The Papacy


Matthew 16:13-20

In our consideration of the contemporary challenge of Roman Catholicism we have come to the Roman Catholic doctrine and institution of the Papacy, the office of the Pope. Let no one mistake the tremendous claim that is made for this office in Roman Catholic theology and practice. It may be that many American Catholics, for example, feel perfectly free to ignore what the Pope says and teaches. But a serious-minded Catholic would worry more about the souls of those church-members than about the institution of the papacy itself. Here is a Roman Catholic catechism on the Pope:

“The Pope takes the place of Jesus Christ on earth…. By divine right the Pope has supreme and full power in faith and morals over each and every pastor and his flock. He is the true Vicar of Christ [a vicar is one who acts in the place of, a deputy], the head of the entire church, the father and teacher of all Christians. He is the infallible ruler, the founder of dogmas, the author of and the judge of councils; the universal ruler of truth, the arbiter of the world, the supreme judge of heaven and earth, the judge of all, being judged by no one, God himself on earth.” [The New York Catechism, cited in Boettner, Roman Catholicism, 127]

We Protestants are well-used to dismissing this whole idea of the papacy as a vast but obvious blunder. But it is a striking thing to hear these new converts to Rome from our own evangelical and Presbyterian churches wax so enthusiastic about the Pope and the blessing and importance of this papal office and authority.

Now, in dealing with these claims for the Pope made by Roman Catholics and in evaluating the arguments offered for the papacy, I will use arguments that you have heard me use before in this series of sermons. I’m going to say that the Roman Catholic doctrine is both without biblical warrant and actually unbiblical, that the Roman Catholic appeal to the tradition of the early church is not nearly so impressive as they claim; and that the appeal that Catholics find in this distinctive feature of their system is illusory and dangerous. I have argued similarly in regard to the place they give to Mary or concerning their practice of confession and penance. If I were to take ten more subjects, ten more distinctive features of the Roman Catholic system or the Catholic version of the Christian faith, my argument would be, by and large, the same. Whether we spoke of prayers for the dead, or prayers to the saints, or the existence of purgatory, or their sacraments of holy orders or last rites, or their particular view of marriage, the argument would be the same: that these beliefs and practices lack Scriptural support, and are, in any case, positively unscriptural, that the evidence of early Christian practice does not nearly so well demonstrate the apostolic origin of these practices and beliefs as Catholics argue it does, and, finally, that the benefits they claim these practices, these institutions, and these beliefs, confer on the church are illusory and imperil the pure gospel of Christ.

What this illustrates, I want you to see, is that everything in this debate reduces to the same fundamental issue: how do we know the will of God? We have, on the basis of the Word of God itself, already taken our stand on Holy Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith and practice and as a perfectly sufficient rule of faith and practice. Our historical studies, in connection with various issues separating Protestants from Catholics, have confirmed that commitment to our own satisfaction. That is, when one draws one’s beliefs from another well, one immediately begins to water a system of faith and life that grows to be not only extrabiblical, but un- and anti- biblical. I say again, I look at this question as someone who was trained professionally in the study of the NT and whose training included a great deal of study of first century Judaism. I see an almost universal parallelism between first century Judaism and Roman Catholicism: each is an example of the same phenomenon, viz. what happens when tradition is allowed to rework biblical revelation. The changes are all of the same type and character and they produce the same general result theologically, liturgically, and spiritually. The new converts to Rome speak of us as “Bible Christians.” I’m entirely happy to wear the title and hope and pray that all of you will likewise wear it as a crown.

However, this being so, I am concerned that we not become repetitive in these studies, or that I weary you by taking too many issues and saying, effectively, the same things about each one. Nevertheless, I decided we could not omit the question of the papacy in our study of Roman Catholicism, because it is so basic to the entire system. On it rests the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood and so the Catholic system of salvation.

Now, let me begin by saying that there are bad reasons for rejecting the papacy and these reasons often figure too largely in Protestant thinking about the Pope. For example, there are Christians who have been so deeply influenced by American ideals of democracy and egalitarianism that, to them, because the papacy smacks of monarchy and authoritarianism they reject it. But the Catholics get the better of that exchange, for the Christian Church is not a democracy, it is a manifestation of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are his subjects and he rules over us through officers he appoints to exercise that rule. Only the most attenuated and emasculated forms of congregational church government deny the real authority held by the officers of Christ’s church.

But there are other, very good reasons for rejecting the Roman Catholic claims for the Pope and they begin where the Catholics themselves begin, with the Lord’s statement to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19. From this text, far and away the most important Catholic proof-text for the papacy, Catholics argue that Peter was appointed by the Lord as the Head of the Church with a special and unique authority, that the Pope, who is the successor of Peter, therefore holds that primacy among all Christian bishops and, therefore, that same authority that Christ bestowed upon Peter, and that a necessary consequence of that papal primacy and authority is the Pope’s infallibility when he speaks as the Holy Father, the Universal Teacher of the Christian Church. I listened to a long lecture on this text by Scott Hahn this past week and he claimed to find all three of these assertions in Matthew 16:18-19.

Now, be clear. They do not claim that the Pope can’t make mistakes; he is not impeccable or unable to sin. The current Pope, apparently, confesses his sins at least weekly. Nor are they saying that there can’t be, from time to time, a rotten scoundrel who somehow becomes Pope. Protestants, of course, are quick to point out the horrific abuses and corruptions of the Borgia popes, but Catholics acknowledge these. There was a Judas among the twelve apostles they say. [My own view is that the bad Popes are a greater difficulty for the doctrine of the papacy than Catholic thinkers think they are, but I will leave that aside. Catholics admit there were terrible popes.] But, when the Pope is acting as Christ’s deputy on earth and, particularly, when he is sitting in Peter’s chair as the Teacher of all Christians, Christ prevents him from uttering wrong opinions. Scott Hahn took the position that Christ prevented the Borgia Popes from ever exercising this authority. Tell that to Savonarola! But, that is not the main point.

The argument from Matthew 16:18-19 goes like this. The Lord Jesus distinguishes Peter from the other apostles and confers upon him personally the keys of the kingdom — the power to teach, to forgive sins, and to discipline –. This bestowal of the keys included a dynastic succession by reason of which Peter himself bestowed on his successor the same authority that Christ had bestowed on him.

Now it would take too long to repeat the arguments that Scott Hahn and others use to persuade us that all of this is in fact to be found in the Lord’s remark to Peter. I can only say that I was not impressed by those arguments. They amounted to a succession of doubtful inferences the combination of which did not come near to establishing that doctrine of the papacy that, one naturally thinks, if Christ intended what the Catholics believe he did, would have been so clearly taught and revealed that one who runs might read. After all, the Catholics argue that Jesus did teach their doctrine here, but he certainly didn’t make that doctrine obvious! But how do we reply to this interpretation of Matthew 16?

First, we do not reply, as Protestants have long replied by denying that Jesus did in fact say to Peter that he would be the rock on which the Lord would build the church. Protestants, from the Reformation onwards, have typically taken the Lord here to mean that Christ was the rock or that it was Peter’s confession that was the rock, but not Peter himself. Actually, there was nothing new in those interpretations. They can be found in the early fathers, as a matter of fact. Indeed, Augustine, who at first took “this rock” in v. 18 to be Peter, later, in his Retractions argued that “this rock” should be taken as a reference to Christ himself. But, in reaction to Roman claims, the Reformers preferred interpretations that did not identify Peter with “this rock.”

Now, however, it is widely admitted, as it should be, that the Lord’s reference is to Peter. He is the rock upon which he will build his church. There is no reason to evade the simple force of the words. But, having admitted that, what have we admitted? Two chapters later, in Matthew 18:18 the same authority devolved on Peter in 16:19 is bestowed on the church as a whole, and in John 20:23 the same authority again is explicitly bestowed upon all the apostles. In other words, the Lord cannot be made in the context of the Gospels to be intending that Peter have an authority the other apostles do not have, except perhaps, that natural prominence that made him primus inter pares, the first among equals.

So, when Paul writes in Ephesians 2:20 that the church, God’s household, is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, he is saying again and in only a slightly different way, what Jesus said on those three occasions in the Gospels. Peter is singled out in Matthew 16 because he happened to be the one who uttered the clear confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God.

And, the rest of the NT absolutely confirms this picture of things. In Mark 9:33-35, you remember, when the disciples were arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest, — this is after the Lord had said what he said to Peter in Matthew 16 — the Lord said nothing of any special status for Peter, but rather that he who would be first must be the servant of all. And this is exactly the tone that Peter himself takes in the rest of the NT. In his two letters there is nothing of any special claim on his part to the leadership of the church. He refers to himself as an apostle and, strikingly, as an elder among all the other elders, but never as someone with supreme authority in the church. Nothing remotely like that from Peter anywhere.

In Acts we do not find Peter operating as Pope, but as one of the apostles. He is certainly prominent in the first half of Luke’s early church history, but gives way to Paul half-way through the book and is not heard of again. Strikingly in Acts 15, in the account of the first church Council in Jerusalem, Peter plays a prominent role as one of many who speaks, but not the decisive role. That belongs to James, the Lord’s brother, who by this time was the most influential leader of the church in Jerusalem. He spoke last and even said, as he came to his conclusion, “It is my judgment that…” And, even at that, emphasis falls in that text on the membership of that council as “the apostles and elders…”  It was the presbytery that came to a decision and published it to the church, not Peter as the first Pope.

As our own Dr. Harris wrote, years ago [cited in Boettner, 130-131]:

The fact is that the early church had no head on earth.  Christ was their head and they all were brothers. They did have an organization, however… There was a doctrinal question at Antioch. What should the church do to settle it? Should they write a letter to Peter asking his decision? This would be the [Roman Catholic] position. But they did not. Should they write a letter to the “college of Apostles”? This is the episcopal position that the bishops by apostolic succession have the whole authority in the church. But Antioch did not do that. Should they call a congregational meeting of the church at Antioch and have the matter decided by a vote of the congregation? That would be the independent theory of church government. But they did not do this either. Rather they sent representatives to a synod meeting held at Jerusalem where the apostles and elders came together to consider the matter. They considered it carefully with prayer and Scripture study. Finally the apostles and elders decided on a policy and gave out decrees to which all the churches were expected to submit…. There was no primacy of Peter or anyone else.

This was certainly Paul’s outlook. He shows no deference to Peter in his work; he even rebukes him publicly on one occasion. He understood and often wrote that his authority as an apostle came directly from Christ himself and he conducted his ministry independently. When he refers to Peter, as he does in Galatians 1 and 2 and 1 Corinthians 9, he refers to him as a colleague in the ministry and as one of the apostolic band, never as someone in whom Christ had invested the supreme authority of the church.

So, we do not find in Matthew 16:18-19 anything like the proof the Catholics find for the primacy of Peter or a dynastic succession from Peter down through the succession of popes. But we have a second large question. How do we get from Matthew 16 to Rome? Where do we learn that Peter’s successor, should there supposed to be one, is to be the bishop of Rome?

Here the argument shifts entirely to early church tradition. There is no doubt that the Roman church became preeminent among the churches of the early Christian world. This was due largely to the fact that Rome was the capital of the world of that day. It is very difficult to avoid the impression that Rome’s place in the Christian world owes itself almost entirely to Rome’s place in the imperial world. Or as Herman Bavinck put it [Dogmatiek, vol. IV, 385]: “The papal power of the bishop of Rome rested a great deal on the political prestige of the city.”

But, even given that fact, the development of the power and supreme authority of the Roman see, or bishopric, came very slowly, in fits and starts, and was never recognized by the Eastern part of the church. In the early centuries, while great respect was shown the Roman church and then, later, the Roman bishop, it was always respect paid to a primus inter pares, the first among equals. Many statements were made by the early fathers expressing the equality of the bishops of various cities of the Mediterranean world. And, later, when Rome began asserting its privileges, over against other prominent metropolitan bishops, those bishops refused to recognize Rome’s claimed supreme authority. Indeed, even the decisions of ecumenical councils, which otherwise the Roman Catholic church recognizes as invested with a special authority, such as Chalcedon in A.D. 451, confirm that the great city bishops of the world of that day were co-equal, Rome possessing a precedence only in honor.

Indeed, the materials of early Christianity, especially the first five centuries, really support the claims of the Eastern or the Orthodox church — which recognizes several supreme bishops — far better than they do the Roman Catholic claims for the Bishop of Rome’s authority over the entire church.

But, the fact is, the historical materials simply do not confirm that Peter was ever the bishop of Rome or that the church ever saw that office as possessing a supreme authority in the Christian church. The historical fact remains, the Pope has never been the leader of all of Christendom. At the most he was the head of Western or Latin Christianity from the beginning of the medieval period to the Reformation and, since the Reformation, only of that part of Christendom that remained loyal to him. So we say, neither the Scripture nor church history supports the interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 placed upon it by Roman Catholic thought.

But it remains to ask: what is the charm, the attraction, the appeal of this office? Why do its advocates wax so eloquently in its defense? Perhaps there are many answers to that question, but the chief of them seems clearly to be that in the Pope and his office and his authority we find a means of preserving the unity of the church.

Scott Hahn, in his lecture, uses this as his peroration, his rhetorical climax. Look at the Protestant world without a Pope. What do you see? You see thousands of denominations and churches and sects, becoming more numerous every day. You see every Christian producing his own interpretation of Christian doctrine and giving his own account of Christian ethics. In the Protestant world, the household of God, the church of Christ has disintegrated into innumerable bits and pieces. If Christ prayed that his church might be one, well, his prayer was not heard so far as the Protestants are concerned.

But, look at the Roman Catholic church. Sure there is diversity. Catholics in Latin America worship differently in many ways and live differently than Catholics in the U.S. or Catholics in China or Africa. There is a rich diversity. But they all belong to the same church; their bishops are all related to a single government; they all have one head and all of them — despite their private, even sometimes raucous disagreements — accept that there is but one voice of the church, one doctrine, one teaching, one law, one position. Is that not much better? Is that not what Christ had in mind? Is that not the outworking of the great emphasis paid in the NT to the unity of the church: one faith, one Lord, one baptism?

Now, I will speak to you candidly. There is nothing that troubles me more about my Protestant faith than just this objection raised by Roman Catholics. I hear Steve Wood, a former PCA minister, speaking of his once holding up before his congregation the Handbook of Christian Denominations in the United States — identifying all the thousands of different Protestant churches now existing in the United States — and telling them that this cannot be what the Lord had in mind that night when he prayed that his disciples might be one. I feel the force of that argument! I want you to feel the force of it as well. Don’t underestimate the importance of this brothers and sisters. Humanly speaking, which is the only way we can speak, there are multitudes of people who remain unsaved and multitudes of folk in the church who remain unsaved and multitudes of Christians who live impoverished and far too disobedient Christian lives precisely because the Christian church shows such an unimpressive face to the world and so little inspires confidence in its message or adorns that message and makes it beautiful and appealing. How will folk take the gospel, the truth of the Scripture seriously when it produces such an utterly pedestrian, natural, and, in all too many cases, positively unattractive result?  This is, a powerful argument for the papal office — just the way it unifies the church and makes one a church composed of people from every culture and every nation, speaking every language in the world. I certainly find that immensely attractive and desirable. Must not every Christian who has the Lord’s own heart and interest?

But, having said all that and admitted all that, at the last, I cannot accept that it means that the papacy is a divine institution simply because it does effect this certain unity in the church. For, attractive as that result is in certain ways, it is man’s solution to the problem, not God’s! And man’s solutions, as we have already learned in previous messages, always carry with them devastating results, however unintentioned. The early Pharisees only wanted to be faithful to God’s holy law. But, the fateful steps they took, led the church at last to crucify the Lord of glory!

You see, finally, the unity the Pope confers on Catholic Christendom is a unity in error, a unity that has been preserved throughout the ages by her rejection time and again of reformation on the basis of Holy Scripture. In Scott Hahn’s lecture he made what was perhaps a Freudian slip! He spoke of the time “when Luther left the church.” But, of course, Luther didn’t leave the church, he was thrown out. The Pope regarded Luther as a troubler of Israel in just the same way that Ahab regarded Elijah to be a troubler of Israel, and Elijah’s response to Ahab was exactly the same that Luther made to Pope Leo: “It is not I that troubles Israel, but you, you who has abandoned the Lord’s commands.” Indeed, in a striking paradox, the Pope is, in fact, a cause of great disunity in the church — keeping Protestants and Orthodox Christians away, because they cannot accept submission to the Pope as right.

A fractured Protestantism is nothing to boast about. It is something to mourn, over which to grieve, something about which every Christian with Christ’s mind ought to be ashamed. But finally, the Lord’s solution to that disunity is not the Pope, but the work of his Spirit in the hearts of men and the faithful following of God’s Word. No other unity but that of true faith, hope, and love, of loyalty to Christ and his gospel is of any interest to our Father in heaven. In fact, to place the emphasis on the Pope in discussions of Christian unity places the emphasis in exactly the wrong place — outward form instead of inward graces drawing men and women together! And if that should mean that, once again, there is but a remnant chosen by grace, and that that remnant, scattered in the world, can be detected only by faith, well, such is God’s mysterious will. It is not the first time it has been so.