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The Blessing and Burden of the Keys

Matt Nelson

Man is an expert self-deceiver. A wise British journalist once mused rightly that “a man’s soul is as full of voices as a forest . . . fancies, follies, memories, madnesses, mysterious fears, and more mysterious hopes. All settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to the conclusion that some of those voices have authority and others not” (G.K. Chesterton, “The Language of Eternity,” The Illustrated London News, July 2, 1910). The prophet Jeremiah observed that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (Jer. 17:9).

From this it follows that any human organization, even if it has the inspiration of God behind it, can thrive only if it is governed by a clear voice of authority; and if the people are willing to heed that voice. This is why it is difficult to imagine a world without the likes of police, principals, kings, mayors, presidents, prime ministers, and pastors; and equally troublesome to imagine a world where nobody is obedient to these figures. It’s not always nice to be told what to do, but, Lord knows, we often need it.

Like a man’s mind, Christendom is also full of many voices, and many of these voices contradict one another. For this reason the Christian ought to determine with all seriousness which voices do indeed have God-given authority and which do not. Then, and only then, will Christians be of one mind in doctrine and of one heart in worship. Then and only then can Christians have at their disposal every means to be become holy.

If there are men who really possess God-given authority within the Church, then every Christian ought to make it a top priority to determine where they are to be found. This business regarding authority in the Church is not just about fidelity to the teaching of Christ—it goes deeper. It is about the salvation of souls: “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

There are many reasons why I am Catholic, but one of the most central reasons is that Catholicism is complete. Not only do I believe that divine revelation reveals a hierarchy of offices instituted by Christ, I believe that a Church without such a thing is an absurdity, given man’s deceitful heart and the slipperiness of truth. No Church can be a “pillar and bulwark of truth” in the truest sense without an infallible authority in faith and morals guiding and overseeing it. Quite simply: if it is what it claims to be, the Church needs a pope.

A practical suggestion

At the top of the Church hierarchy is the bishop of Rome. As God’s prime minister, he acts as the final, unifying voice of authority in the community of believers. He is the chief shepherd (see John 21:15-19, Matthew 10:2).

Many Catholics and Protestants are familiar with these words: ”And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). It is often this verse that is the starting point for debate regarding the validity of the papacy: who or what is the rock? Is it Peter? Is it Jesus himself? Is it Peter’s faith? Is it more than one of these?

These are interesting questions, but in my experience they often steal unnecessary time and energy in ecumenical discourse, because the conversation fails to move beyond. It’s too easy to get stuck on the “Who or what is the rock?” issue. Soon the friendly debaters find themselves at a stalemate, bogged down by the meaning of petra versus petros and all the restThe back and forth banter becomes monotonous and excessive without making real progress, and the interlocutors soon peter out.

Thus I suggest that we start one verse further and lead off with the keys—then work backward. Jesus’s conferral of the keys to Peter is gold when making the case for papal authority, and, unfortunately, it often plays second fiddle to the discussion about the “rock.”

After giving Simon the new name of Petros (“And I tell you, you are Peter”) Jesus says this to him:

“I will give you [singular] 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.”

This is the kicker; and this is where I think we should initially direct the discussion of Peter and the authority of the papacy in Scripture. What Jesus was doing here with the keys would have been apparent to the disciples, and it should be clear to anyone who is familiar with Isaiah 22:

Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household . . . and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Isa. 22:15, 21-22, emphasis added).

In the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament, the king instituted a right-hand man called his steward. The steward of the kingdom was the prime minister; and in the absence of the king the steward would exercise the king’s authority until he returned. As a sign of the authority he had conditionally been granted, he held the “keys” of the kingdom.

So Isaiah says, “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David,” and Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Isaiah says, “He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open,” and Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The parallels between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 are unmistakable and critically pertinent to the discussion of the authority granted to Peter and his successors.

A theory that fits like a glove

In the kingdom of God, it is Jesus who reigns supremely; and although he remains mystically present to us here on Earth through the Church and sacraments, he has established a prime minister to ensure right order in liturgy, morality, doctrine, and worship. The first prime minister was Peter; but Peter has been and always will be succeeded in office by other approved men until the King returns (see Acts 1:15-26).

One of the Church’s first bishops of Rome, St. Clement, affirms the dogma of apostolic succession in the first century: “They appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).

The jurisdiction conferred upon Peter to “bind and loose” represents the authority to “permit and forbid,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Thus, after Christ’s Ascension, we begin to see Peter’s unique ministry take effect, especially in the electing of Judas’s successor (see Acts 1) and at the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15). By the latter half of the second century, there is a record of Peter’s successors from the prominent church leader St. Ireneaus (a disciple of a disciple of John the apostle), followed by a plethora of affirmations of Peter’s primacy from Christian teachers and writers of the early Church.

According to Sherlock Holmes, it is insensible to “twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Well, all things considered, the Catholic theory fits the facts like a glove. Why then are so many Christians opposed to the ancient idea of the papacy? Perhaps it is because they see the pope as a competitor rather than a servant of Scripture.

Whatever the answer is (and there are undoubtedly a variety of personal answers), I can say with bold conviction that, properly understood, the authoritative office of the papacy is not a bad thing, because it is a biblical thing that has withstood the force of time. It is a merciful thing, for it often sees what the deceitful and desperately corrupt heart of man cannot see. It is therefore a gift to the people of God and a blessing and burden to Peter and his successors.

I doubt that Peter jumped up and down yelling, “Oh, goody!” when Jesus informed him that he would possess the keys of the kingdom of heaven. If he said anything at all, it was likely something akin to “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And yet it is astonishing what God can do with broken men.


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