(Mt. 16:18) Is Jesus giving papal authority to Peter?

CLAIM: 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 view.

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

Second, this view doesn’t fit with the context. A few verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter, and he even calls him “Satan.” In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul rebukes Peter, when Peter was acting out of line with the gospel. These two passages don’t seem to fit well with papal infallibility. Moreover, later in Matthew, this authority of “binding and loosing” was given to the rest of the apostles –not Peter alone (Mt. 18:18).

Third, Peter’s self understanding seems to contradict this view. Peter didn’t consider himself to have any sort of special papal authority in the early church. He believed that he was just one of the apostles –not the only apostle. For instance, both Peter and John were sent to Samaria (Acts 8:4-13). Peter wrote, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…” (1 Pet. 1:1). Notice, he did not write that he was the apostle of Jesus Christ. Later, he wrote, “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder” (1 Pet. 5:1). Again, he considered himself a fellow leader –not the leader. Peter referred to Jesus as the “cornerstone” (1 Pet. 2:7) of the church, and the rest of the believers as “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5). He also affirmed the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). He doesn’t seem to elevate his own authority in any way, which we would expect, if he saw himself as having papal authority.

Fourth, the NT’s understanding of Peter seems to contradict this view. Other NT authors don’t revere Peter in a special way. For instance, Peter is one of the pillars of the church –not the pillar (Gal. 2:9). Paul writes, “In no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). The book of Acts spends more time on Paul’s ministry (Acts 13-28) than Peter’s (Acts 1-12). Moreover, James gave the final words at the Council of Jerusalem –not Peter (Acts 15:22-23).

Fifth, Augustine did not interpret Matthew 16:18 as Roman Catholics do. While I 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]

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