A few days ago a poster named “Honest John Law” asked me to justify my Protestantism over-against Catholicism. He suggested we focus on one issue, the Petrine succession. Said John:
I am sure you have read the verses, Matthew 16: 13-20, many times. For that matter, so has John Ratzinger. He is well known to be able to read Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Well, do you suppose that you understand the true content of these verses (particularly Matthew 16: 18-19) better than he does? For that matter, belief in apostolic succession dating back to Peter was supported by Hegesippus and Irenaeus et. al. in the 2nd century AD. Should it be believable that church reformers in the 13th and 14th and 15th century AD etc. became more enlightened on this particular matter than their distant predecessors within the Christian faith?
John appears to be presenting an argument here. Perhaps it is like this (I’m focusing on the first Pope-part):
(1) If the Pope knows more than I do about x then I ought to accept what the Pope says about x.
(2) The Pope knows more than I do about x.
(3) Therefore, I ought to accept what the Pope says about x.
I have two responses to this argument.
Response One: More knowledgeable generally doesn’t mean right about x
To begin with, it is possible that a person may have more background knowledge about a topic and yet not be a reliable guide to aspects of that topic. Imagine, for example, that I am interested in going to the new ice cream shoppe in town. So I phone up the food critic for the newspaper and ask him for his opinion.
“Disgusting,” he says icily. And with that he hangs up.
Should I accept his opinion? Maybe. After all, he is more of a “foodie” than I’ll ever be. On the other hand, what if I know that he has certain baggage that prevent him from seriously considering the culinary value of 39 flavors and sugar cones? It could be that he is simply not a reliable guide to the lowly ice cream shoppe.
There is no doubt that the Pope has more knowledge than I do about reading Koine Greek and about the history of biblical interpretation including councils, creeds and canon law. But all that may not translate into a reliable interpretation of Matthew 16, particularly if I have reason to anticipate that this is a passage on which the Pope’s generally reliable interpreation will stumble.
Response Two: Duelling authorities
John has the Pope on his side (assuming that the Pope’s side is John’s side). But there are many exegetes who interpret the passage differently. They don’t believe that the rock on which Jesus will build his church is Peter. On the contrary, they claim it is Peter’s confession, or Jesus himself, or something else. These exegetes are more knowledgeable than me about the text, and many of them are more knowledgeable than Pope Benedict as well (though Pope Benedict is no doubt more knowledgeable on other matters; of course I’m more knowledgeable than Benedict on other matters, including Van Halen’s discography).
So what does one do when there are two authorities, Benedict (who disagrees with me) and another authority (who does agree with me)? It would seem that barring defeaters to the credibility of the latter authority on this matter, his/her testimony would be sufficient to defeat the defeater that Benedict’s testimony would otherwise provide to my beliefs.
I don’t need to know as much as Benedict does about Konie Greek, church history, and the exegesis of Matthew to be justified in believing that he is just wrong in reading the Petrine succession into Matthew 16.