Rocks and Popes

Dear Reader,

The following is an edited version of an email I sent to a friend who was/is considering becoming a member of the Roman Catholic church. It is my interpretation of what seems to be the most widely used passage by the Catholic church in its defense of the papacy.

A little background on me to put this in context (and let you know my biases) — I was raised Catholic and came to faith in college. I attended a non-denominational evangelical church, then a Presbyterian one and now finally a Reformed Presbyterian church (RPCNA). My own take on my background would be that while the Catholic church gave me a firm foundation in who God, in all His persons, is and a deep consciousness of my need for a Savior, it did not point me to saving grace. It was to me Law without Gospel, if you will.  I don’t bear the Catholic church ill will but at the same time it was not enough for me. I Another perhaps relevant fact about me — I studied biblical Hebrew in college which doesn’t inherently help me with this study as it is on the New Testament but I do think I have some experience with how to read and interpret the Bible.

When considering the claims of the Catholic church, and particularly its claim to be The True Church established by Christ, we can consider a few kinds of evidence:

  • the biblical evidence (which will be the focus of this post)
  • the testimony of the early church fathers — Not surprisingly the Catholic church relies heavily on the church fathers. A quick internet church will reveal a host of sites citing church fathers who seem to support the doctrine of the papacy. Then you search again and find the other side just as well supported (it’s much like other controversial issues in that; global warming, for instance). I don’t feel qualified to evaluate all that evidence and without the backing of the biblical text I am not sure any of it amounts to much anyway. My one observation would be that it never did take humanity many generations to go astray. Finding early evidence for the supremacy of the bishop of Rome doesn’t convince me of much.
  • our own experience and feelings, what one might call the workings of the Holy Spirit — this is necessarily very subjective. One man’s promptings of the Spirit are another mans’ crazy. Which is not to say I doubt the Spirit works in this way; He is the Fount of all Wisdom, but the only way to evaluate such things to see which spirit they are from is to test them against the Word of God.
  • fruit — The Bible tells us that we are to judge a tree by its fruit.Jesus warns of false prophets in Matthew 7:15-20 and tells us how we will know them:

    “15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.’” (all biblical citations are ESV unless otherwise noted)

I won’t tell you now what I think of the fruit of the Catholic church. I suspect you have your own opinions on that.

Where we must begin and end is the biblical evidence. This is by far the most important, being the least subjective and the necessary foundation of anything that may come later. The two main points of contention as I see it are that the apostolic authority is passed from person to person – that it is a role and position that must be occupied by someone rather than being a teaching which is passed down, and that Peter specifically is designated as the head of the church and that this too is a continuing position which is passed from person to person. The Catholic church would argue that Christ entrusted Peter with a specific role of leadership over the other disciples and that this role was an ongoing one which was filled by each succeeding bishop of Rome. A number of passages are cited to defend this position but the one which seems to be the most pivotal and the most convincing is Matthew 16:13-20 which says:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

There are a few things going on here. The first is the renaming of Peter followed by “upon this rock I will build my church.”  While it is certainly possible to see Peter as the rock, I don’t think we are obligated to do so. To see either Jesus himself or Peter’s confession as the rock is also possible.

Now the next sentence (“ 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”) does sound like Christ is investing Peter with some authority but it also a very enigmatic utterance and I think we have to ask what is meant by it. The immediate context doesn’t add much but a couple of chapters later in Matthew 18:15-20 we find:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 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. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

You will notice that the same language regarding binding and loosing is used here. I think the context gives us a little more idea of what these words mean. The subject at hand is really what to do when another Christian sins against you. There is a process involved which starts at the individual level and then may ultimately lead to what Protestants call “church discipline.” It seems based on v.1 that Jesus is here talking to all his disciples. He is certainly not singling out Peter exclusively and I think it is quite possible there may be even more than the 12 in view. It is hard to say since what Matthew gives us is a string of utterances which may in reality have occurred at different times. Given what comes before the binding and loosing bit in vv.15-17 it seems that any Christian could be involved since the command is to address the issue first on the individual level and that it is the church which is ultimately responsible for the binding and loosing. And then we come to verses 19 and 20 which say that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, Jesus is there in the midst of them. This to me takes a much broader view of what the church is – it is a gathering of believers, even a small one.

The other main passage I am aware of that Catholics point to is at the end of the gospels when Jesus tells Peter three times to “feed my sheep.” I do not think this is such a strong basis for the whole doctrine of the papacy and that without Matthew 16 it would not be much to rest that belief upon. Given Peter’s recent denials of Christ, I think it is just more about restoring Peter himself than about giving him special authority beyond what the others have. As I was looking back over the relevant passages, I also noted this one which comes just after the renaming of Peter:

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matt. 16:21-23)

Perhaps it is snarky of me to point it out but it is funny to me that Catholics spend so much time building an ecclesiology on v.18 in which Peter is called “Rock” but fail to note that five verses later he is called “Satan.”

As somewhat of a side note, we also need to examine the word used for “church” in these passages from Matthew. The Greek word used is ekklesia. While it is used for church later in the NT, it seems somewhat anachronistic here as Jesus has no church yet and we wouldn’t really expect his listeners to envision (yet) what the church would be. And of course Jesus wouldn’t have spoken Greek anyway. I suspect we would be better off translating these as “assembly” or “congregation.”


4 responses to this post.

  1. […] until that point what was necessary for salvation nor did I have saving faith. As I said in my earlier post on the (alleged) primacy of Peter, I found in the Catholic Church Law but not Grace. This may not be everyone’s experience but […]


  2. […] in support of the primacy of Peter: I have done one post on Matthew 16 which seems to be the major passage in support of Peter as foremost among the Apostles; you can read it here. […]


  3. […] of the Roman Catholic Church. One just seems to lead to another. So far I have talked about: the papacy, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and indulgences. As I mentioned in the most recent of these, […]


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