuffed, one is to “tell it to the church” (18:17). If this person will not heed the church, the church is to expel them from the congregation. Then Christ speaks to all of the disciples the exact words he spoke concerning Peter in Matthew 16: “Truly, I say to you [plural], whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (18:18). Peter isn’t the sole possessor of the keys to the kingdom because, as Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (18:19).

From Matthew 18, it is clear that the succession of possessing the keys to the kingdom is tied to the enduring church, not the enduring bishopric of Peter.

Furthermore, in John 20:23, Jesus reiterates that he has given all of the apostles the keys to the kingdom. Notice again the plural second person pronouns: ” If you [plural] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you [plural] withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Christ nowhere ties the authority to forgive sins to a particular chair of an office.

Aside from the biblical evidence, the Catholic convert claims that Petrine succession “was demonstrated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the Council Fathers, upon reading the Bishop of Rome’s, Pope Leo, Tome on the two natures of Christ, exclaimed, ‘Peter has spoken through Leo.’”

I presume that he’s giving his best evidence from church history for Petrine succession. Apparently, the best of the early evidence is a vague reference from nearly four-hundred years after Peter’s death. This is an enormously weak case for such a vital doctrine for Catholic authority. I can’t see how anyone can hang his hat on this kind of evidence.

Yet, in spite of the lack of evidence for Petrine succession I can see the appeal that the doctrine would hold for a Catholic convert who came from Evangelicalism. I think he is reacting to something that is a real problem in evangelical and reformed circles: no one is exercising the authority of the keys to the kingdom. There is a right exercise of this authority, but the catholic church narrowly restricts it to the pope, while the evangelical/reformed church abandons it altogether. By contrast, in the Lutheran church, there is a pronouncing of absolution by the pastor for sin upon confession. He is one who is called and ordained by Christ’s church, and thus he has the authority to pronounce Christ’s forgiveness.

When Evangelicals and the Reformed reject the right use of the office of the keys, it pushes others toward the appealing-but-false doctrine of Petrine Succession. The best way forward is for Protestants to adopt a better understanding of the office of the keys such as the one laid out by Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles.

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About Rev. John Fraiser

Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church - LaGrange, KY htlc-lagrange.org
This entry was posted in Catholicism, Church History, Confession and Absolution, Ecclesiology, Evangelicalism, Evangelicals, Exegesis, Martin Luther, New Testament Exegesis, Reformed, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Problems with the Pope’s Authority and the Inadequacy of the Protestant Response

  1. vivator says:

    Keys of the kingdom was given only to Peter (singular second person). Matthew 18 does not mention any keys at all. There cannot be more than one person to receive keys, just like in Isaiah 22:22. Catholics believe the college of bishops in communion with the Pope holds the authority to bind and to loose.

    • Fraiser says:

      Vivator,
      It doesn’t matter whether “keys” is mentioned in Matthew 18. The ministry of the keys is described exactly the same there as it is in Matthew 16. Saying that Jesus isn’t talking about the ministry of the keys because he doesn’t use the word “keys” is like saying that I couldn’t be talking about President Obama without using his name even though I said things like “first black president”, “44th president”, and “former first-term senator from Illinois who became President”. You misunderstand the way language works if you think Jesus has to say “keys” in order to be talking about the ministry of the keys.

      If you don’t think that Matthew 18 and John 20 is referring to the office of the keys, then let’s just call what’s referred to in those passages as the “office of the schmeys”. It’s still an office that has the authority to bind and loose and to grant or withhold forgiveness. In fact, it functions in every way like the office of the keys, it just goes by a different name because Jesus didn’t use the word “keys”. It’s the office of the schmeys. An office by any other name is just as powerful.

      Also, why can’t more than one person receive keys? Where is this written in Scripture? Furthermore, your next statement contradicts your claim. “The college of bishops in communion with the Pope holds the authority to bind and loose.” Sounds to me like more than one person has the keys.

      • Les says:

        Hi. Thanks for the engaging reading. Just a question. The office of the schmeys is an office or a person? I doubt the person though holding office is the office. I suspect the office is greater than the person and is rather the combination of persons acting in one purpose. E.g. the Office of the President

  2. Chris Gates says:

    Great post, John. I have often thought about what you espouse here as an alternative to the typical Protestant rebuttals of the Roman doctrine. But I have never gone where you have gone. This post would have been handy a couple of years ago when I was discussing this very issue with a Catholic friend for whom the doctrine of Petrine succession was the primary doctrine that held them in the RCC.

    I do have a question for you, though. Do you suppose that it is only the pastor of a local church who has the right to exercise the authority of the keys, or does every Christian have that authority? I have not yet read Luther on this issue.

    • Fraiser says:

      Thanks, Chris. This doctrine has incredibly weak support, and yet it’s a crucial doctrine for Roman Catholicism.

      I have wondered a lot about your question. I think when Jesus says to “tell it to the church” and that whatever we bind/loose on earth is bound/loosed in heaven, he is not talking about some amorphous, invisible church. There’s no way to tell a problem to that kind of church. We are to tell it to a visible church. In that day, a church was a group of baptized followers of Jesus under the authority of the apostles. Today a church is a group of baptized followers of Jesus under the authority of the apostles exercised through Scripture which is the record of their authority. I think a local church under the authority of the apostles revealed through Scripture has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus seems to suggest a consensus of believers when he says in Matthew 18 “if two of you agree on a matter it will be done. For where two or three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” However, someone who calls themselves a Christian and has very little to do with the gathered and called body of Christ, has no authority over anything. The authority seems to be tied to a church to which we we can actually go and tell our sins or tell when we’ve been wronged by another. Then there is to be a consensus among the people about the matter.

      In my opinion, a pastor is uniquely qualified to forgive sins as someone who’s calling has been recognized by the church and who has been ordained to this ministry. In other words, the church has put him in place for the ministry of absolution. He acts on the authority of Christ in forgiving sins as someone who is called and ordained by the church under Christ’s authority described through the apostolic witness found in Scripture. His work of pronouncing or withholding forgiveness is subject to review by the authority of the church. Where a church finds a pastor to be out of bounds in this area, they should show him his error according to the word of God, and if he is unwilling to change, he should be removed from his position.

      So, in short, the church has the authority collectively, the pastor as the one called by Christ and ordained by the church has this authority uniquely.

      • Pam says:

        “His work of pronouncing or withholding forgiveness is subject to review by the authority of the church. Where a church finds a pastor to be out of bounds in this area, they should show him his error according to the word of God, and if he is unwilling to change, he should be removed from his position.”

        What authority of what church?? If the congregation does not agree with the loosing or binding of sins by the pastor, on what authority do they “bring it to the attention of the pastor”? Is it not a matter of differing opinions and interpretations of Scripture? Have you ever tried to show your pastor his errors? I don’t think this will work. It may sound good in theory, but Protestantism still has no authority. The authority of Scripture is even watered down because it is not a self-interpreting book.

    • Pam says:

      “I do have a question for you, though. Do you suppose that it is only the pastor of a local church who has the right to exercise the authority of the keys, or does every Christian have that authority? I have not yet read Luther on this issue.”

      Your quote above seems to be asking if every Christian can decide for himself what to believe and how to interpret Scripture. This a major problem with Protestantism. We are so far removed (by time) from the Jewish Tradition and religion that our Christian faith makes little sense in light of Judaism. Our Christina faith should flow from and find its fulfillment from our foundation in the Jewish faith. Authority was passed on from king to king. They were anointed (Christ means anointed). Jesus passed HIs authority on to Peter and the apostles.. Pease visit http://www.scripturecatholic.com and read Scripture verses that support the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Pope and Church authority. This is not the only Scripture verse. Without authority, everything is open to personal interpretation which can be quite dangerous and divisive. God bless you as you search for Truth.

      • browen says:

        I’d like to see some of these verses as well as the ones that say Mary was without sin, we should pray to saints… this is all papal stuff and like Martin Luther, I’d prefer to get all my doctrinal beliefs from scripture.

  3. Paul Edwards says:

    To argue that the other apostles were given the keys or that Peter gave them to the whole Church is to argue from desperation. When someone before said there is no mention of the other apostles being given the keys you said “that’s like saying…” to avoid the obvious point being made.

    Our position is more logical, we believe all the apostles(Bishops) can bind and loose as a college(Matthew 18:18) while Peter(the Pope) has the keys and a singular binding and loosing authority(Matthew 16:18-19)

  4. Paul Edwards says:

    It is completely contrary to logic to say all three:

    1) Bishops are Successors of the apostles.
    2) Peter has more authority than the other apostles.
    3) Peter has no Successor or the Successor of Peter does not have more authority than the other Bishops.

    One of the above three must be false.

    If 1 is false Protestantism is correct and we have schism.

    If 2 is false Orthodoxy is correct.

    If 3 is false but 1 and 2 are correct then as soon as Peter dies there is no longer a logical way of knowing what’s authoritive and binding on the universal Church or of knowing which Bishops are in Schism or which Bishops have authority and there are many other logical problems which also make number 2 a waste of time if it only lasts until Peters death

  5. Paul Edwards says:

    I meant if 1 2 and 3 are all correct in my last paragraph of my last comment.

    If 3 is false but 1 and 2 are correct then it makes sense and we have Catholicism

  6. Paul Edwards says:

    There is no point having individual Bishops for unity in the Particular Church if there is no visible unity in the Universal Church. If we simply say “Christ is that unity and head so we need no universal shepherd” and then ignore the material like Gnosticism does then the same could be said of individual Bishops and the Particular Church.

    If all Bishops are equal then:

    equal vs equal = a draw – therefore there is no way of knowing which ecumenical councils are authoritive, in fact unlike the Catholic Church Orthodoxy has no logical way of knowing which councils are binding. The only way to solve this universal schism and confusion is if there is a Supreme Bishop (The Keys + power to bind and loose – matthew 16:18) rather than only having general Bishops (Power to bind and loose – Matthew 18:18).

  7. browen says:

    The Word, and the doctrine taught therein, is our authority. Departing from the truths of scripture is the reason we have schisms in the church. I agree with the rock being Christ because the Greek word Petra is used many other times as in”build your house upon the rock”. That rock is Christ not any man.

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