In this post I consider the most prevalent Roman Catholic argument for Papal Supremacy, being that Matthew 16:18-19 demonstrates that St. Peter, and thus the Bishop of Rome, acts as the head of the Christian Church's hierarchy in Christ's stead. I argue this inference in not justified by the plain reading of the text. I love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and I recognize that without Roman Catholic friends, colleagues, and resources I never would have found my way home. Although argumentative, I pray my words are interpreted in charity as I intend them.
To begin, here is the Greek text of Matthew 16:18-19. Each verse is followed by the English translation.
18κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.
And (I) to you I say that you are Petros (nominative), and on this petra (dative) I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades will not overcome/ prevail over it.
19δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶνοὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν
I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and that which you bind on the earth is bound in the heavens, and that which you free/ loose on the earth will be freed/ loosed in the heavens.
In verse 18, as I have indicated, the nominative form, Petros, is first used. The nominative case in Greek is used to designate the subject of a sentence. The next use, petra, is in the dative case which, in this case indicates an indirect object to which an action will be applied. Some have used the dative use to indicate that "petra" does not refer to the person St. Peter, and, while this opinion is shared by numerous Church Fathers, I do not think that conceding that it is, in some sense, the person St. Peter upon whom Christ builds his ecclesia is problematic for Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, for the sake of this article I will concede that Christ establishes his ecclesia on St. Peter.
Verse 18 establishes that Christ in some way uses St. Peter to establish his ecclesia on earth. That is it. This verse says nothing about how the ecclesia is to be governed, what St. Peter's role in that governance is, whether or not Peter is to have a successor or successors, or what authority his successor(s) would have. Thus Eastern Orthodox Christians can concede that Christ gives first the keys to St. Peter and that Christ uses St. Peter to establish his ecclesia without conceding anything to their Roman Catholic interlocutors.
In verse 19 St. Peter is given a special authority that essentially gives him heavenly power in establishing structure and laws of Christ's ecclesia. From the text we can infer that this inheritance is important and signifies legitimate authority; however, once again, what is absent are the very things Roman Catholicism needs to make its case: no mention of who is to succeed St. Peter. It is possible, then that St. Peter might have had multiple successors as did Charlemagne after his death.
It is clear that Matthew 16:18-19 itself does not establish the Roman catholic position. That being said, although there exist a surprising number of Roman Catholics who believe these verses alone establish their case, the majority of Roman Catholics acknowledge that Matthew 16:18-19 are only one piece of a larger historical and theological argument. In my next post I will investigate the broader scope in which this argument falls. I will first examine who the ante-Nicene Church Fathers saw as St. Peter's successor.
Note: Because I wish to maintain intellectual honesty and give this topic adequate consideration, I invite questions, rebuttals, comments, and suggestions. I would especially be interested in reading what arguments or quotes from the Church Fathers you think best support the Roman Catholic position.