“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.”
Last week, I posted an entry describing the doctrine of infallibility. The purpose of this blog post will be to demonstrate that the Church under the original apostles was granted this power, and exercised it in response to theological controversy in the context of a single council, lead by Peter, with authority over the whole Church. With respect to conciliar and papal authority, there are two New Testament passages of particular interest: Matthew 16:17-19, which we Catholics claim records the institution of the papacy, and Acts 15: the first council of the church, over which Peter presided and a doctrinal question in the early church was resolved. To determine the grammatical number of pronouns used in the Greek, I referred to a Bible web app that lets one to type in a reference, and then mouse over the Greek text to see the translation, tense, and grammatical number of a word being used.
In verse 15 of the 16th chapter of Matthew, Christ asked his disciples, “Who do you [plural] believe that I am?” Peter responds correctly, and Christ says “you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church” and “I will give you [singular] the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you [singular] bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you [singular] loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.” This power of binding and loosing would have been well-known to the Jews as the power to forbid or allow practices without dispute. Further, the phrase “is bound in Heaven” implies that such binding or loosing by Peter would so much make a practice moral or immoral, but that executions of this power by Peter would be guaranteed to reflect the Heavenly order. The use of the ‘singular you’ indicates that this ‘power of the keys’ is given directly to Peter in particular, and not the apostles as a whole.
The ‘plural you’ makes an appearance in Matthew 18:18, where Christ also grants the ‘binding and loosing’ power (though no mention of keys or rocks) to a different group. The beginning of the chapter calls this group ‘the disciples’ – a term Matthew uses elsewhere to refer explicitly to the twelve apostles. Though this is sometimes used as a proof-text to argue that the authority vested in Peter in chapter 16 has been actually delegated to the entire Church, this passage is deeply in accord with Catholic teaching. Christ is giving this power to the apostles, either to each and every individual, or corporately, to the body of the apostles. This power of binding and loosing of practices or ideas is guaranteed to be in accord with Heaven, since the passage uses the perfect tense “is bound in Heaven.” Thus, it is impossible that two apostles would contradict one another by the use of the practice: one binding and the other loosing, since these determinations reflect the reality of Heaven, and cannot be contradictory. If the power is given to the apostles as a whole, you have exactly the Roman Catholic teaching about the college of bishops (at least in the early days, considering only the apostles) as being infallible when collectively teaching something. If the power is given to each apostle individually, then something stronger than Catholic teaching must have been true in the early Church.
The authority of the apostles and Peter is shown in the early Church’s Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15. Certain men had been teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” This ‘circumcision party’ (worst party ever) was influential, and managed to intimidate Peter into not eating with the uncircumcised when they were around, as recorded in Galatians 2:11-14. By his actions, he had been leading others astray. Paul and Barnabus, encountering Judiazers, argued with them about what they were teaching. Unable to resolve the dispute, the local church appointed Paul, Barnabus, and others to “go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders.” There, the apostles and elders gathered together and heard both sets of arguments. Verses 7-11 record that next, Peter stood, and gave the judgment that would ultimately be the judgment of the council: “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” James then supplied additional support to Peter’s judgment, drawing from the words of the prophets. The council then sent out appointed men to all the churches bearing a letter relating the judgment of the council on Judiazing. This letter did not hesitate to put obligations on the members of the Church: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.” A matter of dispute arose in the early Church. It was brought before the council of apostles and elders (whom Catholics would call bishops and priests). The head of the apostles made a doctrinal judgment, which was recorded in a letter sent to all the churches, along with James’ application of the doctrinal judgment requiring the Gentiles follow a minimalistic code to ensure peaceable relations with the Jews. This more or less followed the formula for a council of the Church.
Setting aside (for now) the issue of apostolic succession, and considering only the early Church, I think it is clear that the Catholic model of ecclesial government, including the infallibility of decrees made by the earthly head of the Church or the unanimous body of its bishops, fits scripture very well. I can’t say that it is the only such model of ecclesial government that does – given my knowledge of the various Protestant and Orthodox theories is incomplete, and that saying ‘every other theory is wrong’ sort of requires potentially infinitely many refutations. However, even if you agree with my analysis, it’s a moot point, because Peter and all the apostles are dead, right? Tune in next time…