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.
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.