Matthew 16 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NIV)
To understand Jesus’ words, we must deal with the elephant in the room, the superstructure Catholics have built on them. These verses are central to Catholicism. Visit Capernaum today and you’ll see a larger-than-life statue of Peter with the keys (above). Visit the Vatican, and it’s a crucial image in the Sistine Chapel.
The Catechism is what Catholics teach those joining the faith. Under the heading “The keys of the kingdom” is an introductory paragraph and the two quoted at the end of this article. The focus is:
- the authority of the papacy (§552)
- the Church’s power to forgive sins (§553).
The argument for the papacy could be set out like this:
- Jesus put Peter in charge of the church by giving him the keys to the kingdom.
- Peter went to Rome, so the Bishop of Rome was now in charge of the whole church.
- When Peter died, his authority passed to the next Bishop of Rome.
- This process continues in each generation (papal succession).
- The Bishop of Rome is therefore the head of the whole church (pope).
The argument for the Church’s power to forgive sins builds on this:
- The keys to the kingdom of heaven implies the power to let people into heaven and to lock them out.
- Binding and loosing implies the power to retain / absolve people’s sins.
- No one can go to heaven without their sins absolved.
- Only the pope (along with the Church under his authority) has the power to let people into heaven.
- Only Catholics (those who have had their sins absolved by the Roman Catholic Church) can go to heaven.
Many (most?) Catholics today would not agree with the final statement. Nevertheless, traditional Catholic teaching is that he cannot have God as Father who does not have Church as Mother.
When you set out the argument in the steps above, it becomes clear that the conclusions are not logical deductions from the text. Many additional assumptions must be introduced to arrive at those conclusions. For example, the first argument requires assumptions about the nature of the authority Jesus gave Peter, and that this authority was transferrable to Peter’s successors. The argument is circular: you don’t arrive at Catholic dogma without introducing Catholic dogma into the argument.
In the same way, the text says nothing about confession, penance, and receiving absolution from a Catholic priest as the path to heaven. Those assumptions must be introduced from Catholic dogma to arrive at the conclusion that the text underpins Catholic dogma.
In our postmodern world, we’re used to deconstructing power narratives. But what we’re saying here isn’t new: reformers have been confronting both of Rome’s arguments for 500 years. Luther insisted people are justified by faith in God, not by performing works of penance assigned by the church. Calvin deeply mistrusted human power (including the primacy of the pope), refocusing on the sovereignty of God.
The words uttered by Jesus say nothing about papal power or the church being the judge of sinners. Non-Catholics today resist papal power claims, but frequently still make judgements about who are the saved and who are the lost. Perhaps we have more reforming to do.
Now we’ve cleared away the superstructure people have built on this text, we are free to consider what Jesus was saying.
For the first time, someone had recognized him as the king appointed by God (the Christ), the elect heir with authority to restore heaven’s reign on earth (Son of the living God). How did Jesus respond to the person who first made this declaration openly? What does that mean for all of us? We’ll explore that in our next post.
Open Matthew 16:18-19.
What others are saying
W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. ICC. (New York: T&T Clark, 2004) 2:623:
This verse is among the most controversial in all of Scripture. The literature it has generated is immense, and not a little of it rather polemical.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 141-142. Emphasis added:
552 Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ, the “living stone,” thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakeable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it. (880; 153, 442; 424)
553 Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “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.” The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep.” The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom. (881; 1445; 641, 881)
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4:1105 – 1106:
Institutes IV, vi, 4. Since heaven is opened to us by the doctrine of the gospel, the word “keys” affords an appropriate metaphor. Now men are bound and loosed in no other way than when faith reconciles some to God, while their own unbelief constrains others the more. If the pope took only this to himself, I think there would be no one either to envy him or to start a quarrel. …
What if I reply with Cyprian and Augustine, that Christ did not do it to prefer one man to the others, but that he might so commend unity to the church? For so speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power; but the beginning arose from unity that the church of Christ may be shown to be one.” Augustine says: “… After all had been asked, only Peter answers, ‘Thou art Christ,’ and it is said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys,’ as if he alone received the power of binding and loosing; since, being one, he said the former for all and received the latter with all, impersonating unity itself. Hence, one for all, because the unity is in all.”