This passage is used to support the doctrine of Papal infallibility which is the foundation principle on which the Catholic Church bases its claim to supreme Christian authority. When the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” as supreme teacher on a matter of faith and morals, Catholics believe that he cannot err. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (article “Infallibility) goes so far as to say that “…infallibility is more than a simple, de facto absence of error. Infallibility is always primordially a gift of the Holy Spirit… the church’s Supreme Magesterium is lodged by Christ’s appointment exclusively… in the bishop, the Roman Pontiff.”
Although it was taken for granted for centuries, the doctrine of Papal infallibility was not officially defined until the first Vatican Council in 1870 during the reign of Pope Pius IX. In their definition of this doctrine, the council contended that that the Pope inherits the power of infallibility by reason of our Lord’s alleged anointing of Peter as the “Rock” upon whom the Church would be built.
The decree of infallibility emanating from the first Vatican council was retroactive even though there were historical incidents that appeared to contradict the doctrine. The example of Pope Honorius (reigned 625 – 638) who was condemned posthumously by the third Council of Constantinople in 680 for promoting heresy is a case in point. The dropping of many saints from the Catholic pantheon in 1969 (including the much revered St. Christopher) is another.
Councils, decrees, and retroactivity notwithstanding, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility stands or falls on the scriptural merits of case. This is why an understanding of Jesus’ words, “…upon this rock I will build my church,” is crucial. Did our Lord ordain Peter to be the chief of the apostles? In order to substantiate the doctrines of Infallibility and Papal Succession, the Bible must plainly state that Peter is the “Rock” mentioned in Matthew 16, the foundation upon which the Lord Jesus Christ would build his Church. The Catholic Church must also prove that Peter’s authority was both supreme and unique among the apostles in the early church. Also there must be clear evidence that this authority, if it exists, was to be passed on to Peter’s successors and that those successors must be the bishops of Rome.
Dealing with the latter two points first, it may surprise our Catholic friends to know that the New Testament nowhere says that Peter was ever in Rome, never mind being the “Bishop” of that city nor is there any record that Peter or any of the Apostles passed on their authority to successors.
This brings us to the crucial issue of Peter’s supposed unique authority among the Apostles of the early church. Let’s consider the Bible record and see if the claims of the Church for her leader withstand the test of a straightforward scriptural analysis.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
To whom was Jesus speaking? He was speaking to the Disciples not just to Peter (see verses 15 and 20). To whom were the “Keys” given? They were given to the Disciples and not to Peter alone (see verse 19 and compare Matthew 18:1, 18). When the Lord said, “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was using a clever play on words to reinforce his point to the disciples who were gathered around. “Peter” in the original Greek of the New Testament, is “Petros,” a moveable stone with a connotation of instability. This word is only ever used of Peter.
In verse 18, the word “rock” is, in New Testament Greek, “Petra,” immovable bedrock, stable and sure. Jesus was saying, in effect, “You are Peter, Petros, unstable and imperfect but upon this immovable bedrock, Petra, I will build my Church.
What was the “Petra” if not his impetuous and unstable disciple, “Petros?” What did Jesus mean? In these verses, Jesus declared that upon the bedrock foundation of the faithful recognition of himself as the “Son of God” he would build his church. Petros, unstable, fearful, and yet, in the end, faithful Petros, declared openly what burned in the hearts of the other disciples, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
We have already stated that “Petros” in the New Testament refers only to Peter. However, even more significantly, whenever “Petra” is used, it always refers to Christ himself or to his teaching!
• Matthew 7:24, 25 – Petra = the words of Christ
• Romans 9:32, 33; 10:9-11 – Petra = Christ
• 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 Petra = Christ
Another point worth considering is the fact that if Jesus had meant to single out Peter as, “Prince of the Apostles,” as one Catholic tract describes him, the point seems to have been lost on the other disciples. Look what Luke (9:20, 46-48) describes as happening immediately following the events of Matthew 16 - the disciples are disputing among themselves about “…who should be the greatest!” Obviously, those who were present when Christ talked about the foundation rock of his church did not think the Lord had referred to Peter! Surprisingly, if we examine Peter’s role in the first century church, we find that not only does he err in a significant matter of “faith and morals” (see Galatians 2:11-14) but that he was, at best, only the equal of Paul (Galatians 2:7) and exerted less authority than James, the Lord’s brother who was not even one of the twelve apostles! (See Acts 15:6-13)
The Popes who today claim to be the inheritors of Peter’s mantle would do well to follow the advice he offers in 1 Peter 5:3 in which he writes as a “fellow elder,” and not as “Prince of the Apostles,” to other elders of the church exhorting them not to act as “lords” over the church but to serve as examples. In its splendour and glory, the Papacy today resembles far more the extension of imperial Rome than the simplicity of the Lord Jesus Christ or of his humble disciple, Peter. Even the Papal title of “Pontifex Maximus” or “Supreme Pontiff” is taken from that of the High Priest of Imperial Roman worship of pagan gods. The Bible teaches that there is but one High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our sole High Priest and mediator. (See Hebrews 4:14, 15 and 2 Timothy 2:5)
If there is no Hierarchical authority to which the believer can turn for definitive teaching on matters of “faith and morals,” to what source may a sincere Christian turn for instruction in such matters? Paul addresses this issue when he tells the young disciple Timothy just where he should look for guidance:
2 Timothy 3:16 …from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The prophet Isaiah leaves no doubt at all about a believer’s source of spiritual direction. Does he refer to a hierarchical structure, a “magesterium,” or tradition? No, his is a straightforward appeal to the Word of the Living God:
Isaiah 8:20 To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
When we rely upon fallible human beings to give us spiritual direction, we are in danger of falling into the trap described by the Lord as he chastised the Pharisees for their dependence on tradition which often made of no effect the plain teaching of scripture:
Mark7:7 This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
If we carefully and prayerfully pursue our investigations into this subject, we will find that every Scriptural proof offered in defence of the doctrine of Papal infallibility is woefully misconstrued. We will find that the supremacy of Jesus Christ, and his word, is the only authority recognized in the New Testament. He is the only High Priest. He is the one and only mediator between God and man. It is upon the bedrock “Petra” of the recognition of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God that the church is built. Whoever builds his faith on this rock, this “Petra,” will never be ashamed! (Romans 9:33)
I hope you have found this helpful.