There are dozens of points of contention between Catholics and Protestants. But they stand or fall on one fundamental question: Who or what has the ultimate authority to decide what Christians are to believe?
Protestants hold that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in Christian life. Each Christian is responsible for reading the Scripture and determining its teaching.
Catholics say that the two sources of God’s revelation are Scripture and Tradition. The pope and the bishops in union with him have the authority to interpret this divine revelation for the Church.
But does Scripture support our belief in papal authority?
There are several passages we could point to, but we want to focus on the relationship between Matthew 16 and Isaiah 22.
“He [Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
This passage seems to clearly show Jesus giving authority over the Church to Peter. But the case is made even stronger by a look at the Old Testament passage that prefigures Matthew 16.
“In that day I [God] will call my servant Eli′akim the son of Hilki′ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.”
Notice how God gives Eli′akim the key of the house of King David — a symbol of authority at that time. He becomes the chief steward of David’s house in the king’s absence.
His authority is absolute: “he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Compare this to the giving of the keys to Peter in Matthew 16 and Jesus’ assurance that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Why does this Old Testament passage matter?
Christians have always emphasized typology in Scripture. That means that people, places, and events in the Old Testament foreshadow people, places, and events in the New Testament.
This method of interpretation is justified in Scripture itself, when St. Paul refers to Christ as the “new Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The Fathers of the Church build on this principle. St. Augustine said the “New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”
Saints and theologians have traditionally seen Christ as the new King David and David’s kingdom as a prefigurement of the Church. Therefore, it makes sense to see Eli′akim as a prefigurement of Peter and the papacy. Jesus’ disciples would likely have understood the meaning of the “keys of the kingdom” in light of this Old Testament backdrop. After all, they were Jews who were familiar with the Old Testament prophecies.
If you’re not into typology, you may find this argument unconvincing. But if you are (and you’re in good company with many saints and theologians), then this is a powerful argument in favor of the papacy.