Many Roman Catholic apologists Biblically prove out the papacy predicated upon three key texts: Is 22:22, Matt 16:19, and Rev 3:7. In short, the idea is, the apostles can only bind and loose sins using “keys” entrusted by God solely to Peter. By logical extension, these keys have been passed from Peter only to Petrine successors in the city of Rome–not Antioch or Alexandria.
In reality, these apologists are not being “too hardcore” in making such claims, as the CCC explicitly states the same idea:
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 [cf. Matt 18:18] and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom (CCC, 553).
Granted, the CCC is not infallible and has recently reversed itself on the death penalty. Nevertheless, the interpretation is not irrational and nowhere do the Scriptures explicitly say the other apostles (or their successors) have “keys,” though they likewise “bind and loose” sins.
Instead of “refuting” the interpretation, I offer here every pre-schism interpretation of the issue of “keys” that I can find in the resources at my disposal, these being:
- Oden’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
- Aquinas Study Bible (which includes writers from the middle ages)
- New Advent’s collection of the church fathers
Note that these sources are not compiled by Orthodox scholars.
In short, my conclusion is, nowhere before the schism can it be found that Peter alone was specifically entrusted with the “keys.” Granted, my study is not definitive. Roman Catholic apologists may dig up a passage where a father says a Pope or Peter has “keys,” as I found a few passages to this effect. However, this still does not prove that either alone had said “keys.”
Some Roman Catholics, like Scott Hahn, may respond that the Scriptures are “clear” on the issue of Peter alone having the “keys.” However, how can such an interpretation be as clear as they claim if I am correct in saying that no one before the schism ever communicated the view or at the very least it was the view of a tiny minority? Clearly, we are not alone in the woods interpreting the Scriptures, for this would be an error that Roman Catholics would ascribe to their schismatic Protestant brethren. The interpretations of the fathers mean something.
Others may respond with some sort of nuanced interpretation of the CCC, saying that the other Bishops have keys, but they have them through the Bishop of Rome. It seems to ignore the plain words of the catechism that “Peter [is] the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom“ Any normal interpretation of this term would lead one to view that someone specifically entrusted with a given thing has it exclusively.
Nevertheless, such a view is not illegitimate as Rabanus Maurus (9th century) and Saint Optatus of Milevis (fourth century) share a similar view view. Both of their views are explained in more detail in a follow-up addendum to this article.
Without farther ado, here are views on the significance of the “keys” from before the schism:
The “keys” pertain to interpretative authority:
Origen in Book V, Chapter 4 of his commentary on Revelation and Book II, Chapter 4 of his commentary on the Gospel of John implies that “the key of David” pertains to the interpreting of Scriptures. This is an interpretation that the fathers all appear to share about “the key of David” specifically, other than Saint Irenaeus who simply states that the “key of David” was entrusted from the Father to the Son for judgement (A.H., Book IV, Chap 20, Par 2).
Saint Jerome (Letter 58, Par. 9) appears to see the keys not only in a sense akin to Origen, but also representative of interpretative religious authority. This is an interpretation somewhat analogous to Matthew Henry, who believed the keys were the power to preach the Gospel. We see both views fleshed out in the following sources:
John says in the Apocalypse: ‘he who has the key of David, he who opens and no one shuts, and who shuts and no one opens.’ This is the key held in the Law by the scribes and Pharisees who the Lord warns in the Gospel: ‘Woe to you lawyers! who hold the key of the kingdom of heaven’ (Luke 11:52). O you Pharisees, who hold the keys to the kingdom and do not believe in Christ who is the gate of the kingdom and the door, to you, indeed, the promise is made, but to us it is granted.” (Homily 66).
[T]here are today who fancy themselves learned, yet the Scriptures are a sealed book to them, and one which they cannot open unless through Him who has the key of David, “he that openeth and no man shutteth; and shutteth and no man openeth.” In the Acts of the Apostles the holy eunuch (or rather “man” for so the scripture calls him) when reading Isaiah he is asked by Philip “Understandest thou what thou readest?”, makes answer:–“How can I except some man should guide me” (Letter 53)?
Saint Augustine, in passing, interprets the “keys” as such in one passage:
The Scribes then were they who professed the knowledge of the Law, and to them belonged both the keeping and the studying, as well as also the transcribing and the expounding, of the books of the Law. Such were they whom our Lord Jesus Christ rebukes, because they have the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Sermon 24, Par 1-2).
Saint Andrew of Caesarea has a similar interpretation:
His kingdom is called the key of David, for it is the symbol of authority. The key is also the Holy Spirit, (the key) of both the book of Psalms and every prophecy, through which the treasures of knowledge are opened (St Andrew of Caesarea quoted in a Catena).
This interpretation still existed in the West post-schism as Nichola of Lyra, a 14th century French exegete, also invokes it:
‘he that hath the key of David’ That is, the power to open the understanding of the Scriptures (Nicholas of Lyra quoted in a Catena on Revelation).
The discussion on the “key of David” may seem to be a non-sequitur of sorts, but the reason why it is relevant because modern Roman Catholic apologists have made a connection between it and “the keys–“a connection I cannot find throughout Church history. Here is an example by Scott Hahn, a modern Roman Catholic apologist, making the said connection. The tone that his interpretation is self-evident is suggested by his appeal to Protestants:
That [key] symbolized dynastic authority entrusted to the Prime Minister and dynastic succession. Why? Because it’s the key of David; it’s the House of David…Albright, a Protestant, non- Catholic insists that it’s undoubtable that Jesus is citing Isaiah 22, “The keys are the symbol of authority and DeVoe rightly sees here the same authority as that vested in the vicar, the master of the house, the chamberlain of the royal household of ancient Israel.” In other words, the Prime Minister’s office. Other Protestant scholars admit it too, that when Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom, Peter is receiving the Prime Minister’s office, which means dynastic authority from the Son of David, Jesus, the King of Israel, but also an office where there will be dynastic succession.
In response, I assert that if Hahn’s interpretation were both true and necessary, someone in Church history would have came upon with it first.
The “keys” pertain to authority extending beyond Peter specifically:
Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise,
I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, be common to the others, how shall not all the things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them? For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only,
Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, but in the Gospel of John the Saviour having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, Receive the Holy Spirit. Many then will say to the Saviour, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God…And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was (Origen on Matt 16:19).
“I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”…that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity (Saint Cyprian, Treatise 1, Chap 4).
For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence, this man comes forward to us now (Chrysostom, Homily 1 on Gospel of John).
For as some things are said which seem peculiarly to apply to the Apostle Peter, and yet are not clear in their meaning, unless when referred to the Church, whom he is acknowledged to have figuratively represented, on account of the primacy which he bore among the Disciples; as it is written,
I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and other passages of the like purport (Saint Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 109, Par 1).
For if in Peter’s case there were no sacramental symbol of the Church, the Lord would not have said to him,
I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. If this was said only to Peter, it gives no ground of action to the Church. But if such is the case also in the Church, that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven, — for when the Church excommunicates, the excommunicated person is bound in heaven; when one is reconciled by the Church, the person so reconciled is loosed in heaven: — if such, then, is the case in the Church, Peter, in receiving the keys, represented the holy Church (Saint Augustine, Tracate 50 on the Gospel of John, Par 12).
The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church (Saint Augustine, Tracate 124 on the Gospel of John, Par 5).
On “this stone” [petra], is on that which thou sayest: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” it is on this thy confession I build My Church. Wherefore the “thou art Peter”: it is from the “stone” [petra] that Peter [Petrus] is, and not from Peter [Petrus] that the “stone” [petra] is, just as the Christian is from Christ, and not Christ from the Christian…Therefore it was not one man, but rather the One Universal Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loosen.” And that it was actually the Church that received this right, and not exclusively a single person (Sermon on Saints Peter and Paul, Paragraphs 1 and 2).
“I have the keys of death and hell.” For He says this because he who believes and is baptized is freed from death and hell; and because the same Church, as it has the keys of life, also has those of hell. For it is said, “Whose sins you absolve, they are absolved, and whose sins you retain, they are retained” (St. Caesarius of Arles quoted in a Catena on Revelation).
Not only, He saith, have I conquered death by resurrection, but I have dominion also over death itself. And this He also bestowed upon the Church by breathing upon it the Holy Spirit, saying, “Whose sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them” and the rest (Saint Bede quoted in a Catena on Revelation).
Saint Beatus if Liebana, a monk in Spain during the 8th century whose commentaries were of great importance during the middle ages, asserted that all “those who rise again with Christ” have the “keys:”
Therefore, He gives the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to those who rise again with Christ through penitence, as He says: ‘“Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (St. Beatus of Liébana quoted in a Catena on Revelation).
The “keys” pertain to authority entrusted to all Bishops:
Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honour of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter:
I say unto you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers (Saint Cyprian, Epistle 26, Par 1).
Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ (Saint Jerome, Letter 14, Par 8).
And how has He set over us so many to reprove; and not only to reprove, but also to punish? For him that hearkens to none of these, He has commanded to be judge, they will be without authority in any matter, and in vain have they received the power to bind and to loose (Saint Chrysostom, Homily 12 on the Gospel of John).
By “keys” understand that which binds or looses transgressions, namely, penance or absolution; for those who, like Peter, have been deemed worthy of the grace of the episcopate, have the authority to absolve or to bind. Even though the words “I will give unto thee” were spoken to Peter alone, yet they were given to all the apostles. Why? Because He said, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted.” Also, the words “I will give” indicate a future time, namely, after the Resurrection (Saint Theophylact quoted in a Catena on Matthew).
Rabanus Maurus, a ninth century Frankish monk likewise states that all the Apostles have the “keys.” However, he appears to be the only theologian of note to explicitly make the connection that Peter had the keys “in a special manner” which makes all the world’s bishops contingent upon the Bishop of Rome. Nevertheless, we lack any indication that his view was any different than Cyprian, who viewed the giving the keys to Peter as a symbol of unity, not a metaphysical contingency for communion in the Church:
But this power of binding and loosing, though it seems given by the Lord to Peter alone, is indeed given also to the other Apostles, and is even now in the Bishops and Presbyters in every Church. But Peter received in a special manner the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and a supremacy of judicial power, that all the faithful throughout the world might understand that all who in any manner separate themselves from the unity of the faith, or from communion with him, such should neither be able to be loosed from the bonds of sin, nor to enter the gate of the heavenly kingdom (Rabanus Maurus on Matt 16:19).
We also have a passage from Tertullian who, when arguing in favor of a doctrine of the “invisible Church,” reveals that contemporaries believed the “keys” belonged to the churches and their respective Bishops:
If, because the Lord has said to Peter,
Upon this rock will I build My Church,
to you have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom; or,
Whatsoever you shall have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens, you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord conferring this personally upon Peter?…it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondently appertain, either to an apostle or else to a prophet. For the very Church itself is, properly and principally, the Spirit Himself…And thus, from that time forward, every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted
a Church, from the Author and Consecrator (of the Church). And accordingly
the Church, it is true, will forgive sins: but (it will be) the Church of the Spirit, by means of a spiritual man; not the Church which consists of a number of bishops. For the right and arbitrament is the Lord’s, not the servant’s; God’s Himself, not the priest’s (On Modesty, Chap 21).
It should be pointed out that the churches, apparently, received these keys originally from Peter.
[T]he Lord left here to Peter and through him to the Church, the keys of it, which every one who has been here put to the question, and also made confession, will carry with him (Tertullian, Scorpiace, Chap 10).
Note that having keys is not predicated upon continued communion with Rome specifically.
The “keys” have to do with the authority of Saint Peter:
[Pseudo?] Hippolytus mentions the issue in passing:
First of all Peter, the rock of the faith, whom Christ our God called blessed, the teacher of the Church, the first disciple, he who has the keys of the kingdom, has instructed us to this effect (On the End of the World, Par 10).
Saint Cyprian, likewise, mentions the issue in passing though we know from his other work he did not view the power of the keys as peculiar to Peter or his successors:
Shall he come to the heretics, where there is no fountain and river of living water at all; or to the Church which is one, and is founded upon one [Peter] who has received the keys of it by the Lord’s voice (Letter 72, Par 11)?
Saint Chrysostom in two passages invokes Peter as having the keys, though we know from other passages he did not hold a view that Christ gave the keys solely to Peter:
…to a mortal man [Peter] He entrusted the authority over all things in Heaven, giving him the keys; who extended the church to every part of the world, and declared it to be stronger than heaven (Homily 54 on Matthew).
[T]he keys of heaven were committed to him [Peter] (Homily 2 of Galatians).
Saint Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, though certainly contemplating the virtue of his own office, speaks of the “keys” being given to Peter without saying this was exclusive to him:
In them, through the Lord’s breathing upon them, the Holy Ghost is poured upon all the Apostles, and to the blessed Apostle Peter beyond the rest the care of the Lord’s flock is entrusted, in addition to the keys of the kingdom (Letter 73, Par 2).
The above passage is interesting because it implies that the Apostles, as they are endowed by the Spirit and care for the flock, likewise have the keys. Nevertheless, this is not explicit.
Oecumenius was a Greek Bishop in the 10th century who wrote several commentaries. In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, he makes the following comment, he simply states that keys pertain to authority and to Peter specifically:
He calls authority a key. For he who has been entrusted with the key of the house has been entrusted with the authority to open and shut. And he more clearly stated this in the gospels in the promises to Peter (Oecumenius quoted in a Catena on Revelation).
The “keys” have to do with the Church of Rome:
The preceding section, though it included exegesis that identified Peter as having the keys, did not spell out that Peter was given some sort of peculiar, special authority via said “keys.” Neither did they say the Church of Rome had the “keys.”
In this section, we include passages which explicitly state that the Bishop of Rome has “keys.” Nevertheless, none of the passages pre-schism explicitly spell out that the Church of Rome has the “keys” in some peculiar, special way setting them apart from other churches:
Saint Gregory the Great speaks of his see having the keys as a sort of honorific:
I ought perhaps to have requested that your Tranquillity should hold as especially commended to you the Church of the blessed apostle Peter…For the more you fear the Creator of all, the more fully may you love the Church of him to whom it was said, You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and to whom it is said, To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Book 13, Letter 39).
Elsewhere, he writes that by virtue of Saint Peter being given the “keys,” Rome as well as Antioch and Alexandria had said keys:
And to him it is said by the voice of the Truth, To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And again it is said to him, And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren. And once more, Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me? Feed my sheep. Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to the principality itself the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority, which in three places is the See of one…Since then it is the See of one, and one See, over which by Divine authority three bishops now preside, whatever good I hear of you, this I impute to myself (Book 7, Letter 40).
The False Decretals, a collection of texts invented in the ninth century to justify Papal Supremacy, also make a reference to the Bishop of Rome having said keys:
[T]hose who hold this [Donatist] opinion are not only in error, but also seem to dispute and act in opposition to the power of the keys committed to the Church [of Rome], whereof it is said:
Whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven… Far be it from me that I should say anything unfavourable of those who are the successors to the apostolic status [i.e. a reference to Rome], and make the body of Christ with their sacred mouth; by whose instrumentality we too are Christians, and who have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and exercise judgment before the day of judgment.
The preceding, makes no claim beyond that of Rome having “keys.” It does not set Rome apart in this regard from other churches, even though the document is thoroughly Papalist.
After the schism, Anselm of Canterbury was the first writer I can find to explicitly espouse the modern Roman Catholic view as stated in the catechism. Even then, the actual word “keys” is not explicitly stated:
This power was committed specially to Peter, that we might thereby be invited to unity. For He therefore appointed him the head of the Apostles, that the Church might have one principal Vicar of Christ, to whom the different members of the Church should have recourse, if ever they should have dissensions among them. But if there were many heads in the Church, the bond of unity would be broken. Some say that the words “upon earth” denote that power was not given to men to bind and loose the dead… (Anselm on Matt 16:19).
Conclusion. Perhaps someone can find an ancient Pope or saint who otherwise states that the Bishop of Rome alone has “the keys.” Please put it forward. I just cannot find it. While there are some passages that impartially observe that Peter had “keys” and Rome herself has “keys,” these hardly stated that they were “only…specifically entrusted” to Peter or Rome.
Until later centuries, even pro-Papal interpreters appeared to soft ball the issue. Pope Gregory the Great appears to employ the exegesis as an honorific with no hint of exclusivity. The False Decretals only obliquely mention the idea and do not speak of any exclusivity. Rabanus Maurus out of exegetical necessity admits all Bishops have “keys,” but at the very least offers a rationale that can make the “keys” something that makes all the Bishops contingent upon Rome, though he does not explicitly communicate this. So, we must conclude, it was not until Anselm, writing at a time after the traditional date of the schism, that we get our first mention of the teaching which the CCC commends us to believe is the proper understanding of the Scriptures.
If the interpretation given by the CCC and modern Roman apologists was so central to Christian dogma, why did their interpretation not exist for about 1,000 years? Why was there such reticence to clearly state that the Pope had the keys in some special or exclusive way, that even Anselm in the 11th century was guarded in that he did not even quote the word “keys” when exegeting the passage? Why is it we have so many alternate explanations expounded upon so clearly, but the exclusivist Papal view is non-existent?
From this, I conclude the following–there is not a single exegete before the schism, who presents what the CCC in the passage quoted above states. We concede that the pre-schism Church did have some who espoused what be loosely construed as valid interpretation of the CCC passage.
While we may be confident that the “keys” pertain to interpretative and ecclesial authority, it appears this authority was shared from everyone from the Pharisees to Apostles to Bishops–not Rome alone. There are two writers (by my count) in the early Church who assert that the keys given to these Bishops are contingent upon Rome giving it to them. Obviously, when we compare this to the above, this is a minority view and certainly not the earliest explained view which we know from Tertullian is that the “keys” belong to all the churches.
Please note that Erick Ybarra has a rebuttal of this article written which I am at present reviewing. For the sake of balance, I enjoin all readers to consult both articles. I have written a response to Ybarra.