A recent edition of Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Unbelievable’ show featured a lively discussion between William Johnstone, a spokesperson for ‘Catholic Voices’ and Duncan Boyd, of the Protestant Truth Society.
The topic for debate was, ‘Is the Papacy Biblical?’ – very topical, in view of the fact that the Pope was in the UK on an official state visit at the time.
In the event, the debate ranged more broadly than the question of the papacy. It was, I suppose, helpful that each protagonist was both clear and convinced about his own position. Obviously, I am broadly in agreement with Duncan’s criticisms of Roman Catholic teaching, even though I would stop short of some of his ultra-Protestantism.
But what particularly interested me was to hear a thoughtful and articulate Roman Catholic try to find scriptural warrant for key Catholic doctrines.
Here are the main biblical passages referred or alluded to:
Matthew 16:18 – “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
William’s (and presumably the Catholic church’s) argument relies in part on the assumption that Jesus spoke these words in Aramaic, in which language the word for ‘Peter’ and ‘rock’ would have been the same (cephas). But, as Duncan pointed out, it is not at all certain that these words were spoken by Jesus in Aramaic. And, in any case, this saying is recorded in Scripture not in Aramaic, but in Greek. Two different Greek words are used, ‘petros’ and ‘petra’, weakening the idea that they both have the same referent. In any case, Jesus does not say, “on you will I build my church”, strongly suggesting that the church is to be built, not on Peter personally, but on the confession he has just made, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, which would be echoed by all the apostles and their followers.
When Jesus says that “the gates of Hades will not overcome [his] church”, this means, according to William, that the church has infallible authority. If the church could err, then this could scarcely be said of it. But, as Duncan pointed out, the Catholic church can and has erred, even in some of its most authoritative pronouncements (such as Papal bulls advocating anti-semitism). Within the pages of the New Testament itself, we find local churches exhibiting various forms of error (just think of the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3). Jesus expression here means that the church will not die, even though he himself and also Peter would die.
John 21:15-17 – “‘When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”‘
William’s argument here turns on the fact that when Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep,” he is using an expression that speaks of ‘tending’ or even ‘governing’ Christ’s people. But this is a tenuous inference. Although it is clear that Peter was the leader of the Jerusalem church, there is no indication that he was ever regarded as the chief of the early apostles. Paul was at least his equal and, indeed, rebuked Peter at one point.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 – ‘Stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.’
Given that the New Testament scriptures were not in existence at the time, this must mean) according to William) that there is a tradition, distinct from Scripture, to which we must hold. Indeed, it required the authority of the church itself to establish the canon of Scripture. There is, accordingly, no doctrine of ‘Sola Scriptura’ to be found in Scripture itself. Once again, this is a <em>non sequitur</em>. The text itself simply will not bear the inferences drawn from it.
Two further biblical texts were mentioned, although neither is directly relevant to the subject of the papacy:-
Luke 1:28 – “Greetings, you who are highly favoured!”
These words of the angel Gabriel to Mary are taken by Roman Catholics to be equivalent to, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” This is then taken to set Mary apart from the rest of the human race, and to support the doctrine of her ‘immaculate conception’ (i.e. that she was born without original sin). This is, of course, to drastically misunderstand the biblical concept of ‘grace’, which does not refer to goodness or purity in the individual, but rather (as the NIV quite rightly indicates) to God’s (unmerited) favour. This point may receive further support from Lk 1:47, where Mary refers to God as her ‘Saviour’ (although, to be fair, this could be taken in context to refer to God as her ‘deliverer’ and not have any direct reference to salvation from sin).
1 John 5:16f – ‘There is sin that leads to death…and there is a sin that does not lead to death.’
William suggested that this text supports the distinction between ‘mortal’ sin (which does lead to death) and ‘venial’ sin (which does not lead to death). The doctrine of Purgatory is thus ‘proven’ for it is here that the individual will be purged from ‘venial’ sin. Once again, it ought to be sufficient to say, ‘it does not follow’. As with the doctrines of the Papacy and Mary’s immaculate conception, so it is also with the doctrine of Purgatory, Roman Catholics have to shore up the most tenuous scriptural support with references to the beliefs and practices of the early church. But, once again, we know from the pages of the New Testament itself that nothing can be proven just because some people can be found who happened to believe in it.