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The Papacy - An Introduction to the Biblical Basis for the Authority of the Pope

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(Last Updated:  15 May 2000 )

This page is a transcript of a talk I gave at a Catholic men's group.  I introduced the talk by outlining my view of Catholic apologetics, then proceeded to summarise some of the Biblical background behind the Catholic understanding of the Papacy.  Bible quotations are from the RSV.
Quick Index: Introduction / Matthew 16 / Isaiah 22 / Luke 22 / John 21 / Other Issues / Summing Up


Tonight we're going to focus on the issue of the papacy, because it's a biggie, and it's distinctively Catholic, and because the whole issue of authority in the church is one of the reasons why Christianity is so fractured these days.

We don't have a whole lot of time, so I'm mainly going to go through what the Bible has to say about authority in the Church, and what clues we have as to how Jesus intended things to work after his ascension.  We're going to look a lot at Peter, because he was the first Pope and a lot of the information we have about Church authority comes from the role he played as the leader of Jesus' followers.

We're going to have a close look at Matthew 16:18, which is a verse of Scripture we should all memorise, because it's a really important plank in our defence of the papacy.  This is where Jesus gives Peter his new name and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  But we won't actually start there, because we'll look back a bit and forward a bit to get an idea of the context.

Now we know that Peter was the leader of the 12 Apostles.  He is named first in all the lists of the apostles in the Bible, and his name appears more than the rest of the Apostles combined.

Let's look at two examples of Peter's role within a couple of chapters of Matthew 16.

The first is shortly afterwards, in Matthew 17: 24-27.  This is where the tax collectors come to Peter and ask him if his teacher pays the half-shekel tax.  Peter says yes, and after going home Jesus gets him to miraculously catch a fish with just enough money in its mouth to pay for both of them.  The point here is that the tax collectors knew exactly who to go to; they knew who it was that spoke for Jesus.

The second example is shortly before Matthew 16, in Matthew 14:26-31. The disciples are out in a boat, and they see Jesus walking towards them on the water.

Now there's a couple of really interesting points here that are easy to overlook but relate to our discussion about the Papacy.  The first is that Peter is actually able to miraculously walk on the water.  Jesus gives him a supernatural power.  And the second is that when Peter's faith begins to falter, Jesus reaches out and supports him.  This is the kind of protection that Jesus gives the pope in his office as leader of the Church, and it's related to the charism of infallibility that the Pope has when he teaches under certain conditions.  The gifts that the Pope has are not because of his own great strength or faith; they are there because it is Jesus who has promised to lend his support.

Matthew 16

So we should look at one of the places where Jesus makes this promise: Matthew, Chapter 16.  We'll start from verse 13:

Now there's a whole bunch of stuff to look at in here.  We'll start with the name change.

Firstly, Peter is called "Rock", and is made the foundation of the Church. A lot of people try to deny the plain meaning of this text because of what it means for Catholic claims about the papacy.  They say that "this rock" is something else, like Peter's confession of faith, or Jesus himself, but the text is pretty clear as to what's being spoken about (and the majority of Protestant scholars agree with this now - see, for example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Peter, paragraph 3).

I have heard interesting stories about how some people have tried to get around this passage.  One convert to Catholicism that I talked to over the Internet told about how one of her old pastors, when preaching on this passage, would accompany his preaching with various hand gestures of Jesus, saying something like "You are Peter" (with Jesus pointing at Peter), "and on this rock" (with Jesus pointing at himself) "I will build my church".

It's important to bear in mind the location where this all took place.  It was at Caesarea Philippi, right in front of a massive rock with a river flowing out of it and a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus on the top.  It was in front of this rock that Jesus called Peter "Rock", so I think it would have made quite an impression on everybody who was there.

A common objection to Catholic claims here is the distinction in Greek between the words used for rock.  The Greek of the passage says "you are Petros, on on this petra I will build my church".  People who make this objection say that Petros and petra mean "small stone" and "big rock", the idea being that Jesus was making a distinction between Peter and whatever it was that the church would be built on.  There's a reason for that difference in the Greek, but first we need to remember that Jesus wasn't speaking in Greek, he was speaking in Aramaic, where the word was the same in both cases, "kepha".  So Jesus said "You are kepha and on this kepha I will build my church".  We know this because, among other reasons, there's already an Aramaic expression in the passage itself ("Simon Bar-Jona"), but also because the answer is "at the back of the book", like in John 1:42, where Jesus calls Peter "Cephas", which is how you'd say "kepha" in Greek if you weren't translating it like Matthew does.  Matthew is trying to maintain in Greek the Aramaic word-play that Jesus sets up, but in Greek, names of things have a gender, like they do in French and Spanish and lots of other languages.  So Peter can't be called "Petra" because that's a feminine noun and it would be like giving him a girl's name.  To translate into Greek the best Matthew can do is say "Petros" which is a masculine word, and is suitable to apply to a man.

It's interesting that although Peter is quite a common name now, it was not used as a name before Jesus gave that name to Peter.  It would be like calling someone "Concrete" or something these days and then having that become a popular name.

Isaiah 22

Next we'll look at the keys.  Jesus says to Peter in verse 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."

Now this is really interesting.  We are familiar with using keys and the fact that they let you do stuff and go places, so it's a powerful image.  But there's a lot more to it than that.  We should remember that Matthew was writing primarily for the Jews, which is one of the reasons he's got that big genealogy of Jesus at the front of the gospel, because that sort of stuff was real important to them.  So the Jews would have been familiar with the Old Testament background of what Jesus was saying.  Jesus was referring to Isaiah 22.  There we have Isaiah making a prophecy about a man who is to take over the job of prime minister in the kingdom of Judah.

The role that Jesus was giving Peter was like the role that was given to Eliakim.  Eliakim was the steward over the Davidic kingdom.  Jesus was also a descendent of King David, and he appointed Peter as the steward over his kingdom, the Church.  The Prime Minister was a job that had been around for several hundred years when Isaiah made this prophecy.  It had been set up by King Solomon, and was modelled on the sort of job that Joseph had in the book of Genesis when the Pharaoh of Egypt put him in charge of the kingdom.

Here the king delegates his authority, so the Prime Minister speaks with the authority of the king.  Jesus is setting up Peter to do the same thing.  It's interesting how it says "he will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah".  This is just like how we call the Pope our Holy Father.

The Prime Minister is given the key of the house of David, just like Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  And the person with these keys can open and shut, just like Peter can bind and loose. Now, these are still Jesus' keys.  We can see that in Rev 3:7 where it says that Jesus "has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens".  But that just reinforces the fact that it is Jesus who is watching over and protecting what is being done with those keys.

So the Jews that Matthew was writing to would have known what was going on here.  And they would have known that Jesus was a descendant of King David, just like Hezekiah, the king who appointed Eliakim.  Matthew proves this in the genealogy at the front of his book.

Luke 22

Another key passage is Luke 22:31-32.  Jesus is at the Last Supper, and he says:

Now the interesting thing here is that when Jesus says "Satan demanded to have you", the "you" is in the plural, so he's talking about all the apostles.  But when Jesus says "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail", that's in the singular, which means that it's just Peter he's praying for.  And then he says "when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren".  This indicates that Peter, thanks to Jesus' prayer of protection, is going to display the rock-like qualities that the church will need, and just like when Peter was sinking down in the water, Jesus will support him so that he will always strengthen his brethren and not lead them into error.

John 21

Another passage along the same lines is John 21:15-17.  To get some of the context, this is one of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection.  Before Jesus shows up, Peter says "I'm going fishing", and the other apostles tag along with him, because he's the leader.  They don't catch anything until Jesus appears on the shore and gives them some advice.   Then they recognise Jesus and Peter leaps of the boat (sound familiar?) and heads for shore.  The others are struggling to bring this net in that's full of fish but then Jesus tells Peter to go and get it and he hauls the whole net in by himself.  Again, Peter achieving some amazing things because of the support of Jesus.  This ties in to Peter's commission in Mark 1:17 to be a "fisher of men". 

Then we have the famous passage in verses 15-17:

Not only is this a reversal of Peter's earlier three denials of Christ, it's a commissioning to be a shepherd of the flock of Jesus, which is the Church.  We know that Christ is the Good Shepherd, but here is passing on this ministry to Peter in a special way.

Other Issues

Now there's a whole lot more to cover in this topic but we don't have enough time.  I will just touch on a couple more issues and then we can maybe have some discussion time at the end.

First of all there is the issue of succession.  It's all very well to say these wonderful things about Peter, but does his office continue today?  Well, one thing's for sure: there was a definite need for an authoritative leadership in the Church down through the years, even more so than in New Testament times.  A whole bunch of heresies threatened to destroy the church over the years, but Jesus' protection has continued.

We should remember that although Peter had a very special place in the New Testament, Christ also granted the authority to bind and loose to the apostles as a whole in Matthew 18:18.  He said to the apostles "whoever hears you hears me" in Luke 10:16.  Apostles are still with us, through the office of the bishops of the Church.  We know from Eph 3:21 that the Church will exist for all generations, and we also know from Eph 4:11 that the office of apostle continues.  This office is passed down through apostolic succession as new bishops are ordained.  The first example of this is in Acts, Chapter 1, where Peter interprets one of the Psalms to indicate that Judas must be replaced.  Similarly, St Paul in several places gives instructions about ordaining bishops, and about the type of man who ought to have that role.

The succession of the papacy, and its development over time, is summarised quite well by David Palm, a Catholic convert who wrote an article on the papacy that I recently stumbled across.  This is what he says:

Then he lists 10 points about the office of the papacy being passed on after Peter:

And we should ask, why did Jesus establish the papacy?  One of the main reasons has to be that Jesus did not want to see us "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine", like it says in Eph 4:14.  The Pope is there to speak with the authority of Christ, so that we know that what the Church teaches is the truth of God.

We should remember that as it says in Eph 3:10, "through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places."  As it says in 1 Tim 3:15, it is the Church which is the pillar and foundation of the truth, and the Pope is an important part of God's plan for protecting that truth for us.

Summing Up

I'd like to finish with a quote from GK Chesterton, who was a convert to the Church and a real literary genius.  He had a very realistic view of the Church and of the Papacy, and he knew that it was not because of Peter's greatness that Jesus chose him to lead the Church, and that the office of the Papacy has nothing to do with the talent or personality of whoever happens to hold that office.  All the charisms of the papacy are there because of Jesus.  This is what Chesterton said:

There were a number of resources that I drew from in preparing this presentation.  Of particular use were a couple of talks, one by Tim Staples, another by Scott Hahn, and a paper by David Palm, which I quoted from at length.

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