Saturday, September 12, 2009

Peter's throne and Moses' seat

“Furthermore, the power to bind and loose refers to a power of jurisdiction in ancient Israel which only the King can override. These are also rabbinic terms which describe the legislative and judicial authority of the office of rabbi. They could literally bind men to their teaching with authority from God. Christ Himself said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice’ (Mt 23:2-3). Thus, just as Moses had an authoritative office, so Christ assigned a similar office to Peter.”

There are several problems with this appeal to Mt 23:2-3, but for now I’ll focus on just one of them.

Unlike the Levitical priesthood, the Pharisees were not lineal successors to Moses (or Aaron). You didn’t need to be a priest to be a Pharisee. Indeed, many or most of the Pharisees were layman.

Same thing with the scribes. You didn’t need to be a priest to be a scribe. A layman could be a scribe.

Ironically, then, our Catholic epologist is unwittingly ascribing an authoritative teaching office to mere laymen.

If anything, this passage is a prooftext for the right of private judgment. Not in the sense that every individual is equally competent to expound the Scriptures. But some men are competent to expound the Scriptures. And when it singles out two group of able teachers, it doesn’t draw the line between the laity and the clergy. That’s not what distinguishes a fit teacher from an unfit teacher. Indeed, the text implicitly attributes teaching ability to a class of men, many or most of whom were laymen.

This text is a prooftext for a low-church ecclesiology, not a high-church ecclesiology.


  1. Steve,

    I'm curious what you think binding and loosing does, in fact, refer to. What was Jesus conveying to the twelve when He told them this?

  2. Steve -- couple of other thoughts about this:

    It is more likely that Jesus is saying "insofar as" they teach "the law"... -- but only as they do it. "This interpretation is more consonant with Matthew's concern to affirm Jesus' loyalty to the righteousness of Torah," Hagner says.

    Furthermore, Jesus has on several occasions in Matthew distanced himself markedly from the teaching of the Pharisees and at one point actually warned his disciples to "beware the leaven" (i.e., "the teaching") of the Pharisees.

    By verse 16, he is saying to them, "You say..." and then he explicitly rejects what they say. So if Catholics want to be consistent with Matt 23 as a proof-text, they ought to accept the legitimacy of rejecting the "office".

  3. Mathetes, here is one Catholic interpretation of "binding and loosing":

    In this same sense He says: "Whatsoever thou shall bind upon earth it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in Heaven." This metaphorical expression of binding and loosing indicates the power of making laws, of judging and of punishing; and the power is said to be of such amplitude and force that God will ratify whatever is decreed by it. Thus it is supreme and absolutely independent, so that, having no other power on earth as its superior, it embraces the whole Church and all things committed to the Church.

    From the Leo XIII encyclical Satis Cognitum.

  4. John,

    I agree with Nolland's interpretation of the verse.

  5. What does Nolland say? And, are we "binding and loosing" or are we talking about Moses's seat?


    "I'm curious what you think binding and loosing does, in fact, refer to. What was Jesus conveying to the twelve when He told them this?"

    France and Nolland construe the phrase as a metaphor for church discipline.