Recently a Protestant friend of mine asked my opinion about a written conversation he had with a Roman Catholic convert. In the conversation the convert explained that, for him, the most convincing point of Roman Catholic doctrine was the doctrine of Petrine succession. My Protestant friend didn’t really know how to respond. I shared with him the problems with arguing for Petrine succession from Scripture, and I think it’s worth sharing my response with you here.
For those not familiar with this Catholic doctrine, it essentially states that according to Matthew 16 and other biblical passages we can see that Peter — and Peter alone — was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven to decide whom he will let into and heaven and whom he will not. According to church tradition, Peter was later the bishop at Rome. The claim of Petrine succession, then, is that whoever subsequently occupies Peter’s office in Rome possesses the keys to the kingdom. I’m sure you can see where this is going: the pope is the current occupant of Peter’s office at Rome and he alone possesses the keys to the kingdom.
Here’s the relevant passage from Matthew 16:
He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And 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. And 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. I 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.‘
Many Protestants, desiring to avoid the Roman Catholic interpretation of this text, deny that the church is built in any way upon Peter or that Peter was given the keys to the kingdom.
There are predominately two ways that Protestants try to get around saying that Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. (1) They claim that “this rock” on which Christ will build his church is not Peter, but Peter’s confession that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (2) They claim that when Christ says “this rock” he is pointing to himself as if he was saying, “You are Peter, but on this rock, that is myself, I will build my church.” In support of this interpretation they often cite 1 Corinthians 3:10, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” In my experience, Protestants tend to focus only on the confession and are eager to get Peter out of the picture while Romanists tend to focus on Peter and want to ignore the confession revealed from heaven.
Neither of these approaches are quite right. They set up a false dilemma: that if the church is built on Peter, it can’t be built on his confession/built on Christ or vice versa. They emphasize one in exclusion of the other, and here’s where Lutheranism once again, offers a third way.
In response to the Roman Catholic interpretation, it isn’t Peter per se on whom Christ builds his church, it’s built on Peter who makes this confession, and, as we will see, it isn’t built on one apostle. It’s built on all of the apostles because Peter isn’t alone in making this confession. The church ceases to be built on the person the moment he abandons a biblical confession about Christ. Building a church on a fallen person is only as good as the truth he confesses. For the Roman church to separate the man from the confession is just as problematic as Protestants who separate the confession from the man. The keys are not given to a confession, but neither are they given to a single apostle who decides his own confession. They are given to apostles who make this confession. The keys are not given to words, they are given to faithful confessors. The apostles are made to be the people upon whom the church can be built only through a true confession about Christ, and this true confession is a confession revealed from the Father. Thus, the church is built on people who make an orthodox confession which has been revealed by the Father. So we should simply reject any false dichotomy that expects us to choose between the church being built on either Peter or a true confession. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.
We don’t get anything like a doctrine of Petrine succession from Matthew 16. Matthew doesn’t even give an assist to the doctrine, for there’s simply nothing about the keys being tied to Peter’s office or an ongoing passing-down of the keys to the kingdom.
Additionally, we can see from other texts, that Christ doesn’t give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone — he also gives them to the rest of the disciples and to the church itself. Let’s look at Matthew 18 and John 20.
In Matthew 18, Jesus gives his disciples commands for dealing with those who have sinned against them. After earlier attempts to make peace have been rebuffed, one is to “tell it to the church” (18:17). If this person will not heed the church, the church is to expel them from the congregation. Then Christ speaks to all of the disciples the exact words he spoke concerning Peter in Matthew 16: “Truly, I say to you [plural], whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (18:18). Peter isn’t the sole possessor of the keys to the kingdom because, as Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (18:19).
From Matthew 18, it is clear that the succession of possessing the keys to the kingdom is tied to the enduring church, not the enduring bishopric of Peter.
This is Melanchthon’s argument in his “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope”.
23] In all these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of apostles [and does not speak for himself alone, but for all the apostles], as appears from the text itself. For Christ asks not Peter alone, but says: Whom do ye say that I am? And what is here said [to Peter alone] in the singular number: I will give unto thee the keys; and whatsoever thou shalt bind, etc., is elsewhere expressed [to their entire number], in the plural Matt. 18:18: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc. And in John 20:23: Whosesoever sins ye remit, etc. These words testify that the keys are given alike to all the apostles and that all the apostles are alike sent forth [to preach].
24] In addition to this, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18:19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.]
Furthermore, in John 20:23, Jesus reiterates that he has given all of the apostles the keys to the kingdom. Notice again the plural second person pronouns: ” If you [plural] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you [plural] withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Christ nowhere ties the authority to forgive sins to one man’s chair of an office.
Aside from the biblical evidence, our Catholic convert claimed that Petrine succession “was demonstrated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the Council Fathers, upon reading the Bishop of Rome’s, Pope Leo, Tome on the two natures of Christ, exclaimed, ‘Peter has spoken through Leo.'”
I presume that he’s giving his best evidence from church history for Petrine succession. Apparently, the best of the early evidence is a vague reference from nearly four-hundred years after Peter’s death. This is an enormously weak case for such a vital doctrine for Catholic authority. I can’t see how anyone can hang his hat on this kind of evidence.
Yet, in spite of the lack of evidence for Petrine succession I can see the appeal that the doctrine would hold for a Catholic convert who came from Evangelicalism. I think he is reacting to something that is a real problem in evangelical and reformed circles: no one is exercising the authority of the keys to the kingdom. There is a right exercise of this authority, but the catholic church narrowly restricts it to the pope, while the evangelical/reformed church abandons it altogether. By contrast, in the Lutheran church, there is a pronouncing of absolution by the pastor for sin upon confession. He is one who is called and ordained by Christ’s church, and thus he has the authority to pronounce Christ’s forgiveness.
When Evangelicals and the Reformed reject the right use of the office of the keys, it pushes others toward the appealing-but-false doctrine of Petrine Succession. The best way forward is for Protestants to adopt a better understanding of the office of the keys such as the one laid out by Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles.