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.

8 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.


    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).


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