Recently, I wrote an article on as many passages from before the schism that I can find interpreting Matt 16:19. In the replies made to me since the publishing of that article, I was forwarded a passage from Origen I missed. In Book XII of his commentary on Matthew, it appeared that he believed every Christian has “the keys.” In this passage, he appears to contradict this teaching!
Brace yourself for a long quote from Origen. It’s from Book XIII of his commentary on Matthew, Chapters 30-31:
If your brother sin against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone…[H]e who distinguishes between the brother and him who is called the brother, might teach that, in the case of the least of the sins of men, he who has not repented after the telling of the fault is to be reckoned as a Gentile and a publican, for sins which are not unto death…This would seem to be very harsh; for I do not think that any one will readily be found who has not been censured thrice for the same form of sin…But the following seems to me to have been overlooked…He no longer applies it in the case of him who has stumbled twice or thrice and been censured; but that which was to be said about him who was censured twice or thrice, corresponding to the saying, You have gained your brother, He has left in the air, so to speak. He is not, therefore, altogether gained, nor will he altogether perish, or he will receive stripes.
And attend carefully to the first passage, If he hear you, you have gained your brother, and to the second passage, which is literally, If he hear you not, take with yourself one or two more, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. What, then, will happen to him who has been censured for the second time, after every word has been established by two or three witnesses…He does not say what he will suffer if he does not hear the church, but He taught that if he refused to hear the church, then he who had thrice admonished, and had not been heard, was to regard him for the future as the Gentile and the publican. Therefore he is not altogether gained, nor will he altogether perish. But what at all he will suffer, who at first did not hear, but required witnesses, or even refused to hear these, but was brought to the church, God knows; for we do not declare it, according to the precept, Judge not that you be not judged…But, with reference to the seeming harshness in the case of those who have committed less sins, one might say that it is not possible for him who has not heard twice in succession to hear the third time, so as, on this account, no longer to be as a Gentile or a publican, or no longer to stand in need of the censure in presence of all the church. For we must bear in mind this…
But to me it seems that, to the case of him who after being thrice admonished was adjudged to be as the Gentile and the publican, it is fitly subjoined, Verily, I say unto you,— namely, to those who have judged any one to be as the Gentile and the publican —and whatever things you shall bind on the earth for with justice has he, who has thrice admonished and not been heard, bound him who is judged to be as a Gentile and a publican; wherefore, when such an one is bound and condemned by one of this character, he remains bound, as no one of those in heaven overturns the judgment of the man who bound him.
In short, Origen is parsing Matt 18 to show how Church discipline works. In short, he teaches that those who are told “twice or thrice” in private and then by two or three people about a wrong doing cannot be sure if God forgave their sins. This is true whether they repented or not. This is a strange exegesis of Matt 18:15 (because the passage says the brother is “won over”), but hey, this is what Origen is saying. Yet, Origen believes that if one is “adjudged to be as the Gentile and the publican” by the Church is certainly condemned. The condemnation is “bound…as no one of those in heaven overturns the judgment of the man [i.e. Bishop] who bound him.”
With this in mind, we can now interpret Origen’s application of the importance of “the keys.”
And, in like manner, he [Peter] who was admonished once for all, and did things worthy of being gained, having been set free by the admonition of the man [Jesus Christ] who gained him…for which he was admonished, shall be adjudged to have been set free by those in heaven. Only, it seems to be indicated that the things, which above were granted to Peter alone, are here given to all who give the three admonitions to all that have sinned; so that, if they be not heard, they will bind on earth him who is judged to be as a Gentile and a publican, as such an one has been bound in heaven.
This, to the reader, is a jarring transition. For one, the first sentence does not even make sense without the brackets as the reader has no idea who is being talked about. The discipline meted out by Jesus Christ, or authority granted by Jesus Christ, to Peter was not even invoked by Origen anywhere in the Book until now. Yet, in his first musings on the subject, Origen identifies both Peter and Jesus in the second person. This is obviously frustrating for the reader. It is possible that a section is missing and scholars admit that Rufinus was paraphrasing Origen and not directly translating him. I am unsure if this passage is preserved by Rufinus.
Nevertheless, Origen states that “it seems to be indicated” that the power to bind and loose, which we just discussed, is given to “Peter alone.” As we shall see, this is because of the “keys” passage. Yet, they are apparently “given to all who give three admonitions to all that have sinned” i.e. the Bishops whose discipline Origen just recognized as certainly binding. Is what “seems to be indicated” actually true? Let’s see what Origen says:
But since it was necessary, even if something in common had been said in the case of Peter and those who had thrice admonished the brethren, that Peter should have some element superior to those who thrice admonished, in the case of Peter, this saying I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, has been specially set before the words, And whatever things you shall bind on earth,etc.
So far, Origen does not answer the question directly. Nevertheless, he says that what Peter “should have some element superior” to the Bishops due to Christ telling him that he has “the keys.” Even still, the words “even if” indicate that Origen is not sure if the Bishops really have “keys.”
And, indeed, if we were to attend carefully to the evangelical writings, we would also find here, and in relation to those things which seem to be common to Peter and those who have thrice admonished the brethren, a great difference and a pre-eminence in the things said to Peter, compared with the second class [i.e. the Bishops].
As we see, Origen remains coy (“which seem to be common to Peter.”) Nevertheless, even if the Bishops have keys, there is “a great difference and pre-eminence in the things said to Peter.” The key word is “said,” as we already know that Origen teaches the Bishops surely bind and loose sins. Rather, Origen’s concern is that Jesus is saying something special about Peter, because “He had judged that Peter was greater than” the other disciples (Chapter 14). It is not clear if this is an honorific or something intrinsic to Peter himself.
For it is no small difference that Peter received the keys not of one heaven but of more, and in order that whatsoever things he binds on the earth may be bound not in one heaven but in them [i.e. multiple heavens] all, as compared with the many who bind on earth and loose on earth [the things in one heaven], so that these things are bound and loosed not in the heavens, as in the case of Peter, but in one [heaven] only; for they do not reach so high a stage, with power as Peter to bind and loose in all the heavens.
This passage is exceedingly strange, though soon we will see Origen’s rationale. Bishops on Earth bind things in the “first” heaven–i.e. the sky. Peter bounds and looses things in the second and third heavens–i.e. the planetary bodies and the abode of God Himself. What exactly this means, we are not sure. Perhaps Origen is speaking of the particular judgement (i.e. the Tollhouses) or he is simply out of his mind as this passage literally contradicts what he said in Book XII of his commentary on Matthew. Nevertheless, he said what he said. Then he concludes:
The better, therefore, is the binder, so much more blessed is he who has been loosed, so that in every part of the heavens his loosing has been accomplished.
In short, Peter is the best binder there is so he looses sins like no other. So ends abruptly a confused explanation of Church discipline by Origen. It certainly does not have any ramifications on Orthodox-Roman Catholic debates on the issue. Nonetheless, it is another source which may be identified as “the ‘keys’ have to do with the authority of Saint Peter,” with the possible exception that Origen allows for Bishops maybe to have them too…they just bind and loose in a qualitatively inferior way.