Matthew 16:18–19 is a cornerstone of Roman Catholic claims to the legitimacy of the papacy. In it, Jesus says to Peter,
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.
For example, consider how one Catholic correspondent recently explained this to me:
The king is not the only governing official in this prophesied restored kingdom. The house of David also had a master of the palace, a type of prime minister, Eliakim, as Isaiah 22:15–25 and others, like 1 Kings 4:6, affirm (cf. Mt. 16:13–20). In Isaiah 22 Eliakim replaces the corrupt Shebna, showing that the prime minister’s position was an office of succession. Verse 21 explicitly says there is a transfer of authority between the two. The nature of the prime minister’s authority is that he has the keys to David’s house or kingdom, and whatever he opens, none shall shut; and whatever he shuts, none shall open. The prime minister had wide-ranging authority. This is further affirmed by verse 21 saying Eliakim will be a father to Jerusalem, Israel, and the house of Judah, which was David’s house, one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
I believe that the governing structure of the original house of David can be related to the Church of today. Even if Jesus’ Jewish disciples did not completely understand the nature of the kingdom of heaven, it is clear they understood that the restoration of the house of David somehow figured in the establishment of his heavenly kingdom. Peter and the other apostles didn’t question Jesus about the words he uttered in Matthew 16:18–19. They understood he was re-establishing the house of David and that Peter would have governing primacy in carrying out the mission of the new King, Christ, as the prime ministers of the former house of David did for their kings. Just as the former was a father to Israel and the house of Judah, so Peter would be a father to the new Israel, the Church.
The crucial difference is that the former prime ministers oversaw an earthly kingdom whereas the new leaders administer a heavenly kingdom. Consequently, Isaiah 22:25 says the prime minister and David’s kingdom would fall, but Christ tells Peter in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell will not prevail against the restored Davidic house, his Church. Jesus promised that he would be with his disciples until the end of time (Mt. 28:20).
This might look perfectly reasonable at first blush; so let me point out some (not all) of the problems with it.
1. Catholics do not have infallible exegesis to ground their claims on their own terms
Starting the critique from the ground up: on the Catholic’s own terms, only the Roman Magisterium has the authority to pronounce infallible interpretations of Scripture. Therefore, it seems reasonable that I should ask for the Magisterium’s infallible exegesis of all the passages which have just been cited above. It is, after all, the Catholic’s claim that personal interpretation, or private judgment, is unscriptural and dangerous, having led to all the various schisms throughout Christianity’s history—schisms which continue to this very day. The laity does not have the authority to interpret Scripture for themselves; they can only be certain of what any given passage means by consulting the Roman Magisterium. Thus, for a Catholic to validly know that the Bible has been interpreted correctly above, he must have infallible exegesis of all of the passages cited. How else could he possibly know that he has understood them correctly? Thus, on his own grounds, he has given me no reason to accept his exegesis; nor even any reason for him to accept it.
2. Catholics could not recognize infallible exegesis, even if they had it
However, even if a Catholic can produce infallible exegesis of every single passage cited (which he cannot, because no such exegesis exists) how could he tell that it was infallible? What criteria would he use to be sure? There doesn’t appear to be any certain way of knowing which pronouncements of the Church are infallible and which are not. Catholics themselves sometimes disagree about the status of various decrees. Was Unam Sanctam infallible, for example? What about Vatican II? Similarly we can ask about the interpretations of various passages. The Magisterium hasn’t produced any comprehensive, infallible exegesis of Scripture; any complete commentary of the Bible. Individual Catholic theologians are not infallible, so an appeal to just any old Catholic commentary won’t do—not even a whole bunch of them. In this regard, then, it seems that Catholics are in precisely the same situation as Protestants: having to interpret Scripture according to the best scholarship and methods and knowledge at hand. Although they appeal to the teaching authority of the church, in reality that teaching authority tells them nothing useful, and they are left to their own devices.
3. The Catholic interpretation of Scripture begs the question
In truth, the problem is worse than that, however. Even if the Catholic does not need infallible exegesis, nor to know that it is infallible, but instead claims that he submits his interpretation to the teaching authority of the church—not in the sense that said teaching authority has produced an infallible exegesis of its own, but in the sense that it constrains the bounds of exegesis via the existing doctrines of the church—he is still assuming the consequent. This is bare-faced question-begging. If no infallible interpretations for the passages in question exist, then it follows that the dogmas by which the Catholic layman’s own exegesis is constrained have not actually been derived from Scripture at all. On the contrary, they are read into Scripture; the meaning of a passage is not determined on the basis of the passage itself, but on the basis of prior Catholic doctrinal commitments. It is not taken out of the passage, but put into the passage; it is not derived, but imposed. In other words, the Catholic never does exegesis; he always does eisegesis.
4. Appealing to Scripture is really a roundabout way of appealing to Tradition
But perhaps this is only a problem on the Protestant’s presuppositions. Assuming that all the points above are moot, so the Catholic does not need infallible exegesis, nor to know that it’s infallible, then perhaps he’s not begging the question—perhaps on his own grounds eisegesis is how Scripture should be interpreted. If Scripture’s meaning is discovered by reference to the doctrines established in the infallible Catholic Tradition, then perhaps there isn’t a problem. Under the Catholic framework, Scripture and Tradition work alongside one another to produce the truths of the faith. But where and what is this Tradition? Is it God-breathed, like Scripture? I haven’t met a Catholic yet who will go so far as to say it is; because, in truth, every Catholic knows that “Tradition” is actually comprised of the various writings of individual men who were themselves entirely fallible (and often wrong). Yet it is this equivocal, hodge-podge, self-contradictory history of Christian writings which is the authority by which Scripture is interpreted. It is actually required, under the Catholic’s own view, to define the meaning of the unequivocal, unified, self-consistent word of God.
But how can non-inspired human tradition have authority over the inspired God-breathed Scripture? Naturally it cannot, and Roman Catholics will try to say that Tradition works alongside Scripture, and is derived from Scripture; rather than being above Scripture. But this is no more than lip-service. Regardless of what Romanism affirms in theory, in practice Scripture is entirely subordinated to Tradition, as I’ve just shown. And if Scripture is subordinated to Tradition, then the Catholic has no need to prove his case from Scripture. After all, it is Tradition which describes the papacy, and which thus defines what Scripture must mean in places like Matthew 16:18–19. Thus, why bother to appeal to Scripture at all? Why not be consistent and discard it altogether, and plainly admit that the papacy is grounded in Tradition? If eisegesis is the valid way of interpreting Scripture under the Catholic view, rather than deriving the meaning of the text from the text itself, then appealing to Scripture is just a roundabout way of appealing to Tradition. Why beat around the bush? Why not just go straight to Tradition in the first place?
5. Appealing to Tradition doesn’t offer the superiority that Catholicism claims
But even if all of the above points are moot, so the Catholic has no need for infallible exegesis, nor for knowing that it is infallible, and he is not begging the question, and he really is validly deriving his doctrines from Scripture by using Tradition as a guide, it remains that Tradition does not confer the epistemic advantage he claims it does. The Romanist position is that, without the Tradition of the Church to guide one, it’s impossible to determine with certainty the true meaning of Scripture. Thus, it’s every man for himself; the right of private judgment trumps all, and “every man is his own pope”. Subsequently there are “tens of thousands” of denominations, all believing different things (if the typical Catholic is to be believed!) Without an infallible interpreter, the Church would schism and lose its hold on the truth.
Now aside from the obvious fact that, even if the Roman Magisterium is an infallible interpreter, the universal church has still schismed into numerous denominations and “lost its hold of the truth”, it should be clear after a moment’s consideration that an infallible interpreter doesn’t solve the alleged problem. The teaching documents of the Roman Church are not more simple than Scripture itself. They are by no means more perspicuous. If anything, they are harder to understand. But even if they were not; even if they were apparently very clear, how can the Catholic layman be certain that he is understanding them correctly? He claims that he has a superior position to the Protestant in terms of knowing the truth. But how? In the case of the Protestant, he has an infallible rule of faith (the Bible) which he must interpret using his own fallible faculties. He has no guarantee that he will interpret everything rightly. In the case of the Catholic, he has an infallible rule of faith (the Magisterium) which he must interpret using his own fallible faculties. Just like the Protestant, he has no guarantee that he will interpret everything rightly. So in what way is the Catholic position superior to the Protestant one? Clearly it is not; it has merely pushed the “problem” of private judgment back one step. But if the positions are epistemically identical, then in fact the Protestant has the advantage, because he is interpreting infallible Scripture directly, while the Catholic is not. The Protestant is closer to God’s inspired word than the Catholic is. If an infallible understanding of the faith is really the issue, as the Catholic claims, then the Catholic position actually fails by its own standards, and the Protestant position turns out to be superior.
6. Peter is not given any primacy of authority in Scripture
Leaving aside the prior epistemic questions now, and getting into the meat of the passage in question—even if the Catholic has no need for infallible exegesis, nor for knowing that it is infallible, and even if he is not begging the question, and he really is validly deriving his doctrines from Scripture by using Tradition as a guide, and even if he somehow can get around the problem of his fallible faculties—it remains that Scripture itself is neither supportive of, nor neutral towards his position. In fact, it contradicts the notion that Peter was given special authoritative primacy. In John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18, all of the disciples are given the same authority by Jesus as is allegedly given specially to Peter in Matthew 16. Now, it is certainly possible that Matthew 16 shows Jesus giving this authority to Peter preeminently, as the leader of the apostles. But if this is the case, the preeminence is as an apostle; it is a preeminence of standing, and not of authority. Peter is given the authority before the others as an honor—but it is still the same authority. Thus, his preeminence cannot constitute sole ownership, or even special ownership, of the authority represented by the keys—this was given to all of the apostles equally. Therefore, under the Catholic’s own view, there should be twelve popes with one having preeminence. Yet this is obviously not the case.
Moreover, Matthew 16 does not need to be understood to refer especially to Peter for any reason related to his preeminence among the apostles—rather, it is naturally read as singling him out for the sole reason that he was the one who answered Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am?” Had someone else replied, would Jesus have withheld the authority of the keys, despite giving that authority to all of the apostles later? That seems a very unreasonable conclusion.
7. Peter is not the rock to which Jesus is referring in Matthew 16
But even if the Catholic has no need for infallible exegesis, nor for knowing that it’s infallible, and even if he’s not begging the question, and he really is validly deriving his doctrines from Scripture by using Tradition as a guide, and he somehow can get around the problem of his fallible faculties, and then even assuming that Peter is given a special primacy, he still does not appear to be the rock to which Jesus is referring. Ephesians 2:20 and Revelation 21:14 explicitly name the foundation of the church as all of the apostles, with Jesus as the cornerstone. This being the case, how can Peter be the rock on which the church is to be built? Clearly he cannot be. All of the apostles are part of that rocky foundation, which rests on the one rock: Jesus himself. Since Matthew 16:18 can be read in various ways, and since the reading of Peter as the rock is at odds with other parts of Scripture, the Catholic reading should be discarded. It makes more sense to understand the rock as Peter’s profession of faith, and Peter as being “rocky”. Indeed, this interpretation is not unheard of in the early Christian writings, and was preferred by that great Doctor of the Church, Augustine himself—which speaks volumes about the Catholic notion of unified church tradition, and of a papacy existing since day 1. (Of course, Augustine also said a lot of very Romanist-sounding things, and his ecclesiology left much to be desired; yet nonetheless he does not recognize Peter as the rock.)
8. In its descriptions of the church offices, Scripture does not describe a special office for Peter
But even if the Catholic has no need for infallible exegesis, nor for knowing that it is infallible, and he is not begging the question, and he really is validly deriving his doctrines from Scripture by using Tradition as a guide, and he can get around the problem of his fallible faculties, and then even assuming that Peter is given a special primacy, and that he is even the rock to which Jesus is referring, there is still utterly no corroborating evidence in Scripture that this equated to some kind of special office. It is very odd that to build a case for the papacy, Catholics have to go Matthew 16—by no means a clear and explicit institution of the Roman Catholic papacy. This is highly incongruous, because the New Testament frequently alludes to church offices, and explicitly names them. Therefore, if the papacy genuinely did exist as a special office in the New Testament era, instituted by Jesus himself, we would not expect the only corroboration for it to exist obscurely in passages like Matthew 16 and John 21. Rather, we’d expect to find this most important office of the church named in the same way that the offices of bishop and deacon are named. Or if not that frequently, then at least once or twice. After all, those offices not only are they mentioned by name (Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1), but their appointment is described (Acts 14:23; Ephesians 4:11; Titus 1:5), their qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9), their discipline (1 Timothy 5:19–20), their responsibilities (Ephesians 4:12–13; Titus 1:10–11; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1–3), their reward (1 Timothy 5:17–18; 1 Peter 5:4), their rank (1 Corinthians 12:28), and the submission due them (1 Timothy 2:11–12). If there was an office that was to have primacy over these (not to mention infallibility) throughout church history, an office which could be called the very foundation of the church, it is totally unreasonable to think that it would not be mentioned explicitly and often in the New Testament. And it is simply absurd to think that it wouldn’t be mentioned at all.
Moreover, there isn’t even a single Roman bishop mentioned or named. There aren’t any admonitions to submit to the papacy; any references to appointing popes; any references to determining whether they’re exercising infallibility; any references to appealing to them to settle disputes. And when speaking about the post-apostolic future, the New Testament refers to bishops and teachers in general (Acts 20:28–31; 2 Timothy 2:2) and submission to scripture (2 Timothy 3:15–17; 2 Peter 3:1–2; Revelation 22:18–19)…yet it says not a word about any papacy.
9. Scripture contradicts the idea of papal succession
But even if the Catholic has no need for infallible exegesis, nor for knowing that it’s infallible, and even if he isn’t begging the question, and he really is validly deriving his doctrines from Scripture by using Tradition as a guide, and he can find his way around the problem of his fallible faculties, and then even assuming that Peter is given a special primacy, and that he is the rock to which Jesus is referring, and that this entails the special papal office—even assuming all of these things, which is just vastly unwarranted, there is still nothing to support the notion of papal succession. If the parallel between Matthew 16 and Isaiah 22 can be extended as far as the Catholic would like, then verse 25 of Isaiah 22 indicates that the office in question is not one of succession. Eliakim replaced Shebna at God’s explicit command; but who replaced Eliakim? The Catholic may say, as in the example quoted at the beginning of this increasingly unlikely missive, that Jesus institutes succession in Matthew 16 in contrast to Isaiah 22. But this a very slender straw at which to grasp, since firstly the “it” against which he says “the gates of hell shall not prevail” is not the rock but the church; and secondly even if it were the rock, this wouldn’t actually imply succession in any case.
More importantly, though, even if we assume for the sake of argument that this supposed office might have been one of succession, where the keys were passed on from Peter to the next pope, and then to the next one in turn, we know that this didn’t happen. The Book of Revelation was written in the nineties AD by most reckonings; Peter was martyred in the sixties; so, under the Catholic’s own view, the keys would have passed to someone else by that time. Sure as custard, Revelation 3:7 says very specifically that Jesus has the key of David. So even if some special office was conferred on Peter alone in Matthew 16, how can the Catholic claim that this office passed to his successors? Or, if it did pass to his successors, apparently it was a short line of succession; for the keys which represent that office found their way back into Jesus’ hands by the turn of the century. Thus, it is impossible that the current pope holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Those keys are held by Jesus now.
This is how high the Catholic house of cards is—at least nine storeys. It is an irrational structure from the ground up; from its self-contradictory epistemic claims to its contradictions of Scripture. Such a flimsy and teetering foundation is not a gospel at all. There is no salvation on top of that very tall house of cards.