(Mt. 16:18) Did Jesus give papal authority to Peter?

CLAIM: Jesus tells Peter, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:18-19). Roman Catholic scholars argue that this passage refers to Christ giving Peter papal infallibility. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: There are a number of reasons for disagreeing with this interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19:

First, the context of this passage focuses on Jesus Christ—not Simon Peter. In verses 13-17, Jesus questions Peter on his own identity (“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” v.13; “Who do you say that I am?” v.15). Likewise, verse 20 focuses on Jesus’ identity (“He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ” v.20). Thus any interpretation that takes the focus off of Jesus and his identity doesn’t fit with the context.

Second, the Roman Catholic interpretation is grammatically strained. Jesus doesn’t refer to the rock in the second person (“you”); he refers to it in the third person (“this rock”). This seems to distinguish “Peter” from “this rock.” Moreover, Jesus uses two different terms for Peter and the rock. In the Greek language, “Peter” is petros and masculine singular; however, “this rock” is petra and feminine singular. These are two different terms in the original Greek, and they have two different genders.

Third, the Roman Catholic interpretation doesn’t fit with the universal interpretation of the early church fathers. While we do not believe that the church fathers are authoritative, it’s important to point out that Catholics often do view them in this way. However, one of the most eminent church fathers—Augustine—did not hold a Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage. Augustine writes, “On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built.”[1] James White notes, “The French Roman Catholic Launoy surveyed the patristic evidence… He found forty-four citations indicating that the rock of Matthew 16 was the confession of faith made by Peter in Jesus Christ. If we add these numbers together, we find that the Roman position, which claims to have always been the faith of the Catholic Church, in Launoy’s survey actually represents twenty percent of the Fathers, in Vatican I’s words, ‘perverse’ opinions at the very best.”[2]

Fourth, Peter doesn’t get the keys to the kingdom in this passage. The verb tense states that Peter gets the keys to the kingdom in the future—not in this present passage (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom”). We believe that the keys to the kingdom were given to Peter in the book of Acts, when he was the first to bring the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10:44). God used Peter in a unique way to bring the gospel to new territories and ethnicities.

But this is only inference. For the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility to stand, we would expect (at the very least) to see Peter actually receiving the keys of authority. And yet, we never see this in this passage or anywhere else in the Bible. We merely assume that he received them and used them in Acts to bring the gospel to these two groups. “Binding and loosing” would refer to his ability to bring the gospel to new people. However, while God used Peter here in a unique way in the book of Acts, he didn’t have exclusive authority over the other apostles. Later in the book of Matthew, we see that all of the apostles were given the authority to “bind and loose” (Mt. 18:18). Later in Galatians, Paul states that Peter was “an apostle to the Jews” and he himself was the apostle “to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:8 NIV). Thus Peter wasn’t given special treatment amongst the other apostles (for a further defense, see “Papal Succession”).

OBJECTION: Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic. This is why the word for rock is different here.

Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong writes, “In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the name kepha would have been used for both ‘rock’ and ‘Peter.’”[3]

However, James White writes, “Is it not strange that when dealing with the central passage used to support the Papacy, they must appeal to a nonexistent, unknown ‘Aramaic original’ that no one—no matter how great their scholarship—can possibly claim to be able to re-create with certainty?”[4] For more on this subject, see our earlier article “Roman Catholicism.”

[1] Augustine, “On the Gospel of John,” Tractate 12435, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, 7:450.

[2] White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 120.

[3] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 219.

[4] White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 116-117.