William Webster


Having looked at the subject of Roman Catholic tradition in a general sense, we now turn to specific areas of teaching which make up the content of that tradition. This is important because, as we have already noted, the ultimate issue at stake in the debate concerning Scripture and tradition is that of authority. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be sanctioned with an ultimate ruling and infallible teaching authority over the entire Church of Jesus Christ through the unbroken succession of popes and bishops from Peter. Vatican I, which met in 1869-1870, essentially set out the following propositions on the right of papal rule and infallibility:1

  1. Christ gave Peter the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church as well as the entire world.
  2. Inherent in the primacy of jurisdiction is also an infallible teaching authority over the entire Church.
  3. This right of jurisdiction is passed down to Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome, for all time.
  4. When speaking ex cathedra, that is, when speaking in his official capacity as pope, and defining a doctrine on a matter of faith or morals, the Roman pontiff teaches infallibly.
  5. The Roman pontiff has absolute authority in himself; possesses authority over all councils; his judgment cannot be questioned; he, himself, can be judged by no human tribunal.
  6. The Roman Church has ever remained free from all blemish of error and the doctrines of the Catholic faith have always been kept undefiled by her.
  7. If any questions of faith arise within the Church universal they must be defined by the judgment of the Roman pontiff.
  8. It has at all times in the history of the Church been necessary that every Church throughout the world should agree with the Roman Church.
  9. These teachings have always been held by the entire Church through all ages and can be validated by the Scriptures, the canons of general councils and the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
  10. It is necessary for salvation that everyone who professes to be a Christian must be submitted to the authority of the Roman pontiff in all areas of faith, morals and discipline, and if anyone disagrees with these teachings of Vatican I they are anathematized.

This is the cornerstone of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition. According to Vatican I, papal rule and infallibility rest on two foundations: the Scriptures and the facts of history. In this and the next chapter we want to analyze the scriptural and historical claims for these papal teachings.

The scriptural foundation is Rome’s exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19,John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:32. Our examination of these crucial issues must therefore begin with Jesus’ words to Peter in these passages. In this chapter we will see how Roman Catholic theologians have interpreted them and consider whether they can be interpreted in a different and more accurate way, and how the early Church and the Church Fathers interpreted them. Does their interpretation support the Roman Catholic claim for papal authority and infallibility? We take first the words of Christ in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower 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 shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

As is well-known, ‘this rock’ is interpreted by Rome to mean the person of Peter himself. The exegesis is that Christ changes the apostle’s name from Simon to Peter, and then tells Peter that he is going to build his Church on him personally. That this is the meaning Christ intends is placed beyond all doubt, it is claimed, by his words which immediately follow. He promises to give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven with authority to bind and loose. Roman Catholic apologists point out that since keys represent authority in Scripture, Peter is given supreme authority over the entire Church and this is passed on to the Roman bishops who are his successors. But it is not only authority over the Church which is handed down. Rome teaches that the gift of infallibility is implied in Christ’s promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church, and that the promises of Christ to be with the Church by his Spirit (Matt. 28:20, John 14:16-17, 26) and Christ’s words to Peter in John 21 and Luke 22 likewise presuppose infallibility.

The Protestant Church, on the other hand, generally asserts that this exegesis is incorrect. It maintains that when Christ states he will build his Church on a rock, he is not referring to Peter personally but to Peter’s confession that Christ is the Son of God, and therefore to Jesus as the rock. This point of view is validated by a number of lines of reasoning without having to repeat the worn-out arguments on the differences between the Greek terms petros and petra in Matthew 16. In particular, these supporting evidences are Peter’s own interpretation of the rock of the Church; the larger contextual meaning of the word rock as it is used in both the Old and New Testaments; the contextual interpretation of the entire Matthew 16 passage, beginning with verse 13 and going through verse 19; and finally the overall patristic interpretation of Matthew 16. We will look at each of these evidences in turn, If there is one person who should have known what Christ meant by the words he spoke as recorded in Matthew 16:18 it was Peter himself. Did Peter consider himself to be the first pope and the rock on which the Church would be built? Peter himself gives us the answer in 1 Peter 2:4-8, where he says:

And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.’ This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.’

The precious stone and cornerstone, the rock upon which the Church will be built, according to Peter, is not himself, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor does Peter view himself as being vested with authority over the other apostles. In 1 Peter 5:1-4 he states:

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Peter refers to himself simply as a fellow elder with the other elders of the Church, all of whom are under the ultimate authority of the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter does not think of himself as the vicar of Christ or the visible head of the Church. He is an apostle among other apostles of equal standing and a fellow elder with other elders. There is only one head and one ruler of the Church and that is Jesus Christ. This exegesis of the rock as being Christ who is the foundation of the Church as the One upon whom the Church would be built finds support from both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we find the Lord himself described as the rock, the one sure foundation of security and salvation. For example:

Psa. 62:5-6: My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be shaken.

Psa. 18:1-2: I love Thee, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge.

Psa. 89:26: He will cry to Me, ‘Thou art my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’

Over and over again in the Old Testament it is God himself who is referred to as the rock — as the one and only source and foundation and refuge for salvation and deliverance.

In the familiar prophecy in Daniel 2:31-44 we read of the stone which strikes the kingdoms of the world and then itself stands for ever. The Jews saw the stone as the person of the Messiah. Obviously it represents that which is divine for it is described as a stone ‘cut out without hands’.

The word ‘foundation’ is another important word, parallel with the word rock, and it is also used in reference to the person of the Lord himself, In the Old Testament, the word in a literal sense refers to the foundation upon which a building rests. For example in Ezra 3:10 it says, ‘Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets. . . to praise the Lord.’ This word is important for it is used in a key passage in the Old Testament that is appropriated by the New Testament apostles as speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 28:16 we read:

Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.’

Notice the threefold description here. The stone or rock is not only a cornerstone, but a foundation. And this is the very passage which we have seen Peter use with reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter also, along with Paul, applies to Christ the descriptions of the Messiah in Isaiah 8:13 and Psalm 118:22 as the rejected stone, the stone of stumbling and rock of offence. In Acts 4:11-12 he says:

He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the very cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.

So here we see the terms stone and cornerstone being identified with the salvation which is in Jesus Christ alone. Paul re-emphasizes this in three other passages. In Ephesians 2:20 he states that the Church is built upon the foundation of Christ as the cornerstone, and in 1 Corinthians 10:4 he states specifically that the rock is Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 he says, ‘For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid — which is Jesus Christ.’

To whom then do the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New Testament, consistently point as the rock, the stone, the cornerstone and the foundation upon which the Church would be built? Jesus Christ the Lord, the Son of the living God, he alone is the rock of our salvation.

These facts then give the broader context in which to interpret Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 16. Peter does not refer to himself as the rock, but to Christ, and the broader context of the scriptural teaching on the rock justifies our interpreting the rock of Matthew 16 as referring to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ as opposed to Peter. But, in addition to this, there are other considerations in Matthew 16 which do not support the Roman Catholic interpretation. There is absolutely nothing in this passage which speaks of successors to Peter and the passing on of his personal prerogatives to them. The keys, rather than signifying the establishment of the institution of the papacy and supreme authority to rule the Church and the world, are representative of the authority to exercise discipline in the Church and to proclaim the gospel, declaring the free forgiveness of sins in the Lord Jesus Christ. Such a declaration opens the kingdom of God to men or, if they reject the message, closes it to them. The keys are not the possession of a single individual, for exactly the same authority which Christ promises to Peter he also grants to the other apostles in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22-23. They are all given authority to bind or loose by declaring the forgiveness of sins through Christ. They are all equals under the authority of one head, the Lord Jesus. The authority they are given is a delegated, declarative authority, which is in Christ’s name and comes from him who alone possesses the supreme authority to rule the Church.

To justify such an interpretation, we must make a careful investigation of Matthew 16:13-19 and the passages related to it. Jesus tells his disciples that he will build his Church and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. He reveals that there are two kingdoms on this earth: the kingdom of God or of heaven, and all who are part of the true Church are part of this kingdom; and the kingdom of Satan as represented by the gates of Hades. The two are obviously in conflict with one another. Gates are defensive, enclosing Satan and the men and women whom he would lead to eternal destruction. When Jesus says that he will build his Church, he is saying that he is going to invade Satan’s kingdom and his defences will not be able to withstand the attack. The Church will be built, the kingdom of God will be advanced. But how are the prisoners within Satan’s kingdom set free into the kingdom of God, so that the Church is built? The answer is through the proclamation of the gospel which declares the forgiveness of sins, deliverance from Satan and eternal judgment, and the certain gift of eternal life — all based on the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Men enter the kingdom when they are born again and redeemed by the blood of Christ, and it is this to which the terms ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ in Matthew 16:19 refer. The Greek word for ‘loose’ is luo. It means to destroy; to set free one who is bound; to loosen; to release; to dissolve. It is used in 1 John 3:8 where the apostle writes: ‘The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil.’ The word ‘destroy’ here is luo and it has direct reference to Satan and sin. This emphasis is brought out even more emphatically by Revelation 1:5: ‘To Him who loves us, and released [luo] us from our sins by His blood’ which could just as accurately be translated, ‘who [loosed] us from our sins by His blood.’ This is the basic idea behind loosing. It speaks of deliverance from Satan and coming under the dominion of God, and therefore entering into his kingdom and receiving forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ.2

The Greek word Jesus uses in Matthew 16:19 for ‘binding’ is deo, which simply means to be bound; to be in bonds; to be a captive. So ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ have to do with the proclamation of the gospel and the certainty of forgiveness and deliverance in Jesus Christ for those who repent and believe. Men and women who receive the message and come to Christ will be loosed from their sins, and will enter into the kingdom of God.

It is significant that in the thematically parallel passage in John 20, just before Jesus commissioned his disciples and vested them with the authority of the keys on the night before he was crucified, he told them: ‘As the Father has sent Me, I also send you’ (John 20:21). He then granted them authority to continue to do what the Father had sent him to do. The Father sent Jesus with authority to preach the gospel, and in giving the disciples authority to forgive and retain sins he is simply authorizing them to preach the gospel also. The authority they receive is a delegated authority, as is clear from Matthew 28:18-19 where Jesus says, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’ This delegated authority was not jurisdictional, it was declarative — to proclaim the message of the gospel, which is clear from the recorded history of the activity of the disciples after the ascension of Christ and of the amplification of Christ’s commission given in Luke 24:46-49:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.

Following the anointing of all the disciples at Pentecost, the book of Acts relates how they exercised the function of the keys in proclaiming the gospel they were commanded to preach. They faithfully testified to the person and work of Christ and the urgent need for repentance and faith, assuring men that they could be loosed, but warning them that if they rejected the message they would be bound (Acts 2:14-40; 3:11-26; 5:29-32; 8:25-37; 10:34-48; 13:17-52; 14:14-18; 16:30-31; 17:1-4, 22-34; 19:20-21; 24:10-27; 26:1-29; 28:23-31). This is the meaning of binding and loosing as Jesus describes it in Matthew 16:19. It is authority to declare the gospel and offer men the kingdom of God and free forgiveness of sins. As Christ is preached and men respond, the kingdom of God will be extended and the Church will be built.

In an attempt to find some biblical sanction for the Roman Catholic teaching that the ‘rock’ of Matthew 16 refers to Peter, his successors and the establishing of a papal office, some contemporary Roman Catholic apologists appeal to the key of David mentioned in Isaiah 22:20-22:

Then it will come about in that day, that I will summon My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah and I will clothe him with your tunic, and tie your sash securely about him, I will entrust him with your authority, and he will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open.

Roman apologists assert the following: First, the position Eliakim was put into was a dynastic position, i.e., one that had successors. Second, usage of the term ‘key’ connects this passage with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:19, and Jesus may even be quoting Isaiah 22:22. They then parallel the ‘opening and shutting’ of Isaiah 22 with the ‘binding and loosing’ of Matthew 16. Peter, they assert, is the ‘prime minister’ of the Church. There is no tension or ‘tug-of-war’ between Peter and Jesus, just as there was none between the king and prime minister in the Old Testament. Since the passage in Isaiah refers to an office that has successors, then Jesus must mean Peter to have successors as the ‘prime minister’ of the Church.

But the Lord Jesus Christ has already given the correct interpretation and application of the Isaiah 22 passage: in Revelation 3:7 Jesus quotes from Isaiah 22:22 and applies it to himself: ‘And to the angel of the church of Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this . . .’ Who is the one who holds the key? (note the present tense — since this is spoken after the resurrection, and, it would seem probable, after the death of Peter). The Lord Jesus Christ, and nobody else.3

Scripture teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church (Col. 1:18) and that the Holy Spirit is his vicar on earth. In John 14:l6 Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to his Church permanently to indwell believers. He says, ‘And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth.’ Note that he refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘another’ Helper. The word ‘another’ here obviously implies that just as Jesus had been the Helper to the disciples during his ministry on earth, so the Holy Spirit would take his place when he ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit will rule the Church and direct it in Christ’s bodily absence — Jesus did not appoint a human head and ruler of his Church, but told us that the Holy Spirit will fuffil that function.

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As convincing as these exegetical arguments are, there is an additional reason for believing that this interpretation of Matthew 16 is the correct one. It is that this exegesis of Jesus’ words to Peter best fits the history of the New Testament Church as well as the history of the Church in the centuries following the apostolic age. The First Vatican Council (1869-70) convened by Pope Pius IX, affirmed that it could validate its claims and its interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 by the practice of the Church throughout the ages, as well as through the universal consent of the Fathers.

But if the Roman Catholic interpretation were correct, after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we would expect to see Peter as the undisputed head and ruler of the Church, acknowledged as such by the apostles and the Church in general. We would expect to see Peter playing the dominant role in the building of the Church, and we would expect to see a clear and unanimous testimony of the early Church — in its teaching and its practice, and in the writings of the Fathers — to the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19.

We would also expect to find an acknowledgement of the bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter and supreme ruler of the entire Church with ultimate authority in all matters related to faith, morals and discipline, and a submission to him in that rule. After all, Vatican I explicitly says that it has at all times been necessary for all Christians to be in agreement with the Bishop of Rome and that this has, in fact, been the perpetual practice of the Church from the very beginning. Finally, we would expect to find the popes exercising their special prerogatives in leading and guiding the Church in positively proclaiming the truth and protecting it from heresy. These are what we would expect — but what do the historical facts tell us?

There is no doubt that Peter plays a dominant role in the New Testament history prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When the apostles are named in Scripture, Peter is almost always mentioned first; Peter was the one who generally spoke for the other apostles and he is the most fully-drawn figure of them all in the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus. But do we see Peter as the dominant figure, the supreme ruler and teacher in the Church after the resurrection of Christ? No. Peter is the first to preach the gospel to the crowds at Pentecost and is also the first to open the kingdom to the Gentiles by preaching to Cornelius-pioneering actions which are certainly a fulfilment of Christ’s promise to him. However, the biblical accounts present powerful evidence that Peter was not accorded greater authority than the other apostles and was certainly not seen as the head of the new Church.

The book of Acts records that the Jerusalem Council was presided over not by Peter, but by Jesus’ brother James. Peter was sent by the Church along with John on a mission to Syria, an unlikely event if Peter was the defacto leader; while in one of the most dramatic events of the apostolic era, Paul actually rebuked Peter at Antioch for behaviour which was compromising the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul was responsible for establishing churches and setting up their ruling organizations across Europe and Asia Minor, but he says absolutely nothing in any of his epistles about the need to be in submission to Peter as the supreme head of the Church. In fact, Paul regarded himself as personally responsible for overseeing, guiding and protecting these fledgling believers. He considered himself to be on an equal plane with all the other apostles (2 Cor 12:11) — he was the apostle to the Gentiles while Peter was the apostle to the Jews. Paul operated independently and on his own authority, as opposed to being under the authority of Peter.

While there is some historical evidence that Peter may have been in Rome and was martyred there, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he was ever bishop of Rome.4 There are a number of writings from the first to the fifth centuries which speak of the fact that both Peter and Paul founded the church at Rome and that both were martyred there. But these records say nothing about Peter staying in Rome and exercising a ministry as a bishop. In fact, Irenaeus specifically says that Peter and Paul both left Rome after founding the church there.

The Catalogus Liberianus (354 A.D.) reports that Peter went to Rome and spent twenty-five years in the city as bishop until his martyrdom. But this statement is contradicted by the facts of history. Peter was an apostle and apostles did not function as bishops over local churches. They ordained presbyters who became overseers, and it was these men who were, in turn, responsible to the apostles. To speak of anyone being a bishop over the church as early as the first century is anachronistic, for the episcopate was a later development.

Further, when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans and his various epistles from prison in Rome there is absolutely no mention of Peter. Paul also wrote to the Romans expressing the wish to come to them to impart some spiritual gift, in order that they might be established. He would scarcely have done so if Peter were already in Rome. And we know from other scriptures that it was Paul, not Peter, who was called to lead in the evangelization of the Gentiles (Gal. 2:8).

It has also been claimed that Peter established his line of successors by ordaining Linus to take over the bishopric at his death. But in his major work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus tells us that when Peter and Paul had founded the church at Rome and built it up, they both committed its oversight to Linus then left the city. Anacletus followed Linus, and he was followed by Clement. It is obvious that Peter, according to Irenaeus, was not the bishop of Rome and Linus was not the second pope for he exercised his ministry in Rome while Peter was still alive. From a Roman Catholic perspective this presents the problem of having two popes reigning at the same time.

The fact is, we know very little about the activities and whereabouts of the Apostle Peter after the resurrection of Christ. We know that he was in Jerusalem and Antioch, but his life and ministry are very much eclipsed by the Apostle Paul. Given that Peter was certainly in Antioch, it would seem that the bishop of Antioch has more of an historical right to claim the supposed supremacy of Peter than the bishop of Rome, if the right rests on the actual place where Peter exercised his ministry.

There has been a strong tradition that Peter was martyred at Rome, but whereas we do know that Paul was in Rome and had a direct influence on the church there, we do not know that for certain about Peter. In the light of these facts, the Roman Catholic historian Richard McBrien concludes: ‘The question to be posed, therefore, on the basis of an investigation of the New Testament is not whether Peter was the first pope, but whether the subsequent, post-biblical development of the Petrine office is, in fact, consistent with the thrust of the New Testament.’5

Vatican I claims that the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 has been held universally throughout the Church and that it can appeal to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. Yet the early Fathers are quite varied in their opinions and interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19. Some speak of the ‘rock’ to mean Christ, some to mean Peter and others to mean Peter’s confession of Christ. No Fathers of the first two centuries can be cited as supporters of the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18.6 They are silent on the interpretation of the ‘rock’, and the overwhelming majority of the Fathers through the entire patristic age (Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Basil the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Ambrosiaster, Pacian, Epiphanius, Aphraates, Ephraim, John Cassian, Theodoret, Eusebius, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, John of Damascus, and many others) all disagree with the Roman Church’s interpretation of Matthew 16:18.6 The vast majority of the Fathers do not recognize the personal prerogatives of Peter as being transferred in a personal way to the bishop of Rome, thereby making him the head of the Church.7

Roman Catholic apologists are quick to protest against such a statement by referring to the many adulations given by the Fathers to the apostle Peter. What they say is partially true. Many of the Fathers speak in very exalted terms of Peter referring to him as ‘coryphaeus’, leader of the apostles, first of the disciples, foundation of the Church and teacher of the world. But such praise of Peter does not support the Roman Catholic claims. First of all, many of the terms such as ‘coryphaeus’, teacher of the world and foundation of the Church were applied by the Fathers not only to Peter but to the other apostles as well, especially Paul and John. Secondly, Roman Catholic apologists make the common error of assuming that because a particular Father speaks of Peter in a certain way, his comments likewise refer to the bishop of Rome as Peter’s successor. But this is simply not the case. Their words about Peter are unique to Peter, or they apply to the other apostles as well. But they have no reference to the bishops of Rome at all, because the Fathers make no such application. This is a classic case of a much-later generation reading a preconceived theology into earlier writings. An examination of patristic literature on Matthew 16:18-19 will prove this point. We will find a unanimity of interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19, but it is one of near unanimous opposition to the Roman Catholic interpretation as articulated by Vatican I.

Augustine is fairly representative of the opinion of the Fathers in these comments on Matthew 16:

But whom say ye that I am? Peter answered, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ One for many gave the answer, Unity in many. Then said the Lord to him, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Barjonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.’ Then He added, ‘and I say unto thee.’ As if He had said, ‘Because thou hast said unto Me, ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God,” I also say unto thee, ‘Thou art Peter.” For before he was called Simon. Now this name of Peter was given him by the Lord, and in a figure, that he should signify the Church. For seeing that Christ is the rock (petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. ‘Therefore,’ he saith, ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock’ which thou hast confessed, upon this rock which thou hast acknowledged, saying, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;’ that is upon Myself, the Son of the Living God, ‘will I build My Church.’ I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon Thee.

For men who wished to be built upon men, said, “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas,” who is Peter. But others who did not wish to build upon Peter, but upon the Rock, said, “But! am of Christ.” And when the Apostle Paul ascertained that he was chosen, and Christ despised, he said, “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” And, as not in the name of Paul, so neither in the name of Peter; but in the name of Christ: that Peter might be built upon the Rock, not the Rock upon Peter.8

These comments by Augustine are highly significant. Here we have the man claimed by Rome as their most renowned theologian of the patristic age, the pre-eminent member of the ‘infallible’ magisterium, and yet he gives an interpretation of the most important passage in all the Bible for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church and its authority, which is diametrically opposed to the Roman interpretation. How does one explain this? If there were truly, as Vatican I states, a unanimous consensus of interpretation of the Roman meaning of this passage, why do we find Augustine deliberately going against such a consensus? The answer, quite simply, is that there never was such a consensus.

Tertullian, at the beginning of the third century, was the first to identify the ‘rock’ of Matthew 16:18 with Peter in his treatise On Modesty. But what he means by this identification is not that Peter is the rock in the sense, that the Church is built on him, but that it is built through him as he preaches the gospel. And the keys are the declarative authority to proclaim the forgiveness or loosing of sins in Jesus Christ.9

Cyprian, like Tertullian, states in his work On the Unity of the Church that the rock of Matthew 16 is the person of Peter. But he also did not mean this in the sense of the Roman Catholic interpretation. His view is similar to that of Augustine in maintaining that Peter is a symbol of the principle of unity. The entire episcopate, according to Cyprian, is the foundation of the Church, though Christ himself is the true rock. All of the bishops constitute the Church and rule over their individual areas of responsibility as co-equals:

Certainly the other Apostles also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship both of honour and power; but a commencement is made from unity, that the Church may be set before us as one; which one Church, in the Song of Songs, doth the Holy Spirit design and name in the Person of our Lord.10

The Roman Catholic historian, Michael Winter, acknowledges that though Cyprian does describe the rock as referring to Peter, he does not mean this in a pro-Roman sense:

Cyprian used the Petrine text of Matthew to defend episcopal authority, but many later theologians, influenced by the papal connections of the text, have interpreted Cyprian in a pro-papal sense which was alien to his thought. . . Cyprian would have used Matthew 16 to defend the authority of any bishop, but since he happened to employ it for the sake of the Bishop of Rome, it created the impression that he understood it as referring to papal authority. . . Catholics as well as Protestants are now generally agreed that Cyprian did not attribute a superior authority to Peter.11

Many have also misunderstood Cyprian’s use of the term the ‘chair of Peter’. Cyprian states: ‘There is One God, and One Christ, and One Church, and one chair founded by the word of the Lord on the Rock (Peter). Another altar cannot be set up, nor a new priesthood made, besides the one altar and one priesthood.’12 The confusion arises from assuming that Cyprian’s use of the term has reference in an exclusive sense to the See of Rome. But this was not the meaning Cyprian intended to communicate. The ‘chair of Peter’ was a term that applied to all bishops no matter what see they were in and all were the successors of Peter. As Roman Catholic historian Robert Eno states: ‘The Chair of Peter.. . belongs to each lawful bishop in his own see. Cyprian holds the Chair of Peter in Carthage and Cornelius in Rome. . .You must hold to this unity if you are to remain in the Church.’13

For Cyprian, the bishop of Rome holds a primacy of honour but he does not possess universal jurisdiction over the Church. Cyprian did not view the bishop of Rome to be his superior.

Another Latin Father who is often cited in support of the Roman interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is Ambrose. It is not uncommon in polemical literature to read the following quotation from his writings: ‘It is to Peter himself that He says: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.” Where Peter is, there is the Church.”14

The interpretation often given to these words is that the rock is Peter and that the bishops of Rome, as his successors, are the rocks of the Church. Therefore the Church is founded upon the universal rule of the bishops of Rome, for where Peter is, there is the Church. However, Ambrose has made other comments on Peter and Matthew 16 and has explained exactly what he means when he says that Peter is the rock.15 He means it in the sense that he was the first to openly confess faith in Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. The rock, then, is not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession of faith. It is this faith which is the foundation of the Church. Peter possesses a primacy but, as Ambrose explains, it is one of confession and faith, not of honour or rank in the sense of ruling over the other apostles. So when Ambrose states that ‘Where Peter is, there is the Church’, he means where Peter’s confession is, there is the Church. He does not mean the bishops of Rome at all.

What has been said of the Latin Fathers can be said equally of those from the East. For example, Chrysostom is typical when he refers to Peter as the ‘leader of the apostles’ (On the Inscription of the Acts, II) and ‘head of the choir’ (Homily 88 on John) and yet he does not interpret the rock of Matthew 16:18 in the Roman Catholic sense.16 Chrysostom argues that the rock is not the person of Peter, but Peter’s confession of faith in Christ to be the Son of God. And, like Ambrose, he says that where Peter is, there is the Church in the sense of Peter’s confession: ‘Though we do not retain the body of Peter, we do retain the faith of Peter, and retaining the faith of Peter we have Peter.’17

Chrysostom followed the teaching of Origen that the rock is to be interpreted as Peter’s confession of faith and this exegesis became standard for the Eastern Church as a whole throughout the centuries. On the one hand the Eastern Fathers and theologians held very high views of the status of the apostle Peter but they did not transfer that status to the bishops of Rome. In their thinking, Rome was not the only see founded by Peter and, as with Cyprian, all bishops are the successors of Peter. The great twelfth-century Orthodox theologian, Theophylact of Bulgaria, in his comments on Matthew 16:18, follows the patristic tradition and reveals how the East could speak of the Church being founded on Peter and yet interpret this in a completely non-Roman sense:

The Lord favours Peter, giving him a great reward, because he built the church upon him. For since Peter had confessed Jesus son of God, Jesus said that this confession which Peter uttered would be the foundation of future believers, just as every man should be about to raise up the house of faith and should be about to lay this foundation. For even if we put together innumerable virtues, we, however, may not have the foundation — a proper confession, and we build in vain. Moreover since Jesus said my church, he showed himself to be the lord of creation: for all realities serve God. . . .Therefore if we shall have been confirmed in the confession of Christ, the gates of hell, that is, sins, will not prevail against us.18

Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff sums up the Orthodox point of view throughout the Middle Ages in these comments:

Orthodox ecclesiastical writers were never ashamed of praising the ‘coryphaeus’ and of recognizing his pre-eminent function in the very foundation of the Church. They simply did not consider this praise and recognition as relevant in any way to the papal claims, since any bishop, and not only the pope, derives his ministry from the ministry of Peter. . . It belongs to the essence of Orthodox ecclesiology to consider any local bishop to be the teacher of his flock and therefore to fulfil sacramentally, through the apostolic succession, the office of the first true believer, Peter.19

What all this reveals is that there is no patristic theological consensus to support the papal interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 which equates the rock with the person of Peter and through him exclusively to the bishops of Rome thereby assigning them pre-eminence in the Church through the authority of the keys. The Roman Catholic Church cannot appeal to the ‘universal consent of the Fathers’ to support its exegesis of Matthew 16 because such a consensus does not exist. Appendix 5 documents the comments of twenty Fathers from the third to the eighth centuries on the meaning of Matthew 16, demonstrating that the overwhelming view of the Church has not been that set forth by the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not to say there was no pro-papal interpretation given in the history of the Church. From the fifth century there is the beginning of a clear and consistent papal interpretation, with Leo I being the first to combine the three Petrine passages of Matthew 16:18-19, Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17 to promote papal claims. But this exegesis was never accepted by the Fathers of the patristic age or the leading theologians and doctors of the Eastern and Western Church for centuries afterwards. The medieval scholar and theologian, Karlfried Froehlich, affirms these facts when he says:

Three biblical texts have traditionally been cited as the religious foundation of papal primacy: Matt. 16:18-19; Luke 22:32; and John 21:15-17. . .The combination of the three passages in support of the primatial argument reaches far back in the history of the Roman papacy. Leo I and Gelasius I seem to have been the first to use it.. . However, it would be a mistake to assume that the papal interpretation was the standard exegesis everywhere . . . Quite on the contrary, the understanding of these Petrine texts by biblical exegetes in the mainstream of the tradition was universally non-primatial before Innocent III, and that it was the innovative exegetical argumentation of this imposing pope which began to change the picture.20

The facts reveal that, apart from the popes themselves, the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 has historically been universally rejected by the Church, in both the East and West. John Bigane has demonstrated that the predominant historical exegesis of Matthew 16:18 by the major theologians and doctors of the Church throughout the Middle Ages and to the mid-sixteenth century did not equate the rock with Peter but followed the patristic tradition in equating it with Christ or faith.21 Roman apologists often claim that the Protestant exegesis of the Matthew 16 passage grew out of the Reformers’ need to legitimize their opposition to the papacy and consequently they invented a novel exegesis which contradicted the traditional view of the Church as a whole. But such is not the case. The Protestant exegesis is confirmed by the universal testimony of the Church Fathers, as Oscar Cullmann observes: ‘We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformers gave . . . was not first Invented for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition.’22

*    *    *

We have looked in detail at the historical exegesis of Matthew 16 with reference to the subject of papal primacy and we have seen that, relative to the issue of the meaning of the rock and keys, the Fathers unanimously reject the Roman Catholic interpretation. The same is true regarding the interpretation of Matthew 16 with respect to papal infallibility. None of the Fathers have interpreted the phrase — the gates Of hell shall not prevail against the Church — as meaning that personal infallibility had been conveyed to Peter and through him to the bishops of Rome as his successors. Such an interpretation is non-existent in the patristic literature. There is not one Father in the entire history of the Church who has interpreted the passage in that way. And when we investigate the interpretation of Luke 22 and John 21 we find exactly the same thing. There is not the slightest hint of a belief in papal infallibility in the Fathers who interpreted these passages.

The patristic exegesis of Luke 22:32 sees Christ’s prayer for Peter as a guarantee that Peter’s faith will not ultimately fail — not that he would be infallible. And it also saw Peter as representative of the Church as a whole, assuring us that Christ will not allow the Church ultimately to fall away.

And the situation is similar when we turn to the interpretation of John 21 where Jesus questions Peter about his love and commands him to feed his sheep. As for Luke 22, this verse had two meanings for the Fathers. The verse could first of all apply to Peter personally, in which case it had to do with the meaning of personal discipleship, or it applied to the Church as a whole in Peter who was representative of all who would hold positions of pastors within the Church. For the Fathers of the patristic age, this verse had nothing to do with papal primacy or with an exclusive teaching authority over the entire Church which implied a gift of infallibility. These views are those expressed by Augustine and Jerome and they became normative for the Church of the Middle Ages.

In his book Origins of Papal Infallibility, Brian Tierney has documented that in this time frame Luke 22 and John 21 were never applied exclusively to Peter and through him to the bishops of Rome. The theologians and exegetes of the eighth through the fourteenth centuries followed Augustine’s interpretation and applied the verses to Peter personally and then to Peter as representative of the Church as a whole. All the theologians, doctors and canonists of the Church followed the patristic interpretation.

They did not view Luke 22 as granting a personal infallibility to Peter, much less to the bishops of Rome. According to them, Christ did not promise to Peter personal immunity from error in his leadership but the grace of final perseverance. Christ’s promise to Peter was taken to mean simply that the Church would always survive, that the true faith would always live on. This was the common doctrine of the Church. It was the view of the universally recognized and authoritative Glossa Ordinaria of Johannes Teutonicus. So the whole view of the Church in interpreting Luke 22, whether it was to Peter personally or to the Church as represented in Peter, was one of indefectibility as opposed to infallibility.

The medieval theologians and canonists never taught that the popes were infallible. In fact, just the opposite. It was universally believed that popes could err. It was not until the fourteenth century that one begins to see a reinterpretation of the primary texts of Matthew 16, Luke 22 and John 21 to reflect a theory of papal infallibility.

Brian Tierney makes the interesting observation that Vatican I mentions the formula of Hormisdas — that in the Roman Church or the Apostolic See, the faith has always been kept undefiled — as proof of papal infallibility. However, as he points out, the Church for centuries did not interpret this statement as meaning a personal infallibility in the bishop of Rome but that the Church of Rome as a whole had always maintained the true faith, even though individual popes had erred. This is clear from the fact that the same ecumenical council of 680 A.D. — the sixth ecumenical council — which approved this statement, also condemned a pope as a heretic for teaching heresy.

Thus, as with the interpretation of Matthew 16, we find the Roman Catholic Church interpreting Scripture completely contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers and the overall church throughout the centuries. Vatican I teaches that this was the view of the Church from the very beginning. If so we would find this view expressed in the patristic interpretation of Matthew 16, Luke 22 and John 21. And yet we do not find such a view. Prior to the fourteenth century there is lot one word from a Father, doctor, theologian or canonist in the interpretation of these foundational passages of Scripture, which supports the teaching of papal infallibility.


  1. For the decrees of Vatican I and II on Papal Primacy and Infallibility see Appendix 4.
  2. In addition to the primary word luo, there are a number of derivatives which show that the word ‘loose’ when dealing with the kingdom of God refers primarily to release from bondage to sin and Satan.

    Apoluo, which means to release; to set free; to send away; to loose from; to dismiss; to forgive.

    Lutron means a ransom or the price for redeeming. So that it refers to a loosing that can take place, a setting at liberty that can be effected, where a ransom has been paid. The significance of this can be seen immediately in the fact that the Greek word for redemption in the New Testament is the word apolutrosis. This is a form of the word lutron which goes back to the word luo or loose as its primary root.

    Apolutrosis means ‘a releasing effected by payment of a ransom; redemption, deliverance, liberation procured by the payment of a ransom’. Joseph Henry Thayer, The New Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Lafayette: APQA, 1979). This word is used in the New Testament to describe deliverance from Satan and forgiveness of sin based on the atoning work of Christ in shedding his blood and giving his life as a payment for sin. Note this relationship in Colossians 1:13-14; Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:24-25.
  3. James White, Pros Apologian, Papal Pretensions (Phoenix: Alpha and Omega Ministries, 1991), pp. 2-3.
  4. There is, of course, no evidence that any church of the New Testament era was ruled by a single presbuteros (elder/bishop).
  5. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, vol. II (Minneapolis: Winston, 1980), pp. 831-32.
  6. For comments by the Fathers on the interpretations of the Rock of Matthew 16:18 see Appendix 5.
  7. ‘Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. 16.18, John 21.17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess — Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas — has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter!’ Janus (Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger), The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1869), p. 74.
  8. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI, Saint Augustin, Sermons on New Testament Lessons, Sermon 26.1-2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 340.
  9. ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘I will build My Church’; and ‘I will give to thee the keys’, not to the Church; and ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound’, not ‘what they shall have loosed or bound’. For so withal the result teaches. In [Peter] himself the Church was reared; that is through [Peter] himself; [Peter] himself essayed the key; you see what [key]: ‘Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears: Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you,’ and so forth. [Peter] himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which (kingdom) are ‘loosed’ the sins that were beforetime ‘bound’ . . . Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. IV, Tertullian, On Modesty, ch. 21 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), p. 99.
  10. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Treatise V, On the Unity of the Church, ch. 3 (Oxford: Parker, 1842), p. 134.
  11. Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Westport: Greenwood, 1960), pp. 47-48.
  12. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, The Epistles of S. Cyprian, Epistle 43.4 (Oxford: Parker, 1844), p. 96.
  13. Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), p. 58.
  14. W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. II, St. Ambrose, On the Twelve Psalms, Number 1261 (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1979), p. 150.
  15. ‘He, then, who before was silent, to teach us that we ought not to repeat the words of the impious, this one, I say, when he heard, “But who do you say I am?” immediately, not unmindful of his station, exercised his primacy, that is the primacy of his confession, not of honour; the primacy of belief, not of rank. This, then, is Peter who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather before the rest of men. And so he is called the foundation, because he knows how to preserve not only his own but the common foundation . . . . Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. But his confession of faith conquered hell. And this confession did not shut out one heresy, for, since the Church like a good ship is often buffeted by many waves, the foundation of the Church should prevail against all heresies.’ The Fathers of the Church, Saint Ambrose, The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord, IV.32—V.34 (Washington D.C: Catholic University, 1963), pp. 230-31.
  16. He speaks from this time lowly things, on His way to His passion, that He might show His humanity. For He that hath built His Church upon Peter’s confession, and has so fortified it, that ten thousand dangers and deaths are not to prevail over it. . . And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; that is, on the faith of his confession.’ Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 82.3, 54.3. See Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. X (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), pp. 494, 333.
  17. On the Inscription of Acts, II. Cited by E. Giles, ed., Documents Illustrating Papal Authority (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 168.
  18. Cited by John Bigane, Faith, Christ or Peter: Matthew 16:18 in Sixteenth-Century Roman Catholic Exegesis (Washington D.C.: University Press, 1981), pp. 31-32.
  19. John Meyendorff, St. Peter in Byzantine Theology. Found in The Primacy of Peter (London: Faith, 1963), p. 11.
  20. Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and Exegetical Tradition, 1150—1300, pp. 3-4. Taken from The Religious Roles of the Papacy: Ideals and Realities, 1150—1300, Christopher Ryan, ed., Papers in Medieval Studies 8 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989).
  21. John Bigane, Faith, Christ or Peter: Matthew 16:18 in Sixteenth Century Roman Catholic Exegesis (Washington D.C.: University Press, 1981) pp. 1-203.
  22. Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1953), p. 162.


William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored, The Christian: Following Christ as Lord and  Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, and is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. Visit his web site at: http://www.christiantruth.com/

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