Matthew 16 and the Papacy: The Authority of a Message, Not an Office

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 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.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. – Matthew 16:13-20

The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) appeals to Matthew 16:18-19 as biblical basis for their teaching that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ (i.e., Christ’s representative on earth) and the one who exercises authority over the worldwide church (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church 881, 882).

The RCC takes the statements “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” and “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” to mean that Jesus invested Peter with the authority of total oversight of the universal church. As Peter’s successor, the Pope retains Peter’s authority of spiritual “binding and loosing” which means he has doctrinal and ecclesial control over all of Christ’s sheep. According to Rome, the Pope is “pastor of the entire Church [and] has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (CCC 882).

The Reformers in the sixteenth century and evangelicals today disagree with the way this text is used to support the notion of apostolic succession and Papal authority. Indeed, to be Protestant is, at least, to reject the authority of the Pope and the office of the Papacy. Furthermore, it is argued by evangelicals that this text simply cannot support the elaborate hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic episcopal system with the Pope as supreme leader-teacher.

First, it should be noted that Jesus’ response to Peter (“And you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church”) is probably understood best as a reference to Peter in light of his confession of Jesus as the Christ. Gregg Allison implies we make a false distinction when we argue that Jesus is referring to either Peter or his confession.

Whereas some evangelical theologians interpret ‘this rock’ as a reference to Peter, and others a reference to his confession, a more plausible understanding is that the rock is Peter in virtue of his confession” (Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment182).

In other words, it would be upon the truth that Jesus is the Christ and the preaching of Peter and the apostles that the Son of God would build his church. We see the immediate fulfillment of this promise in Acts where Peter and the apostles preach repentance and faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:14-47).

Therefore, Jesus’ reference to the keys of the kingdom and to binding and loosing  has to do with the preaching of the gospel and people’s response to it, not to a supreme office of universal church oversight. Allison explains,

These keys have to do with the gospel and people’s response to it: those who repent of sin and embrace Jesus Christ by faith are “loosed” from their sin, death, and condemnation, domination by the world, and enslavement to the evil one. In contrast, those who refuse to heed the good news are “bound” in that persistent, hellish nightmare. Accordingly, those who have been loosed from sin are incorporated into the church as citizens of the kingdom of God (Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 94)

In Matthew 16:18-19, therefore, Jesus is explaining that the gospel itself has the authority to determine what is bound and loosed in heaven—i.e., who has forgiveness of sins and who doesn’t—and it would be upon this gospel and the preaching of Peter and the other apostles that Jesus would build his church. The apostles, though invested with unique authority in virtue of their apostolic calling, would not hand this unique authority down to successors who would then bequeath that authority to subsequent successors. Yes, they would bequeath authority to others, but it would the authority of a message not the authority of an office. 

Therefore, for the RCC to argue at the time of Luther and even today from this text that the Pope is the apostolic successor to Peter is to engage in a practice of reading their doctrine of the Papacy into the text rather than drawing their doctrine of the Papacy from the text.

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