Binding and Loosing

BINDING AND LOOSING. The carrying of a key or keys was a symbol of the delegated power of opening and closing. In Matt.16.19 our Lord gave the “power of the keys” to Peter, and Peter’s use of the keys is narrated in what may be called the “three stages of Pentecost.” On the Day of Pentecost (Acts.2.14-Acts.2.40) Peter preached the first Christian sermon and opened “the kingdom of heaven” to what became a Hebrew-Christian church; then, with John, he went to Samaria (Acts.8.14-Acts.8.17) and opened the same “kingdom” to the Samaritans; still later in the house of Cornelius (Acts.10.44-Acts.10.48) he opened it to the Gentiles. Thus, the church became universal. The medieval teaching about Peter standing at the gate of heaven to receive or reject souls of men has no basis in biblical teaching.


BINDING AND LOOSING, δει̂ν and λύειν; prob. from Heb. אָסַר, H673. Terms commonly used throughout the NT in a general sense, but together in a specifically eschatological context in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 in particular, to refer to the act of being put under the power and control of Satan or of being released from that power through the dawning of the kingdom of God (q.v.).

Historical background.

Binding and loosing are used in the NT in ways that reflect the influence of the thought patterns of rabbinical lit. Three distinct contexts emerge from a study of the texts in SBK: (a) In the vast majority of cases, binding and loosing occur in a doctrinal sense, i.e. to “prohibit” or “permit” by means of legal rules as interpreted by a teacher of the law (scribe); (b) less frequently the terms are used in a disciplinary sense, i.e. to “expel from” or “receive back into” the congregation; (c) the terms are used also in a magical sense, i.e. to “come under” or “be freed from” the power of a sorcerer, god or spirit. Most scholars caution against too sharp a distinction between the doctrinal and judicial senses, noting that in Judaism the same person exercised both functions.

NT usage.


Two passages in Matthew demand more detailed treatment: 16:19 and 18:18. In Matthew 16:19 Peter, who has confessed his faith that Jesus is the Messiah and has been told that he is the rock on which Christ’s Church will be built, hears Jesus say, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Most scholars reject the idea, expressed by A. Dell and others, that “binding” and “loosing” refer to the power to enchant or free by magic, and agree that both doctrinal and disciplinary meanings are possible. Considerable debate continues to occur in connection with the Sitz im Leben of the saying. Some, emphasizing the fact that in its present context at least it is peculiar to Matthew, see the v. as an example of “early Catholicism” and its need to legislate the morals of a church that is already a corpus mixtum; they take the v. as emerging from the Palestinian church. Others, emphasizing Matthew’s tendency to connect sayings on the same theme, see the evangelist as taking what was originally a passion or post-resurrection saying of Jesus (cf. John 20:23) and joining it to sayings on building and doors (Matt 16:17ff.). The record of Matthew states that Peter’s authority to teach and discipline is extended to all the disciples (Matt 18:18). In this passage no reference is made to a confession of faith, the foundation of the Church or the keys, so it is prob. legitimate to conclude that Peter in Matthew’s gospel is primus inter pares, without, however, in any way suggesting a monarchical episcopate for Peter.

Patristic period.

During the patristic era, organizational and juridical concerns soon played an increasingly important role, particularly in the Western church. In the first two centuries, however, there are few references to binding and loosing in efforts to defend the church against heresy and schism. Since Irenaeus makes no reference to v. 19 in his comments on Matthew 16, some scholars have suggested that some VSS of Matthew did not even contain the verse. In the succeeding period binding and loosing play a larger and larger role in the struggle to ground papal claims on Scripture (cf. Tertullian, Cyprian) until by the beginning of the Middle Ages it has become one of the main planks in the platform of papal authority.

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