Scott Hahn on the Papacy
Many people think that Vatican II’s primary vision of the Church as a communion was summarized in the phrase, “The People of God,” but the Old Testament roots for that phrase, “People of God,” “am’ Yahweh” actually has as its primary meaning, “Family of God.” That term “people,” am’ literally denotes kinship, so it could be translated “kinsmen” or “Family of God,” and that’s how most Old Testament scholars translate it. So when we look at the Pope, as we will this morning, we are going to be looking at him, not as some tyrant, not as some authoritarian “know-it-all” and not as some magician who can just kind of concoct a new revelation to satisfy all parties, or anything like that. We are going to be looking at a father figure that Christ has established over the family that He has purchased with His own blood.
Now, there are many misconceptions that people have. They sometimes think that the teaching of the Church is that the Pope is infallible; therefore, he can’t sin. That’s nonsense, although the present Pontiff goes to confession, I understand, at least once a week. He’s got to have something to confess for it to be a valid sacrament administered to him. Others think that he always says the best thing at the right time. No, the Church has never insisted upon the fact that the Pope will always say the best thing at the right time. Rather, the teaching of the Church would allow for the Pope perhaps to postpone out of cowardice, a right thing. Or when he says the truth, when he teaches the truth, he might do so in a way that includes an ambiguity.
So we are responsible as Catholics to understand, not only what the Church teaches, but what the Church doesn’t teach to help clear up these misconceptions. The Church teaches in a simple summary that the Holy Father, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the successor to Peter and the Vicar of Christ, when he speaks as the universal teacher from the Chair of Peter in defining faith and morals does so with an infallible charism or an infallible gift through the Holy Spirit so that we can give to him the full assent of our intellect and our will, and we can hear the voice of Christ coming to us through the voice of the Pope when he is speaking in this capacity.
Now we are going to flush off on the meanings of this as time goes on, but there are three basic issues or problems. First of all, can we prove Papal Primacy, that is, that the Pope is not just the first among equals but that he has a certain primacy, a unique supremacy in relation to all of the Bishops. We have to begin by showing that Jesus conferred this gift upon Peter. Then secondly, we have to establish the doctrine of Papal succession. If we can prove from the Bible that Peter was granted by Jesus a certain primacy, that doesn’t go far enough. We then have to go on to establish Papal succession; that is, Peter had successors to whom would be entrusted the same gift or charism. Then thirdly, we have to establish evidence for Papal infallibility, that is that God grants a gift to the successors of Peter for them, not to give new revelations. The Church insists that no Popes have ever given new revelation. Revelation has been, once and for all deposited by Christ through His Apostles and with the death of the last Apostle came the close of all public revelation. The Popes, in a sense are given the task of preserving and of transmitting, explaining and enforcing that revelation, but not giving new revelation. So that third doctrine is the doctrine of Papal infallibility, that when they transmit, when they explain, when they enforce it, they are granted a charism or a special spiritual gift preserving them from error.
Infallibility, in a sense, is a negative gift. It doesn’t mean he always says the right thing, it’s always the right time; but that when he speaks with the authority that Christ gives to him, we have this Divine guarantee, because Christ promises that “I will build my Church.” The Church of Christ is not a human institution first and foremost. Jesus identifies it as His own. “My church” and the institution and edification and up-building of the Church Jesus claims for himself, “I will build my Church.” So, whatever instruments that Jesus chooses to use, ultimately are going to be under His control and He is going to be using them with this ultimate intention in mind, of building His Church, of governing His family and thus bringing about the guarantee that He imparts in Matthew 16, as we will see, that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, and will not prevail against the Rock which is Peter and the Popes who are in the line of succession with Peter.
Now, I have just given to you a very quick, bird’s-eye view of all that we have to do. Now I have to confess from the bottom of my heart and with total sincerity that we are not going to be able to do an adequate job this morning. This is just too much! If I talk as rapidly as I possibly could and try to get everything across and go through all the others and everything else, I still couldn’t get through 20 percent of it. So I’m not going to talk your ears off. I’m not going to try to plow through all of this and take three or four hours. Instead I’m going to try to focus upon the mountain peaks, the real highlights, so that you can see from scripture and from history and from the Church, the key ideas that we need to use and present and share as evidence and support for our belief and our practice as Catholics.
We are going to first and primarily look at scripture. We are also going to look at the historical development of the Church’s understanding and then, finally, we are going to focus on some of the Church’s teachings relative to the Pope and his authority. Before I go on, having given you this qualification, I think I need to recommend some sources for your study over, above and beyond our time this morning.
First of all, I would like to recommend a book entitled, Catholicism and Fundamentalism and the Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians. It’s written by Karl Keating, the founder and director of “Catholic Answers” in San Diego. You may also wish to write him for a catalog of other materials that Catholic Answers publishes, but this book is a very adequate treatment of all of the common objections against the Catholic faith, many of them we are not going to be able to cover this week, and how, from scripture and also Church history, we can answer these in a very convincing and persuasive way.
The second book that I recommend is by Dr. Alan Schreck. It’s entitled, Catholic and Christian, an Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. This is a very positive and constructive, I’d say, pastoral presentation of the Biblical evidence and historical reasons for the Catholic beliefs. This is not directed as much against Fundamentalists as perhaps Evangelical Protestants and it really helps them a great deal.
There are two other books written by one of the greatest philosophers of our century, Stanley Jaki. The first one is on my right, And on This Rock, the Witness of One Land and Two Covenants. He shows the geographical, historical and Biblical background for what Jesus intended to say when He renamed Simon, “Rock” or Peter. A very interesting book. Then, this other book of his, The Keys of the Kingdom, a Tool’s Witness to Truth focuses upon, not the Rock so much, but the keys of the kingdom that Jesus entrusted to Peter and his successors. These two are full of some of the most valuable information, interesting data, that you will come across.
At a more popular level and something you can read in ten or fifteen minutes, Catholic Answers puts out two little brochures, two little tracts or pamphlets. One is entitled, Papal Infallibility and the other one is entitled, Peter and the Papacy, and you could write Catholic Answers for that. And lastly, if you will permit me, I’ll recommend a tape that I made sitting at a desk about a year ago, up in my study in Jolliet, Illinois, before we moved to Steubenville. It’s entitled, “Peter and the Papacy” and in this tape I focus primarily on Matthew 16, verses 17 through 19. I focus upon three aspects that we are going to begin with this morning: the Rock, the keys and the guarantee of Jesus that the gates of hell will not prevail.
Papal Primacy and Succession
Now that’s going to be our starting point and I’m going to take the liberty here, if you will permit me, of summarizing what I’ve said on that tape – not because I assume you have listened to the tape or you will, but because you can, if you are so interested. And I don’t want to go into an hour’s worth of detail just on one passage when there are other important passages to cover as well. But those three ideas are closely associated with the very important passage that we find in the first gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verses 17 through 19.
Let me read that passage and then I will back up and consider those three aspects. Let’s drop back to verse 13, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do men say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’.” Rather impressive testimony because these people constitute the Old Testament Hall of Fame of Saints, here. “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?'” And as is characteristic throughout Matthew’s gospel, Peter steps forward, or I should say, speaks up. Peter is the only one to walk on water. Peter is the one who often speaks up, representative of the twelve disciples. Verse 16, “Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ,’ — the Christos, the Anointed One in Greek or the Messiah in Hebrew, ‘the Son of the Living God. 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 (Petra) and on this Rock (Petros), I will build my Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.'” And then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ.
Now, let me just get a little personal here. Six or seven years ago, a couple years before I became a Catholic, I had been studying the doctrine of the Covenant. I came to an understanding of the Covenant as a family, and with this insight I began to discover all kinds of exciting truths, novel innovations, new discoveries that I thought were really undiscovered before. Then as I began to dig deeper into these libraries, I noticed that time and time again, Catholic scholars — I mean not just recently but going all the way back to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th Centuries, in the Middle Ages — the saints and the Doctors of the Church were consistently coming up with all of my brand new discoveries and teaching them with a kind of ho-hum attitude like, “You all know such and such.”
That really, at first it provoked me. Then it scared me and then it led me to dig deeper and deeper into Catholic sources to see how many of my discoveries they may have found in practically every one of them, except the ones that were false. The Pope, though, was a different matter. For me, the idea of a Pope who claims primacy and succession and infallibility was a presumption, an arrogant presumption that no man should make.
But then one day, as I was working through the Gospel of Matthew, because that stresses, that gospel builds on the Old Testament more than any other and especially the idea of David’s kingdom. That really seems to be the central thrust of Matthew’s gospel, that Jesus is the Son of David and He is establishing the Kingdom of David. That’s how Matthew introduces Jesus. He is the only one of the four gospel writers who traces His genealogy right back to David, and he says, “Jesus, the Son of David” at the very start of Matthew. That’s a common and prominent theme throughout the gospel.
So I wanted to dig deep and see what I found in this particular passage, and on the basis of that discovery, or I should say, on the basis of that study, I made some discoveries. First of all, I discovered that when you read in verse 17, “Jesus answered, ‘And 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,’ ” I discovered that all the evidence points to the fact that Peter is the “rock.”
Now you might say, “That’s as plain as the nose on your face. What’s the excitement of that discovery?” Well, non-Catholics frequently claim that it’s Peter’s faith that Jesus is speaking of, or Peter’s confession that Jesus is speaking of when He says, “this rock.” Or other Protestants object and say, “No, Jesus says, ‘And you are petros.'” You are petros, you are rock, and on this petra, the Greek word for large rock, “I will build my Church.” So some Protestants object to the Catholic view and say, “What Jesus is really saying is. ‘You’re a little pebble and on this rock, namely Christ, the Rock, (1 Corinthians, 10:4 and so on) I will build my Church.'”
Now the closer I studied the more I realized that those positions were untenable, simply untenable. And I’m going to share in a few minutes the fact that most conservative anti-Catholic Protestant scholars today will admit that readily and candidly. The more I dug, the more I found that the evidence pointed to the fact that Jesus was speaking of Peter. Peter is the Rock. Peter just said, “You are the Christos,” so Jesus says, “You are the Petros.” There is a little parallelism there. “You are the Son of the Living God” and “You are the son of Jonah, Simon Bar-Jonah; you are the Petros.”
Now people could say, “Wait a second. There is a distinction in the Greek language between petros,” Peter’s name and petra. Petros can mean stone, whereas petra can often mean “big rock.” The problem with that is two-fold. First of all, Jesus probably didn’t speak Greek when He was with the disciples. I mean that is held by 99.9 percent of all scholars. It’s overwhelmingly unlikely that Jesus in His normal conversations spoke Greek. What’s almost certain is that He spoke Aramaic and in the Aramaic there is only one word that could possibly be used and Kouman and other scholars have pointed to the fact that if Jesus spoke Aramaic, He only could have said, “You are Cephus, and on this Cephus I build my Church.” So given our knowledge of the Aramaic language, there is no possibility for Jesus to have made the distinction between “little stone” and “big rock.” The Aramaic language doesn’t allow it.
Well, somebody could say, “The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to use two different words. Well, that’s true, because “petra” is the word in Greek that is normally used for “large rock,” but – I should say petra is the Greek word that means “large rock” but it’s in the feminine form. In other words, the gender of this Greek word, petra, large rock, is feminine. You do not apply a feminine form of the word in order to name a male. You adopt it by giving the masculine form. In other words what Matthew was doing, guided by the Holy Spirit, is something that was rather obvious and practically necessary. That was to take the Greek from Jesus’ saying and start by saying, “I will build my Church on this massive stone, this ‘petra’ in the feminine but then to show that Peter gets the name, “Rock” in its proper masculine form.
You wouldn’t name him Josephine or Rockina or, you know, something like that. You give him the masculine form of the word. I should also add that there is absolutely no archeological evidence from antiquity for anybody having been named Peter before Simon. In other words, Jesus was taking a word that had never been used as far as all the many records we have are concerned, never was used to designate an individual person and Jesus gives that name, gives that word to Simon.
Again, I suggest the fact that Simon is the Rock. I should say a few things along these lines because I mentioned that I have these Protestant quotes. I have note cards that I actually put together when I was preparing a paper for a graduate seminar on the subject. I was still a Protestant minister, and I was taking a graduate seminar on the Gospel of Matthew and the professor was a Protestant. He was a Lutheran and he knew what I wanted to do for my project and so I presented this paper, “Peter and the Keys” and I worked at it because I knew that he might not be open to my conclusions, that I knew what my conclusions were going to be at the end of my research. They were rather Catholic, neither Presbyterian nor Lutheran.
So, I worked and worked and I put these notecards together and when I made the presentation — I should add, this was a very interesting experience because all the other students who presented papers, the professor encouraged the rest of the students to interact with the presenter. And he seldom, if ever asked questions in interacting. He wanted the students to get involved. But when it came to presenting a 30-page paper presenting the evidence that Peter is the Rock and that the keys denote succession and that the Catholic position is right, not one student spoke up for the entire two and one-half hour seminar. He did all the talking and we even went over. I ended up leaving the classroom like forty-five minutes after the seminar was supposed to end. It was the most grueling cross- examination I’d ever undergone, and I might add, I had intestinal digestive problems for about a week afterwards because of how nerve- wracking it was.
But at the end of the whole ordeal he said, “I think your paper is flawless. The only fault that I found is that you have the middle initial on one person’s name in one of your footnotes wrong!” He said, “I think your arguments are persuasive, too. I’m just grateful that I don’t think that Matthew is historically reliable, so I don’t have to follow the conclusions.” I’m glad you said that, you know, and not me.
Protestants are often ready to admit the fact that Peter is the Rock and that the keys of succession are given to him to imply an office that will be filled by successors. For instance, one of the top evangelical New Testament scholars in the world, R.T. France says this in his commentary on Matthew, “Verses 17 through 19 are addressed to Peter and have been regarded by some as a late addition to support an early claim to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Whether or not they give any such support, there is no textual evidence for their addition to the gospel after its original composition, and the strongly Semitic or Jewish character of the language throughout these verses point to a relatively early origin in a Palestinian environment.” What is France saying? Well, many scholars have suggested that Jesus could not have given this gift to Peter. Jesus could not have given this original saying. Why? Because many scholars don’t believe that Jesus foresaw the building of the Church. They think that all of these sayings of Jesus concerning the Church were added later by the Church to support whatever had happened to the Church.
Dr. France says, “That’s just not tenable.” When you study this you realize that all of the evidence in the text shows that this is one of the original sayings of Jesus. He goes on to say, “Jesus’ beatitude of Peter or His blessing is given to Peter alone. The other disciples may have shared his insight but Peter, characteristically expressed it. Matthew often illustrates Peter’s place at the head of the disciples’ group. He was the spokesman, the pioneer, the natural leader.” He goes on to talk about how Peter is referenced to the Rock. France says, “It describes not so much Peter’s character, that is the Rock. He did not prove to be rock-like in terms of stability or reliability but rather the name Rock or Peter points to his function as the foundation stone of Jesus’ Church.”
This is a non-Catholic. This is an Evangelical Protestant who has absolutely no interest in supporting the Church’s claims but he says, “The term Peter, Rock, points to Simon and not his character because he could be very unstable, but rather his official function as the foundation stone of Jesus’ Church. The word-play is unmistakable.” He says, “It is only Protestant over-reaction to the Roman Catholic claim, of course, which has no foundation in the text, that what is here said of Peter applies also to the later Bishops of Rome.” In other words France is saying, “We can’t apply this to the Popes, the later Bishops of Rome.” I’ll overthrow that opinion in a few minutes, I think, but France is very candid in saying, “Look, it’s only because we Protestants have over-reacted to the Catholic Church that we are not frank and sincere in admitting the fact that Peter is the Rock. He is the foundation stone upon which Jesus is going to build the Church.”
One of the greatest Protestant Biblical scholars of the century supports this — W. F. Albright, in his Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew. I opened it up. I was surprised to see, “Peter as the Rock will be the foundation of the future community, the church. Jesus here uses Aramaic and so only the Aramaic word which would serve His purpose. In view of the background in verse 19, one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as the faith or the confession of Peter.” In other words, Professor Albright is admitting as a Protestant that there is a bias in Protestant anti- Catholic interpreters who try to make Jesus’ reference to the rock point only to Peter’s faith or confession. “To deny the pre-eminent position of Peter,” Albright says, “among the disciples or in the early Christian community is a denial of the evidence. The interest in Peter’s failures and vacillations does not detract from this pre- eminence, rather it emphasizes it. Had Peter been a lesser figure, his behavior would have been of far less consequence. Precisely because Peter is pre-eminent and is the foundation stone of the Church that his mistakes are in a sense so important, but his mistakes never correspond to his teachings as the Prince of the Apostles.” We will see.”
Albright goes on in his commentary to speak about the keys of the kingdom that Jesus entrusted to Peter. Here’s what he says, “Isaiah 22, verse 15, undoubtedly lies behind this saying of Jesus. The keys are the symbol of authority and Father Roland DeVoe rightly sees here the same authority vested in the vicar, the master of the house, the chamberlain of the royal household in ancient Israel. In Isaiah 22 Eliakim is described as having the same authority.”
Now let’s just stop here and ask, “What is he talking about?” I think it’s simple. Albright is saying that Jesus in giving to Peter not only a new name, Rock, but in entrusting to Simon the keys of the kingdom, He is borrowing a phrase from Isaiah 22. He’s quoting a verse in the Old Testament that was extremely well known. This, for me, was the breakthrough. This discovery was the most important discovery of all. Let’s go back to Isaiah 22 and see what Jesus was doing when He entrusted to Peter the keys of the kingdom.
By the way, I do not find hardly any Catholic defenders of the faith these days with awareness of this particular point. This was the point above all points for me. It was the point that the defenders of the Catholic faith in the 16th and 17th Centuries were very aware of, but for some reason amnesia has set in upon many defenders and interpreters not aware of how crucial this particular passage is. In Isaiah 22 beginning back in verses 19 and 20, we have some very interesting background. This is where Jesus goes for a quotation to cite this passage.
What’s happening here? Well, in verse 19 it says, “I will thrust you from your office and you will be cast down from your station and on that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe and will bind your girdle on him and will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the House of Judah; and I will place on his shoulder the key of the House of David.”
Now the House of David is like, you know, the House of Bourbon. It’s a dynastic reference. The House of David is the Davidic kingdom, the Davidic dynasty. We know this because David has been dead for hundreds of years when this is happening in Isaiah 22, “I will give you the key of the House of David. He shall open and none shall shut, and he shall shut and none shall open. He will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.” Look at all of the symbols of dynastic authority that are being given to this individual. First of all, an office. Second, a robe. Third, a throne and fourth, keys, the key of the House of David, these royal keys.
Now, what is going on here? I’ll just summarize it in rather simple terms. Hezekiah was at the time, the king over Israel. He was the son of David, hundreds of years after David had died. He was in the line of David and also he was ruler over the House of David. Now all kings in the ancient world had, as kings and queens have these days, cabinet officers, a cabinet of royal ministers. Like Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister, so there are other ministers under the Queen in Great Britain. Hezekiah, as King, had as his Prime Minister before Shebna who proved unworthy. So he was expelled, but when he was expelled, he left an office vacant. Not only did you have dynastic succession for the king, but you also have a dynastic office for the Prime Minister. When Shebna is expelled, there is an empty office that needs to be filled and that’s why Eliakim is called to fill it.
Now, Eliakim is a minister in the cabinet, but now he is being granted the Prime Minister’s position. How do we know? Because he is given what the other ministers do not have, the keys of the kingdom, the key to the House of David. That symbolized dynastic authority entrusted to the Prime Minister and dynastic succession. Why? Because it’s the key of David; it’s the House of David.
Let me go back and try to simplify this even further. I’ll read the quote. Albright says, “In commenting upon Matthew 16 and Jesus giving to Peter the keys of the kingdom, Isaiah 22:15 and following undoubtedly lies behind this saying.” Albright, a Protestant, non- Catholic insists that it’s undoubtable that Jesus is citing Isaiah 22, “The keys are the symbol of authority and DeVoe rightly sees here the same authority as that vested in the vicar, the master of the house, the chamberlain of the royal household of ancient Israel.” In other words, the Prime Minister’s office.
Other Protestant scholars admit it too, that when Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom, Peter is receiving the Prime Minister’s office, which means dynastic authority from the Son of David, Jesus, the King of Israel, but also an office where there will be dynastic succession. When I discovered that, it was like the blinders fell off. Within a few weeks I had gotten together with the leading Protestant theologians in the world, one of the most reputable anti- Catholic Protestant theologians and spent ten hours with him and then in a Mercedes we drove two hours and I presented this case, and his only comment was, “That’s clever.” But he said, “You don’t have to follow the Pope because of that.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Well, I’m going to have to think about it.” He said, “I’ve never heard that argument before.” And I said, “It’ s one of the basic arguments that Cajeton used against the Protestants in the 16th Century and Cajeton was one of the most well-known defenders of the Catholic faith and you’ve never heard of him before?” I said, “I had never heard of it before until I discovered it on my own and then found it in all these other people.” And he said, “That’s clever.” Clever, perhaps. True, definitely; enlightening, illuminating, very interesting.
He goes on to say some other things. “It is of considerable importance,” Albright says, “that in other contexts, when the disciplinary affairs of the community are discussed, the symbol of the keys is absent, since the saying applies in these instances to a wider circle. The role of Peter as steward of the kingdom is further explained as being the exercise of administrative authority as was the case of the Old Testament chamberlain who held the keys.”
Now, what he means there is that nowhere else, when other Apostles are exercising Church authority are the keys ever mentioned. In Matthew 18, the Apostles get the power to bind and loose, like Peter got in Matthew 16, but with absolutely no mention of the keys. That fits perfectly into this model because in the king’s cabinet, all the ministers can bind and loose, but the Prime Minister who holds the keys can bind what they have loosed or loose what they have bound. He has, in a sense, the final say. He has, in himself, the authority of the court of final appeal and even Protestants can see this.
In fact, I found this quotation in Martin Luther from 1530, years after he had left the Church, “Why are you searching heavenward in search of my keys? Do you not understand, Jesus said, ‘I gave them to Peter. They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven for I left them on earth.'” This is Jesus talking, “‘Peter’s mouth is my mouth, his tongue is my key case, his keys are my keys. They are an office.'” Luther even saw it, “‘They are a power, a command given by God through Christ to all of Christendom for the retaining and remitting of the sins of men.'” The only thing that Luther won’t admit is that there was succession after Peter died, which is exactly what the keys denote, given their Old Testament background.
One of the greatest reformed Biblical scholars of this century, Herman Liderboss, a European scholar, in his Matthew commentary says, this is going back. I should have read this a few minutes ago. But he says, “The slight difference between these two words, petra and petros, has no special importance. The most likely explanation for the change from petros, Peter, masculine, to petra is that petra was the normal word for rock, because the feminine ending of this noun made it unsuitable as a man’s name; however, Simon was not called Petra but Petros. There is no good reason to think that Jesus switched from petros to petra to show that He was not speaking of the man Peter but of his confession as the foundation of the Church. The words “on this rock,” petra, indeed, refer to Peter. Because of the revelation he had received and the confession it had motivated in him, Peter was appointed by Jesus to lay the foundation of the future Church.”
One of the top Evangelical, non-Catholic scholars in America, Professor Donald Carson of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in his book, God With Us, Themes from Matthew says, “Jesus was simply using a pun to say that Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build His Church.” Now Dr. Carson is no Catholic Apologist. He would try to set up arguments against the Catholic faith, I’m sure; but he’s sincere and, I think, also respectable as a scholar in insisting upon the obvious evidence in the conclusions.
This has led an Evangelical Protestant German scholar, Gerhardt Meier, who wrote a famous book that conservative Protestants frequently refer to, “The End of the Historical Critical Method”. In his article, “The Church and the Gospel of Matthew,” Gerhardt Meier says on pages 58 through 60, “Nowadays, a broad consensus has emerged which, in accordance with the words of the text applies the promise to Peter as a person.” This is a Protestant speaking now. “On this point liberal and conservative theologians agree,” and he names several Protestant theologians from the liberal to the conservative side. “Matthew 16:18 ought not to be interpreted as a local church. The church in Matthew 16:18 is the universal entity, namely the people of God. There is an increasing consensus now that this verse concerning the power of the keys is talking about the authority to teach and to discipline, including even to absolve sins.” Professor Gerhardt Meier is a Protestant with no interest in supporting the Catholic claim but, as an honest scholar, admits that Peter is the one that Jesus is giving His power to. “Peter is the rock and the keys signify, not only disciplinary power to teach, but even to absolve sins. With all due respect to the Protestant Reformers, we must admit that the promise in Matthew 16-18 is directed to Peter and not to a Peter-like faith. As Evangelical theologians, especially, we ought to look at ourselves dispassionately and acknowledge that we often tend unjustifiably toward an individualistic conception of faith. To recognize the authenticity of Matthew 16:17 and following demands that we develop a Biblically based ecclesiology or doctrine of the church.”
Gerhardt Meier is showing, as an honest scholar, that the church which Jesus speaks of is a universal church, not just a local congregation, another favorite ploy of anti-Catholic apologists. He says, “No, the church He’s talking about is the one, holy, Catholic Church, the universal church and the rock on which it will be built is Peter, not Peter’s confession and the keys that Jesus gives to Peter are keys not only to teach but even to absolve sins.” He’s not saying, “We all should become Catholics, but what we should honestly do is to grant the Catholics the point. Because if we are honest in interpreting the Bible, we have to admit these conclusions.”
Another Lutheran professor, a professor of scripture and theology at Concordia Seminary in Hong Kong, Torg Forberg wrote an article entitled, “Peter, High Priest of the New Covenant.” Forberg insists that Jesus is the ultimate High Priest in the New Testament, but he says, “Peter is presented as some kind of successor to the High Priest in tradition used by the final redactorate, Matthew 16:13-19. Peter stands out as a kind of chief Rabbi who binds and looses in the sense of declaring something to be forbidden or permitted. Peter is looked upon as a counterpart to the High Priest. He is the highest representative for the people of God.” This is Protestant testimony.
Elsewhere I found in The Interpreter’s Bible, “The keys of the kingdom would be permitted to the chief steward in the royal household and with them goes plenary authority, unlimited power, total. Post- apostolic Christianity is now beginning to ascribe to the Apostles the prerogatives of Jesus.” The person who wrote this section in the Interpreter’s Bible is saying, “I don’t think personally that Jesus ever said these words. How could Jesus give to the Apostles prerogatives that are His own?” Well, the Church has always said that Jesus said this and what Jesus is giving is His own grace, His own power and His own authority to His Apostles.
Now Bultmann, one of the most notorious and well-known Protestant Biblical scholars of the century argues that it is impossible to regard Matthew 16 as an authentic saying of Jesus. He said, “How could He have envisioned the future development of an organized congregation of followers and appointed for them Peter as possessor of the power to teach and to discipline?” I have several other quotations here. I won’t go through them all, but let me just summarize with a quotation from an English Protestant scholar, J.N.D. Kelly in his book, Oxford Dictionary of the Popes. He says, “The Papacy is the oldest of all Western institutions with an unbroken existence of almost 2000 years.”
We are reaching a point these days in the scholarly dialogue that is exciting, where some of the most essential points are now being admitted and acknowledged by both sides. But I must say, as I listen to tapes that are made of debates that are held across the country through these last few years, there are still many Protestants, or I should say non-Catholics, out there who are so vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church, they will still go back to the over-reaction of the Protestants, the anti-Catholic misinterpretations and use them.
A good friend of mine was in a recent debate with a Protestant minister who was using it right and left, even after the debates. My friend went up to him and said, “Do you think, even though you are arguing that Peter isn’t the Rock because you were quoting this and that and the other thing, do you think that Peter is the Rock?” And the anti-Catholic debater said, “Of course I do!” Although he had argued against that position, he held it himself. He just wanted to undermine the Catholic teaching. There is a broad consensus emerging, and it’s a strong and sure foundation that we can build on in discussions and dialogues. I don’t want to overdo it, but I think it is a very, very important point.
Common Objections to Papal Infallibility
Now, what I would like to do at this point is to move beyond Matthew 16 and consider some other factors that play into this as well. First, let me just throw out some objections that may come into your mind. How could a human be infallible? Isn’t infallibility a prerogative of God alone? Then as Catholics I think we should admit Mary who never sinned, although we never say that the infallible Popes never sin. They sin. They are not impeccable; they are infallible As persons, they sin. As persons, they make mistakes. As persons, they might hold the wrong opinion inside their own minds; but Christ prevents them, through the Holy Spirit in His omnipotent love, from ever sitting down in the Chair of Peter and teaching the wrong opinions as Catholic beliefs.
It’s ultimately the infallibility of Christ that is the foundation for whatever we ascribe to the Popes. Now somebody could say, “Infallible? Teaching nothing but truth? To err is human, to forgive divine. You know we don’t need infallibility. We can’t have it. It isn’t human.” Well, I would say this; two things. First of all, if I were to sit down and write a textbook in say Algebra, and we got a thousand proof readers from across the world and they all went through it with a fine tooth comb, and after years they didn’t find a single mistake, would you have to conclude this was not written by a man but by God? There are no mistakes. No, of course not. I mean to err is human, but to be human is not to err only and always, continually. We can make mistakes, but we don’t have to! And God can prevent us from doing so.
You hear Protestants says sometimes, like I always used to say, “You know this idea of infallibility just doesn’t belong to humans. But then you think about it another minute. Non-Catholic Christians rarely admit that the Bible is infallible because the Biblical authors were given the gift of infallibility: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, Jude — all of them wrote infallible truth. In fact, the Bible Christians insist that the Bible alone is our authority because the Bible is infallible.
Well, ask them. If God was capable of using thousands of sinners to infallibly communicate infallible truth, then, so that the Church could see it as the truth, which is the Bread of Life, which is Christ himself and all the teachings, if God could do it then, with fallible sinners, like Peter and Paul and John and Matthew, couldn’t He still do it? In other words, certainly God is capable; and if you look around at how the Church spreads throughout the world, and how the Church encounters all kinds of crazies down through the ages, do you suppose that Jesus would say, “Well, once I give the Church this infallible scripture, there really is no need anymore for infallible interpretations of scripture. The Church can hold together just with the infallible Bible.”
Oh, really? In just 500 years, there are literally thousands and thousands of denominations that are becoming ever more numerous continuously because they only go with the Bible. It points to the fact that we need an infallible interpretation of this infallible book, don’t we. I mean, can you imagine the fathers of our country putting together the U.S. Constitution and mailing it out to every citizen and saying, “Fend for yourselves. Go it alone; with the spirit of Washington you will be guided to your proper interpretation.” What do you call that? Anarchy. We wouldn’t have lasted a month as a nation. The Constitution established a governmental structure with a court of final appeal, the Supreme Court, that is final in all matters of constitutional interpretation.
Now that’s in the human sphere. If the constitutional founders had sufficient wisdom to see the need for one little nation in 200 years to have a court of final appeal, how much more would Christ see the need to establish and constitute in the Church and putting in His constitution not only the truth but the official organs for interpreting and enforcing and explaining and preaching and proclaiming that truth. It’s just common sense. It’s not unprecedented either.
Somebody could say, “Well, this idea of Peter speaking ex- cathedra, that’s bogus, that’s novel, that’s unheard of’.” I would say, “No, it’s not.” When the Church teaches about how, the Pope when he speaks from the Chair of Peter, Ex Cathedra, “from the seat or from the cathedra” (we get the word cathedral from the fact that’s where the bishop’s cathedra is) the Church isn’t inventing something new. It’s building, rather, on the teachings of Jesus.
Turn to Matthew 23, verses 1 and 2, “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to His disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do, for they preach but they don’t practice.'” They preach, but they don’t practice what they preach. What’s he saying? Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees.” Now, what does Jesus think of the scribes and the Pharisees? Well, read the rest of Matthew 23 and you will discover it. He goes on in this chapter to call the scribes and the Pharisees “fools, hypocrites, blind guides, vipers and whitewashed tombs.” He doesn’t think too highly of the scribes and the Pharisees, does He?
But what does He say here? “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” Therefore, “you have to,” it’s in the imperative tense, “You have to practice and observe whatever they tell you.” “Whatever they tell you,” you have to practice and observe. Why? Because they sit on Moses’ cathedras. The Greek word is “cathedra”. The Church, when it speaks of Peter’s authority and the Popes speaking ex-cathedra are simply borrowing from Jesus’ teaching.
Now, I would challenge anybody to go back into the Old Testament and find some explicit text in the Old Testament where we find Moses establishing a chair, some endowed seat, that will always have successors. You don’t find a text explicitly saying that. So why does Jesus refer to it. Because there is also oral tradition, even in the Old Testament, which was used by God to transmit certain essential terms that the covenant family of God requires and depends upon for its life. Jesus doesn’t quote a text. He appeals to a well-known oral tradition that He assumes the scribes and the Pharisees know about as well as His listeners. He doesn’t just assume they know it, He assumes they are going to submit to it, and that they have been submitting to it. It’s just that they have been experiencing problems because Old Testament priests and bishops are sometimes just as troublesome as New Testament priests and bishops are. But why do we follow, because they have so much charm and charisma? No, because Jesus Christ has established in the Old Testament a seat of Moses which is replaced in the New Testament with the seat of Peter.
In the Old Testament we don’t have the full disclosure of all final revelation, but in the New Testament Jesus tells us that He will guide us in all truth. We don’t say that Moses and his successors were infallible; because the fullness of the truth had not yet been given. But once it is given to the Apostles and their successors, we can see why Jesus guarantees that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church. Why? Because of what Jesus has entrusted to this cathedra, this Petrine seat, the sea of Peter in Rome.
This is such assurance for us that whether John XI or John XII, two of the most sinful Popes in all of history or Alexander VI; I mean these guys were scoundrels. We have had scoundrels for Popes. Out of the hundreds of Popes, it’s amazing to think that there were really only three or four scoundrels, but that should bother you. But should it cause you to overthrow your confidence in listening to the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Pope? No, of course not. For one thing, you can be grateful that these scoundrels were too busy sinning to even attempt teaching from the seat of Peter. They didn’t, and they brought great confusion upon the Church so it is a deplorable condition.
But let’s consider one fact. Jesus chose twelve Apostles, didn’t He? And what about those twelve Apostles? One of them was Judas. Did Jesus know it beforehand? You bet He did. Why did He choose him? Maybe to get us ready for Judas priests in all generations.
Peter’s Place in the Early Church
But what does the Church do after Jesus is ascended into heaven, after Judas has committed suicide? Turn to Acts 1 to see what the Church does in response to Judas’ death and Jesus’ departure. It’s very interesting and important because Peter stands up with the eleven in the Upper Room, verse 15, and He speaks about Judas’ death and He says, “It was known beforehand and had even been prophesied in the Old Testament” and so what should we do now?
Notice that Peter — and by the way, notice that it is Peter who stands up. He’s not just contributing an opinion. When Peter declares an opinion it is binding and immediately following, exactly what he advises. And what is it he advises? He quotes the Psalms, “Let his habitation become desolate and let there be no one to live in it.” But then he doesn’t say, “Hey, guys, we’re from twelve down to eleven. We better hang together now or we might end up hanging separately. No we’re just down to eleven and it’s going to be us from now on.” He doesn’t say that.
He says, “His office, let another take.” Or as the King James version says, “His bishopric, let other men take.” The word there is episcopae, where we get the word episcopacy or episcopal. It’s the word for bishop. In other words, there’s an epioscopal office that is now empty and vacant. Peter stands up and says, “Well obviously, automatically, in line with the Old Testament tradition, in line with this Old Testament practice of patriarchal succession at every level in God’s family, not just at top with Moses and his seed and his successors, but even the seventy elders, when they died, they left empty offices that must be filled,” Peter is just obviously appealing to this Old Testament precedent is saying, “Let another man his bishopric, his office, take.”
And they draw lots and they choose Matthias. No debate, no novelty. The other ten don’t say, “Huh, what are you talking about, Simon? This is weird.” No, they understand, but even more, they submit. There’s no debate, no discussion.
Notice also in Acts 2, Peter’s responsibility, not just over the ten, but over all of Jerusalem. He is the one who preaches the first sermon, that Pentecost, verse 14. He is the spokesman for the Church to the world at Pentecost.
Then you go on in chapter 3, we see Peter’s second sermon. We also see that Peter is the instrument by which the first real healing miracle occurs, the lame man in the temple in Jerusalem in the portico called Solomon, I should say.
Then in chapter 4, we see Peter’s pre-eminence emerging even further as he exercises his teaching authority over the Jewish senate, the Sanhedrin. He’s put on trial, so you think he’s going to be defensive. He’s going to come to His own defense saying, “Oh gosh, guys, you know, please don’t do these things.” But no. He puts the Sanhedrin on trial for crucifying the Lord. He exercises supreme authority over the Jewish senate. It left them flabbergasted! Who does this fisherman think he is? The vicar of Christ over the family of God. And so they’re set free. They are astounded at his boldness.
Then in Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira, two wealthy members of the Church, sell some land and then lie about how much money they gave to the Church. Peter said to Ananias, “What are you doing?” Ananias says, “Well I gave you all the money.” And Peter says, “You are lying to the Holy Spirit.” Ananias said, “No, I’m just lying to you, Peter.” But no. In lying to Peter, Ananias was lying to the Holy Spirit and to the Church. He’s struck dead! A few hours later his wife Sapphira comes along. Peter says, “What happened?” “Oh, we sold the land for this amount, and we gave you all the money.” And, “Hark, the footsteps of the men who just carried out your husband are coming for you.” She drops dead! “And great fear came upon all those who heard of it,” in verse 5.
No wonder. Petrine promise was rather apparent here. I mean Peter’s pre-eminence was on display for the whole Church and the whole world and all the Jews to see and to behold. And it goes on and on and on. We see Peter, for instance, in Acts 11 and 12 — even before that — Acts 8, the first time non-Jewish half-breeds, Samaritans are brought into the Church. They are baptized. Word reaches Jerusalem that these non-Jewish half-breeds, the Samaritans are coming into the Church. Immediately, what do they do? Send Peter and John. They go down there and what do they do? Well, a Confirmation action, here. “They lay the hand,” verse 14, “When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed they might receive the Holy Spirit.” They were baptized but they hadn’t received this additional grace that we often associate with Confirmation. Then the laying on of hands; they received the Holy Spirit and then Simon Magus tried to buy the gift and Peter rebukes him.
“May your money,” verse 20, “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money. You have no part to share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord and perhaps He will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart, for I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” At this point Simon, who probably had heard of Ananias and Sapphira was trembling, you know. “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” I mean, even if some don’t see Peter’s promise, at least Simon Magus, the first heretic in the Church did. He said, “Please pray for me that I won’t become the next Ananias and Sapphira.”
Acts 11, now we’re not talking about half-breeds; now we are talking about just plain outsiders, the Goene, the Gentiles, the swine, those that the Jews had often considered to be mere beasts. Cornelius, the first Gentile believer is going to be let into the Church? This is going to cause scandal. What’s the Holy Spirit going to do? Have Peter be the first to authorize and admit the first Gentile Christian.
So Peter has this vision and in Acts 10 and 11, I should say, he has this vision: he’s being commanded by God in this vision to kill and to eat these unclean animals that symbolize the Gentiles. He says, “I’ve never done it.” Three times later he says, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it.” And then these people come and say, “We’re being sent from Cornelius, the Gentile Centurion.” In a dream, in a vision, the Lord had said to Cornelius, “Send for a guy named Peter.” So Peter comes and what happens? Well, Peter goes up to his house and he perceives, verse 34, he says after he’s baptizing Cornelius, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
So then he goes ahead, preaches the gospel, baptizes these Gentiles and admits the first non-Jewish believers into the Church. And I mean, this could have been the greatest crisis of all, but there isn’t even a fizzle, practically. But look at chapter 11, verse 2, “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.'” And he explained exactly what happened and said, “Hey, God told me.” It’s Peter and they stopped.
But the crisis reaches an even higher point in chapter 15. We have the famous Council of Jerusalem where there’s a huge debate tearing apart the Church. These Gentile believers, do we circumcise them or not? Well you might say, “How important is that?” Well, gentlemen, if you were in your twenties, thirties and forties and you were considering conversion and along with conversion, you had to get circumcised, you might end up considering conversion a lot longer than if all you needed was baptism, right? There was sort of a strategic purpose behind all of this. But notice, as the debate is raging, all of a sudden it stops. When? Verse 6 and 7, “The Apostles and elders met together. After much debate Peter stood up and addressed them,” and he basically says the Holy Spirit purified their hearts through Baptism, circumcision isn’t needed; end all debate! The only thing that follows is that James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, adds the kind of qualifying proviso so that the Jews are not needlessly scandalized in Gentile lands. But Peter’s word was final and absolute. The debate ended. Peter had spoken.
Now you might say, “Well, this is just Peter.” No, the keys symbolize succession, an office which is left vacant must be filled. This is something that the Church understood. This is something that was well-known to the early Church. I hardly have time to get into this, but I have all these note cards about the early Church, after the death of the last Apostles, recognizing that the Bishop of Rome had Peter’s authority and that was final and absolute.
Early Church Fathers Recognized Papal Primacy and Succession
Clement of Rome, about 96, writing to Corinth about this disunity, “But if any disobey the word spoken by him, Peter, through us.” Remember Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus? Those were the first Popes.
Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd Century says, “Anyone who wished to discern the truth may see in every Church in the whole world, the Apostolic succession clear and manifest.” We saw that in Acts 1. I mean, if Judas’ office when left vacant is filled by a successor, then why should we be scandalized and lose our faith if a Pope is a scoundrel? You know, you may say, “The Pope shouldn’t be a scoundrel.” I’d say, “Yeah and amen.” But Jesus knew that it wasn’t going to be human strength and human authority that would put it all together for the Church. That’s why He chose a Judas in the first place, to assure our hearts that no matter who was in the Apostolic seat, whether it’s Peter or the other Apostles, his Bishops, it’s Jesus’ omnipotent love for His family that will see us through to the truth, no matter what may come.
Irenaeus goes on and says, “We can enumerate those who were appointed as bishops in the churches by the Apostles and their successors down to our own day, but as it would be very long in a book of this kind to enumerate the successors of all through the churches, I will point out the Apostolic tradition in faith announced to mankind.” And it goes on. Speaking about the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul at Rome — I won’t read the whole quote, it goes on, but there also we see Iraneaus in the 2nd Century underscoring the Bishops as the successors to the Apostles and the Bishop of Rome, in particular, as the successor to Peter.
Tertullian in the late 100’s and the early 200’s A.D. said, “Was anything withheld from Peter who was called the Rock on which the Church should be built, who also obtained the keys to the kingdom of heaven with the power of binding and loosing in heaven and earth?”
Origen, in the late 100’s spoke of Peter first because, “He was more honored than the rest.”
St. Cyprian spoke of the Roman Church founded on Peter who fixed his chair in Rome. He speaks of the Church in Rome as our Mother Church, “the root of universality and Catholicity.”
Hilary in the 300’s speaks of the foundation of the Church on the Rock from which the Church was built. In other words, the early Church Fathers recognized this. The Protestant historian, Goodspeed, in his history book says, “The claim of primacy among the bishops for its head began under Victor in the 2nd Century and progressed under Calistus who claimed the power of the keys and reached a peak under Stephen in the 3rd Century, who professed to occupy the chair of St. Peter.” Now even Cyprian, when he opposed Stephen as Pope, didn’t oppose authority but opposed his opinions. Then finally, because Cyprian is St. Cyprian, he gave in to the Pope which is why he became a saint. St. Cyprian says, “A primacy is given to Peter and it is thus made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair.”
I have about thirty quotes from a Syriac saint and Father, St. Ephraim. He is the one who just reaches to the clouds for words to describe the authority of Peter and his successors in the Sea of Rome. I don’t have time to go through these all, but I recommend a three- volume work written by a Professor Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, and it goes through all the Fathers and the many, many things they said to show that they recognize this authority in the Pope. Augustine, for instance, “Even if some traitor crept into this order of Bishops which is drawn from Peter, himself, up to Anastasius who now occupies the same See, he would not prejudice the Church.” He speaks of the cathedre Petri.
When you look at St. Augustine, a great saint and Father that the Protestants revere, Augustine had more things to say about the Popes as successors to Peter with all of his plenary authority than almost anybody else in the first seven centuries of the Church. It’s astonishing. Augustine said, “Who is ignorant that the chief Apostolate is to be preferred to any Episcopate?” Of the dignity of Peter he says, “in whom the primacy of the Apostles shone forth with excelling grace.”
Another Objection: Why Wasn’t Papal Infallibility Defined Until the 1800’s? The Bible Never Mentions Papal Infallibility.
Now, we could go on and on. Somebody could say, “Now, wait a second. Why wasn’t Papal infallibility defined until the 1800s? The Bible never says Papal infallibility.” No it doesn’t. But the Bible never says Trinity, either. And all non-Catholic Christians affirm the Trinity. Why wasn’t the word “Trinity” used? Well, because the word Trinity wasn’t necessary until heresies arose that forced the Church to formulate and to defend the doctrine of God, one God in Three Persons adequately and sufficiently. At that point, they came up with a very helpful term, “Tri-unity” or Trinity to do so.
Likewise, in looking at Matthew 16 and the unconditional guarantee that Jesus gives to Peter, the recipient of the keys, the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church which is built upon the Rock. The gates of Hades will not prevail against Peter and his successors. Well, the gates of Hades derive their power from error, from untruth, from falsehood, the father of lies. If one lie is allowed into the Church’s pure, sacred teaching, that’s like taking a window pane and putting one crack into it. I’ll tell you what happens. I was driving down a highway in Milwaukee and a little pebble bounced up and just touched the windshield, a little crack. What happened? Over the next few months, my wife will tell you, that crack grew and grew, and we had to replace it because the whole thing could have been shattered.
If one should admit one falsehood, defined as truth, the gates of Hades have prevailed. Christ has given us an unconditional guarantee that they will not prevail because he will build His Church upon Peter and His successors, the Rock, the foundation stone. This gives us confidence because the family of God on earth is never left without a father figure to teach and to help us.
Now, if a Judas-type occupies the Chair, you better believe that God will graciously pour out an extra measure of the Holy Spirit to protect His children and see that that scoundrel is out, quick. And they were. And to show that these people were exposed — every Catholic historian will admit that certain Popes, a very, very few, were scoundrels who were acting too scoundrelish to even bother teaching, thanks be to God. But this gives to us the kind of confidence we need as God’s sons and daughters to listen to the Holy Father, John Paul II, and hear the voice of Christ because this awesome grace that is given to the Pope is one of the many graces that Christ died to give to us.
Let’s treasure it. Let’s cherish it and let’s live it out with God’s grace and power. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we pray, Our Father, etc.
Scott Hahn on the Papacy