he following article was originally published in the Spring/1991 issue of the Pros Apologian theological journal. The article is presented in its entirety as it was published.
Evaluating the New Roman Catholic Apologists
The new Roman Catholic apologetic movement uses slick speakers, impressive programs, and nice materials. But their attempts at a Scriptural defense of the Papacy remain far from believable.
Many of them are former Protestants— not just nominal members of a Protestant denomination, but graduates of major seminaries, pastors in influential denominations. They are the new Roman Catholic apologists, and they are creating quite a stir. Using terminology that is familiar with Protestants, and presenting historically offensive Roman Catholic dogmas in new clothes specifically designed to be palatable to the unsuspecting Protestant’s tastes, these new Catholics are traveling the country, telling Catholics that they do have a Biblical basis for their beliefs, and inviting Protestants to sit down and reason with them.
Karl Keating, founder of Catholic Answers, the largest and most influential of these new organizations, speaks with ease to audiences about such topics as prayers to Mary, purgatory, and the Pope. Keating, an attorney, uses impressive (if not equally accurate) comparisons to disarm any critics in his audience, making Catholicism sound attractive, consistent, and most of all, Biblical. He is joined by others at Catholic Answers; such as Patrick Madrid and Mark Brumley. For most of 1990 Gerry Matatics, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, who is also a doctoral candidate at the bastion of conservative, Reformed orthodoxy, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, and a former PCA minister to boot, was on the Catholic Answers staff. His exodus from Protestantism into the fold of Rome was, it seems, heavily influenced by another Gordon-Conwell graduate, Scott Hahn. While Hahn teaches at the University of Steubenville in Ohio, he manages to fit in a number of seminars for local parishes on how Catholicism can be defended. The fact that these men are former Protestants is emphasized heavily. The November, 1990 issue of THIS ROCK, the magazine of Catholic Answers, contained an ad on the inside cover that featured a very nice picture of Gerry Matatics in a Catholic Church with the heading, “I’m the guy who lured your family and friends out of the Church.” The first paragraph then adds, “When I was a Protestant minister, I worked tirelessly to convince Catholics they weren’t saved.” Obviously, those presenting these former Protestants are making much of their supposedly “anti-Catholic” activities prior to their conversion to Catholicism.
Catholic Answers prides itself in being on the “front-line,” challenging “anti-Catholics” to defend themselves in public debate. As their name suggests, they feel that they have the answers for the attacks that have been made on Rome for centuries, and they are willing to provide these answers to any and all who would ask. [Alpha and Omega Ministries has been more than willing to meet that challenge-tapes of three debates with Catholic Answers are available on such topics as Sola Scriptura, eternal security, and the Papacy]. Their writers and speakers seem very well read, and they refer to the Bible frequently in their talks. Most Catholics walk away from their seminars encouraged in thinking that theirs is the truly “Biblical” position. But, we must ask, is this so?
To answer this question, I have decided to look especially at modern attempts on the part of these new apologists to substantiate, from Scripture, the concept of Petrine primacy leading to the Papacy. To me, this is one of the most clearly non-Biblical aspects of Roman Catholicism (along with purgatory and prayers to saints or Mary). It was the topic of a recent debate between myself and Mr. Matatics, and, given that the position taken by Mr. Matatics is manifestly the same as that taken by others (most specifically, Scott Hahn), an examination of the Roman attempts to support this position should provide us with a good model of their apologetic approach.
In looking for Biblical support for the Papacy, Roman apologists are extremely limited with regard to the texts they can utilize, and for obvious reason. Outside of Matthew 16:17-19, Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17, there is precious little ground upon which to build papal pretensions. Given this simple fact, what is the Roman apologist to do? Examining the actual structure of the New Testament Church would be disastrous, for the equality of the believers, the lack of the “clergy/laity” split, the universal priesthood of believers, and the equality of the servants of the Church (i.e., elders are bishops, etc.) is all in contradiction to the Roman doctrines. If they were to examine Peter’s own writings, they would be unable to find a single instance where he claimed to be the “Vicar of Christ on earth” or the “Holy Father,” nor could they even begin to find any other passage in Scripture where anyone else gave any indication of viewing Peter in this way, either. So the above mentioned passages must somehow be made to stretch to fit the task assigned to them. And that is exactly what we find happening in seminars and talks being given all over the country.
The primary passage used in defense of the Papacy continues to be Matthew 16:17-19. But it must be recognized that anyone who has the old 1950’s mentality that a Catholic will be content with the simple “the priest said it, so that’s enough for me” is badly misjudging the modern situation. The new generation of Roman Catholic apologists are digging into commentaries and presenting a very “scholarly” and supposedly Biblically based presentation of their doctrines.1 The layperson in the pew is quite impressed by the resultant information. But what is being said?
Basically, the Roman Catholics are more than happy to be presented with some of the older answers regarding Matthew 16:18 especially. They are ready to dispute the Πετρος/πετρα distinction that is based upon the “small rock/large rock” interpretation. They have ready answers for anyone who would dispute that Peter is the “rock” spoken of here. In fact, they have plenty of quotations from Protestant commentaries to back them up in identifying Peter as the rock! They quickly run to the theory that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, and, having established this, they point out that in Aramaic there would be no distinction between “Peter” and the “rock.”
Without turning what should be a readable article into a small book, we point out that the Roman position is inconsistent at a number of points. First, since Romanism claims that their understanding of Petrine supremacy is in “accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church,”2 it is instructive to realize that the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 upon which this supremacy is based is by far the minority position of the early Fathers. This passage brought about a number of differing interpretations as to who, or what, the “rock” was. Such early Fathers as John Chrysostom, Hilary, Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria3 viewed the rock as the faith that Peter had shown in Christ. Another view was that the “rock” was Christ Himself, and this view was adopted by Augustine and at least sixteen other early fathers.4 Dr. Fröhlich has pointed out that in the entire Middle Ages, specifically exegetical literature universally made the equation “rock=Christ” not “rock=Peter.” The third view, that Peter is the rock, was held by such notables as Cyprian, and the French Roman Catholic Launoy listed a total of 17 patristic testimonies to this effect. But the last mentioned Father, Cyprian, only causes the Roman Catholic further difficulties, for while Cyprian did view Peter as the “rock” of Matthew 16:18, he most obviously did not believe that the bishop of Rome was the universal head of the Church! This shows us that the Roman apologist has quite a task on his hands. He must not only establish with absolute certainty5 that Peter is the rock, but beyond this, he must establish that this means that Peter was given an authority that was not given to the other apostles, that this authority is then somehow invested in the Roman bishops, and that all of this means that the Roman bishop is meant to have a supremacy over all other bishops for all time! When the whole story is presented openly for all to see, it is quite clear that Matthew 16:18 is slim basis for such incredible claims!
“But,” the Roman apologists retorts, “your own Protestant scholars admit that Peter was the rock.” Let’s now examine this, always keeping in mind that even if it could be established without question that this is the proper interpretation, it does not follow that the bishop of Rome has some kind of supremacy! Nothing in Matthew 16:18 establishes an office that is to be passed on to others. But back to the point. Yes, Dr. Hendrickson, in his commentary on Matthew,6 does opt for Peter being the rock. However, he lists three views that “must be rejected” before addressing his own view, and one of these views is that ‘This passage…proves that Peter was the first pope.” He concludes with reference to this view, “The passage does not support any such bestowal of well-nigh absolute authority on a mere man or on his successors.” So what is Hendrickson, and other Protestant interpreters such as Cullmann or Bruner saying? Bruner asserted that the use of “rock” with reference to Peter referred to, …
the uniqueness, the historical once-for-allness, of Peter’s commission as rock. The text does not say ‘on this rock and on his successors I will build my church.’ Solus Petrus. To take this text literally is to honor Peter only. Peter was given first place by Jesus as the one who first confessed Jesus Christ the divine Son, and so Peter is made the first rock of the church. For the church is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles [like Peter] and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone.”7
The important thing to note is that while these Protestants do say that Peter is the rock, in so doing they cut the foundation right out from underneath the Roman position, for they emphasize that this means Peter and Peter only! Solus Petrus indeed! No successors, no office of the Pope passed down from one to another. Peter and Peter only, and his was a primacy (according to these writers) of grace only, not of ecclesiastical superiority to those that he himself identified as his “fellow elders” (1 Peter 5:1).
I do not necessarily agree with the interpretation put forward by Hendrickson, Cullmann, etc., with reference to Peter being the rock. However, the point is that the modern-day Roman apologist who refers to these men must be held accountable for telling the people all that these Protestant writers are saying. It is often the case that the Catholic is left with the impression that these Protestant writers accept the Roman Catholic understanding of Peter as the “rock” with all that entails, and this simply is not the case.
Another twist that has been added, especially by Scott Hahn and Gerry Matatics, has been the use of Isaiah 22:21- 22.8 This passage has been pressed into service to attempt to find some kind of basis for asserting that the supremacy supposedly given to Peter in Matthew 16 actually has the character of a dynastic office replete with successors. Here we read of Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. The passage reads,
And I will clothe him with your tunic, and tie your sash securely about him, I will entrust him with your authority, and he will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Jacob. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open.
Roman apologists assert the following things. First, the position Eliakim was put into was a dynastic position, i.e., one that had successors. Secondly, they point out the usage of the term “key” and connect this with Jesus’ statements in Matthew 16:19, going so far as to directly assert that Jesus is quoting Isaiah 22:22 of Peter. Obviously, they then parallel the “opening and shutting” of Isaiah 22 with the “binding and loosing” of Matthew 16. Peter, they assert, is the “Prime Minister” of the Church. There is no tension or “tug-of-war” between Peter and Jesus, just as there was none between the king and the prime minister in the Old Testament.
Scott Hahn spent some time establishing this connection in a talk entitled “Peter and the Papacy.”9 He insists that Jesus is quoting this passage from Isaiah 22 with reference to Peter, and that Jesus would never quote a passage from the Old Testament and wrench it from its original context. Since, therefore, the passage in Isaiah refers to an office that has successors, then Jesus must mean Peter to have successors as the “prime minister” of the Church, that is, the Pope. Hahn says,
The long and short of all of this, is, that when Jesus entrusts to Peter the keys of the kingdom, He is designating and appointing Simon to be the prime Minister; and with the keys you have a clear symbol showing us that an office is being instituted; so that when Peter dies there automatically assumes a successor; and when that successor dies, yet another one, and so on and so forth. We do have the biblical grounds for believing that Jesus instituted Peter’s office to include successors known as the popes.10
Certainly we can see how the average Roman Catholic (or, sadly, even the average Protestant!) would be impressed by such assertions. In my debate with Gerry Matatics the exact same passage was presented, in nearly word-for-word agreement with Hahn. But does the argument hold water? When all the excess verbiage is stripped away, we find out that it is an argument built upon air.
One of the most amazing things that I have noted in listening to the defenses provided by the new Roman apologists is the selectivity with which they present their arguments. Rarely is the Protestant argument portrayed in its best formulation, that is for certain! Straw men abound, but straw men that are skillfully constructed by men who should, it would seem, know better, given their background and training. But here with reference to Isaiah 22, I have been amazed to note this one single thing: I have listened to talks given by Scott Hahn and Gerry Matatics; I have read type-written transcripts of the same kinds of talks. I have listened to Gerry Matatics debate a Presbyterian minister in San Diego, and I have debated him personally within recent months. Each time I have listened to these men or read their discussions of the supposed connection between Isaiah 22:22 and Matthew 16:18-19, I have never once heard them inform their audiences that Isaiah 22:22 is specifically cited by the Lord Jesus, with reference to Himself, in Revelation 3:7! Note what the Word says,
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one will open, says this:
Who is speaking here? The Lord Jesus, of course. And is there any question whatsoever that the Lord is citing Isaiah 22:22? None at all! He mentions the “key of David,” and then quotes the rest of Isaiah 22:22 directly! And who is the one who holds (present tense-since this is spoken after the resurrection, and, it would seem probable, after the death of Peter, then why isn’t the Pope, Peter’s supposed successor, holding this key?) the key? Jesus Christ Himself! Obviously, therefore, the entire Roman Catholic position falls flat on its face with the simple acknowledgment that the Lord Jesus is a better interpreter of Scripture than the modern apologists of Rome, and He obviously felt that Isaiah 22:22 was fulfilled in Himself, not in Peter or the bishop of Rome!
When one then considers all the time that is spent by Hahn and Matatics in developing this argument, and all that without even attempting to deal with Revelation 3:7, what is obviously the death-blow to their entire concept, one is tempted to wonder about much of what they have to say. Surely the Roman Catholic who listens to such apologetics should be aware of this kind of tremendously selective interpretation! It is, in my opinion, nothing short of dishonest to present the Isaiah 22/Matthew 16 connection as a support of the Roman concept of the Papacy without even trying to deal with Revelation 3:7 and the simple fact that Jesus did not interpret Isaiah 22:22 in the same way the apologist is suggesting we should! Hahn insisted that it was important to remember that Jesus would never twist or contort the context of the Old Testament passages He was citing. We agree. But when we apply Hahn’s own words to himself, we find that Jesus’ use of Isaiah 22:22 in Revelation 3:7 forever shuts the door on Hahn’s forced interpretation of Isaiah with reference to Matthew 16:18-19.
Sadly, many Roman Catholics will be further hardened from the truths of God’s Word by the activities of the new apologists for the Papacy. I have attended seminars put on by Catholic Answers as well as talks by Scott Hahn and others. It is quite common for the Catholic Answers representative to begin the talk with the following joke: “Now, we have both Catholics and Protestants here this evening. It is easy to tell who the Catholics are. How, you ask? Simple. Look at the person sitting next to you, and if they don’t have a Bible, they are a Catholic.” While this normally gets a nice chuckle from the audience (I’ve personally heard it at least four times, so it won’t keep getting chuckles forever), it speaks more truth than some might wish to admit. The majority of Roman Catholics who listen to Hahn or Matatics are not going to get up at the question and answer time and ask about how Revelation 3:7 disrupts their use of Isaiah 22:22 as a prop for the Papacy. What is worse, they are probably not going to listen to a Protestant who comes along and tries to point these things out, either. Instead, they are going to be convinced that they, as Roman Catholics, have solid Biblical basis for believing what they do about a man who claims such titles as the Holy Father (a title used only by the Son of God with reference to God the Father Himself) and the Vicar of Christ on earth (who, of course, is the Holy Spirit of God, not the bishop of Rome).
We can be thankful, however, that the Lord always has a purpose for all things. Christians have become complacent over the past decades, and the new attacks on our faith may serve to drive us back to the Word and the truths that brought about the freedom of the Church from the yoke of Rome over four centuries ago. Join with us in praying for a new Reformation in the Church in our land and all across the world.