Catholics have “Peter syndrome”!
According to some, Catholics exaggerate details about Peter in order to prove the papacy. For example, Catholics cite Peter’s possession of the keys as proof of the papacy. But it’s Jesus who possesses the keys in Revelation 3:7 and not Peter! Checkmate, Catholics!
Is it that simple? Not exactly.
Let’s first look at what Revelation 3:7 says:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
It’s obvious that “the holy one” here is referring to Jesus, and Isaiah 22:22, a common prooftext for the papacy, is cited here verbatim. And Peter doesn’t have the keys here. Jesus has them. Ergo, Peter doesn’t have the keys, and the papacy is unfounded. Right?
There are at least three serious problems with this objection.
First, it’s a false dichotomy. Both Jesus and Peter can have the keys. Peter possesses them as the chief steward, much like how Eliakim did under King Hezekiah in Isaiah 22:22, whereas Jesus possesses them as the Davidic king. After all, the key of David belongs to the Davidic house or dynasty. New Testament scholar Patrick Gray notes, “In the symbolism of the keys, which become a standard element in Petrine iconography and in popular presentations of Peter standing guard at heaven’s pearly gates, many scholars discern an allusion to the ancient Israelite practice of the king granting authority to a prime minister who, as holder of ‘the key of the house of David,’ is deputized to make binding decisions on his behalf (Isa. 22:20-23).”
Notice that the key belongs to the Israelite king, and it is therefore his to bestow upon a chief steward or prime minister. Nonetheless, the king can also use his key (or keys) at will since it belongs to him. This is the case with Jesus and Peter.
Second, the objection fails to appreciate how metaphors are used flexibly in Scripture. Regarding Matthew 16:18-19, D.A. Carson observes,
Here Jesus builds his church; in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul is ‘an expert builder.’ In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Jesus is the church’s foundation; in Ephesians 2:19-20, the apostles and prophets are the foundation (cf. Rev. 21:14), and Jesus is the ‘cornerstone.’ Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is the ‘light of the world’; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. None of these pairs threatens Jesus’ uniqueness. They simply show how metaphors must be interpreted primarily with reference to their immediate contexts.
If the Bible is flexible with its metaphors, then we should follow its lead. The keys are possessed not by either Peter or Jesus, but by both.
This now gets us to how Revelation 3:7 actually strengthens the case for the papacy! Although Jesus shares the keys with Peter in Matthew 16:19, Revelation 3:7 reminds us that the authority given to Peter is ultimately Jesus’ authority. This would make Peter the vicar or chief representative of Christ, especially if he is being appointed chief steward like Eliakim in Isaiah!
Now, someone might concede that Peter had the keys during his life but insist that the keys are owned solely by Jesus after Peter’s death in Rome. This is why Isaiah 22:22 is applied directly to Jesus in Revelation 3:7 and not Linus, Cletus, Clement, etc. Thus, there was no Petrine succession.
Once again, this claim exceeds the evidence. A Catholic can reasonably affirm that Petrine succession is true and that Jesus possesses the keys, just as every chief steward in Israel shared the keys with the king.
But why doesn’t Revelation mention anybody else possessing the keys? Revelation is primarily focused upon the apocalypse, so Jesus is placed front and center. This explains why John the apostle emphasizes Christ’s possession of the keys in the immediate context of Revelation.
Furthermore, the historical witness of those within living memory (that is, those who knew the apostles or knew those who knew the apostles) is unanimous that Peter had successors in Rome. Oxford professor Markus Bockmuehl, though disputing papal supremacy, admits in his book Simon Peter in Scripture and Living Memory, “Nevertheless, it is also the case that the remembered Peter’s profile in the second century and subsequent centuries includes a recognition that his ministry was entrusted to a continuing succession of ecclesial shepherds in various places of his activity (including Antioch) but above all in Rome.” Living memory matters not only because it is generally reliable, but because it is the same kind of memory that eventually materialized into the Gospels.
To top it all off, I’ve also argued from Isaiah 22:22 that Peter would naturally have successors, given the nature of the chief steward’s office. In light of my previous point, we see that history confirms what Scripture anticipates.
Thus, the problem is not that Catholics have “Peter syndrome.” The issue is that objections like the ones we tackled above actually undersell Peter, create false dichotomies, and fail to appreciate the Biblical context. They in fact beg the question by assuming that if something is said of Jesus, then it be said only of Jesus. But a deeper study of Scripture shows that Jesus shared his life and authority with his apostles . . . and, above all, Peter.