Listers, the Office of the Papacy and Infallibility are biblical gifts to the Church. According to the Gospels, St. Peter – the first to be given the Office of the Papacy – was commissioned by Christ to be the vicar of the kingdom of God, to strengthen the faithful, and to be the chief shepherd of the Lord’s flock. In short, the Vicar governs the kingdom according to the King’s laws until the King returns. The following list is meant to demonstrate the strong biblical argument for the papacy, but it is certainly not an exhaustive list. Catholics should be weary of proof-texting – a subpar hermeneutic that seeks to support ideas by stringing together selective Scriptures – for a few reasons. First, Holy Scripture should always be viewed holistically. A single verse that can be tortured to read a certain way is not a legitimate reading of Scripture. The list at hand seeks to avoid proof-texting by offering a wide range of Scriptures from both the New and Old Testaments supported by historical and linguistic insights.
Second, Catholics embrace the Sacred Tradition of the Church. Piecing together an argument from Scriptures holds little weight if no Christian in the last two-thousand years has held it to be legitimate. For Catholics, there is always the historical and spiritual consideration of how the Early Church interpreted Scriptures. They lived in a biblical time and worked with the disciples of the disciples. In this context, it should be noted the Early Church undoubtedly held that the Bishop of Rome held a special authority in Christ’s Kingdom. He was the successor to St. Peter, the first Vicar of Christ; thus, the following argument is not simply a Catholic reading of Scripture, it is also the historical Christian reading.1
St. Peter Among the Apostles
1. What is an Apostle?
Before discussing whether or not St. Peter held a primacy among the apostles, the term apostle should be defined. The Hebrew word for apostle is shaliah, which is defined as an agent or legal emissary. The term agent in the context of shaliah, however, is richer than the modern concept of an ambassador or representative. The term denotes someone who comes with the same authority as the one who sent him. The person may delegate any task to his shaliah, his apostle.2
The Apostles received full authority and power from Christ to go forth with the mission of representing him. The apostles did not simply go out and tell people about Christ, they went forth with the power of Christ, e.g., casting out demons, after Christ’s Ascension, the power to forgive and retain sins (discussed below), . The requirements for the title apostles are (1) an encounter with the Risen Christ and (2) be personally commissioned.3
2. Did St. Peter Hold Any Honor Among the Twelve?
There are many small signs within the Gospel narratives that indicate St. Peter held an honored place among the twelve. When choosing his twelve disciples, Christ called St. Peter first and his interaction with Christ served as a the “original pattern of apostolic vocation par excellence.”4 Second, throughout the New Testament, St. Peter is named first when the disciples are listed, e.g., “And the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother…”5 Third, St. Peter is always among those disciples chosen for a particular event; thus, he is present with James and John at the Transfiguration and at the Mt. of Olives. In both instances, St. Peter is singled out from the other two.6 Finally, St. Peter was the only apostle to walk on water and delivered the homily on the first Pentecost.7
For these reasons – and Scriptures below – St. Peter held a primacy among the twelve and is known historically as the “Prince of the Apostles.”
St. Peter’s Vocation in the Gospel of St. Matthew
3. What Type of Kingdom did Christ Intend?
In writing his gospel to the Jews, St. Matthew draws heavily from the Old Testament in order to show Christ as the Jewish Messiah. One of the most important Messianic Old Testament concepts is the New Davidic Kingdom. King David is promised a descendent who would “rule forever” and sit on “David’s throne” forever.8 According to the Bible, Jesus Christ is a descendent of King David. He is referred to as the “Son of David.”9
4. What Office did Christ give to St. Peter?
St. Matthew records one of the most import pericopes in Scripture. First, St. Peter is singled out as the one among the twelve that correctly identifies Christ as the Son of the Living God. Second, Christ singles out St. Peter and gives him a unique vocation/office within the New Davidic Kingdom.
And Jesus came into the quarters of Caesarea Philippi: and he asked his disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is? But they said: Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?
Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That 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 upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. Then he commanded his disciples, that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.
Christ changes Simon Bar-Jona’s name to Peter, meaning Rock and declares that it is upon this rock Christ will build his Church.10 In the Old Testament, God changing a person’s name signified a new vocation for that individual. Abram was changed to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, and Jacob to Israel. Simon Bar-Jona’s new vocation as Peter is to be the Rock for Christ’s Church. How exactly St. Peter is to fulfill this role of rock is expressed in a biblical understanding of the keys he is given.
5. Is St. Peter the Rock in the Original Language?
Before a discussion of the keys, certain protestant polemics that attempt to state St. Peter was not the rock in St. Matthew’s famous passage should be addressed. In Greek, Christ changes St. Peter’s name to Petros and then says upon this petra I will build my Church. The assertion here is that the two terms are distinct and St. Peter is consequently not the rock upon which the Church is built. There are two main reasons this polemic is in error.
First, there is a distinction between the language Christ spoke and the language of the New Testament. Christ spoke Aramaic, which renders the passage, “That thou art Kepha; and upon this kepha I will build my church.” There is no distinction.11 This reading in the Aramaic is affirmed by the fact St. Peter is also called Cephas in the New Testament. The name Peter comes from the Greek petros/petra meaning rock, while Cephas comes from the Aramaic word kepha.
Second, there is a distinction in the Greek itself. First, even though Greek is an inflected language – meaning the form/spelling of the noun is predicated upon its function in the sentence – the distinction between petros and petra is not an inflection of the same word. They are cognates, meaning they are two words with the same root word. In the old Attic Greek, this distinction held a nuanced difference in the definitions; however, this nuance had disappeared by the time the New Testament was written. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, which holds petros and petra to be synonyms.12 There is again, no discernible distinction between petros and petra.
St. Peter is the rock in both the spoken language and the written language of the New Testament. There are other protestant concerns that pivot on the misguided belief that only Christ may be referred to as the rock. This belief lends to a tormented reading of the text that asserts the rock is either Christ himself or St. Peter’s faith. First, the text is difficult to reconcile with these views as St. Peter is undeniably given the keys of the kingdom. He is the focus on the entire passage. Second, many forget that Abraham was also referred to as the rock of Israel. Isaiah 51:1-3 states, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn… look to Abraham your father.” The connection between Abraham and St. Peter only further solidifies the belief that St. Peter’s vocation is one of extreme importance – as both Abraham and St. Peter serve as foundations for the People of God.13
6. Are St. Peter’s Keys in the Bible?
One of the most intriguing aspects of St. Matthew’s passage is Christ giving St. Peter the keys of the kingdom. Since Christ is the “Son of David” and he sits on throne in the New Jerusalem, it follows that the keys must have a Davidic significance. In examining the passage, it is clear that Christ is drawing from the Old Testament and perfecting a passage from Isaiah that speaks of a position within the Davidic Kingdom.
And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father.
The similarities in the Old Testament passage are striking. In both passages, a person within the Davidic Kingdom is given keys that come with the authority to open and shut or to bind and loose.14 Reading Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 together, the office given to St. Peter appears to be one of a steward or vicar. The vicar is the person who governs in the king’s stead when the king is away. He does not have the authority to change the teachings of the king, but he does have the authority to enforce and clarify them. In King David’s time, his vicar would rule when David was off to war or some other errand. In our age, the Vicar of Christ, aka the Office of the Papacy, governs the Church according to Christ’s teachings until Christ the King returns for his Kingdom. Notice David’s Vicar has one key to open and close the earthly kingdom, but Christ’s Vicar has two keys: one for heaven and one for earth.
Another important aspect of the keys is their ability to “bind and loose.” The phrase is deeply rooted in the Jewish rabbinic tradition and denotes the power to set the boundaries of a community. The binding and loosing power Christ attached to the keys clarifies for the community what was right and what was wrong. As the steward governed King David’s House according to the King’s order, so too does the new steward of the Eternal King’s House govern according to the Eternal King’s order.
St. Peter’s Vocation in the Gospel of St. Luke
7. How does St. Luke describe St. Peter’s Vocation?
In the Gospel of St. Luke, Christ charges St. Peter with the role of confirming his brothers in the faith.15
And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. Who said to him: Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death. And he said: I say to thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, till thou thrice deniest that thou knowest me.
One of the comforts of being a Catholic is that Christ chose an imperfect man to be the first Pope. St. Peter fails time and time again. Note here, however, that it appears God has given up St. Peter to Satan as he did Job. St. Peter does fail and he betrays Christ three times, however, unlike Judas, St. Peter is able to discover grace and return to fulfill his biblical role. He returns and strengthens the brethren. Compare the St. Peter who denied Christ to the St. Peter who – again in a unique act – stood and delivered the homily at the first Pentecost.
St. Peter’s Vocation in the Gospel of St. John
8. What is St. Peter’s Vocation in St. John’s Gospel?
The Gospel of St. John records St. Peter’s vocation in terms of a chief shepherd. Take note of the threefold commission given to St. Peter. The thrice nature of the commission has both a ancient juridical element and hearkens back to St. Luke’s description.16
This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to his disciples, after he was risen from the dead. When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep. Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had said this, he saith to him: Follow me.
First, notice that the vocation given to St. Peter is one founded on love and expressed in service. The threefold nature of the commission serves two purposes. First, St. Peter thrice proclaims his love for Christ, which corresponds and heals his three denials of Christ. Second, Christ asking St. Peter the same question three times in a row is a juridical formula. The threefold question was a solemn juridical rite that expressed the installation of an office or the transfer of authority.
9. How does the modern papacy reflect St. Peter’s biblical vocation?
Did the office of the papacy endure after St. Peter? Yes, if the role of the pope is to be the vicar in the King’s absence, then the office of the papacy endures until the King returns. The pope leads the King’s people according to the King’s laws until the King returns. Moreover, the Isaiah 22 passage that speaks of the Davidic key is in the context of one steward replacing another.
The pope’s authority is articulated in Holy Scripture. The pope strengthens his brother bishops and all Catholics in the faith by writing encyclicals and other works. He stands as an exemplar – hopefully – in faith, morals, and the liturgy. He is the Chief Shepherd watching over God’s flock.
He is the Rock that holds the Keys of the Kingdom. He may bind and loose. Historically, this authority has given us dogma. How many books should be in the Bible? What is the canon for the New Testament? What is the true identity of Christ? What is justification? All these questions have been confirmed at Council by the authority of the papacy. Even the core dogmas that the Protestants hold on to were defined and declared dogma by the Pope and the Church.
However, how does the Church know that these declarations by the Pope and the Church has correct? What if the Church erred in explaining Christ’s identity as fully man and fully God? What if the Church erred in the books of the New Testament? What if one of the hundreds of doctrines the Church declared was heresy was actually God’s truth? If the Church has erred, is she not teaching heresy? Have the gates of hell – despite Christ’s promise – prevailed? By what principle do we declare our faith in the decisions of the Church are correct?
The Gift of Infallibility
10. What is the Soul of the Church?
The concept of infallibility is predicated upon several key biblical concepts. First, the office Christ gave to St. Peter – the role of Vicar who guides, strengthens, and shepherds – second, the promise the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, and third, Pentecost. In Pentecost we learn that the Holy Spirit is the power of the Church. Just as the soul animates the body, so too does the Holy Spirit animate the Catholic Church.17 The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church.
The primary text associated with Pentecost describes the power of the Holy Spirit falling upon Mary and the disciples.18
And when the days of the Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.
With the power of the Holy Spirit upon him, St. Peter stands up and strengthens the brothers and shepherds the Church. “But Peter standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and spoke to them…” One of the undercurrents of St. Peter’s homily is the basic biblical principles that the New Testament is foreshadowed in the Old and the Old Testament is perfected in the New. The old Pentecost celebrating the harvests and the the Covenant at Sinai is perfected in the new Pentecost of the Holy Spirit and the Church. Similarly, the old Davidic kingdom has its steward, so too does the Davidic Kingdom have its steward.
The Pentecost in Acts – in which St. Peter gives the homily – demonstrates the Holy Spirit as the power of the Church. It is the power that fell upon the Apostles, Christ’s agents or legal emissaries. The Pentecost in St. John’s Gospel more fully demonstrates the unique connection between the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, and the governance of Christ’s Church.19
And when he [Christ] had said this, he shewed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord.
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.
St. John’s Pentecost is characterized by Christ breathing the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles. The act grants them the power – through the Holy Spirit – to forgive and retain sins, the biblical foundation for the Sacrament of Confession, inter alia. The two passages serve to demonstrate the Holy Spirit’s intimate role with the Church, and the latter passage more clearly indicates the instruments of the Holy Spirit are the Apostles. St. Peter then, stands unique among the rest, as he holds a special place among the Apostles – the Vicar of Christ.
11. What is the Gift of Infallibility?
The Gift of Infallibility is the belief the Holy Spirit fulfills Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Infallibility is first and foremost a gift to the Church; however, like the gift to forgive and retain sins, the means by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes this gift is the papacy and the magisterium of the Church. The promise that hell would not prevail was given by Christ in the same passage that he gives St. Peter the keys and renames him the Rock. The vocation of St. Peter and the promise hell will not prevail against the Church are intimately connected.
If the Pope is the Rock and he has the keys to “bind and loose,” what if the Pope was to lead the Church into error? What if the Pope at the Council of Nicaea would have submitted Christ was not fully God and fully Man? What if Pope would have allowed Gnostic books filled with errors into the biblical canon? The Pope and the Church – but never the Church without the Pope – has determined what is and is not Christianity. Many of these proclamations are still held by protestants as core undeniable tenants of the Christian faith. But by what faith do Catholics take these decisions? By what surety do Christians hold the doctrines of Christ’s Incarnation and the Trinity? Catholics take them on the faith that the Holy Spirit protects the Church and keeps her from error.
The Gift of Infallibility is a negative gift not a positive gift. It is a negative gift that prevents the pope from leading the Church into serious error. It is a gift of prevention and not of assertion. In other words, it is a gift of clarifying the faith, not creating the faith. Ultimately, it is the a gift to the Church preserving the Bride of Christ from the stain of adultery (idolatry). Call to mind the keys of the kingdom and the role of the vicar. The pope leads the King’s people according to the King’s laws and at times must clarify those laws so the people may continue to live in full adherence to the King.
12. How does Infallibility Work?
First, there are the councils that decided matters of faith. For example, the Council of Nicaea articulated the identity of Christ and the Council of Trent the doctrine of justification. Through the Holy Spirit working in the Church and the Chief Shepherd, the Pope, the Faithful may believe these doctrines have been defined infallibly. It is the Church and the Pope, but never the Church without the Pope.
Second, when the bishops of the world teach in unison with the Pope and the Sacred Tradition of the Church there is infallibility. A council may declare something, but then the bishops are charged with sharing that truth with their flock. When a bishop teaches the Faithful about Sacred Tradition there is infallibility. The sole belief that this doctrine has been given infallibly to the Church.
Third, there is when the Pope speaks ex cathedra or from the throne. An ex cathedra pronouncement declares a clarification of Catholic doctrine that is consistent with the faith of the Church, is universally applicable, and seriously tied enough to salvation to merit an extraordinary clarification. The Council of Vatican I (AD 1869-70) declared:
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.
Note that the Council did not invent a new papal power, but clarified an existing one.20 The papal infallibility is a Gift to the Church that is used to clarify longstanding doctrinal issues. For example, Pope Pius IX infallibly declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8, 1854.21 Similarly, the Assumption of Mary was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950.22 Neither of these doctrines were invented in 1854 or 1950; rather, they were longstanding debates in the Church that the Pope felt were serious enough to merit an infallibly clarification.
Further Resources on Understanding the Papacy
- 11 Reasons the Authority of Christianity Is Centered on St. Peter and Rome
- 10 Biblical Reasons Christ Founded the Papacy
- 13 Biblical Reasons St. Peter Is the Prince of the Apostles
- The First 10 Popes of the Catholic Church
- All Human Creatures Are Subject to the Pope
- The Early Church in Jerusalem Followed the Pope: 7 Quotes from History
- Constantinople: 25 Quotes from the Eastern Fathers on the Petrine Ministry
- Rome is the Apostolic Throne: 24 Quotes from Alexandria, Antioch, and Cyprus
- Early Church & the Papacy: SPL has three lists of quotes in this area – The Early Church in Jerusalem Followed the Pope: 7 Quotes from History, Constantinople: 25 Quotes from the Eastern Fathers on the Petrine Ministry, Rome is the Apostolic Throne: 24 Quotes from Alexandria, Antioch, and Cyprus. [↩]
- Shaliah: In cross-referencing sources, the term was also listed as shali’ah and shaliach. For example, “The first shaliaḥ mentioned in the written Torah is Eliezer, who was sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac.” Source. [↩]
- Apostles: First, there are always question about St. Paul referring to himself as an apostle. St. Paul did meet the Risen Christ and he was personally commissioned. Second, the “power” of the apostles is articulated throughout the article, but outside all the examples of them casting out demons, etc., look to the Pentecost of St. John’s Gospel, chapter 20. There, Christ breathes on the apostles and gives them the power to forgive and retain sins. [↩]
- First to be Called: St. Luke 5:1-11, quote from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Called to Communion, 54. [↩]
- St. Peter Listed First: Matt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Acts 1:13 [↩]
- Transfiguration & Mt. of Olives: Mark 9:2-8; 14:33 [↩]
- Walk on Water: Mt 14:28ff, also note St. Peter asked Christ how many times we ought to forgive (Mt 18:21) and his shadow healed people (Acts 5). For a whole list on this subject, see 13 Biblical Reasons St. Peter is the Prince of the Apostles [↩]
- King David’s Throne: I Chron 17:14; Ps 89:35-36; Luke1:31 [↩]
- Son of David: Matt 1:1-2; 9:27-29; Mk 10:47, 48) Christ, as the Eternal King, fulfills God’s covenant with David, because Christ will “rule forever” from King David’s Throne in the New Jerusalem. During the exiles of Israel, the people wrote with hope about the New Jerusalem and the Messiah that would usher in the New Davidic Kingdom; thus, any conversation about what is and what is not properly intended by Christ, regarding his Kingdom, must be couched within the template of the Davidic Kingdom. ((David’s Kingdom: Is. 9:6-7; 11:1-3; Jer 33:14-15, 17, 19-21, 26; Ps 132:10-14, 17; Luke 1:31-33, 68-71; II Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16; Rom 1:3 [↩]
- Name Change: St. Matthew 16:13-20, D-R. [↩]
- Cephas in the New Testament: cf. John 1:42; I Cor 1:12, 3:22, 9:5. [↩]
- Greek Petros/Petra: For a further discussion see 10 Reasons Christ Founded the Papacy and its citations on this issue; moreover, the entire discussion of St. Peter’s vocation from the Gospel of St. Matthew is drawn from the same article. [↩]
- Abraham & St. Peter: Cardinal Ratzinger stated the following in his book Called to Communion, 56, “Abraham, the father of faith, is by his faith the rock that holds back chaos, the onrushing primordial flood of destruction, and thus sustains creation. Simon, the first to confess Jesus as the Christ and the first witness of the Resurrection, now becomes by virtue of his Abrahamic faith, which is renewed in Christ, the rock that stands against the impure tide of unbelief and its destruction of man.” [↩]
- Keys in the Old Testament: The verse is Isaiah 22:22-23 D-R, but the entire passage is notable for discerning the vocation of St. Peter. For instance, the passage is actually taking the keys from one steward to the next. This detail is often used to combat those Protestant circles who affirm St. Peter had a unique role, but argue the role died with he died. [↩]
- Strengthen the Brothers: Gospel of St. Luke 22:29-32 [↩]
- Feed my Sheep: St. John 21:15-19 [↩]
- Soul of the Church: In Latin the soul is anima which English derives words like animate; thus, the Holy Spirit as the anima of the Church animates all she does. [↩]
- Pentecost: Acts 2 D-R [↩]
- John’s Pentecost: Gospel of John 20:20-23 [↩]
- Vatican I: Papal Infallibility, Session Four, Chapter Four. [↩]
- Immaculate Conception: Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. [↩]
- Assumption of Mary: Infallibly declared in Munificentissimus Deus. [↩]