Brief of Issues
Is there evidence that Jesus Christ established the office of papal
authority over His Church? The Catholic Church claims that Jesus
conferred on Peter and his successors supreme power in faith and morals
over all the other Apostles and over every Christian in the Church. But
is this true?
This doctrine is supposedly based on Matthew 16:18-19 where Jesus
says, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the
keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth
it shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on
earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."
But Protestants reject the Roman Catholic interpretation. They point
out that in the very passage before Jesus spoke to Peter, He had asked
His disciples whom men were saying that He was. Peter replied, "Thou art
the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus agreed with Peter’s statement and used it to teach that He
Himself will be the rock, the foundation, upon which the Church will be
built. Jesus said, "Thou art Peter"—petros, a small
stone—"and upon this petra"—great rock or boulder—I
will build my Church." The petra refers to Peter’s truthful
declaration of Christ’s deity—it is upon this truth that Jesus says He
will build His Church.
Which of these interpretations best fits the scriptural record? What
did Peter mean when he stated in his own epistle that Jesus was the
chief cornerstone and all other Christians are living stones? Other
questions surrounding the doctrine of the pope are: Why are there no
Scripture verses that teach how the office of Pope is to be transmitted
by Peter to his successors? Why is it that the Apostle Paul never
mentions the office of pope in any of his epistles when he teaches about
the offices in the Church? When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the
kingdom, doesn’t Scripture show that Jesus gave the same keys to the
other Apostles? Does Scripture teach that the keys are a declaratory
authority to announce the terms on which God will grant salvation, or,
as Roman Catholics teach, an absolute power to admit or exclude someone
Both sides admit that in the first chapters of Acts, Peter exercises
the keys to the kingdom by declaring the gospel to both Jews and
Gentiles, as Jesus said He would. But then, the other Apostles declare
the gospel and Peter drops from sight in the scriptural account. When
Peter does reappear, at the Council of Jerusalem, why is it that the
Apostle James leads the Church and not Peter?
The New York Catechism says, "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, 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 Bull of Pope Boniface VIII, Unum Sanctum, says, "We
declare, affirm, define and pronounce it necessary to salvation for
every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff"—a decree that
Cardinal Manning asserts is "infallible and beyond all doubt, an act
This attitude toward the pope seems to rest on that which was stated
by Cardinal Gibbons in his book Faith of Our Fathers (p. 95),
"The Catholic Church teaches that our Lord conferred on St. Peter the
first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of His whole
Church and that the same spiritual supremacy has always resided in the
popes or bishops of Rome as being the successors of St. Peter.
Consequently, to be true followers of Christ, all Christians, both among
the clergy and laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome where
Peter rules in the person of his successors."
The opposite way of saying this would be, "If anyone says that the
blessed Apostle Peter was not constituted by Christ our Lord prince of
all the apostles and visible head of all the Church militant or that he,
Peter, directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ a
primacy of favor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction, let
him be anathema."2
How Convincing Is the Roman Catholic View That Peter Was the First
Roman Catholicism maintains that the Apostle Peter was the first
pope. Yet incredibly, for such a key office involving supreme power over
all the Church on earth, the only proof text that can be marshaled is
Matthew 16:18-19: "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon
this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hades shall not
Although for purposes of argument, the Roman Catholic position may be
conceded as a possible (although unlikely), interpretation of this
verse, it is hardly the most likely interpretation given Roman Catholic
papal history. And biblically, it is impossible that this Scripture
alone can be logically extended to mean all what Rome teaches it to
For Rome to establish its position, it must prove at least five
things: first, that Peter personally was the "rock" that Christ spoke of
and that Peter’s office was to constitute the essence of Catholic
things: first, that Peter personally was the "rock" that Christ spoke of
and that Peter’s office was to constitute the essence of Catholic
papalism; second, more specifically, that Peter’s alleged primacy equals
infallibility in doctrine and morals; third, that Christ Himself gave
reason to believe He conferred similar privileges on Peter’s successors
or future Popes and/or bishops; fourth, that Peter was actually the
first bishop/pope of Rome; and fifth, that Peter himself and the rest of
the Apostles recognized his divine appointment. The first four points
will be covered briefly; the fifth point will be examined in depth with
occasional comment on other points.
1. Is Peter the "Rock" Christ Spoke Of?
First, does this verse really say anything unique to Peter that must
be restricted to him alone? Jesus said, "On this rock, I will build my
church." He did not say Peter would build His Church; He said He
would build it. It makes more sense to conclude that the "rock" upon
which Christ will build His Church is men’s confession of faith in
Christ as the true Messiah—something Peter had just spoken. Personal
confessions in so profound a truth as Jesus’ Messiahship—with all its
personal and doctrinal implications—may certainly be described as
something foundational, or rock (boulder)-like. So, this interpretation
not only fits the context of the passage, it fits the facts of history
and Scripture as a whole. If so, then verse 19 would also not be
restricted to Peter alone, who first used these "keys" to open the
"kingdom of heaven" to both Jew and Gentile alike in his preaching of
the gospel (Acts 2, 10—something possible for every Christian believer.
Regardless, if indeed Jesus was establishing Peter as the first pope,
it is incredible that neither Peter himself, nor Paul, nor any other
apostle—and not one of the twenty-seven books of the New
Testament—affirms the doctrine of papalism anywhere. Indeed, it is the
absence of such a doctrine that is striking.
For example, both Mark and Luke record Peter’s confession of faith in
Christ as Messiah, but they do not record Christ’s words about
the rock. The Apostle John does not mention the incident at all,
something unlikely for one who was so close to Jesus and also a good
friend of Peter’s. If the words of Jesus had the significance Rome
attaches to them, all this is certainly a strange omission. For Christ
to establish Peter as the first Pope and living head of the Church and
for three of four biographers of Jesus to remain silent on so crucial an
event is unlikely to say the least:
It must involve some very elaborate armchair gymnastics to prove
from the Bible that the Lord Jesus appointed Peter to be the first
pope, thus establishing the papal throne. If anything, the very fact
that the Lord appointed twelve apostles is itself good reason to cast
doubts upon the whole idea of one, and only one, pope…. If the Lord
Jesus Christ had intended to establish the supreme authority of Peter,
and to have that authority perpetuated in the bishops at Rome, then it
is only reasonable to assume that He would have distinctly informed
His followers. So important an office would surely have been mentioned
in the clearest of terms. Other sacred offices are set forth in Holy
Scripture, yet strange silence prevails with regard to that which
would be the highest of all. There is not one jot or tittle, anywhere
from Genesis to Revelation, about any man being a regal-sacerdotal
king, who as viceregerent of Christ rules over the visible Church upon
Further, Peter may have given us his own commentary on Matthew 16:18.
He refers to Jesus alone as "the living Stone" and the
"precious cornerstone." If the Stone is Jesus, then men—including
Peter—must be something less than the Stone itself. It was Jesus who
designated Peter (petros) as a "rock" (petra) and Peter
classifies himself and all other believers as one of the lesser
"living stones" being built into a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4-6). In
essence, if Peter were really the first pope (with all that implies in
Roman Catholic teaching), why does not a single New Testament writer
ever designate his papal office anywhere?
2. Was Peter Supreme and Infallible?
Nowhere in the New Testament does Peter exercise the majestic
functions of the pope concerning authority or infallibility. If Peter
had such authority, would Paul have ever rebuked the first pope? Who is
it that publicly rebukes a pope today? Yet, "When Peter came to Antioch,
I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong" (Gal.
2:11). It would seem that the Apostle Paul never thought of Peter as
unique because he does not say to Peter, "If you, being the head of the
Church," but "If you, though a Jew…" (Gal. 2:11-14).
Peter himself wrote to all Christians (1 Pet. 1:1) and especially to
"the elders among you" that "I appeal [to you] as a fellow elder
…" (1 Pet. 5:1). If a generation earlier Jesus had commissioned Peter as
the first Pope, the one having supreme authority over His Church, why
does Peter now, 30 years later, identify himself to the Church merely as
a "fellow elder" rather than the one who has all the authority and
prerogatives of the supreme pontiff himself?
Further, neither does Peter encourage the Church with Roman Catholic
theology concerning the sacraments, or Mary, or assisting in the
forgiveness of our sins through Catholic practices or anything else
distinctively Catholic. For example, he tells us that "Christ died for
sins once for all" (1 Pet. 3:18) and—far from tradition being on par
with Scripture, it is God’s power which "has given us everything we need
for life and godliness, through our knowledge of him..." (2 Pet. 1:3).
If the knowledge of God and Christ given in the Scriptures is sufficient
for "everything we need for life and godliness" of what spiritual value
is 2,000 years of extra-biblical Catholic tradition for "life and
3. Did Christ Confer Papal Privileges on Peter’s Successors and/or
Whatever Matthew 16:18-19 may or may not say about Peter, it says
nothing at all about his successors, real or imagined. Nowhere in the
entire Bible do we find any basis for a doctrine of papal succession or
4. Was Peter the First Bishop of Rome?
Historically, no one can prove Peter was the first bishop of Rome.
Peter may have visited Rome, but to confer on him the position held by
Catholicism is, as we will now see, at best an argument from silence and
at worst, a complete rejection of the entire thrust of New Testament
5. Did Peter Himself or the Rest of the Apostles Recognize His Divine
In this extended section we will argue the impossibility of the papal
office on the basis of New Testament teaching.
But first, let us use this instance to illustrate a key principle for
evaluating Roman Catholic doctrines: take any major teaching, study it
until you understand it well, then study the Bible by itself. Examine
every verse related to the topic, whether it is Mary, justification,
Peter, etc. What you find is that the more you study the Bible, the more
you see the truth of the Protestant view and the error of the Roman
Now study Roman Catholic tradition on these topics. Here is where you
begin to understand where these views developed and how the Bible can be
made to seem to teach them. It is not at all that a Catholic has
no possible means of seeing the many teachings of Roman Catholic
tradition in Scripture. It is that Scripture has been so thoroughly
misinterpreted in Roman Catholic tradition and the arguments so detailed
and subject to interpreter bias, that a Catholic usually doesn’t even
see the error unless he has simply studied the Bible alone.
The subject of Peter will illustrate the principle we have just
enunciated. Does the New Testament view of Peter support or oppose the
Roman Catholic office of the papacy? This is really the heart of the
issue, especially concerning the life of Peter and what Peter himself
says about Roman Catholic doctrine in his epistles.
Although we have already discussed Matthew 16, we may observe two
more points here. First, even Augustine, considered one of the greatest
Church Fathers by both Catholics and Protestants, interpreted this verse
as referring not to Peter but to Christ as the Rock that Peter
confessed. Second, Peter himself did this. Whether we are considering
the preaching of Peter in the book of Acts or his writing in 1 and 2
Peter, Peter always refers to Christ as the one to whom he confessed and
not to himself. In Acts 4:8-12 Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit says
that the Stone that is rejected by the builders became the chief
cornerstone and that there is salvation in no one else. Christ is the
cornerstone here and this is the teaching we find throughout the New
Testament. Nowhere, other than in the Catholic interpretation of Matthew
16, do we have even a hint that Peter is the Rock.
In 1 Peter 2:4-8, Peter refers to Jesus as the "living stone rejected
by men" and "a choice stone, a precious cornerstone." Further, "and he
who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.... But for those who
disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very
Peter says that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone. Here would be
a good point for Peter to mention his own papal office if, in fact,
Christ had appointed him the first pope. In fact, from the time that
Jesus allegedly first appointed Peter pope in Matthew 16 until the end
of his life Peter consistently does things and says things which deny
that he is a pope.
For example, in Matthew 16:16, after Peter’s famous confession, "Thou
art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus explained to the
disciples that He was to suffer, be killed and rise from the dead. What
was the response of Peter? He openly confronted Christ and told Him He
was wrong: "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You" (Matt.
16:22). Jesus’ response was, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling
block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but
man’s" (Matt. 16:23).
The difficulty is this: if Christ had just instituted Peter as the
Rock of the Church to head the papal office, how could Peter be
completely in the hands of Satan almost the next moment?
Nor does Peter improve with time. In Matthew 26, Jesus is telling the
disciples that He is going to be crucified and that they will all fall
away and be scattered. Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, he
will deny Him three times (Matt. 26:31-34). What is Peter’s response? He
says that he will never fall away and that he will never deny Jesus—even
if it means his own death (Matt. 26:35).
In other words, Peter first tells Christ that he is wrong to go to
the cross and wrong about his own fidelity. Then later under pressure he
denies Christ three times, even with an oath. In his denial of Christ
the third time, he even curses and swears, "Then he began to curse and
swear, ‘I do not know the man!’" (Matt. 26:74).
This does not seem to give us great confidence in the initiation of
the papal office. At the key moment of Jesus’ death, Peter is hardly in
a central position of strength and spiritual power; he is cursing and
denying his own Lord.
Nor do things improve. When Christ is resurrected from the dead, is
Peter the first one to understand, accept it and explain to the Church
the significance of what has happened?
When both Peter and John saw the empty tomb, the Bible says that only
John "saw and believed" (John 20:3-8). Even later when Peter had
accepted the truth of the resurrection, Jesus had to ask him three
times, "Do you love Me?"
Again, we do not see Peter in a position of supremacy. In fact,
"Peter was grieved" when the Lord asked him the third time "Do you love
Me?" Peter knew this was somehow connected to his denial of Christ three
Later when Peter asked Jesus about the Apostle John, Jesus’ response
was to not be concerned about John but to follow Him. Again, we don’t
see Peter in any kind of position of papal authority or leadership.
Instead, Peter is once again rebuked.
Nor do things improve in Peter’s future. When we get to the book of
Acts, we find that significant chapters are oriented around Peter’s
ministry. If ever the papal office of Peter were to be confirmed and of
Peter’s going to Rome and there founding the papacy to be documented, it
would have to be here. But all we find is complete silence.
In Acts 10 Peter does not understand the
meaning of the vision God gives him. Given the importance of this
vision, it is unlikely that, if Peter were the pope, he would not
comprehend the message.
Neither did the Church recognize Peter as
anything special. In Acts 11 he is opposed by others and has to argue
his case. Peter’s argument is accepted, but it is a case of one man
among equals, not one man in a position of papal supremacy.
In Acts 15 we find the great Jerusalem
Council. Again, if anywhere Peter’s papacy should be recognized it is
at the first great Christian Council, conceded as such by both
Catholics and Protestants. First, Peter does not act like a pope;
rather he and the others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter makes
his defense but it is not Peter who has the last word, it is James.
Peter gives his argument, but James concludes the matter and then the
vote is taken. So if any one has supremacy it is James, the brother of
Christ, not Peter. Also note that in Acts 21 when the apostle Paul
comes to Jerusalem it is James who receives him, not Peter.
Consider another problem. Catholic tradition holds that Peter went to
Rome and founded the papacy. This would mean that Peter should already
be in Rome when the Apostle Paul arrives. But in Acts 27, which involves
very specific details about Paul’s journey to Rome, not a word is said
about Peter. In fact, in Acts 28:30 it says that Paul spent two entire
years at Rome in his own quarters, welcoming everyone who came to him.
Now if Peter were in Rome partaking of the papal office, is it at all
conceivable that Peter would not go and visit the Apostle Paul—at least
once? If he did, would Paul fail to mention it—fail to mention that he
was visited by the head of the Church? Why is it that Luke, the great
historian of the early Church, who set down his record in exacting
detail also never mentions even a hint that Peter is in Rome or that he
has his papal office?
Why is it also that when the Apostle Paul actually writes to the
Roman Church, he does not even mention Peter? Peter is supposed to have
been in Rome around 42-67 A.D. If the book of Romans was written in 57
A.D., this means that Peter has already been in Rome for 15 years.
Again, is it conceivable that the Apostle Paul would not mention Peter
or the great office of papacy that he now occupies? This is impossible
if indeed Peter is supposed to occupy the position of the vicar of
Christ as the head of the Church. In Romans 16 Paul mentions 27 people
by name—but he fails to mention Peter even once.
In Galatians 2 we find additional information that undermines the
claims of the Catholic Church. First, the Apostle Paul did not recognize
any supremacy in Peter. Peter at the time is in Jerusalem with the other
apostles. Paul says of them, "But from those who were of high reputation
(what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no
partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to
me" (Gal. 2:6).
Further, the next two verses state that Peter was entrusted with the
Gospel to the circumcised, i.e., to the Jews, whereas Paul had been
entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised, i.e., the Gentiles. Both
preached the same message, but to different audiences. So then why would
Peter go to Rome, the center of the Gentile world when the agreement of
the whole Church had been that his ministry was to the Jews (Gal. 2:9)?
Further, in Galatians 2:11, we find another impossible situation if
Peter is the pope, "But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed
him to his face, because he stood condemned." In other words, we do not
see Peter in the position of papal strength; we see him rebuked by the
Apostle Paul for compromising the very Gospel itself!
In 2 Timothy 4, Paul is writing from Rome in 67 A.D. He says that the
time of his death is near (2 Tim. 4:6). Remember that according to
Catholic tradition, Peter has already been in Rome for twenty-five
years. But nothing that Paul does suggests Peter is even there. If Peter
had been killed about 67 A.D., before Paul had written 2 Timothy, how
could it be that Paul fails to mention Peter’s death? Why does he
mention day-to-day details and instructions for individuals by name but
fail to mention the death of the first pope who has ruled in Rome for
twenty-five years (2 Tim. 4:10-14, 19-21)? Paul goes on to say that
Demas, loving this present world "has deserted me" and that "only Luke
is with me" and that, "At my first defense no one supported me, but all
deserted me; may it not be counted against them" (2 Tim. 4:16).
If Peter has been in Rome for twenty-five years, why did not Peter
ever come to Paul’s defense? Is this the exercise of papal authority and
Finally, if we look at Peter’s own writings, there is not a single
verse that substantiates the Roman Catholic claims to papacy. Peter
writes as an equal man among all other believers. Peter describes
himself as "an apostle" and "an elder"—but not a pope (1 Pet. 1:3; 5:1).
Peter also says that all believers constitute "a royal priesthood" (1
Pet. 2:9); he never speaks of a special priesthood who will mediate
between God and the people.
Finally in 2 Peter, like Paul, he emphasizes that his death is near
(2 Pet. 1:14). If at any time Peter is going to appoint a papal
successor, it must be now. But all Peter does is tell his readers that
they must accept the authority of the Holy Scripture as something "more
sure" than even eyewitness testimony (2 Pet. 1:14-21). Has Peter just
declared that Scripture has superiority over tradition?
Regardless, not only is there not a single Scripture in the entire
Bible that supports the Catholic teaching on the papacy, Peter himself
denies key Catholic teachings. None of this makes sense if the Roman
Catholic position is true.4
We have now seen that an examination of the scriptural data fails to
confirm the Roman Catholic claims concerning the papacy. So how did the
papacy arise? If we look at Church history, we will see.
1 Walter Martin, The Roman
Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research
Institute, Inc., 1960), p. 8.
2 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of
Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p.
279, citing Vatican I.
3 Henry T. Hudson, Papal
Power (Welwyn, Hertforshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1981),
pp. 99, 106.
4 Most of this was taken from a
lecture by Dr. Francis Schaeffer.