Why Scripture and the Facts of History Compel Me, a Former Roman Catholic, to Remain a Committed Evangelical Protestant

A Response to Frank Beckwith’s, Return to Rome William Webster


The below was prompted by Protestant theologian becoming Catholic on the basis that only Catholicism can validate its claim to have come from Christ and also that Protestantism despite claiming to be all about the Bible is wrong on how one becomes right with God, ie justification and salvation.

But for Webster, " Frank Beckwith is winsome, obviously very bright and seemingly very sincere. But his arguments historically and biblically in support of Rome and which form the basis of his decision to embrace that church are unconvincing. Historically, Beckwith demonstrates a superficial understanding of the church fathers. There are a great many historical facts that he is either ignorant of or has chosen to turn a blind eye to."


 Ignorance can forgiven to some degree because he himself admits that he had no training and very little exposure to the writings of the church fathers. He says he gave only about three months of study to their writings prior to his decision to revert to Rome.....

 Webster refers to Matthew 16:16-19 where Jesus tells Peter he is rock and the Church is built on him and the gates of Hades will never prevail over it.  He tells us how the Church thinks this means Jesus is promising to protect the Church in union with Peter and his successor the Pope from error that can draw a person from God.

The Biblical Argument

From the standpoint of biblical exegesis the Roman Catholic interpretation cannot find support. As Oscar Cullmann has stated:

He who proceeds without prejudice, on the basis of exegesis and only on this basis, cannot seriously conclude that Jesus here had in mind successors of Peter...On exegetical grounds we must say that the passage does not contain a single word concerning successors of Peter...The intent of Jesus leaves us no possibility of understanding Matthew 16:17ff. in the sense of a succession determined by an episcopal see’.

In other words, Jesus is not establishing an ecclesiological structure in this passage. When He states, ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church’, He does not mean that the Church will be built on him personally and then through the bishops of Rome exclusively as his successors. He means that he will build His Church on the faith that Peter confessed that pointed to Jesus in His person and work of salvation as the Christ. Peter can be considered a rock in this sense in a subsidiary sense as a foundation stone of the Church in that the Church is built upon his word or preaching. But ultimately the Church is built upon the person of Jesus Christ as the cornerstone:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11).

Additionally, in Ephesians 2:20 we read:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whome the whole building being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

That term built upon is precisely the same Greek term Jesus used with respect to Peter in Matthew 16:18, ‘upon this rock I will build My Church’. This demonstrates that the Church is not built upon Peter exclusively but upon all the prophets and apostles, that is, upon their teaching and preaching which became inscripturated in the New Testament. Irenaeus, the second century church father, says:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.

How did Irenaeus know what the apostles taught and preached orally? He has a record of it in the written scriptures. What the Scriptures and Irenaeus are telling us is that the Church is built upon the gospel as it is defined in the written word of God:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16).

In Him you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13).

This is how we are to understand the application of the keys in Matthew 16:19. They represent the authority to exercise discipline in the Church and to open or shut the kingdom of God of God to men by proclaiming the gospel and the conditions for receiving forgiveness of sins.
The Historical Argument – Hearing the Ancient Footsteps

Again, the essential truth of Matthew 16:18-19 is that the Church is built upon the truth of the gospel—of the faith confessed by Peter—pointing to the person and work of Jesus. And that is precisely how the church fathers understood this passage. The ‘unanimous consent of the fathers’ actually opposes the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18 and its attendant ecclesiology. Augustine is typical of the fathers as a whole in this interpretation of Mt. 16:18:

Remember, in this man Peter, the rock. He's the one, you see, who on being questioned by the Lord about who the disciples said he was, replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' On hearing this, Jesus said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you...‘You are Peter, Rocky, and on this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of the underworld will not conquer her. To you shall I give the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:15-19). In Peter, Rocky, we see our attention drawn to the rock. Now the apostle Paul says about the former people, ‘They drank from the spiritual rock that was following them; but the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4). So this disciple is called Rocky from the rock, like Christian from Christ...Why have I wanted to make this little introduction? In order to suggest to you that in Peter the Church is to be recognized. Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer.

These comments by Augustine are highly significant. He does state that Peter is the rock. But he goes on to explain what he means by that statement. It does not mean that the Church is built on Peter’s person but on his confession of faith in Jesus Christ. So Peter is a rock in a subsidiary sense by his confession of faith which points to the person and work of Christ. Augustine is the most renowned western theologian of the patristic age and yet he gives an interpretation of the most important passage in all the Bible for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church and her ecclesiology and authority, which is diametrically opposed to the Roman interpretation. How does one explain this? If there truly was, as Vatican I states, a unanimous consensus of patristic interpretation of the Roman meaning of this passage, why do we find Augustine deliberately going against such a consensus? The answer, quite simply, is that there never was such a consensus. It was quite the opposite.

John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.), one of the greatest theologians and exegetes of the Eastern Church has a similar perspective to Augustine in his interpretation of the rock of Matthew 16:18: ‘And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; that is, on the faith of his confession.'

Cyril of Alexandria (died 444 A.D.) states: ‘Now by the word ‘rock’, Jesus indicated I think the immovable faith of the disciple.’The same views are likewise expressed by such major fathers as Ambrose, Cyprian, Origen, Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, Eusebius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Ephraim Syrus, James of Nisbis, Victor of Antioch, Epiphanius, Aphraates, Theodoret, Cassiodorus, Asterius, Basil of Seleucia, Palladius of Helenopolois, Paulinus of Nola, Isidore of Seville, Bede and many others.

Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger taught Church history as a Roman Catholic for 47 years and was one of the greatest and most influential historians in the Roman Church of the 19th century. He sums up the Eastern and Western understanding of Matthew 16 in the patristic period in these comments:

In the first three centuries, St. Irenaeus is the only writer who connects the superiority of the Roman Church with doctrine; but he places this superiority, rightly understood, only in its antiquity, its double apostolical origin, and in the circumstance of the pure tradition being guarded and maintained there through the constant concourse of the faithful from all countries. Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, know nothing of special Papal prerogative, or of any higher or supreme right of deciding in matter of doctrine. In the writings of the Greek doctors, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, the two Gregories, and St. Epiphanius, there is not one word of any prerogatives of the Roman bishop. The most copious of the Greek Fathers, St. Chrysostom, is wholly silent on the subject, and so are the two Cyrils; equally silent are the Latins, Hilary, Pacian, Zeno, Lucifer, Sulpicius, and St. Ambrose.

St. Augustine has written more on the Church, its unity and authority, than all the other Fathers put together. Yet, from all his numerous works, filling ten folios, only one sentence, in one letter, can be quoted, where he says that the principality of the Apostolic Chair has always been in Rome—which could, of course, be said then with equal truth of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Any reader of his Pastoral Letter to the separated Donatists on the Unity of the Church, must find it inexplicable...that in these seventy–five chapters there is not a single word on the necessity of communion with Rome as the centre of unity. He urges all sorts of arguments to show that the Donatists are bound to return to the Church, but of the Papal Chair, as one of them, he says not a word.

 We have a copious literature on the Christian sects and heresies of the first six centuries—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Philastrius, St. Augustine, and, later, Leontius and Timotheus—have left us accounts of them to the number of eighty, but not a single one is reproached with rejecting the Pope’s authority in matters of faith.

All this is intelligible enough, if we look at the patristic interpretation of the words of Christ to St. Peter. Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. xvi.18, John xxi.17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the twelve being together the foundation–stones of the Church (Apoc. xxi.14). The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as—what is obvious to any one at first sight—they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as anything peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing. 
Roman Catholic historian, Yves Congar, readily acknowledges that the early Church fathers are not supportive of the teaching of Vatican I and that a consensus of the fathers is nonexistent regarding its dogmas. Not only that, but as far as the Eastern Church is concerned, there was a positive opposition to the teaching:

The East never accepted the regular jurisdiction of Rome, nor did it submit to the judgment of Western bishops. Its appeals to Rome for help were not connected with a recognition of the principle of Roman jurisdiction but were based on the view that Rome had the same truth, the same good. The East jealously protected its autonomous way of life. Rome intervened to safeguard the observation of legal rules, to maintain the orthodoxy of faith and to ensure communion between the two parts of the church, the Roman see representing and personifying the West...In according Rome a ‘primacy of honour’, the East avoided basing this primacy on the succession and the still living presence of the apostle Peter. A modus vivendi was achieved which lasted, albeit with crises, down to the middle of the eleventh century.

Congar makes clear that the historical facts reveal that the ecclesiology of the Eastern Church, in its practice, was antithetical to that of Rome. He says:

The East never accepted the regular jurisdiction of Rome, nor did it submit to the judgment of Western bishops.

Here we have the consensus of practice. In addition he states that from an exegetical standpoint, the East did not interpret the Petrine passages in conformity with the teaching of Vatican I on papal primacy. He states:

Many of the Eastern Fathers who are rightly acknowledged to be the greatest and most representative and are, moreover, so considered by the universal Church, do not offer us any more evidence of the primacy. Their writings show that they recognized the primacy of the Apostle Peter, that they regarded the See of Rome as the prima sedes playing a major part in the Catholic communion—we are recalling, for example, the writings of St. John Chrysostom and of St. Basil who addressed himself to Rome in the midst of the difficulties of the schism of Antioch—but they provide us with no theological statement on the universal primacy of Rome by divine right. The same can be said of St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Damascene.

It does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16–19. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out an exegesis at the level of their own ecclesiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than juridical.

According to Congar the Eastern Church did not teach papal primacy in their interpretation of Matthew 16. In other words, in both their practice and their exegesis of Scripture, the Eastern Church is not in agreement with Roman Catholic ecclesiology of papal primacy or infallibility. We have a patristic consensus of both practice and interpretation. It is clear from their statements that they do not give an interpretation that is supportive of Vatican I. There is a unanimous consent, but it is a consent that is antithetical to a Roman interpretation and ecclesiology.

Roman Catholic apologists have consistently charged that the Protestant exegesis of Matthew 16 grew out of the Reformers' need to legitimize their opposition to the papacy. Consequently, they invented a novel interpretation that contradicted the traditional view of the church. But the facts actually reveal the opposite...........................


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