Mathew 16 is the most often cited text by Roman Catholics. It is said that this is where Peter was instituted as the infallible leader of the church with primacy of authority over the rest of the apostles. The text reads:
16Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I 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’” (Matthew 16:16-19).
Catholic Understanding of the Text
First, those who adhere to papalism believe that by making Peter the rock upon which the church was to be built, Jesus established Peter as supreme leader of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says Peter being rock is meant to denote his authoritative unshakableness in matters of leadership: “Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., p. 156, paragraph 552).
Second, in regards to receiving the keys of the kingdom of heaven the same catechism says, “The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., p. 156, paragraph 553). Romanists argue in Matthew 16:18 Jesus was drawing from Isaiah 22:15-25 where Eliakim is given the key to the house of David with power to open and shut. Rome will argue that because Eliakim was made chief steward or leader of the royal household, and because this office included successors, this therefore establishes Peter was made the sole leader or chief steward over the kingdom of heaven with successors, the bishops of Rome, in a similar fashion.
Third, with respect to binding and loosing the catechism also states, “The power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgements, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., p. 156, paragraph 553). In regards to pronouncing doctrinal judgements this concerns making allegedly infallible ex cathedra statements where a pope declares something to be believed by the whole church concerning faith or morals.
After thoroughly examining the issue of Matthew 16 I am convinced of the following: Jesus used Peter as a rock or foundation to expand, build, or grow His church through Peter’s primitive preaching of the word. This early preaching and making of converts is symbolic of him using his keys of the kingdom to unlock the door of the kingdom for such people. That is, Peter is a rock or foundation of the church not in the sense of supreme jurisdictional authority or ruler-ship, but in the sense of being the foundation instrument that was utilized by Christ for early church growth.
Peter used his spiritual keys of the kingdom of heaven to unlock the door of the kingdom for the early converts thereby building, expanding, or growing Christ’s Church. It is in that sense that Jesus declared Peter the rock upon whom the church is built.
These keys belonging to Peter which signify his pronouncing the gospel to the future members of the kingdom allow Peter to bind and loose people. This concerns permitting or forbidding their entry into the kingdom. All of this is unrepeatable since it had to do with the initial formation and initial growth of the small primitive church and thus there is no succession of such honors.
Thus, I am convinced the text does not teach Peter being the rock means he is unique supreme leader of the church as a whole or that his keys signify his successors and he govern the church as chief stewards with Eliakim’s key of the house of David from Isaiah 22:22. I also deny that binding and loosing concerns pronouncing “doctrinal judgements” and making “disciplinary decisions in the Church” as the catechism asserts.
Jesus uses Peter to Build the Church through his Preaching
I reject both the idea that Jesus was saying upon Peter’s faith he would build his church as well as the idea that He was saying upon himself the church would be built. Conservative Protestant exegetical scholarship is basically unified in affirming Peter is the rock here. D. A. Carson, Craig Blomberg, Craig S. Keener as well as the late Oscar Cullmann and W. F. Albright among many dozens of others are in agreement on this point. As Carson notes,
“Although it is true that petros and petra can mean ‘stone’ and ‘rock’ respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined in poetry. . . . The Greek makes a distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name” (D.A. Carson, Matthew, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], p. 368).
The most common problem in this discussion is that it is assumed by Catholics if Peter is the rock then that must mean he is the supreme leader of the church enjoying a papal primacy. That is often just taken as a given once Peter is proven to be the rock here. However, this assumption is inaccurate in light of contextual and other New Testament material concerning the church being built or growing through Peter, the meaning of Peter’s keys, and the meaning of Peter binding and loosing. Therefore, one must caution Roman Catholics to not hang up their hats simply because Protestant scholars affirm Peter is the rock. If Peter being the rock upon which the church is built simply means Peter builds or grows the primitive church through his preaching, that severely undermines the papist understanding of Peter being the rock.
Now, if this view is true we would expect the word “build” in Matthew 16:18 to often denote church member growth or multiplication. The Greek verb for “I will build” here is oikodomēsō future indicative active which comes from the verb oikodomeō. This word is used in Acts 9:31 in the present participle form for church membership growth or multiplication where we read, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up [oikodomoumenē]. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). It is also used in Romans 15:20 of the spread of the gospel leading to membership growth: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build [oikodomō] on someone else's foundation (Romans 15:20). In 1 Corinthians 3:10 Paul can speak of being a “skilled master builder” in regards to growing or building the church. Peter in 1 Peter 2:5 can compare believers to “living stones [who] are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). When the word is in regards to building a literal house (Matt. 7:24, 26; Luk. 4:29; 7:5; Jhn. 2:20; Acts, 7:47, 49) inherent in that idea is the house growing from nothing due to labour. This is consistent with our thesis since we are aiming to show the word can carry the meaning of church number growth. New Testament scholar Robert Gundry also offers information supportive of our thesis: “the metaphor of building a people occurs in Jer 18:9; 24:6; 31:4; 42:10; cf. 1QH 6:25-29; 7:4-9; 4QpPs37 3:16; 1 Cor 3:9; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:5” (Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994], p. 333 italics mine).
We have thus established the building metaphor can often signify the growth of the church in number. This is what we would expect to find if our thesis of Peter being the rock who builds (i.e., grows) the church is true. This is all the more supported when one takes head to what R. T. France notes: “The Greek term ekklēsia [church] never denotes a physical structure in the NT, but always a community of people. The new temple is not a building of literal stones, but consists of ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2:5)” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007], p. 623 brackets mine). Therefore, it is not difficult to see that Matthew 16:18 has it so Jesus would increase the number of His flock through Peter the rock who firmly helps that process along.
Peter Uses Keys to Unlock Door of Kingdom for Converts through Preaching thus Building Christ’s Church
That the keys of the kingdom of heaven enabled Peter to open the door of faith for converts (fulfilling Peter’s role of being the rock who builds the church) is evidenced by many considerations. First, Peter being given the keys of the kingdom of heaven is to be clearly understood as the preaching of the gospel to the Jews, Samaritans and the Gentiles which opened the doors of the kingdom for them. Therefore, we see in Acts 15:7: “. . . Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe’” (Acts 15:7). Peter is referring back to Matthew 16:19 when Christ gave him the keys of the kingdom which symbolize escorting new converts in. With regards to Peter mentioning God’s choice to use him as an instrument to the Gentiles, Adam Clarke notes: “. . . he [Peter] refers to that time when Christ gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, that he might open the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Adam Clarke, The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Volume 1, [J. Emory and B. Waugh for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831], p. 760).
Moreover, if the keys symbolize preaching and opening the door of the kingdom for converts, we should expect to see evidence connecting primitive conversion with a spiritual door opening. One can see exactly that in Acts 14:27: “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Again, the keys Peter received in Matthew 16:19 unlocked the door of the kingdom for the early converts through the preaching of the word. It is in that sense that Jesus used Peter as a rock to build His church.
In regards to Peter’s keys and confirming our thesis is Warren W. Wiersbe who notes, “Peter was given the privilege of opening ‘the door of faith’ to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2), to the Samaritans (Acts 8:14ff), and to the Gentiles (Acts 10)” (Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament: Volume 1, [David C. Cook, 1992 ], p. 59). Edward Denny notes that the 2nd - 3rd century early church writer Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) picked up on this understanding of the keys later in his life:
[Tertullian believed the power to bind and loose] . . . was exhausted by St. Peter himself when he unlocked the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven by his action in admitting new converts into the Church (Edward Denny, Papalism, [Rivingtons, 1912], p. 607).
Though holding to aberrant theology in many respects later on in his life, Tertullian seems to have at least gotten this one aspect right. The influential Church historian and theologian Philip Schaff agrees when he states:
“The keys of the kingdom of heaven. Power to open and shut. Peter first admitted Jews (on the day of Pentecost) and the Gentiles (Cornelius) to the Church; and first excluded (Ananias and Sapphira; Simon Magus)” (Philip Schaff, The Gospel According to Matthew, [Charles Scribner, 1881], p. 219).
Orthodox scholar Laurence Cleenewerck agrees with this meaning of Peter’s keys:
“. . . the keys may have referred to Peter’s commission to open the doors of the kingdom, not only to the repentant Jews, but also to the Samaritans and Gentiles. Once the doors were opened, the mission of the keys was fulfilled” (Laurence Cleenewerck, His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism Between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, [Euclid University Press, 2008], p. 267).
Peter Binds and Looses People into Kingdom with his Keys, not Rules or Doctrine
Since Peter’s keys symbolize metaphorically opening the door of the kingdom through preaching and assisting converts, binding and loosing (which is what one does with keys) have to be related to this. The “and” (Gk. kai) between the phrases “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” in v. 19 also ensures that interdependent connection.
Peter binds and looses people into the kingdom in this sense: he permits and prohibits entry to the kingdom using his keys upon their reception or denial of the gospel. That people as opposed to doctrine or rules are bound and loosed here is clear. Carson states,
“Formally ho is neuter, and ‘things’ might be expected. Moreover, the rabbis spoke of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ in terms of laying down Halakah (rules of conduct): Shammai is strict and ‘binds’ many things on people, while Hillel allows greater laxity and ‘looses’ them. It might be argued, then, that in Acts 15:10 Peter looses what certain Judaizers want to bind. Yet despite this, it is better to take binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19 to refer to persons, not rules. The neuter hosa (‘whatever’) occurs in 18:18 where the context demands that persons are meant. Indeed Greek often uses the neuter of people for classes or categories rather than for individuals. The context of v. 19 supports this; for the keys in the preceding context clause speak of permission for entering the kingdom or being excluded from it, not rules of conduct under heaven’s rule” (D.A. Carson, Matthew, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], p. 372).
In regards to this binding and loosing people into the kingdom, one can see Peter permitting entry in Acts 2:14-40 where, after his preaching to the crowds at Pentecost, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). His opening the door of kingdom for people is also seen in Acts 3:11-26 (see also his preaching to Samaritans in Acts 8:14 and to Gentiles in Acts 10:25-48).
His forbidding persons’ entry to the kingdom can be seen in his comments to the Jewish rulers, elders and scribes in Acts 4:11-12: “11This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). He also forbids entry to Simon the magician who tried to buy the power of the Spirit with money: “But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!’” (Acts 8:20). Finally it is seen in Peter’s handling of the Ananias and Sapphira issue where they sold property but deceptively held back some of the money for themselves:
“3But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." 5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:3-5).
As Keener says “Whereas Israel’s religious elite was shutting people out of the kingdom (23:13; cf. Lk 11:52; Cullmann 1953: 204; Richardson 1958: 317; Ladd 1974b: 117-18; Schweizer 1975: 343), those who confessed Jesus’ identity with Peter were authorized to usher people into [it]” (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999], p. 429 brackets mine). That is binding and loosing with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. It has nothing at all to do with the tenets of papal primacy.
Scholarly Support for our Understanding of Peter as Rock
Now that we have shown that confirming Peter is the rock of Matthew 16:18 in no way requires the conclusion of papal primacy (i.e., supreme jurisdiction over the world, ex cathedra statements on faith and morals, providing church with infallible interpretation of Scripture, and dogmatically ratifying councils) we will now quote academic authorities who agree with our basic understanding of Peter being rock. 19th century Anglican scholar George Salmon noted:
“You see, then, that the fact that Christ is called the rock, and that on Him the Church is built, is no hindrance to Peter’s also being, in a different sense, called rock, and being said to be the foundation of the Church . . . If there be no such fear, the context inclines us to look on our Lord’s words as conferring on Peter a special reward for his confession. For that confession was really the birth of the Christian Church. . . . Jesus fulfilled His promise to him by honouring him with the foremost place in each of the successive steps by which the Church was developed. It was through St. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost that the first addition was made to the numbers of the disciples whom our Lord Himself has collected, when on one day there was added to the Church 3000 souls; and it was Peter’s mission to Cornelius that the first step was made to the admission of Gentiles to the Church; thus causing it to overlap the narrow barrier of Judaism and to embrace all the families of the earth. Thus the words of our Lord were fulfilled in that Peter was honoured by being the foremost among the human agents by which the Church was founded” (George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, [London: John Murray, 1888], pp. 333, 335).
Respected Reformed biblical scholar D.A. Carson explains:
“Peter, on confessing Jesus as Messiah, is told that he has received this confession by the Father’s revelation and will be given the keys of the kingdom: i.e., by proclaiming “the good news of the kingdom” (4:23), which, by revelation he is increasingly understanding, he will open the kingdom to many and shut it against many. Fulfillments of this in Acts are not found in passages like 15:10 but in those like 2:14-39; 3:11-26, so that by this means the Lord added to the church those who were being saved (2:45), or, otherwise put, Jesus was building his church (Matt. 16:18) (D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], p. 373).
Possibly the finest New Testament scholar coming out of Australia, Leon Morris notes:
“. . . it is better to think of the church as built on Peter as the man who had received the revelation. . . . There is no doubting that Peter is assigned a preeminence (which we can see clearly in the early chapters of Acts), but it is not an absolute preeminence and we must be careful in defining it. . . . Peter . . . was to open the way. We see him doing this in Acts 2 and 3, where he opened the way for the Gentile Cornelius to come in. We should see another aspect of the use of the keys in Acts 8:20-23, where he is excluding an impenitent sinner. And while the gift of the keys indicates that Peter is clearly given a certain primacy, we should not exaggerate this” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992], pp. 423, 424, 426).
American Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner highlights the point:
“According to the exact picture used in this sentence, it is not Peter or other christocentrics like him who build Christ’s church; rather, it is Jesus himself who uses christocentric disciples and their pointing and who turns all such pointing persons into mortar. “I will build my own church.” Christ-pointing Peter has the honor of being the fist stone Jesus picked for the building of his church. The book of Acts agrees (cf., e.g., Acts 2, 8, and 10)” (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: a Commentary, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, vol 2, revised, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004], pp. 127-128).
The Orthodox scholar Theodore Stylianopoulos agrees:
“. . . the primary builder of his new community was Jesus himself. The community was Jesus’ (“my church”), not Peter’s. The invincible might against which the powers of hell would not prevail derives from Christ, not Peter, and belongs to the Church . . . not to a Petrine office. Jesus and the Church are greater realities than Peter. Peter’s function was to serve in some distinctive but undefined way as Jesus’ representative or helper in building the community” (Theodore Stylianopoulos, Concerning the Biblical Foundation of Primacy, The Petrine Ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue: Academic Symposium held at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, ed. Walter Kasper, [The Newman Press, 2006], p. 50).
Anglican scholar R. T. France highlights Peter’s,
“. . . role in the bringing in of Samaritans (Acts 8:14-25) and Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:7-11). By the time James takes over as president of the Jerusalem church, the foundation has been laid. In principle all the apostles constituted the foundation, with Jesus as the cornerstone, but as a matter of historical fact it was on Peter’s leadership that the earlier phase of the church’s development would depend, and that personal role, fulfilling his name ‘Rock,’ is appropriately celebrated by Jesus’ words here” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007], p. 623).
Historical Support for our Understanding of Matthew 16
Maximus of Turin (A.D.? – 424)
With respect to early church support for this understanding of Peter being the rock, Maximus of Turin (A.D. ? - 424) can be cited. Although he taught that Christ granted Peter a certain primacy or high status in heaven and in the kingdom of God, his interpretation of Matthew 16 is the same as ours. For example instead of asserting the Roman belief that Peter’s keys granted him supreme authority of jurisdiction over the whole church, Maximus of Turin taught that the keys, “opened to the believers the gates of faith, the same would also open for them the gates of heaven” (Maximus, Sermon Ixxii. De Dict. Ev. “Vos estis sal terrae.” Galland t. ix. P. 393, in Colin Lindsay, The Evidence for the Papacy, [London: Longmans, 1870], p. 49). This is not the modern Catholic view of the keys which says they grant Peter unshakable authority to govern the church in a unique way.
Moreover, with respect to the sense in which Peter is the rock that the church is built on, he clearly and unambiguously states that, “He is called a rock because he will be the first to lay the foundations of the faith among the nations . . . .” (Ancient Christian Writers, [New York: Newman, 1989), The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon 77.1, p. 187 cited in William Webster, The Matthew 16 Controversy, [Christian Resources, 1999], p. 123). He does not teach, like modern Rome, that Peter is the rock in the sense of having absolute primacy of jurisdiction over every believer. He teaches that Peter is the rock or foundation in the sense that he spreads the faith to the early converts building or expanding Christ’s church through his preaching.
Peter Chrysologus (A.D. 380 – 450)
Peter Chrysologus (A.D. 380 – 450) mentions, “Peter, that immovable foundation of salvation, and the gatekeeper of heaven. He was chosen to be an apostolic fisher and with the hook of sanctity he brought to himself the crowds . . . .” (Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 107, M. P. L., Vol. 57, Col. 498 cited in William Webster, The Matthew 16 Controversy, [Christian Resources, 1999], p. 127 italics mine). He also notes that, “Peter received his name from the rock, because he was the first to deserve to establish the Church, by reason of his steadfastness of faith . . . Let Peter hold his ancient primacy of the apostolic choir. Let him open to those who enter the kingdom of heaven. Let him bind the guilty with his power and absolve the penitent in kindness.” (Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 154, P. L., Vol. 52, Col. 608 cited in William Webster, The Matthew 16 Controversy, [Christian Resources, 1999], p. 127 italics mine).
There will no doubt be an inclination among some to see papalism in Chrysologus’s words here due to the word “primacy.” However, Chrysologus explains in what sense Peter has a primacy in light of being the rock of Matthew 16. Peter’s primacy is in terms of being the one who gets to establish Jesus’ church through evangelism and preaching (i.e., fishing and opening the kingdom for people). It is not in the sense of absolute jurisdiction or infallibility.
Although in a letter to the heretic Eutyches written in A.D. 449 Chrysologus exhorted him to take heed to a letter Pope Leo I wrote, and although he taught that a council could not be convened without the consent of the Bishop of Rome, and that the Bishop of Rome represented Peter in light of being in his apostolic see, the fact is that he taught Peter was the rock and had a primacy in the sense we described, not the Roman sense. Notice also that Chrysologus didn’t affirm that binding and loosing in Matthew 16 had anything to do with infallibly pronouncing doctrinal judgements as Rome claims. He taught that to bind and loose meant to bind the guilty and absolve the penitent with respect to the issue of sin. Yet in light of this, popery still declared him a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 1729.
Roman Catholic scholar William B. Palardy explains why in some of his material Chrysologus shows a peculiar loyalty towards the Roman see and bishop:
“Having been consecrated and, if Agnellus is to be believed, actually chosen by the bishop of Rome for the see of Ravenna, and having received a decree from the Pope elevating his see to metropolitan status, Chrysologus is understandably loyal to the see of Rome” (William B. Palardy, St. Peter Chrysologus: Selected Sermons, Volumes 2-3, [Catholic University of America Press, 2004], p. 11).
Tertullian (A.D. 155 – 250)
Moreover, in a few places Tertullian (A.D. 155 – 250) identifies Peter as the rock, but not in a modern Roman sense. Tertullian agrees with our position that the church would be built, grow, or expand by way of Peter’s preaching and his binding and loosing. It is in that sense that Peter is the rock that the church is built on. He affirms that:
“‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build my church;’ and, ‘I will give thee the keys . . . and, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound’ . . . In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key . . . (Peter) himself, therefore, was first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which kingdom are ‘loosed’ the sins that were beforetime ‘bound;’ and those which have not been ‘loosed’ are ‘bound,’ in accordance with true salvation” (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951], Volume IV, Tertullian, On Modesty 21, p. 99 cited in William Webster, The Matthew 16 Controversy, [Christian Resources, 1999], p. 27 italics mine).
In Tertullian’s view Peter is seen as the rock because he is the first Apostle to preach the Gospel to the early converts leading to bound sins being loosed in the kingdom because of salvation. This data demonstrates that our basic thesis was affirmed by the first western church writer to write on Matthew 16. Again we note Denny’s comments on Tertullian’s later view: [Tertullian believed the power to bind and loose] . . . was exhausted by St. Peter himself when he unlocked the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven by his action in admitting new converts into the Church (Edward Denny, Papalism, [Rivingtons, 1912], p. 607).
Interacting with Roman View of Peter’s Keys
Since nothing in Matthew 16 or any other New Testament text affirms succession of Peter’s role or the idea that Peter’s prerogatives and honors extend to alleged Roman successors after him, Catholics are forced to look to the Old Testament for implicit typological support for papal succession. As Roman apologist Robert Sungenis admits concerning Matthew 16: “We never said that Matthew 16 talked about succession. All I said that Matthew 16 said was that Peter was the rock who was given the keys to bind and to loose.” (Robert Sungenis, The Papacy Debate, Summer 1995 James White, Robert Zins vs. Scott Butler and Robert Sungenis, Boston College, Boston, MA). Likewise, papist scholar Richard P. McBrien concedes, “from the New Testament record alone, we have no basis for positing a line of succession from Peter through subsequent bishops of Rome” (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: Completely Revised& Updated, [HarperCollins, 1994], p. 753).
Wolfhart Pannenberg observes how the consensus of scholars reject the idea that what is said to Peter extends to his alleged Roman successors in the third volume of his work Systematic Theology:
“Today theological exegesis of the NT, including Roman Catholic exegesis, has reached widespread consent that these NT sayings about Peter, no matter how else we might assess them, refer only to Peter, not to any successors in his office” (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume 3, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998], p. 429).
In order to solve this dilemma Romanism has sought to connect Peter’s keys of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16:19 with Eliakim’s key of the house of David in Isaiah 22:22. Because Eliakim’s office (chief steward of the royal household) probably had successors, Catholics argue Peter did too (i.e., the bishops of Rome). Despite the fact that scholars note there was no singular bishop of Rome until the middle of the second century it is still important to interact with this papal claim. We read the following in the Roman apologetics book Jesus, Peter and the Keys:
“[Jesus] entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter (and his successors) on earth until the end of time. . . . Christ’s use of language regarding the keys is deliberately reminiscent of whose writings? The prophet Isaiah. . . . According to Isaiah 22:24, is succession being implied? The earmarks of succession are there” (Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, David Huss, Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, [Queenship Publishing, 1996], pp. 39, 40, 51 brackets mine).
The main text in view, Isaiah 22:22, states:
“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22).
Rome’s appeal to Isaiah 22:22 as supposedly being the background to this statement, though accepted by many commentators and scholars to be a valid interpretation, is in matter of fact problematic for several reasons. Right at the outset it is important to dispel the idea that just because Isaiah 22:22 mentions opening and shutting (which appears similar to “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16:19) this does not prove they are the same set of keys. For, there are many different sets of keys in the Bible, all of which require the use of them (i.e., binding and loosing or opening and shutting etc). There are the keys of the abyss (Rev. 9:1; 20:1), keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), keys of heaven (Luke 4:25, Rev. 11:6), key of knowledge (Matt 23:13, Luke 11:52), the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19), and the key of the house of David (Isaiah 22:22, Rev. 3:7). Hence, it is not necessary to infer from the mere similarity between opening and shutting in Isaiah 22:22 and binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19 that they are the same keys. All of these keys require binding and loosing or opening and shutting doors with them.
The proof the sets of keys are not the same is this: In Isaiah 22:22 Eliakim is given the “key” (singular) of the house of David. Peter on the other hand is given keys (plural) of the kingdom of heaven. The key (singular) of the house of David which was given to Eliakim in Isaiah 22:22 is not given to Peter much less the Bishops of Rome. In fact this singular key of the house of David remained with Jesus Christ himself and is messianic in nature. Revelation 3:7 affirms that Christ holds the key of the house of David:
“. . . The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7).
This was written long after the events of Matthew 16 demonstrating Jesus has the key (singular) of Isaiah 22:22 right now, not Peter’s alleged Roman successors. There are three vital differences between the key of the house of David in Isaiah 22:22 and Peter’s keys of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16:19: 1.) the plural and singular forms, 2.) the titles (key of David vs. keys of the kingdom of heaven), and 3.) the handler of the keys (Jesus has the key of the house of David and Peter had the keys of the kingdom of heaven).
With regard to the key of David, Anglican scholar Geoffrey W. Bromily notes: “The key of the grand vizier in Isa. 22:22 is undoubtedly the authority given to Christ himself.” Geoffrey W. Bromily, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P, Vol. 3, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995], P. 11)
This demonstrates that the keys Peter had were different than the ones in Isaiah 22:22 and therefore there is no reason to assume that Peter’s keys of the kingdom necessarily prove he would have unique successors holding them or that they made Peter and his alleged successors chief stewards of the church.
In responding to the fact that Peter had keys and Eliakim had a key, Sungenis, in attempting to maintain they are still the same, argues,
“He [Jesus] gives this to Peter, the keys. Many commentators say it’s because he’s opening and shutting. There’s a significance to the plural keys here” (Robert Sungenis, The Papacy Debate, Summer 1995 James White, Robert Zins vs. Scott Butler and Robert Sungenis, Boston College, Boston, MA italics mine).
He is arguing Peter’s keys are plural because he binds and looses (two things). Therefore, Sungenis would have people not pay much mind to the differences in the plural and singular. However, this argument is erroneous since Eliakim opens and shuts as well yet his key is only singular. If Sungenis was correct then Eliakim’s key should likewise be plural.
Going further, another indication the keys are not the same is that in Isaiah 22:22 God says He will place the key on Eliakim’s shoulder. Jesus, however, tells Peter He will give Him the keys – very different.
Regarding whether or not the early Church connected the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16 to Eliakim’s key to the house of David in Isaiah 22:22, Orthodox scholar Laurence Cleenewerck notes that this was not the case:
“. . . apart from two late and rather poetic allusions by Ephraim and Aaphrates, the Fathers do not connect Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16” (Laurence Cleenewerck, His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism Between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, [Euclid University Press, 2008], p. 266).
This fatal blow to the Roman position means that the early influential church writers who had much to say concerning Matthew 16 were not teaching the two sets of keys were the same like modern Rome emphatically does. And hence, because there is no direct evidence that they believed or taught the two sets of keys were the same that means they could not have viewed such a supposed Old and New Testament connection as proving that Peter was chief of the household of God with successors. This also means it was not an early tradition handed on by the apostles to correlate the two sets of keys. The correlation is obviously a late development without historical basis.
Interacting with Roman View of Binding and Loosing
We must now reckon with the assertion that Peter’s ability to bind and loose concerns infallible doctrinal pronouncements (i.e., unique ex cathedra statements). We have quoted Carson exegetically challenging the view that binding and loosing here must be understood against the backdrop of certain rabbinic usage (i.e., forbidding and permitting concerning rules of conduct). It should also be noted that even if one grants such dependence, the connection may only go as far as the concepts of permitting and forbidding themselves (i.e., in this sense: permitting and forbidding entry to the kingdom). So, for example, when the Roman book Jesus, Peter and the Keys on p. 63 argues the Jewish sources prove that to bind and loose means prohibit and permit, one is not required to assume the matter for Christ and Peter has to concern prohibiting or permitting doctrine. It could refer to prohibiting and permitting entry to the kingdom. We have provided arguments for that position.
What is more, Peter never once gives an infallible ex cathedra statement in line with what Vatican Council 1 describes. Vatican 1 defined an ex cathedra statement as: “when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians . . . he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church . . .” (Vatican I, Concerning the Infallible Teaching of the Roman Pontiff, 1869-1870, edited by Re. Vincent McNabb, O.P. [Burns and Oates], 1907, pp. 46-47). Papal remarks indicating that an infallible dogma is about to be presented read something like “We declare, pronounce, and define that…” There is nothing like that out of Peter’s mouth.
Peter’s role in the Acts 15 council is sometimes presented as an example of an ex cathedra remark where Peter shows his alleged papal primacy. However, he does not sound like a pope defining dogma when comparison is made. Nor is there any indication in that chapter or anywhere else in the New Testament that Peter’s role at that council amounted to giving a formal doctrinal definition. As Carson relays, “Acts 15:10 is scarcely an example of the opposite viewpoint [binding men to doctrine], for there Peter does not proceed by legislative fiat. The church in Acts 15 seeks spiritually minded consensus, not imposed Halakoth; and James is more prominent than Peter” (D.A. Carson, Matthew, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], p. 372-372).
Indeed, James’ comments in Acts 15:19 is more akin to what Rome means by an ex cathedra definition than Peter’s are. At the close of the council James determined,
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19).
Lastly, all of the apostles were given the ability to bind and loose in Matthew 18:18 and so if that authority establishes Peter’s ability to give infallible ex cathedra statements, then that means all of the apostles did that, not just Peter; and thus all apostles enjoyed papal primacy.
Re-cap & Concluding Remarks
It is important to note that Protestant scholars hold to a primacy of Peter which is different than the sense in which Rome believes Peter to have had one. Peter had a salvation-historical-primacy being first-called, serving a spokesman of the twelve, being listed first in most lists of apostles, and being named the most times in the New Testament. That is the sense in which Peter has a primacy in the New Testament. However, none of this proves a papal primacy which speaks to Peter’s alleged absolute sovereignty and jurisdiction over the world, ex cathedra irreversible infallible statements, and dogmatically ratifying councils. Thus, when Catholics affirm the salvation-historical-primacy Protestants affirm and try to pass that off as proof for papal primacy when it is not, they need to be challenged. When we see a church father saying Peter had a primacy among the apostles or was first of the apostles, this doesn’t address in which sense Peter has a primacy, the Protestant understanding or the Catholic understanding.
However, in spite of this, modern Roman apologists will often claim victory as soon as they quote a father affirming that Peter is the rock or had some sort of primacy, including the fathers I listed such as Tertullian and Maximus of Turin etc. But as we have shown, they did not believe Peter was the rock the same way modern Catholicism does, or in his primacy the same way modern Rome does. They, again, believed Jesus used Peter as the rock to expand his church through preaching. Or said another way, Jesus’ church was built through Peter’s evangelism in that Peter used his keys to unlock the door of faith to the early converts (binding and loosing them) thereby building Christ’s church. This is why careful examination of the fathers is important.
Many Catholics (and, sadly, Protestants) falsely believe that if the Catholic apologist proves that Peter is the rock of Matthew 16 they have proven the doctrine of the papacy. However, as we have shown that is far from the truth. Although Matthew 16:18-19 does demonstrate that Jesus made Peter the rock which His church would be built upon, it is clear that once closely examined that in no ways means that the false doctrine of the papal primacy is true.
With regard to Peter being the rock, D. A. Carson confirms that:
"none of this requires that conservative Roman Catholic views be endorsed . . . The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority" (D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], p. 368).
Keener also notes,
“Others who share his proclamation also share his authority in building the church (18:18 with 16:19)” (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999], p. 427).
Keith Mathison states,
“. . . many Roman Catholics have assumed that if they can demonstrate that the ‘rock’ is a reference to Peter then they have somehow proven that Christ established the Roman Catholic papacy in Matthew 16. The leap from ‘this rock’ being a reference to Peter to the doctrine of the papacy, however, is textually groundless. Let us assume that the ‘rock’ does refer to Peter. What have we lost (if we are Protestant) or gained (if we are Roman Catholic)? Nothing. Because even if the passage is speaking of Peter, it says absolutely nothing about succession, infallibility, supreme jurisdiction or any other fundamental elements of the modern papacy” (Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, [Canon Press, 2011], p. 186).
In sum, a vital truth which must be kept in mind is that Jesus Christ is the ultimate foundation of the Church, not the other lesser foundations like Peter and the apostles (cf. Eph. 2:20).We can not take our focus off of him and unhealthily give it to others. As 1 Corinthians 3:11 states,
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).