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Where Does the Bible Say Anything about the Papacy?

OBJECTOR: You Catholics say that you believe in the Bible as the word of God. Yet how can you justify the position of the pope based on the Bible? I see nothing in the Bible about a pope.

CATHOLIC: The Bible has a lot to say on the papacy as an institution. I know that non-Catholics claim that the papacy was an idea that grew up gradually in the first few centuries of Christianity as Rome tried to assert its dominance over the rest of Christendom. We find that version of early Christian history highly questionable.

OBJECTOR: For the sake of discussion, would you be willing to limit ourselves to the Bible rather than getting into the complications of Church history?


OBJECTOR: Then isn’t Matthew 16:13–20 the only text that a Catholic could cite to support the papacy?

CATHOLIC: Actually, there are many texts that point to the papacy, and there are three passages in the Gospels that are highly relevant. It is worth noting how the apostle Peter is treated in some other texts, ones that might easily be overlooked. For example, have you ever noticed that in all the lists of the apostles in the Gospels, Peter is always mentioned first (cf. Matt. 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19)?

OBJECTOR: Yes, but it’s only a historical detail. It doesn’t have any theological import.

CATHOLIC: It may not seem to in and of itself. But when you combine this apparently insignificant detail with Matthew 16:13–20, it takes on a deeper meaning. It suggests that the primacy of Peter among the apostles was being taught also by the order in the lists of the apostles.

OBJECTOR: Matthew 16:13–20 does not teach anything about the papacy. The rock of which Jesus speaks as being the foundation of the Church is the confession of faith that Peter gives, not Peter himself. Even Augustine interpreted “the rock” as the confession of faith.

CATHOLIC: You’re reading Scripture in an either/or fashion. Why can it not be both/and? Can’t it be true that the content of Peter’s profession of Christ is the doctrinal foundation of the Church, while Peter himself is the governmental foundation? Or better, why can’t we see Christ as the cornerstone of the Church, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, and that this one foundation has doctrinal and governmental manifestations?

OBJECTOR: I suppose that is theoretically possible, but Matthew 16:18 uses two different words for rock. When Jesus names Peter, he uses petros, and when he speaks of the rock of the Church, he uses petra. It is unlikely that Jesus would use two different words if he meant to identify Peter as the rock. It seems that he is using petra to refer either to the confession of faith or to himself as the rock. The latter interpretation would agree perfectly with Ephesians 2:20.

CATHOLIC: Most scholars today, even Evangelical scholars, are honest enough to admit that the argument you’re using is an instance of eisegesis, i.e., of reading one’s theology into the text.

OBJECTOR: Then how do you explain the use of the two different words?

CATHOLIC: Jesus, speaking Aramaic, renamed Simon Kepha, meaning “rock”. So what was said was “You are Kepha, and upon this kepha I will build my Church.” In Aramaic, the word kepha has the same ending whether it refers to a rock or is used in a man’s name. But when Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek, he had to use the masculine for petros because you cannot call a man by a feminine term in that language. So, because Matthew wanted to call Peter a rock, he made the normal feminine word petra masculine (petros) to create a play on words. To bring out the word play, verse 18 might be translated this way” “You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”

OBJECTOR: But even such a play on words shows that Jesus is not intending here to establish some deep theological truth. Besides, if he wanted to say that Simon was just one of the rocks of the Church, he would naturally have used petros. The fact that Jesus uses petros does not mean that he is singling Simon out for a special category.

CATHOLIC: I might be inclined to agree if the rest of the passage did not confirm a special ministry for Simon, but look more closely. Peter identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). In turn, Jesus identifies Peter as the rock on which the church is built. The rest of the passage would not make sense if Peter is not being identified as the rock. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven: “I will give to you [soi] 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.” If Jesus did not mean that Peter was to be the rock, then why would he give him the keys of the kingdom? The Greek pronoun soi is singular referring only to Peter. The power of the keys is given to Peter alone in this passage. The phrase about binding and loosing connotes jurisdiction, not just a primacy of example or honor.

OBJECTOR: But Matthew 18:18 contains similar language, and there Jesus uses the plural, referring at least to the other apostles: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” If Jesus were confining the jurisdiction of the Church to Peter, he wouldn’t have used the plural here.

CATHOLIC: The Catholic Church doesn’t say that Peter alone has the authority to bind and loose. All the bishops, descended from the apostles, have this authority. But the authority is always exercised in union with Peter. That’s why Jesus first gave the authority to Peter in Matthew 16 and then extended it to all the apostles in Matthew 18.

OBJECTOR: Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on Matthew 16:13–20. I see no other texts in the New Testament that could be used even remotely as support for the papacy.

CATHOLIC: How about Luke 22:31–32? “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

OBJECTOR: I don’t anything here beyond Jesus’ concern to restore Peter to his position after his fall. It’s a personal issue, not a doctrinal one.

CATHOLIC: Let’s look at the use of the pronoun you. Ancient Greek distinguished between singular and plural. When Jesus says, “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,” he uses the plural you. In other words, he’s saying, “Satan demanded to have you all [humas], that he might sift you all you all like wheat.”

OBJECTOR: My point exactly. Jesus puts all the apostles on the same plane.

CATHOLIC: Notice what Jesus says next: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Here Jesus uses the singular you (sou). It might seem odd that Jesus would pray only for Peter when it was all the apostles that Satan desired to sift like wheat. But the following words explain the apparent incongruity: “When you [singular] have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” In other words, once the supreme leader is strong, he will in turn confirm his fellow leaders of the Church. The strength needed will come from the Father in answer to Jesus’ prayer through Peter to the other apostles.

OBJECTOR: I don’t see this text as any more than as a personal confirmation of Peter. It doesn’t have to do with any Petrine office.

CATHOLIC: If what you are saying were true, then we would be left without an explanation as to why Jesus uses different forms of you. Further, when Jesus tells Peter to strengthen his brothers, he is clearly putting Peter into a position of leadership for the purpose of pastoral ministry. In light of this and what we said about Matthew 16, it is only Peter’s uniqueness among the apostles that begins to make sense of the third passage I mentioned: John 21:15–19.

OBJECTOR: Where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him.


OBJECTOR: The logical explanation is that the threefold question corresponds to Peter’s threefold denial of Christ during his Passion.

CATHOLIC: Yes, Jesus gives Peter three chances to atone for his three denials. But in addition, Jesus emphasizes the pastoral role that he has for Peter when he commands him three times, “Feed my lambs. . . .Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep.” Peter needs to understand the connection between loving Jesus and Peter’s role as pastor. The pertinent question is why Jesus singles out Peter. Is it simply because he is the one who denied Jesus? Or was Jesus intending to show Peter that he must take his place as the chief human shepherd of the earthly Church? 1 Peter 5:1-4 seems to underscore Peter’s awareness of his role. Exhorting the others, yet counting himself one of them, he assumes his leadership with humility.

The popes follwing in his footsteps have taken a position of humility, but this doesn’t in any way lessen their unique role. That role is spelled out for Peter and his successors in the pasasges mentioned. While all the bishops, like all the original apostles, share in his represntative work, Peter and his succesoors share in it to the highest degree. That explains why Peter is singled out in all these passages. Peter is the one who, through his pastoral ministry, will be the source and sign of unity for the whole Church.

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