1. The Keys; and the Binding and Loosing

2. Meaning of the Statements

3. How Peter Is Related to These Powers

4. Is the Primary Idea that of Position and Authority?


1. Agent of the Power

2. Nature of the Power

3. Scope of the Power


1. Passages Employing the Terms "Key," "Binding and Loosing"

2. Related Passages

3. Examples of Exercise of This Power


1. Nature of the Power

2. Agent of the Power

3. Scope of the Power

There is no more stubbornly contested conception in Christian terminology. The thought connects itself immediately with Mt 16:19, but it is hardly correct to say that it originates there, for the controversy is one that grows out of the conflict of forces inherent in the institutional development of religion and of society. It must have arisen, in any event, if there had been no such word as that in Mt 16:19, although not in the same terms as it is now found. Since the Reformation it has been recognized, by Catholic and Protestant, that on the interpretation of this passage depends the authority of the Church of Rome and its exclusive claims, so far as their foundation in Scripture is concerned; while on the other hand there is involved the "validity" of the "sacraments," "ordinances" and "orders" of Protestantism and the very hope of salvation of Protestants.

I. The Problems Involved.

1. The Keys; and the Binding and Loosing:

The crucial passage has two declarations, commonly spoken of as promises to Peter: to him Christ will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatsoever he shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, while whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. How are the facts of having committed to him the keys and the function of binding and loosing related? Are they two forms of one declaration? Is the first general, and the second a specific sphere of its application?

Both statements are made in figurative terms. That of the keys is supposed to be drawn from the duties of the chief steward of a house, or establishment. The idea of the keys of a city turned over to some distinguished person is advanced, but is hardly to be considered. We need, then, to know the functions of the chief steward and how they apply to the kingdom of heaven, and to Peter as its steward.

2. Meaning of the Statements:

What was Peter to bind and loose, men or things, persons or teachings? Numerous examples could be cited of the use of these terms to signify forbidding (binding) and permitting (loosing) conduct as legitimate under the law of the Old Testament (Lightfoot, McClintock and Strong, Schaff-Herzog, Hastings, etc.). The strict school of Shammai bound many things loosed by the laxer school of Hillel (Broadus, Matthew). Is this conclusive that Jesus is here giving Peter authority for "laying down the law for his fellow-disciples," "authority to say what the law of God allows, and what it forbids," "the power of legislation for the church"? (Compare Mason in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), IV, 30.)

3. How Peter Is Related to These Powers:

Ecclesiastical contentions turn especially on Peter's relation to these words of Jesus. Do they signify powers and "privileges" conferred on Peter, exclusively or representatively? Are they official or personal? Do they belong to other apostles, and to other officers besides apostles? Can the powers be exercised by individuals or by the church alone? If any besides Peter have these powers, do they pass to them from Peter, and how?

4. Is the Primary Idea That of Position and Authority?:

What seems to the writer a fundamental question here is either passed over very lightly or entirely omitted in the discussions of this subject. Did Jesus mean by these words to confer on Peter, or on anyone to whom they may apply, authority, or obligation; privilege, or responsibility? Does He promise position, or does He impose duty? These alternatives are not necessarily exclusive, but the interpretation of the thought will be determined in no small measure by where the stress is laid.

II. Views Maintained.

1. Agent of the Power:

The possibilities have been exhausted in the interpretations and applications advocated. It is not possible to classify on lines of the creeds, except very generally, for there is little uniformity of view existing within the various communions.

(1) Generally speaking, the Roman Catholic church gives to Peter a unique position. Her theologians also agree that all the powers and privileges of Peter descend to his successors in the vicarate of Christ. When the question is raised of the extension of these prerogatives beyond Peter and the popes, all sorts of views are held, concerning both the fact and the method of that extension.

(2) Among Protestants there is general agreement that the church is the agent of this power, but there is not uniformity as to the nature of the authority or the manner of its exercise.

(3) Some think that Peter has no peculiar relation to the keys; that these words were spoken to him only as the first who gave expression to that conception and experience, on the basis of which Jesus commits the keys of the kingdom to any believer in Him as the Christ of God.

We may summarize the more important views as to Peter thus:

(a) the power committed to him alone and exercised,

(i) at Pentecost, or

(ii) at Pentecost, Caesarea and other places;

(b) the power committed to Peter and to the other apostles, including Paul, discharged by them, and descended to no others;

(c) the power conferred on Peter officially and on his official successors;

(d) the power conferred on Peter and the other apostles and to such as hold their place in the church;

(e) that the power belongs to Peter as representative of the church, and so to the church to be exercised

(i) by the officials of the church,

(ii) by the officials and those to whom they commit it,

(iii) by all priests and persons allowed to represent the church, de facto,

(iv) by the church in its councils, or other formal and official decisions,

(v) by the church in less formal way than (iv),

(vi) by all members the church as representing it without specific commission;

(f) that it belongs to the Christian as such, and so is imposed upon, or offered to, all Christians.

2. Nature of the Power:

There is general--not absolute--agreement that the holder of the keys is to admit men into the kingdom. It is not agreed that the holder of the keys may, or can, determine who are members of the kingdom. Both sides are-taken. Some think that the power is that of announcing authoritatively the conditions of entrance, while others insist that the holder of the keys also determines what individuals have accepted the conditions.

3. Scope of the Power:

(1) There is strong support for the view that the primary function of the keys lies in determining the teaching of the kingdom, maintaining purity of doctrine. Emphasis is laid on the use of the neuter, "whatsoever"--not "whomsoever"--with the binding and loosing. This would lead, however, to the secondary and implied function of declaring who had or had not accepted the teaching of the kingdom.

(2) In the Roman Catholic church we find insistence on distinguishing between the general authority of the keys in all affairs of the church and religion, and the binding and loosing which they specifically apply to absolution. Only on this last are Catholics in full agreement. That the church administers salvation is held by Roman and Greek Catholics and by not a few Protestants, although Protestants do not, as a rule, claim exclusive power in salvation as do the others. Absolution is held to be a general (derived) priestly function, while the authority of the keys resides in the pope alone.

(3) Eminent Catholic authorities admit that the Fathers generally understood the keys to signify the power of forgiving sins, and that they seldom make any reference to the supremacy of Peter. But they claim that rarely the Fathers do take "Christ's promise in the fuller meaning of the gift of authority over the church." Suarez was the first to develop the doctrine that it conferred on Peter and his successors authority in its widest sense, administrative and legislative.

(4) The extension of the authority of the keys to include civil matters is a contention of the Roman church, shared in modified form by some Protestants. Indeed the relation of ecclesiastical to civil authority must be said still to be awaiting clear definition in Protestantism. Macedo (De Clavibus Petri) claims theologians of the church for the civil authority of the keys. Joyce in the Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that he is unable to verify this claim, but, on the contrary, finds that the opponents of the extension of the authority of the church to civil matters use Mt 16:19 in support of their position on the ground that to Peter were committed the keys of the kingdom of heaven, not of the kingdoms of this world.

III. Data for Deciding the Questions Involved.

1. Passages Employing the Terms "Key," "Binding and Loosing":

We must first examine the Scriptures employing the terms we seek to define.

(1) Mt 16:19, the crucial passage, is part of paragraph over which there is no end of controversy. The incident at Caesarea Philippi was understood then and afterward to mark an epoch in the life and teaching of Jesus. Having elicited Peter's confession, Jesus pronounces a benediction on him because his insight represented a Divinely mediated experience of fundamental significance in His own plan and mission. Jesus goes on to say: "And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter ("a stone"), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). The controversy rages about "Peter" (petros) and the "rock" (petra), "gates of Hades," and "prevail against it." Are the church to be built on the rock and the kingdom whose keys are to be given to Peter the same? Such a shifting of figure is not conclusive against the thought. Perhaps the church is the organic form of the kingdom, its personal content and expression on earth at any given time. This church exists wherever men consciously accept and are included in the kingdom. The kingdom will always embrace influences, institutions, individuals, not be reckoned in any organized or visible church. The church has never had--in the nature of the case can never have--one complete organization including all the organized life of the kingdom, or even of the church. Any claims to this are contradicted by facts obvious at every moment of history. The change in figure from Mt 16:18 to 16:19 is not conclusive against supposing the church to be built in him. But it seems far better to understand that Peter is the first stone in the building, while the foundation is that vital experience in which Peter came to know Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. On this is erected the church, out of those living stones (lithoi zontes, 1Pe 2:4) that know and confess Jesus the Christ. The transition is thus easy to giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the reason for giving them to him rather than to any other may be found in the fact that he is now the first so to enter into the kingdom as to be fitted for church functions.

It is not needful to determine, for our purpose, the exact meaning of "gates of Hades" and their not prevailing against the church (compare various commentaries). It is clear that the church is to persist in the life of the world and so the kingdom will not lack organized and aggressive expression. Nor does the relation of binding and loosing depend at all upon the critical question of reading or omitting "and" between the two parts of the verse. The conviction could hardly be escaped that the latter function is intimately related to the former, and is either directly or indirectly involved within it.

(2) The plural "keys," occurs elsewhere only in Re 1:18, where the Christ represents Himself as holding the keys of death and of Hades. The word "Hades" might connect this with Mt 16:19. The immediate occasion for the statement is that He who was dead, is alive; He has not only overcome death in His own person but has conquered it and its realm, so that they can no more have power except as subject to Him, since He holds their keys. Men on earth will either fall under the power of death and Hades or they must enter the kingdom of heaven. If the living Christ has the keys of the kingdom in the hands of Peter, or other friends, and holds the keys of its enemies in His own hands, the work will go on with success. It is not certain that the two passages can properly be so closely connected, but they thus afford just the assurance that is contained for the churches in Revelation.

(3) In Re 3:7 Christ appears in the character, "he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key (singular) of David, he that openeth and none can shut, and that shutteth and none openeth." The idea is not restricted but indicates mastery over all things in the Messianic kingdom, its own operations and all forms of opposition. In the next verse, as a specific instance, He has set before the church at Philadelphia an open door (opportunity and progress) which none can shut. Compare as to this Eph 1:22.

(4) It seems to be taken for granted that Jesus, in Mt 16:19, had direct reference to Isa 22:22, yet the passage is not Messianic except in a general sense and on the assumption that the power of Yahweh over the nations in the Old Testament is wielded by the Christ in the New Testament (see JEHOVAH; LORD). Eliakim is to have absolute power, holding the key of the house of David. The use of the words "open" and "shut," as well as the general conception, connects the passage rather with Re 3:7.

(5) Re 9:1; 20:1 are to be taken together. "The key of the pit of the abyss" in the hands of the angel or angels signifies, in these specific circumstances, the same power as that indicated in 1:18.

(6) In Lu 11:52 Jesus pronounces a woe upon the "lawyers" who had "taken away the key of knowledge" from the people, neither entering in nor allowing those about to go in, to enter. The knowledge of God and Divine things was in the control, in great measure, of these scribes. This connects the figure directly with the idea of Mt 16:19, and the connection is emphasized by comparing Mt 23:2 f; and is made definite by the word of Jesus in Mt 13:52 with which is to be compared Lu 12:42, where it would not be allowable, to suppose that Jesus meant to limit the idea of "the faithful and wise steward" to Peter. This passage with the references seems to be highly important for our subject.

2. Related Passages:

Light is to be drawn from several passages that do not use the exact terms of Mt 16:19, but that deal with the same general ideas.

(1) Mt 18:18 places the responsibility for binding and loosing on all disciples (18:1), and the reason is explained in the assured presence of the Christ Himself in any company of two or three who have come together in prayer touching any matter in His name, i.e. as His representatives. The immediate reference is to matters of discipline in the effort to rescue any "brother" from sin. The passage is to be taken of sin generally, for the reading "against thee" (18:15) is to be rejected, in spite of both revised versions The reference of binding and loosing here to the man is conclusive against limiting the idea in 16:19 to teaching (compare also Lu 17:1 ff). It is also to be noted that the responsibility is placed upon the individual Christian to cooperate with others when necessary.

(2) Mt 9:8 shows that the multitude recognized that God had given power on earth to pronounce forgiveness of sins, and apparently they do not limit this power to the Divine Person, for they do not yet know Him as such.

(3) Jas 5:14 ff recognizes the value of elders, and probably of others also, in securing the forgiveness of them that have sinned.

(4) What one must regard as the proper starting-point for studying this subject is Joh 20:21 ff. Appearing to ten of the apostles and to others on the first night after the resurrection, Jesus says: "As the Father sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever ye retain, they are retained." By comparing this with the corresponding account in Lu 24 we see that Jesus is directing that they shall carry on His work (see also Joh 14:12-14; 15:15,16), that He teaches them at length of the nature of His work as seen in the Old Testament, and that the method of their work is to be preaching repentance and remission of sins in His name among all nations. Significant for our purpose are the presence of others than the apostles, the gift of the Holy Spirit, His own self-projection in His messengers, and the solemn statement that the sins of men will be retained or forgiven as it is done through these followers.

3. Examples of Excercise of This Power:

(1) It is remarkable that there is no distinct reference to this authority of the keys in the records of the work of the apostles and others in the New Testament. Their consciousness seems most of all to have been dominated by the fact that they were witnesses of Jesus, and this corresponds exactly with the point of emphasis in all the various forms and occasions of the giving of the commission (see Ac 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39,41; 13:31; 1Pe 5:1; compare Carver, Missions in the Plan of the Ages). It is said of Paul and Barnabas (Ac 14:27) that after their first missionary journey they rehearsed to the church at Antioch "all things that God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles." At Pentecost and at other times Peter was the chief speaker, and so opened the door of the kingdom. Referring to his preaching to Cornelius and his friends, Peter reminds the saints in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac 15) that God made choice among them, that by his mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of God and believe, but this was said by way of conciliating the Jewish party and not as claiming any priority in authority. It was Philip, the deacon-evangelist, who first preached to the Samaritans (Ac 8), and some "men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus" (Ac 11:20), the first example of "opening a door of faith" to full heathen. Peter appears in the Jerusalem conference with no authority above that of other apostles and elders. By reference to Ga 2 we see that Paul was here only as a matter of prudence and fraternity, not recognizing any authority to legislate for his churches or his ministry. The decision there reached is promulgated as that of the brethren as a body, loosing all the law of Moses save four matters that were "necessary" on account of fundamental morals and of the universal presence of Jews in every city (Ac 15:20 f,28 f). In the sense of teaching Christian conduct all Paul's letters are examples of binding and loosing.

(2) As to binding and loosing sins Peter speaks in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5), Simon Magus (Ac 8), and in deciding upon the baptism of Cornelius and his household (Ac 10:48). Paul speaks with equal boldness in the judgment of Elymas (Ac 13:10), where we are told that he was under the Spirit; passes upon the faith of a dozen men at Ephesus, and requires their new baptism after instruction (Ac 19:3-7); commands the church at Corinth to turn over to Satan the incestuous man (1Co 5:5; compare 1Ti 1:20), and later urges the man's restoration to loving fellowship, declaring that he has been forgiven (2Co 2:5 ). Obscure men like Philip (Ac 8) and Ananias of Damascus in the case of Paul himself (Ac 9) exercised the same sort of judgment as to the forgiveness and reception of men into the fellowship.

IV. Conclusion.

1. Nature of the Power:

We sum up what seems to be the teaching of Scripture. We conclude that the power is not a special privilege and extraordinary authority, but a responsibility entrusted by Jesus Christ as the method of extending His work. There is in it nothing magical, mysterious, or arbitrary; not ecclesiastical or official, but spiritual and primarily personal. The keys of the kingdom of heaven are first of all the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. By this means men are admitted into the kingdom. The fully attested method of using the keys is that of witnessing personally to an experience of Jesus Christ. He was conferring power for saving and not for barring from salvation. Let it be borne in mind always that Jesus was offering Peter not power but duty, not privilege but responsibility. Neither of these terms, "power" and "privilege," that have come to be associated with the gift of the keys occurs with that gift in the words of the Master. The keys are primarily for admitting to the kingdom of heaven, not for barring from the church.

2. Agent of the Power:

The holder of the keys is any man with that experience that called forth from Jesus the assurance that Peter should have the keys. Such a man will be in fellowship and cooperation with like men, in a church, and the Spirit of Jesus will be present in them, so that their decisions and their testimony will be His as well as theirs. There is a corporate, or church, agency, therefore, and the man who would ignore that lacks the experience or the Spirit needful for the use of the keys. Yet the church is never to overshadow or exclude the individual responsibility and authority.

3. Scope of the Power:

It is to be understood that the keys of the kingdom of heaven confer no political authority or power, save that of holy and redemptive influence. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world. Its power is spiritual and is to be exercised always primarily in the saving of men. Men do not need to be locked out of the kingdom. They are out, and too contented to remain so. It does happen that evil men seek to take possession of the kingdom for evil ends, and then it is that the authority rests in spiritual men to exclude. Men that are to be brought into the kingdom of heaven are now in sin, and where the duty of releasing them is not discharged by Christians, the sinners are left bound in their sins.

There is also involved of necessity the duty of declaring not only the conditions of entrance into the kingdom, but the courses of conduct appropriate to the kingdom. It is thus that binding and loosing in teaching devolve upon the holders of the keys. To that extent, and in that sense, alone, is there the power of "legislating" within the kingdom. This is only interpreting and applying the principles that are given us in the Scriptures.


William Owen Carver

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