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Who has Peter’s keys?

September 2005 | by Richard Bennett

In his very first message on 20 April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of himself as ‘Peter’s current successor’. For most Catholics, the belief that the pope derives his authority from Peter is the main cornerstone of their faith.

I never questioned this presupposition until the very end of my 22 years as a Catholic priest, when in 1985 John Paul II came to visit Trinidad. Vivid in my mind is the veneration given to the pope in the Port-of-Spain stadium. To the rhythmic beat of bongo drums, the crowds rose and cried, ‘JP, we love you’. The pope bowed, accepting the adulation.

Dark clouds

Inside, I was already debating whether or not he held the keys of the apostle Peter. So painful was the evening to me that when, at the end, each priest was to have his photograph taken with the pope, I quietly left.

Driving home in the tropical rain, dark clouds enveloped my mind. How could this man claim to have the authority and power of Peter when, in most respects, his manner and message were so utterly different from St Peter’s?

I thought of Acts 10:25-26: ‘Cornelius met [Peter] and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. But Peter took him up, saying, stand up; I myself also am a man’. I knew then that I had to start analysing in earnest the famous text blazoned in Latin on St Peter’s basilica in Rome —

Tu est Petrus(Thou art Peter …).

The rock

The papacy declares its church to be founded on the apostle Peter alone, claiming that as the first bishop of Rome he bequeathed his authority to his successors. This is the lynch pin of Roman Catholicism.

Officially the Church of Rome states, ‘The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church … This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope’ (

Catechism, Para. 881).

These claims are based on Matthew 16:16-20 which reads:

‘Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And Jesus answered and said unto him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto 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 unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ’.

Thus the whole Roman Catholic system is based on three presuppositions:

1. That this Scripture means that Peter was the foundation of the church — that the church was built on him.

2. That Peter went to Rome and was the first bishop in Rome.

3. That Peter’s successors are the bishops of Rome under the primacy of the pope.

Let us consider these in turn.

Who is the foundation?

This Scripture plainly shows that, by revelation from heaven, the disciples knew intuitively that Jesus was the Christ (Anointed-Messiah) and the Son of the Living God (co-eternal with the Father and therefore God).

It is this revelation that would become the rock or foundation stone on which Christ would build his church. This is confirmed by the concluding words of the passage: ‘Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ’.

To suggest that Peter himself is the rock — and infer that the church was built upon a mere man and not on God’s revelation of Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ — is to pervert God’s Word.

The Holy Spirit confirmed the true meaning of the verse by having it written in Greek. The word ‘Peter’ in Greek is

petros. It is masculine in gender and signifies a piece of rock, larger than a stone.

In contrast, the word ‘rock’ in Greek is

petra. It is feminine in gender and describes bedrock, massive and immovable. The church was not founded on a lump of granite but on a massive bedrock — namely, the God-given revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Opening the kingdom

Congruent with this revelation was the distinct commission given to Peter — to use the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’. What does this mean?

This prophetic declaration was fulfilled when, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter became the first to open the kingdom of God to the Jews. He did so by declaring that same revelation — that ‘God hath made that same Jesus … both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36).

He was also

specificallychosen to preach the same gospel to the Gentiles for the first time (Acts 10:34-44).

The power of the keys, therefore, lay in the privilege given to Peter to introduce the gospel message to Jews and Gentiles. He

aloneperformed this initial proclamation. But once the door to the kingdom had been opened it was never shut again! There can thus be no ‘succession’ to this ‘once-for-all’ commission.

Binding and loosing

The responsibility of ‘binding and loosing’ (v.19) relates to church discipline and was given not only to Peter but to the other Apostles as well (Matthew 18:18).

The whole focus of the Matthew 16 passage is therefore on the divinity of Jesus as ‘the Son of the living God’ and his role as Messiah or Christ. This

factis the rock on which his church is built.

Ignoring the clarity of the text, the Church of Rome takes advantage of the similarity of the two words ‘Peter’ and ‘rock’ to substitute one for the other and make the passage read, ‘Thou art Peter and upon thee, Peter, will I build my church’.

However, the Lord said ‘upon this rock’, not ‘upon thee’. Jesus made a deliberate play on words to emphasize the

difference, not the similarity, between Peter and the rock.

Universal power resides in Christ

Jesus as the Christ has full, supreme and universal power. This prerogative is his alone, and any pretension by another to hold this power is blasphemous. Yet the Church of Rome claims Christ’s power for her pope: ‘For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered’ (

Catechism, Para. 882).

It delighted the Father that in Christ Jesus alone ‘all the fulness should dwell’ (Colossians 1:19) He alone gives to his people ‘grace for grace’ (John 1:16). Yet the Church of Rome alleges further that she has been allotted ‘fulness of grace and truth’ which are, she claims, ‘entrusted to the Catholic Church’ (Declaration

Dominus Iesus, Sect. 16, September 2000).

Thus the Roman Church pretends herself to be a substitute for Christ. She decrees therefore, ‘There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive’ (

Catechism, Para. 982).

Again, ‘It is the right of the Roman Pontiff himself alone to judge … those who hold the highest civil office in a state’ (Canon 1405). He looks upon himself as Master of all, and boldly proclaims, ‘The First See is judged by no one’ (Canon 1404). Thus the Roman Pontiff is presented as supreme, accountable to no one, and the sole judge of what is right and wrong.

Did Peter go to Rome?

The second presupposition can be dealt with briefly. Scripture is utterly silent about the apostle Peter going to Rome. His visits to Samaria, Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea and Antioch were carefully recorded. But there is simply no mention made of his going to Rome, which is essential to establish the Roman Catholic position.

Certainly the Holy Spirit would not have passed over an event so significant and essential. In his letter to the Romans, Paul greets many in the church at Rome but offers no salutation to Peter.

Again, Paul was in Rome in the reign of Nero but never once mentions Peter in any of his letters written from Rome, although he does remember many others who were with him in the city.

Clearly the claim that Peter lived in Rome as its first bishop is pure conjecture — hardly a solid foundation on which to base our faith!

Apostolic succession?

The third presupposition is officially stated as follows: ‘Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church’ (

Catechism, Para 892).

In Scripture there is no mention of ‘successors’ to Peter or the Apostles. The criteria for apostleship are given in Acts 1:21-22. The position of the Apostles was unique to them and to Paul — all were directly chosen by Christ Jesus with no hint of succession.

In the New Testament, the Apostles appointed not other apostles but rather elders and deacons. This false presupposition is of the essence of the papacy, but apostolic succession without apostolic doctrine is a fraud.

Furthermore, documented apostolic succession throughout history was impossible. If one link fails the whole sequence becomes invalid. Yet Catholicism hitches its star to the notion of apostolic succession. That is a serious mistake.

The Matthew 16:16-20 text is, therefore, foundational. The divinity and Saviourhood of Jesus Christ, ‘the Son of the living God’, constitute the rock on which His Church is built. It is my prayer that your personal faith is also built on this rock.

The author spent twenty-one years as a Catholic parish priest in Trinidad. After an accident in 1972 in which he nearly lost his life, he began to study the Bible seriously. After nearly fourteen years of contrasting Catholicism with biblical truth, he was convicted by the gospel message in 1985. He was saved by God’s grace alone, and formally left the Roman Catholic Church and its priesthood. He has founded an evangelistic ministry to Catholics called Berean Beacon

P.O. Box 192 Del Valle, TX 78617 USA. On the internet: www.bereanbeacon.org