Culturally-inculcated story arcs are more compelling than many people realize. Some story arcs have only recently been abandoned. Any millennial will remember the popular myth that the United States was established as a “democracy” granting its citizens “equal” rights, only to see in recent years for the reiteration of this myth to be disowned as not only inaccurate, but racist/patriarchal/bigoted. Nevertheless, this national myth is a popular example of how something that would have made no sense in 1776 or 1789 two centuries later arose to become a dominant myth which took considerable effort to undo.

It is the contention of this article that Papal Supremacy is a similar theological myth that would have made no sense to the early Church, including its Popes, who so frequently in their writings and actions betray a completely different understanding of ecclesiology. Yet, due to the popularity of the Papacy as an institution in the West, even people outside of Italy who are not Roman Catholic watch with interest the enthronement of new Popes. Most people follow him in the tabloids and hear about previous Popes continually during their education. A larger-than-life image of the Pope throughout history becomes the intellectual default even without its merits being weighed in the least bit.

As a result, the lens people apply to historical sources (rightly derided as cherrypicked, out-of-context “quotemining”) and the Scriptures themselves amounts to little more than “Pope-colored glasses.” The burden of proof to undo the story arc is incredibly high and burdensome. It requires deprogramming what one was culturally inculcated to accept as a default and then installing “new software,” which in effect is an intellectual and ecclesiological paradigm alien to the recipient.

The Scriptures Themselves. While deprogramming requires a thorough, long slog through Papal history, it is worth taking the Scriptures at face value and questioning the central Papal premise. In other words, one should not simply presume upon the Supremacist Papacy. Its absence in the Scriptures (and Church history, though that is not the topic of this article) is readily apparent.

The Scriptures have many debated doctrines directly invoked. The Holy Trinity is referred to by name (Matt 28:19), the Church is headed by Bishops operating on a conciliar basis (Acts 15), the dead are prayed for (2 Tim 1:16), and even the invocation of the saints is addressed. (Matt 27:47, Rev 6:10, Rev 8:3) So, while sectarians may debate over any of these, at least they on face value exist within the pages of Scripture.

Where does that leave the Papacy? How could the single most important institution and its surrounding doctrines, if Roman Catholics are honest with themselves, bear no explicit mention whatsoever? Polemical deflection, such as impugning the Scriptural merits of Marian doctrines, can be attempted but when Marian Scriptures are put to the test, they demand an Orthodox understanding. Does this apply to Papal prooftexts?

Evaluating Allegedly “Papal” Scriptures. The Scriptures cited in support of the Papacy will be addressed in no precise order. However, all of them will be discussed without presuppositions so the passages may speak for themselves.

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18)

The passage, without mental gymnastics, certainly seems to endow Saint Peter with authority and ascribe something important in connection to him—evidently, the establishment of the divinely-protected Church. While legitimate alternate interpretations from the preceding can be made (i.e. the “rock” is Peter’s confession), even laying these aside, the Papalcentric reading is by no means self-apparent.

In what way is the Church built on the rock/Peter? The passage of course does not say. This is where culturally-inculcated presuppositions insert an explanation that the passage simply does not provide. One may look with skepticism upon the typology that Peter=Rome=person of the Pope. The passage nowhere actually makes mention of the city of Rome or the office of the Papacy. Such a reading has to be inserted. Additionally, Scripturally speaking, the way the Church is built upon the rock cannot contradict other Scriptures (such as the conciliar approach to Church ecclesiology one sees in Acts 15). This further mitigates against the Papalcentric view.

This is where a Papalcentric interpreter is forced to abandon strict Scriptural exegesis and turn to Church history. This, in effect, moves the goalposts of the conversation. However, the Papalcentric interpretation is not only the minority-interpretation of the fathers, it was an interpretation that did not have the theological import that modern, culturally-biased interpreters think it does. For example, Saint Cyprian is one of the earliest saints to exegete the passage in a Papalcentric way. However, his ecclesiology was demonstrably conciliar and diametrically opposed to unchecked-regional primacy, let alone later supremacy claims that were not even on the radar at the time (like direct jurisdiction, infallibility, etcetera). The first time one gets unambiguous, Papalcentric interpretations of Matt 16:18 is arguably in the 8th and 9th centuries—a time so late that one cannot plausibly assert an antique, consensus understanding of the passage in question.

The preceding exposes how literally tenuous Matt 16:18 really is as a Papal prooftext. For those who are curious as to the most likely ecclesiastical interpretation of the text, one that is endorsed by several early Popes, it is that Matt 16:18 refers to the establishment of the universal episcopate through Peter. In other words, every Bishopric is by succession Petrine.

The passage continues:

And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:19)

Surely, Peter is given keys, whose purpose is to bind and loose sins. Yet, taking the Scriptures simply at their word, this language is hardly exclusive. Consider the other apostles:

Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:20-23)

Or the Church at large:

Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18)

The Greek between Matt 16:19 and Matt 18:18, controlling for plurals, is literally identical. Surely, the eisegetical importing of Papal Supremacist doctrines such as universal and direct jurisdiction into Matt 16:18 must be undone by such jurisdiction (“binding and loosing”) being held in common.

As a result, a Papalcentric reading demands the understanding that the omission of the word “keys” must have attached to it exaggerated significance. What the significance of such an omission, or even its inclusion, is unsaid in the Scriptures. A Papalcentric reading demands inferring that only Peter has such keys, but this would be a rather ham-handed exegesis considering the commonality of binding and loosing. If the goal posts are moved yet again to Church history, the consistent iterations of the fathers that all the bishops are given “keys” shows that a Papal-exclusivist view is wholly absent in the pre-schism Church. Worse yet, Decree 1 of the Fourth Lateran Council literally states that all the apostles were granted the keys. Even an appeal to posts-schism Roman Catholic Church history is self-refuting.

Perhaps an appeal to a more obscure passage can assist the Papalcentric exegesis:

Then it shall be in that day, That I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe and strengthen him with your belt; I will commit your responsibility into his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder: so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open. (Is 22:20-22 MT)

In effect, the preceding is interpreted as a prophecy, Eliakim as a type for the Pope of Rome. However, in order to get from royal functionary in Jerusalem to a bishop in a far-away city, one must first interpret Eliakim as a type for Peter. But, if one does this, as the above shows, that does not get one remotely close to the Papacy without an appeal to Church history. However, doing this, as the preceding shows, only demonstrates the lateness of such a Papalcentric interpretation vis a vis a conciliar one (such as the Papally-sanctioned interpretation that Peter is the origin of the entire episcopate).

As for Eliakim himself, he was an inferior to Isaiah the prophet. (Is 37:2 MT) How does this figure into the typological conversation? The person who Eliakim replaces in that prophecy, Shebna, is like Eliakim, another royal courtier. Perhaps this can be interpreted as granting access to the King (a type for Christ God). However, why must this be interpreted exclusively as an ecclesiastical gatekeeper, being that the one who is being spoken of is a royal functionary? A Christian monarch fulfills a similar, gatekeeping function in a traditional Christian state.

It should also be considered that in the LXX, the text sounds more Christological. According to the LXX:

And I will make him [Eliakim] a ruler in a sure place, and he shall be for a glorious throne of his father’s house. And every one that is glorious in the house of his father shall trust in him, from the least to the greatest; and they shall depend upon him in that day. (Is 22:23-24 LXX)

If so, this is a connection to Rev 1:18 where Christ asserts He “has the keys.” While there is no reason to doubt the rendering of the MT for the same passage in Isaiah, the LXX shows us how it was interpreted at approximately the same time–the interpretation is clearly Messianic. The Papal interpretation is far from self-evident, in fact it is the least likely of all possibilities.

Other popular passages prove to be even more tenuous. For example:

Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter…(Matt 10:2)

Granted, Peter is named first and this has to mean something. However, if one does not immediately presume the culturally-conditioned something, being named first is entirely consistent with many possible answers. Peter being the origin of the episcopate, the most important bishop, or simply the most important disciple with no other historical import are all possible.

And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)

And:

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:17)

A minimalist interpretation, that Peter was simply the most important Apostle historically speaking, would surely stretch to the limit the Scriptures’ invoking of details to no enduring effect. Why repeat Peter’s pastoral role? Why have Peter subsequently figure so prominently in Acts of the Apostles until Saint Paul hits the scene? Ultimately, in isolation, one does not know—and so the interpretation that this must apply to Peter’s successors is surely satisfying, but unsaid in the text. The legitimacy of such an interpretation surely hinges upon Church history—with the aforementioned problems that this poses for the Papalcentric interpretation.

In fact, these passages share an inconvenient premise—Peter erred. Christ would not prophesy Peter’s “return” if there was not a falling away. Christ’s repeated questioning of “do you love me” is the well-known undoing of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ. These Scriptures, taken at face value, speak to the fact that the person of Peter can err. While this poses no issue to ecclesiastical typologies attached to Peter that are Orthodox (such as him being the origin of the entire episcopate), this is positively devastating to the Papalcentric reading which demands infallibility—the enduring ability to not err whatsoever.

Potential Anti-Papal Proof Texts Popularly Ignored. It is on the preceding note that a plethora of Petrine-texts which speak of Peter erring are often ignored. This is strange if the typology of this singular figure is positively necessary to establish the Scriptural merits of Papal Supremacy. The list of Peter’s errors and literal missteps is not short (even with parallel passages excluded):

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” (Matt 14:29-30)

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matt 16:22-23)

Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” (Matt 26:33-34)

Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”(Matt 26:40-41)

Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. (Luke 9:33)

Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:6-9)

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11)

The Papalcentric interpreter may argue that Peter made all of these errors and missteps (of varying importance) before becoming Pope. However, Peter was no less an Apostle at this time. In the Gospels he was already given the title/name “Rock,” which allegedly has attached to it ecclesiastical import. In any event, if one arbitrarily decides Peter was Pope after Pentecost, this does not solve the Scriptural issues. For example, Paul famously corrects Peter for his capitulation to Judaizing sympathies long after Pentecost:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. (Gal 2:11-13)

This passage should be read alongside a related passage in Acts 15 where both Peter and James apparently reverse course:

James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared [concerning Cornelius and the Judaizing issue]…Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God. (Acts 15:13, 14, 19)

In the former passage Peter commits some sort of obvious error. In both passages, the plain implication on the surface is that while Peter may “feed” Christ’s “sheep” in an educational way, James is the chief in the episcopate of Apostles.

These Scriptures, which outnumber the Papalcentrically interpreted ones, are almost always ignored. However, they are numerous. In order to interpret them in a Roman Catholic sense, appeals to Church history would have to be made to contextualize them. Otherwise, their surface-level reading contradicts their ecclesiology. As stated repeatedly, appeals to Church history severely undercut the utility of these passages in service of the Papalcentric cause. In any event, the Scriptures taken simply at their word do not plausibly make the case for the Roman Catholic conception of the Papacy.

It is ironic that oftentimes those taking the Papalcentric view of the Scriptures argue that Papal Supremacy, though not plainly Scriptural, is “the most fitting” interpretation of Biblical texts. However, considering the sheer number of “Peter errs” and “Peter comes second” passages (John 20:4 is yet another one), there is no way one can seriously argue that Petrine Supremacy is “the most fitting” interpretation of the entirety of the Scriptures’ Petrine witness.

Petrine theories and typologies aside, there is an instance where the Roman church is directly addressed by Paul. The Epistle to the Romans warns its recipients:

Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Rom 11:22)

Such a warning is of no effect if its literal fulfillment is rendered impossible by a Papalcentric narrative imposed upon the Scriptures.

Papalcentric Apologia. It is worth mentioning that a Papal apologist may point to a plethora of Papal Supremacist ecclesiastical distinctions which would “explain away” many of the preceding passages. For example, the Pope (and therefore Peter) is able to make errors in practice, but not in doctrine. As for the latter, even errors in doctrine can be made on a material basis, but not formally (i.e. the intention necessary to adamantly believe a given heresy). The fact these categories of thought, bearing no explicit mention in the pre-schism Church, are likewise entirely absent in the Scriptures is illustrative. They reveal how alien the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Papacy, and its actual distinctives, are from the Scriptures.

When Roman Catholic apologists dispute with Protestants, the goalposts are changed to questions of authority. Specifically, the role of tradition in interpreting Scriptures becomes the point at issue. However, what is one to make of a Papal doctrine without explicit historical merit either? Rather, a different appeal to authority can be made, that is, to the Papacy itself. The immensely circular aspect of the enterprise is apparent.

Conclusion. Narratives are crucial in how both individuals and societies at large conceive of historical sources. A narrative must be divorced from a source, and not simply assumed, in order to conduct unbiased historical inquiry. A bias is not by necessity bad, but the bias that is chosen must be done so in a transparent way.

Without imposing a Papalcentric narrative, any Papalcentric gloss of the Scriptures is impossible. Being that the only way to “prove” the Papacy from the Scriptures is to presuppose the narrative, this shows the proof of the doctrine is simply presuppositional. In short, Papal Supremacy cannot be found in the Scriptures without reading it into them.