Papal Supremacy Series: Rome’s False Hermeneutic of the Keys
Defenders of papal supremacy and the Solus Petrus hermeneutic often point to Jesus giving Peter the keys. However, the text of Scripture shows that Peter isn't given the keys separately from the other apostles.
In the last post, it was shown that not Peter Alone (Solus Petrus) received the keys from Jesus but all of the apostles. However, it is important to revisit this Roman claim. In response to bishops who refuse communion with Rome, many Roman Catholics will argue that communion with Rome is required, because only Rome has the keys. Let us examine this claim more closely.
The Roman Position
Reflecting on Matthew 16:19, the Roman Church today rejects that all of the apostles received the keys directly from Jesus Christ. Instead, the keys are given directly, primarily, and in an exclusive manner to Peter Alone (Solus Petrus). For example, Vatican Council II teaches,
It was Simon alone whom the Lord appointed as the rock and the key-bearer of the Church (cf. Mt 16:8-19).
Lumen Gentium, par. 22
So, all ecclesial authority that exists must find its source in St. Peter, which can only be found today in the Bishop of Rome. To explain the role of the other bishops, Vatican Council II teaches that
It is clear that this office biding and loosing, given to Peter (Mt 16:19), was given also to the college of apostles in conjunction with its head (Mt 18:18; 28:16-20).
Lumen Gentium, par. 22
So, while bishops, as successors of the apostles, have authority from Jesus Christ, and they form the college of bishops, it is always in reference to, in connexion with, and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This is grounded in the belief that a unique authority was given to St. Peter by Jesus Christ, especially as the sole ‘key-bearer of the Church,’ with which all other bishops need communion to bind and loose (the relationship between the Pope, the bishops, and the keys is discussed more in-depth in The Pope as Head and Member). However, is this what Matthew 16 actually says? Is this really derived from the text of Scripture? As we will see, it is a misunderstanding of Scripture.
The primary Scriptural event and justification for this supreme papal power comes from Matthew 16:19. We should pay special attention to it here, because it is often misremembered.
I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 16:19 (ASV)
Take note that this giving of the keys and, therefore, the authority to bind and loose is a promise in the future tense. That is, Jesus does not actually give the keys to St. Peter here. While it is common to think of the giving of the keys in the present tense (especially due to some misleading art), that is not what the text itself says (here we see the supreme importance of deriving one's theology from the text itself). So, if Jesus will give the keys to Peter, when does that happen? There are two options: Matthew 18 or John 20.
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Here, we see similar language to Matthew 16:19 with two notable changes: it is not in the future tense, and it is addressed to all of the apostles! This is said to all of the apostles right after instructing them on how to exercise church discipline. Even though Matthew 18 does not use the word ‘keys,’ we can be sure that keys are being given. This is made clear if we ask: is there another way to bind and loose without the keys? It is clear from the Scripture that binding and loosing is an effect caused by having the keys. So, Jesus, by clearly giving them the effect, must also be giving the cause. They all receive the keys to be able to shepherd the church together, as Jesus tells them:
Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven.
Here, we see that the use of the keys is not envisioned as a prerogative or possession of Peter Alone (Solus Petrus). Instead, while he is important, a spokesman of the apostles, and even the first of the apostles, every other apostle has the same keys as he does. This is made clearer in John 20.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
If the keys are not given in Matthew 18, the apostles most certainly have them in John 20. In fact, this is the creation of the apostles (those who are sent) who continue the mission of Jesus Christ. Similar to Matthew 18, the emphasis is reconciliation and unity, here specifically seen in the forgiveness of sins. No distinction is made here of Peter. Instead, Jesus breathes upon all of the apostles (except Thomas who is absent).
This does not denigrate Peter. Instead, it maintains and shows his equality (Primus Petrus not Solus Petrus). St. Cyprian of Carthage understood this balance well. While reflecting on these sections of Scripture, he writes,
[St. Cyprian quotes Matthew 16:18-9] Upon him, being one, He builds His Church, and although after His resurrection He bestows equal power upon all the Apostles, and says: 'As the Father has sent me, I also send you. Receive ye the Holy Spirit: if you forgive the sins of anyone, they will be forgiven him; if you retain the sins of anyone, they will be retained,' yet that He might display unity, He established by His authority the origin of the same unity as beginning from one. Surely the rest of the Apostles also were that which Peter was, endowed with an equal partnership of office and of power, but the beginning proceeds from unity, that the Church of Christ may be shown to be one.
Unity of the Church, chapter 4
St. Cyprian recognises that Peter does not have an higher office than the rest of the apostles, yet that does not take away from his unique role as the first and spokesman of the apostles.
Each of the apostles received the keys and authority from Jesus Christ. Here we see the confusion of the Roman Church. It is assumed that because it is first promised to St. Peter that St. Peter exclusively and uniquely receives the keys over the other apostles. Instead, the Scriptural and patristic view (more patristic evidence is given in the last post) is that the same keys are given directly and equally by Jesus Christ to every one of the apostles.
It is this equal authority that all bishops, successors of the apostles, carry. St. Peter, who never assumed such supreme prerogatives, did not take away the keys from the other apostles in order to secure his place as the first. Jesus never imagined it, as the text of Scripture shows. Instead, over time, Peter being first was accommodated, added upon, and bolstered by much later popes until Matthew 16 became synonymous with Solus Petrus theology. However, it is clear, that is an extra-biblical belief, derived neither from the text of Scripture nor from the early Church.