Church of Christ Christians, many of you believe Catholics use Matthew 16:19 as a “proof text” for the papacy. Catholicism doesn’t use “proof texts” for anything because it simply doesn’t need to. Instead, Catholicism allows the New Testament Scriptures to reside within the context they were created: the already established Church. This essay will help establish that context for you. When you are ready for more, my book The Church of Christ Is Built on Rock is available at Amazon.
What are the Keys?
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19 emphasis added).
The most powerful position under the king was that of the royal steward—the prime minister. King Solomon instituted the office in 1 Kings 4:6 when he appointed Ahi’shar (Ahi’shar was in charge of the palace), and Isaiah provides a more thorough description of the office. Now that you have re-read Matthew 16:19, please read what Jesus was referencing, and what Jesus’ audience would have recognized as the structural paradigm of the new kingdom—of the true Church of Christ:
And I will place on his [Eli’akim’s] shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Isaiah 22:22).
Eli’akim was a type of St. Peter—his position was a type of the papacy. As shown in Isaiah, Eli’akim was given the key to the kingdom and was promoted to the most prestigious office in the kingdom—the master of the palace (Isaiah 22:15 New American Bible). Eli’akim’s position was that of prime minister; sharing in the king’s authority, governing in the king’s name, and acting for him in the king’s absence. Keys are a symbol of power, granting or denying admittance to the royal presence.
Matthew 16:19 shares a royal context provided by the Old Testament Scriptures, and supported by a cultural context that acknowledged how kingdoms are governed. Jesus was saying that St. Peter would be the new master of the palace in His kingdom. Since the keys symbolized how the Davidic king vested his prime minister with his very authority, Jesus was vesting St. Peter the keys to His kingdom, essentially: “You, Peter, will be the prime minister in my kingdom.”
The office of prime minister is pre-supposed, and Jesus chose to utilize that pre-supposed hierarchical paradigm when He assigned the keys to St. Peter. This might be the first time you have seen this connection; can you ignore the similar language and parallel structure of the passages found in Matthew and Isaiah? Did Jesus intend to create an autonomous ecclesial structure when he chose to utilize a hierarchical Davidic paradigm when he called St. Peter to office? St. Peter seems to have understood that the steward would be set over Christ’s household, because Jesus asked him, Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them the portion of food at the proper time (Luke 12:42 emphasis added)?
However, many non-Catholic Christians prefer a more cryptic and docetized interpretation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 16—a preference to deny a practical existence of the Old Testament types; resulting in a theory that Jesus did not realize the confusion he would create by quoting Isaiah when calling St. Peter to office. But nobody in the historical Church of Christ was confused. Even the secular world throughout history has recognized that St. Peter and his office held authority over the worldwide Church; the theory of Church-wide ecclesial autonomy is no older than Protestantism itself, yet the drive for personal promotion is as ancient as the fall of man.
Keys are Forgiveness
As shown, Christ Jesus is our Messianic King, and He is at the top of the Church’s hierarchy. The King chose St. Peter to be the Royal Steward. The other Apostles, including St. Paul, were subordinate to St. Peter, yet held authority within the Church (cf. Matthew 18:17-20). This primitive hierarchy is reflected in the Scriptures, and as a reflection, it represents what was already present: the hierarchical structure that in fact created the Bible, which is the product that your community parses to argue against the hierarchy.
That early structure was perpetuated into all generations, which I will show you in later posts; but for now, it is important for you to understand why the hierarchy is important to recognize: it not only safeguards orthodoxy, but it establishes the conduit back to Jesus, the Savior who forgives sins.
The passage from Isaiah, I have found, is one that is new to most members of the Protestant Church of Christ—it does not fit into its accepted narrative, and therefore, it is not acknowledged. There is another passage from the New Testament that is often overlooked as well:
As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:21-23).
It is important to acknowledge Jesus’ audience. He was speaking to the Apostles, which renders the meaning of the text as, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you [clergy priests] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you [clergy priests] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus, again, reminded the twelve that they are sent just as the Father sent Him. All authority was given to Jesus, and He then gave His authority to the twelve. The power of the keys recalls the role of Eli’akim from Isaiah 22:22. Eli’akim was granted dominion and control over the dynasty of the descendants of David. St. Peter and his office, the fulfillment of Eli’akim’s type, illuminates how keys allow entrance into Christ the King’s court.
In comparison to those who shut the door (Matthew 23:13), St. Peter would be the one who would open the door to the kingdom of heaven. St. Peter, as prime minister, shares the King’s authority and possesses/shares the keys of admission and of rejection (cf. Revelation 3:7). When the full context of Scripture is viewed, the words of Jesus to St. Peter, … whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, embody the truth of what the keys are: keys are forgiveness! Binding and loosing are the acts of forgiving sins—and only properly ordained priests—ordained through the proper manner and in communion with the authority of St. Peter’s office, and therefore, Christ, have them.
But this is a hard teaching for you because you have come to the understanding that there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). The passage, of course, is correct; but heresy is not in the Scripture—heresy is in the interpretation of Scripture. Your group teaches that the passage is an indication that any ecclesial hierarchy is a barrier to the one mediator, and your group has accepted the myth of “Jesus-only and me Christianity”. Jesus is indeed our one mediator to the Father—And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12); but that one fact does not disqualify other facts—that Jesus intended for other lesser mediators to act as directional conduits or vehicles to gather people to Him. Are not the Apostles mediators? Was Mary not the mediatrix that allowed Jesus to become our Mediator—the deliverer of our Deliverer? Were not the writers of the Holy Scriptures mediators? Were not the men (bishops) who collected the New Testament writings and discerned the canon of Scripture mediators? Is not their final product, the Bible, a mediator? Are not your loved ones who pray for you mediators? The Church is Jesus’ intended ordinary means for people to access the sacraments. The sacraments, including Confession to a priest for the forgiveness of sins, are instituted by Jesus—the priest is a lesser mediator to Jesus: our One Mediator to the Father.
And so the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ have different interpretations of the passage, and you must make a wise decision on which is most reasonable. Either Jesus intended for his clergy to share in the dispensing of grace and forgiveness (If you forgive … I will forgive …), or he intended for your proof-text to somehow override all of the holy passages that demand a harmonizing theology.
John 20:21-23 cannot harmonize with the Protestant Church of Christ’s needed interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5; there is no wriggle room to rationalize a theology that does not include the clergy’s participation in Jesus’ mediation and intention of vesting His clergy with such powers. Catholics call the exercise of such powers acting in persona Christi,1 or, “in the person of Christ.” By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.2 When Catholics receive forgiveness for sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), the priest is not forgiving sins; it is God who is forgiving sins.
The priest, given authority by the successors of the Apostles who were given authority by Christ Jesus, forgives sins in Jesus’s name. The harmonizing theology regarding the Catholic Church of Christ’s stance could be stated as:
• Jesus was given all authority by the Father,3
• was sent by the Father to offer forgiveness of sins,4
• gave His authority to the Apostles,5
• to forgive sins by the authority given to them.6
Ergo, a conduit of mediation offering forgiveness of sins by virtue of a legitimately ordained priest acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ)—a theology in perfect harmony with 1 Timothy 2:5,6; completely faithful to the meaning of the text:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
Throughout this book, a theme continues to surface: the New Testament is a reflection of the living Tradition of the Church. The acts of binding and loosing are older than the New Testament Scriptures, and Jesus’ words instructing the clergy to hear and forgive sins are older than the New Testament Scriptures as well.
The Johannine passage that so clearly displays the words of Jesus granting authority to the New Covenant priests as mediators of forgiveness would not have received residence in the Bible if the Catholic Church, at the time of the Bible’s compilation (Council of Hippo in A.D. 393 and Council of Carthage in A.D. 397), disagreed with the passage—it would not have reflected and supported the Faith of the Apostles nor the Faith of the successors (bishops) present at the councils. Put another way, the New Testament, by means of its origination, as a product of the apostolic tradition, must be a thoroughly Catholic book. And as such, any interpretation that appears to contradict what the Catholic Church teaches is an incorrect interpretation—a tradition of men.
It therefore becomes clear that the early Church did in fact recognize the role of the keys, that the Church at the time that St. John’s Gospel was written and at the time St. John’s Gospel was included in the canon of Scripture accepted and practiced a form of sacramental mediation, which included a physical apostolic element—an element that does not claim a new authority to forgive sins and communicate grace, but is the humble agent in which Christ chose to transmit his own authority and communicate grace.
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1 The term “acting in persona Christi” is derived from 2 Corinthians 2:10. Many Bible translations have changed the reading to undermine the historical meaning of the text; they typically read, “I [Paul] have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake” (italics mine) instead of “in the person of Christ.” With such nebulous translations, no modern reader could guess the meaning of the text. The Latin of this verse, as translated from Greek by contemporaries who spoke Greek (= pre-Protestant scholars), understood and then translated the verse into Latin as, “… in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ). The term came from Greek drama where actors would represent characters by use of masks (mask/face = prosopo in Greek); understood as “acting” in the person of Christ. Voilà! Acting in Persona Christi.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1548.
3 cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20-22; Catechism of the Catholic Church #553, 1444.
4 cf. Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1441.
5 cf. John 13:20; 17:18; 20:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #852-62.