Papal Supremacy Series: BUT THE KEYS!

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.

Matthew 16

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.

And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

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.

Matthew 18

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.

Matthew 18:18

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.

Matthew 18:19

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.

John 20

He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.

John 20:21-3

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.

Equal Keys

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.


14 thoughts on “Papal Supremacy Series: BUT THE KEYS!

  1. I charitably disagree. Numerous recent Protestant biblical commentaries (I can quote 10 – others could be quoted) point out that the “keys” in Mt. 16:19 signifies an office for one person – the prime minister – as mentioned in Isaiah 22:22. I wrote a few articles on this here:

    This article provides the complete quotes from the commentaries I cited:

    Peter alone has the keys, for only he can function as the prime minister amidst the other ministers within the new Davidic kingdom. The other ministers can function with Peter’s use of the keys at an ecumenical council that binds and looses with him (Mt. 18) but they were not singularly given the full power of the office of prime minister (Mt. 16).


    1. I guess I would be skeptical of modern scholars departing from the Church Fathers on the meaning of Scripture. Not to infalliblise every Church Father, of course. However, I’m not sure your argument logically follows, even if the keys are a throwback to Isaiah. Just because David gave the keys to one man does not mean that the keys of heaven cannot be given to more than one man. Remember that an essential rule to the spiritual sense is that it always has to be grounded in the literal sense, lest we go crazy with typology (certainly, that was just the issue with the more fanatic of the Fathers and even some scholars today). What in the literal sense of Scripture necessarily excludes all of the apostles receiving the keys of the kingdom?


      1. Scholars who spend their lives studying the Bible say that Jesus is literally referencing Isaiah 22:22, which refers to an office for one individual. Jesus is reestablishing the Davidic kingdom, is He not (Luke 1:32)? If there was only one prime minister in David’s time, then the same is the case for the new David. That is the literal sense of the text. The Anchor Bible commentary even says that it is “undoubtable” that Jesus is referencing Isaiah 22.

        Jesus is not speaking to all of the apostles in Matthew 16. He does not use the plural in Matthew 16, but consistently uses the singular. Blessed are “you” Simon…flesh and blood has not revealed this to “you”.. and I tell “you,” “You” are Peter…I will give “you” the keys…whatever “you” bind…whatever “you” loose…

        This is the exact argument that Cardinal Cajetan made to Martin Luther.

        Many early Christians understood the keys to have only been given to Peter, just as modern scholars say. These modern scholars are not in the slightest biased for Catholicism, for they are not Catholic.


      2. I find that modern scholars don’t grasp the distinction between the literal and spiritual senses. St. Thomas defines the literal sense as “that first signification whereby words signify things” (ST I:1:10). There is nothing in the grammar itself which refers to Isaiah 22. If you’re thinking: “but the concepts are so similar!” then you, by definition, are moving into the spiritual sense, which St. Thomas defines as “That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification . . . which is based on the literal, and presupposes it” (Ibid). The spiritual sense is discovered through a congruity of significations, meanings. And it looks like you’re arguing for the typological/allegorical sense, which is “so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law” (Ibid). Your argument seems to be that the keys given by Yahweh are a type of the keys given by Jesus. And I think you are correct in this respect. While the grammar (the words) are identical, the significations are congruous. However, once we enter the realm of typology and allegory, we need to be careful.

        The wisdom of St. Thomas is to rest no doctrine on the spiritual sense. Instead, every doctrine must be built on the literal sense, because even the spiritual sense rests on the literal sense. For example, in Isaiah, where does it mention the Church or the office of apostle or the kingdom of heaven revealed in Jesus Christ? It doesn’t. We know that the “the house of David” of Isaiah is the Catholic Church of the new covenant, because it is revealed and affirmed in the literal sense elsewhere. We need to be very careful to stay grounded in the literal sense.

        However, you make the extra step beyond just the keys. You make out St. Peter alone to be the prime minister, yet there is nothing in the literal sense which mandates this. You may appeal to a singular person being promised the keys in Isaiah, but here we find a difficulty in the typological sense: it is based on congruity. And this congruity is never perfect. Jesus Christ is the New Adam and St. Mary the New Eve, yet no one argues that Jesus and St. Mary were married. Instead, the congruity is found in the literal sense, and the typology is circumscribed by the literal sense.

        Therefore, what does the literal sense show? You rightly notice that the second person in Matthew 16 is singular. However, you don’t notice that the verb is future. St. Peter is not given the keys in Matthew 16. And there is nothing that indicates his role as a “prime minister.” So, when are the keys given? In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says to all of the apostles (not in the future tense): “what things soever ye bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is clearly giving the keys to all of the apostles. Of course, the keys are first promised to St. Peter, since he is the representative and leader of all of the apostles. St. Peter does not delegate the keys to the apostles, but Jesus Christ directly gives them. That’s why, after His Resurrection, He says to all of the apostles: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” a connexion the Church Fathers make, such as the Origen, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Alexandria. And other Fathers make the point that Jesus Christ gives the keys to all of the apostles, such as the Apostolic Constitution, St. Jerome, and St. Cyril.

        You claim modern scholarship backs your position. But the issue is not, per se, with the connexion of keys but your insistence that they must only be given to St. Peter and your assertion that he *must* be a prime minister. Even if the modern scholars insist on that (and I’m not sure they do), it seems to me that there is a division here: the Church Fathers (with the patristic method of exegesis especially as synthesised by St. Thomas) and modern scholarship. However, before you go with modern scholarship, will you change your beliefs once modern scholarship changes? For it has changed and will continue to change.


      3. I think that the objection you raise about typology is not all that compelling. St. Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 9:8-11 that they have to provide for him because of the OT command to not muzzle the ox. He says, “Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” Couldn’t the Corinthians object to Paul with, “Hey, that OT command has absolutely NOTHING to do with whether we should give you food, clothing, and shelter. That stuff is expensive, Paul! Give me only explicit scripture, not this weird spiritual interpretation!” Paul utilizes allusions just as I am doing.

        The literal sense to Mt. 16 is that Peter has the keys uniquely. If your interpretation of Mt. 16 is correct, then I think Jesus should have used the plural sense to “you.” But He didn’t. Take the example of Luke 22:30-32. It says, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you (plural), that he might sift you (plural) like wheat, but I have prayed for you (singular) that your (singular) faith may not fail. And when you (singular) have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus knows when He intends the plural or the singular. In Lk 22, Jesus clarifies that Satan wanted all the apostles and to sift all of them like wheat; then Jesus clarifies that He was praying for Peter singularly – that his singular faith might not fail. Mt. 16 is no different. The language is singular, not plural. The other apostles will later on share in the powers of the binding/loosing, but since Peter is primary and unique from Mt. 16, then papal supremacy is the literal sense.

        I do not intend to claim that modern scholarship completely endorses my interpretation. Such scholars are still Protestant. They tend to say (explicitly or implicitly) that Christ set Peter up as a singular prime minister, but they then avoid the next step of the papacy by concluding that Christ only intended this for Peter (no successors). But not every modern scholar says this. For instance, Davies and Allison (International critical commentary) say that the papal claims need to be considered in light of what Jesus says to Peter.

        No, I will not change my beliefs if modern scholars do. My point in using the modern scholars is that they are unbiased observers – they do not feel a passionate love for Roman Catholicism. The fact that Catholics are not alone in recognizing the Mt. 16 and Is. 22 parallel indicates that eisegesis is not going on. If it possibly were, then Catholics would be alone in seeing the parallel.

        Regarding the Church Fathers, I completely agree with them when they say that the whole Church has the keys. But there is a distinction – Peter is the primary minister/primary holder of the keys. Like I said before, all the ministers can bind and loose, but there is one who cannot be contradicted (Peter)


      4. Regarding St. Paul’s exegesis of Deut. 25:4, I’m not sure that you’re understanding the distinction between literal and spiritual sense. That isn’t typology. St. Paul is taking a moral principle undergirding the law and applying it. That’s simply showing logical consequence of the literal sense.

        Regarding Matthew 16, Our Lord does not give the keys to St. Peter. He promises the keys to St. Peter, but the verb is in the future sense. There are two issues here. First, St. Peter, since he is the leader of the apostles, represents the apostles (as seen in Acts 4). Therefore, it is most in agreement with the Fathers to recognise that all of the apostles are promised the keys here. Second, if St. Peter does not receive the keys here, when does he receive them? That occurs when Our Lord gives the keys to all of them in Matthew 18:18 (the plural ‘you’ is used and the future is not used for the verb). This is why the Church Fathers simply teach that all of the apostles have the keys and the same office. The distinction you make between primary and secondary is not present in the Fathers. In fact, they often contradicted the Bishop of Rome, even excommunicating him in Constantinople II.

        Furthermore, faith is a personal quality. How can you ascribe the personal virtue of Luke 22 to an office?

        Regarding modern scholars, it is plainly absurd to say that modern scholarship is “unbiased.” Do you accept all the principles of modern scholarship? Do you believe that St. Paul did not actually write half of the epistles ascribed to him? Do you believe that there were two (or even three) authors of Isaiah, writing the prophecies after their fulfilment?

        Finally, I am concerned that you have much “baked” into “prime minister.” The qualities of this prime minister which you describe simply are not in the literal sense itself. If we are to do typology, each apostle represents each tribe, which is why all of the apostles are blessed. Jesus gives the power to bind and loose to all of the apostles, and He gives the Holy Ghost with equal apostleship to all of the apostles. The absolute necessity of communion with St. Peter is not present in the text.


    1. I appreciate the links. However, I think this is a clear example of eisegesis: you are reading a monolith of a papal system into these allusions to a part of your argument. The issue isn’t that Jesus has the keys. The issue isn’t that Jesus gives keys. The issue isn’t even that He promises to give the keys to St. Peter The issue is a forced hermeneutic of Solus Petrus. The issue is that you make St. Peter to be a sole prime minister who is over the apostles (in contradiction to Matthew 18:18), exempt from judgement (in contradiction to Matthew 18:17) and with immediate, supreme jurisdiction (in contradiction to Acts 20:28, and absent from the plain literal sense of the Scriptures). Do you really believe that your argument can be derived from these scant mentions in these few Fathers?


  2. The Church Fathers that I cited, like Ephrem, Cassian, and Oecumenius, do not lay out an explicit papal supremacy case. But that is not my point. My point is that they utilized the connection between Mt. 16 and Is. 22. Yet, upon further reflection in the Church, the argument seemingly deepened. This happens all the time in Church history. For example, nobody interpreted Rom. 5:12 the way Augustine did. I’d go so far as to say that Augustine would not have even interpreted Rom. 5:12 the way he did had he not encountered Pelagius. Heresies provoke new light on the actual meaning of Scripture. I have demonstrated the roots to the Is. 22 and Mt. 16 parallel found in the 16th century. Catholics in the 16th century either developed the parallel further with the advent of Luther’s heresies (like Augustine with Rom. 5) or they gave the interpretation that they were taught from previous teachers (so the development occurred much earlier than Cajetan in 1521 AD).


    1. The typology here is not primarily being made between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16. In fact, St. Ephraim, whom you mention, deals with the concept of keys and priestly authority but not with Isaiah 22. In trying to force this typology between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16, it seems you err on three fronts.

      First, looking at St. Ephraim, I read his Homily on Our Lord, and perhaps I’m missing something, but I do not see him mentioning Eliakim but Moses and Simeon. Furthermore, the connexion is not with Matthew 16 but with the Presentation, since Simeon is central to his typology.

      Second, in Isaiah 22:19-20, Yahweh is the one giving the keys. In Isaiah 22:20-22, Yahweh gives the keys (indicated by the power to open and shut) to Eliakim. While St. Ephraim does not even elude to Isaiah 22, he does, however, refer explicitly to Moses. He argues that “prophecy and priesthood, which were given through Moses, were handed down, both of them, and reached to Simeon. . . . His Father gave [Jesus] the spirit not by measure, because all measures of the spirit are under his hand” (Homily on Our Lord 52). So, if there is a type to be made of Isaiah 22, based on St. Ephraim’s reasoning, then Yahweh in Isaiah 22 is a type of the Father. Also, St. Ephraim shows that “our Lord is the vessel wherein all fullness dwells, when Simeon was offering Him before God, he poured over Him (as a drink-offering) those two (gifts), priesthood from His hands and prophecy from His lips” (Homily on Our Lord 51). Therefore, based on this reasoning, Eliakim is a type of Jesus Christ. So, why does St. Ephraim then refer to St. Peter? Because Jesus Christ promising the keys is a demonstration that He is the fulfilment of the typology, not St. peter. As he argues, “that our Lord might show that He received the keys from the former stewards, He said to Simeon: To you I will give the keys of the doors” (Homily on Our Lord 52). (Notice that St. Ephraim is not indicating one way or the other whether St. Peter *alone* was promised or given the keys.) There is nothing here that makes St. Peter himself the “prime minister” (whatever that means to you). Instead, Jesus Christ is given the keys in this typology. This leads to the third error.

      Third, you assume either that Jesus Christ chose to only give the keys to St. Peter or that the typology demands it. However, while the keys are promised (not given) to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, they are given to all of the apostles in Matthew 18:18, as the Fathers give witness. And there is nothing in the typology which demands that only St. Peter receive the keys. Not only because Jesus Christ Himself is the fulfilment of the typology but also that typology is never perfectly congruous. To show that only St. Peter *must* be given the keys *by necessity* would require grounding in the literal sense. Of course, we recognise this in other typologies. For example, how can Mary be the New Eve, if she is not married to the New Adam? It is because typology is never perfectly congruous and rests wholly and entirely upon the literal sense, as Sts. Augustine and Thomas teach.


    2. After watching a video by my friend Suan Sonna, I have a few other thoughts to make (here’s the link to the video


      Wouldn’t it be an argument from silence to reject the parallel between Mt. 16 & Is 22 because it’s not a widespread connection by the Fathers? I don’t find arguments from silence very persuasive, and I’d think that neither would scholars. Isn’t Scripture deep and rich enough for things to be gleaned over time? Otherwise you’re left with Sola Paters or Sola Patristics.


      If Jesus gave the keys to Peter in Matt 16 then to all the apostles in Matt 18, wouldn’t that be redundant? Why not give them once in Matt 18? It seems to me that binding and loosing conveyed an idea that could be separated from the principal meaning of the keys. For the rabbis in the 1st century could bind and loose without being the prime minister of the kingdom. That’s why Matt 18 says nothing of the keys.


  3. Hey brother, I can’t seem to reply to the above comment thread, so I’ll start a new thread.

    The Fathers do understand Peter to have the keys in a unique way and not just in a symbolic, representative way. Check out a compilation of quotes and explanations given by my friend Erick:

    Regarding Luke 22, the personal virtue of faith is a grace from God, but when the Pope is in his office and acts ex cathedra, God protects that virtue of faith from erring.

    You say that I have a lot baked into this position of the prime minister. But I’m recounting and following what scholarship has described that ancient office to be. You can read what those scholars have dug up here: That ancient office is what Jesus is evoking in Matthew 16.


  4. I agree with most of your conclusions expressed here. Peter wasn’t given a special position of primacy over the other apostles. I think that the New Testament evidence for this is overwhelming. Matthew 16:18 doesn’t say anything about Peter being given special authority over the other apostles.


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