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Power of the Keys
POWER OF THE KEYS (Gr. kleis, key). A phrase whose origin lies in the words of Jesus to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (
(Lat. Clavium potestas). A term symbolic of the authority of Christ and of church leaders. In the (1:18; 3:7,8), “key(s)” is used as a symbol of the Lord's authority over His church, or that of one of His messengers to whom is given power over those in the “Abyss” (20:1). In Matthew's gospel (16:19) it is the symbol of that authority given to Peter as the leader of the apostolic band. The Roman Church has traditionally understood this authority as belonging to Peter alone, and thus to the bishop of Rome as the head of the Church Universal. Protestants understand this authority either as having been given to Peter as representative of the whole band of apostles (cf. Matt. 28:18), or as having been fulfilled by Peter as an individual when he “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27) by preaching to and baptizing the household of Cornelius, as he had done earlier for the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
KEYS, POWER OF THE. Normally in the Bible, and always in the NT, “key” (κλέις) is used in a fig. sense to refer to the means of entry into the realms of spiritual destiny. The phrase “the power of the keys” is not, strictly speaking, a Biblical one, although the keys themselves do symbolize the spiritual authority to open or close the gates of hell or the kingdom of heaven.
Keys in the ancient world.
Many ancient peoples thought of the realms of spiritual destiny as entered by doors, and of the gods and angelic beings or the demons as having the keys to those realms. Among the holders of such keys were Shamash (Babylonia), Dike (Greece), Janus (Rome), Aion-Kronos (Mithraism) and Helios (Neo-Platonic period). The underworld, too, had key-keepers: Nedu (Babylonia), Pluto, Aiacos, Persephone and Selena-Hecate (Greece), Anubis (magic lit.) and Isis (mystery religions). Cf. Jeremias, 744ff.
Keys in the OT and Judaism.
Consistent with Isaianic usage, the rabbinics refer to the giving of keys as a symbol of the granting of authority. For example, in the 2nd cent. ὁ κλειδου̂χος τη̂ς βασιλείας τω̂ν ὀυρανω̂ν (the keeper of the keys of the heavenly realm). In Heb. Enoch, ’Anaphiel Yahweh keeps the keys to the palaces in the seventh heaven where the righteous dead are kept. Also significant are the reference in the Babylonian Talmud to the key of rain which opens the doors of heaven and other references to the keys to thunder, lightning, snow, ice and frost (cf. Jeremias, 745).the angel Michael is described as
Keys in the NT
The key to the sky.
Much in the tradition of the Babylonian Talmud,
Keys to the realms of spiritual destiny.
On a more spiritual level is the idea of the key to the reign of God (
The underworld had many keys because it had many doors or gates. Rabbi ’Aqiba tells of the time when God will give Michael and Gabriel the keys to open the 40,000 gates of gēhinnōm (“hell”) (cf. Jeremias, 746, n. 33). God says (
The key of David.
John is told to write the words of Christ, “who has the key of David; who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens” (
The key of (to) knowledge.
By far the most important article on the topic is J. Jeremias, “κλέις,” TDNT, 3: 744-753. See also Thomas Worden, “The : II,” Abstracts, 2 (1958), 262; O. Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (2nd ed., 1962), 209, 210; J. Bright, “Isaiah I,” [Peakes] Commentary on the Bible (1962) on
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
I. THE PROBLEMS INVOLVED
1. The Keys; and the
2. Meaning of the Statements
3. How Peter Is Related to These Powers
4. Is the Primary Idea that of Position and Authority?
II. VIEWS MAINTAINED
1. Agent of the Power
2. Nature of the Power
3. Scope of the Power
III. DATA FOR DECIDING THE QUESTIONS INVOLVED
1. Passages Employing the Terms "Key," "Binding and Loosing"
2. Related Passages
3. Examples of Exercise of This Power
1. Nature of the Power
2. Agent of the Power
3. Scope of the Power
There is no more stubbornly contested conception in Christian terminology. The thought connects itself immediately with
I. The Problems Involved.
1. The Keys; and the Binding and Loosing:
The crucial passage has two declarations, commonly spoken of as promises to Peter: to him Christ will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatsoever he shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, while whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. How are the facts of having committed to him the keys and the function of binding and loosing related? Are they two forms of one declaration? Is the first general, and the second a specific sphere of its application?
Both statements are made in figurative terms. That of the keys is supposed to be drawn from the duties of the chief steward of a house, or establishment. The idea of the keys of a city turned over to some distinguished person is advanced, but is hardly to be considered. We need, then, to know the functions of the chief steward and how they apply to the kingdom of heaven, and to Peter as its steward.
2. Meaning of the Statements:
What was Peter to bind and loose, men or things, persons or teachings? Numerous examples could be cited of the use of these terms to signify forbidding (binding) and permitting (loosing) conduct as legitimate under the law of the(Lightfoot, McClintock and Strong, Schaff-Herzog, Hastings, etc.). The strict school of Shammai bound many things loosed by the laxer school of Hillel (Broadus, Matthew). Is this conclusive that Jesus is here giving Peter authority for "laying down the law for his fellow-disciples," "authority to say what the law of God allows, and what it forbids," "the power of legislation for the church"? (Compare Mason in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), IV, 30.)
3. How Peter Is Related to These Powers:
Ecclesiastical contentions turn especially on Peter’s relation to these words of Jesus. Do they signify powers and "privileges" conferred on Peter, exclusively or representatively? Are they official or personal? Do they belong to other apostles, and to other officers besides apostles? Can the powers be exercised by individuals or by the church alone? If any besides Peter have these powers, do they pass to them from Peter, and how?
4. Is the Primary Idea That of Position and Authority?:
What seems to the writer a fundamental question here is either passed over very lightly or entirely omitted in the discussions of this subject. Did Jesus mean by these words to confer on Peter, or on anyone to whom they may apply, authority, or obligation; privilege, or responsibility? Does He promise position, or does He impose duty? These alternatives are not necessarily exclusive, but the interpretation of the thought will be determined in no small measure by where the stress is laid.
II. Views Maintained.
1. Agent of the Power:
The possibilities have been exhausted in the interpretations and applications advocated. It is not possible to classify on lines of the creeds, except very generally, for there is little uniformity of view existing within the various communions.
(1) Generally speaking, the Roman Catholic church gives to Peter a unique position. Her theologians also agree that all the powers and privileges of Peter descend to his successors in the vicarate of Christ. When the question is raised of the extension of these prerogatives beyond Peter and the popes, all sorts of views are held, concerning both the fact and the method of that extension.
(2) Among Protestants there is general agreement that the church is the agent of this power, but there is not uniformity as to the nature of the authority or the manner of its exercise.
(3) Some think that Peter has no peculiar relation to the keys; that these words were spoken to him only as the first who gave expression to that conception and experience, on the basis of which Jesus commits the keys of the kingdom to any believer in Him as the Christ of God.
We may summarize the more important views as to Peter thus:
(a) the power committed to him alone and exercised,
(i) at Pentecost, or
(ii) at Pentecost, Caesarea and other places;
(b) the power committed to Peter and to the other apostles, including Paul, discharged by them, and descended to no others;
(c) the power conferred on Peter officially and on his official successors;
(d) the power conferred on Peter and the other apostles and to such as hold their place in the church;
(e) that the power belongs to Peter as representative of the church, and so to the church to be exercised
(i) by the officials of the church,
(ii) by the officials and those to whom they commit it,
(iii) by all priests and persons allowed to represent the church, de facto,
(iv) by the church in its councils, or other formal and official decisions,
(v) by the church in less formal way than (iv),
(vi) by all members the church as representing it without specific commission;
(f) that it belongs to the Christian as such, and so is imposed upon, or offered to, all Christians.
2. Nature of the Power:
There is general--not absolute--agreement that the holder of the keys is to admit men into the kingdom. It is not agreed that the holder of the keys may, or can, determine who are members of the kingdom. Both sides are-taken. Some think that the power is that of announcing authoritatively the conditions of entrance, while others insist that the holder of the keys also determines what individuals have accepted the conditions.
3. Scope of the Power:
(1) There is strong support for the view that the primary function of the keys lies in determining the teaching of the kingdom, maintaining purity of doctrine. Emphasis is laid on the use of the neuter, "whatsoever"--not "whomsoever"--with the binding and loosing. This would lead, however, to the secondary and implied function of declaring who had or had not accepted the teaching of the kingdom.
(2) In the Roman Catholic church we find insistence on distinguishing between the general authority of the keys in all affairs of the church and religion, and the binding and loosing which they specifically apply to absolution. Only on this last are Catholics in full agreement. That the church administers salvation is held by Roman and Greek Catholics and by not a few Protestants, although Protestants do not, as a rule, claim exclusive power in salvation as do the others. Absolution is held to be a general (derived) priestly function, while the authority of the keys resides in the pope alone.
(3) Eminent Catholic authorities admit that the Fathers generally understood the keys to signify the power of forgiving sins, and that they seldom make any reference to the supremacy of Peter. But they claim that rarely the Fathers do take "Christ’s promise in the fuller meaning of the gift of authority over the church." Suarez was the first to develop the doctrine that it conferred on Peter and his successors authority in its widest sense, administrative and legislative.
(4) The extension of the authority of the keys to include civil matters is a contention of the Roman church, shared in modified form by some Protestants. Indeed the relation of ecclesiastical to civil authority must be said still to be awaiting clear definition in Protestantism. Macedo (De Clavibus Petri) claims theologians of the church for the civil authority of the keys. Joyce in the Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that he is unable to verify this claim, but, on the contrary, finds that the opponents of the extension of the authority of the church to civil matters use
III. Data for Deciding the Questions Involved.
1. Passages Employing the Terms "Key," "Binding and Loosing":
We must first examine the Scriptures employing the terms we seek to define.
It is not needful to determine, for our purpose, the exact meaning of "gates of Hades" and their not prevailing against the church (compare various commentaries). It is clear that the church is to persist in the life of the world and so the kingdom will not lack organized and aggressive expression. Nor does the relation of binding and loosing depend at all upon the critical question of reading or omitting "and" between the two parts of the verse. The conviction could hardly be escaped that the latter function is intimately related to the former, and is either directly or indirectly involved within it.
(2) The plural "keys," occurs elsewhere only in
(4) It seems to be taken for granted that Jesus, in
2. Related Passages:
Light is to be drawn from several passages that do not use the exact terms of
(4) What one must regard as the proper starting-point for studying this subject is
3. Examples of Excercise of This Power:
1. Nature of the Power:
We sum up what seems to be the teaching of Scripture. We conclude that the power is not a special privilege and extraordinary authority, but a responsibility entrusted byas the method of extending His work. There is in it nothing magical, mysterious, or arbitrary; not ecclesiastical or official, but spiritual and primarily personal. The keys of the kingdom of heaven are first of all the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. By this means men are admitted into the kingdom. The fully attested method of using the keys is that of witnessing personally to an experience of Jesus Christ. He was conferring power for saving and not for barring from salvation. Let it be borne in mind always that Jesus was offering Peter not power but duty, not privilege but responsibility. Neither of these terms, "power" and "privilege," that have come to be associated with the gift of the keys occurs with that gift in the words of the Master. The keys are primarily for admitting to the kingdom of heaven, not for barring from the church.
2. Agent of the Power:
The holder of the keys is any man with that experience that called forth from Jesus the assurance that Peter should have the keys. Such a man will be in fellowship and cooperation with like men, in a church, and the Spirit of Jesus will be present in them, so that their decisions and their testimony will be His as well as theirs. There is a corporate, or church, agency, therefore, and the man who would ignore that lacks the experience or the Spirit needful for the use of the keys. Yet the church is never to overshadow or exclude the individual responsibility and authority.
3. Scope of the Power:
It is to be understood that the keys of the kingdom of heaven confer no political authority or power, save that of holy and redemptive influence. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world. Its power is spiritual and is to be exercised always primarily in the saving of men. Men do not need to be locked out of the kingdom. They are out, and too contented to remain so. It does happen that evil men seek to take possession of the kingdom for evil ends, and then it is that the authority rests in spiritual men to exclude. Men that are to be brought into the kingdom of heaven are now in sin, and where the duty of releasing them is not discharged by Christians, the sinners are left bound in their sins.
There is also involved of necessity the duty of declaring not only the conditions of entrance into the kingdom, but the courses of conduct appropriate to the kingdom. It is thus that binding and loosing in teaching devolve upon the holders of the keys. To that extent, and in that sense, alone, is there the power of "legislating" within the kingdom. This is only interpreting and applying the principles that are given us in the Scriptures.
See further ABSOLUTION; IMPOSITION OF HANDS; PETER; ROCK.