of the keys" is a symbolical term which in its
more extended sense denotes the whole range of
the power of the Church, while in its restricted
usage it connotes simply the power of granting
or refusing absolution. The concept goes back to
Christ's words to Peter (Matt. xvi. 19), "I will
give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of
heaven." This is doubtless based on "the key of
the house of David" mentioned in Isa. xxii. 22,
and quoted in Rev. iii. 7, and implies that the
steward of the house received the keys so that no
one might open the door he had shut, or shut the
door he had opened. This metaphor is not carried
through in Matt. xvi. 19, but passages like
Matt. xxiii. 13 and
the connection of the passage leaves no doubt that
it refers to the exclusion of sinners from or the admission
of penitents to the congregation. Nor can
the similar words in
Matt. xvi. 19 have an essentially
different meaning, so that the concept of the early
Church, which is shared by the Greek exegetes,
can not be wrong in interpreting the passage by
John xx. 23. It is especially to be emphasized that
in both passages the disciples receive no commission
of a new function, but are merely assured that
the exercise of their former function is valid before
God. It is still more desirable to interpret the
passage in Matthew from the whole connection of
the Synoptic Gospels, and it thus becomes plain
that in consideration of such passages as
Matt. xxiii. 8-10
we can not ascribe any legislative power
to the disciples. The sense of the "power of the
keys" seems to be, therefore, that Jesus gave Peter,
or his disciples, or the body of Christian believers,
authority to receive into the kingdom of heaven by
forgiveness of sins or to exclude from it by refusal
of pardon, thus forgiving sin (especially on earth)
in the name of God and with efficacy with God in
the same way as the Son of Man had hitherto exercised
it (cf. Matt. ix. 6).
In the patristic period the "power of the keys" was held to connote strictly the remission (or retention) of sins, and not legal enactments. This is clear from Tertul lian (Scorpiace, x.; De pudicitia, xxi.), from the letter of the churches at Lyons and Vienne (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V., ii. 5), from Cyprian (Epist., lxxiii. 7, lxxv. 16), and from other sources (Ambrose, De pænitentia, i. 2; Augustine, Contra adversarium legis et prophetarum, 136; Faustus of Riez, Sermo vi.; Leo the Great, Sermo xlix. 3; Apostolic Constitutions, ii. 11 sqq.). It would be erroneous to suppose that this was a narrowing of the concept. The development was rather in the opposite direction, for when the "power of the keys" came to be interpreted as a judicial act, especially in relation to the lapsed, the furtherance of the juristic aspect of the concept was easy. Thus the pseudo-Clementine Homilies (iii. 72; cf. Clement, Epist. ad Jacobum, 2) see in the "power to bind and loose" the functions of the episcopal office.
While in the primitive Church the "power of the keys" may be regarded, roughly speaking, as ascribed to the Church, or to its officials, or to those endowed with the Spirit, in the sense that all three concurred, nevertheless the official element gradually superseded the other two. In this early period the "power of the keys" was indubitably possessed by the Church as a whole (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace, 10; Cyprian, Epist., lxxv. 16), the Church consisting of the bishops, the clergy, and the body of the faithful (Cyprian (Epist., xxxiii. 1). Cyprian is the first to permit to the clergy what he ascribes to the Church, since "the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers" (Epist., xxxiii. 1), although he still maintains that "remission of sins can not be given by those who, it is certain, have not the Holy Spirit" (Epist., Ixix. 11). Elsewhere the idea is found (cf. Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V., xviii. 7; Cyprian, Epist., xviii. 1, xix. 2, xxxiii. 2; De lapsis, 19) that apostles and prophets, as well as martyrs, have the right to forgive sins as, possessing the Holy Ghost. It is not clear, however, that they exercised this function without the cooperation of the other agents already mentioned, nor does Cyprian grant the martyrs more than intercessionary powers, the remission itself being granted by the priest (De lapais, 16, 29; Epist., Iv. 24) who is "judge in the place of Christ" (Epist., lix. 7). But these three classes were never held to be the sole decisive possessors of the "power of the keys," and Montanistic expressions contain indubitable innovations. Thus Tertullian mentions "God's dear ones" (De pænitentia, 9) as those to whom the lapsed should kneel next after the presbyters. When, however, he grants the "power of the keys" to the "spiritual," whether prophets or apostles (De pudicitia, 21), he includes the Church, instead of excluding it, opposing only a priesthood in which he fails to find this spiritual characteristic.
Alexandrine theology seems to have made little
change. Origen, while energetically vindicating
the "power of the keys" to Christians of true
spiritual insight, presupposes, in the case of grievous
faults, the participation of priests or bishops in
the forgiveness of sins (De oratione, 28; Commentary
The "power of the keys" was used by the Church especially in the administration of baptism, and also in penance for grievous sins committed after baptism, more venial faults being atoned for by the daily penitence of the faithful heart, the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer, fasting, the oblations, and the Eucharist. Although the list of grievous
The Western Church, on the other hand, steadily extended pardon to all sins, thus connecting the "power of the keys" more closely with the episcopal office. After 250 even the lapsed (see LAPSI) were admitted to pardon, thus postulating forgiveness for idolatry, although in many regions the more rigid practise was retained as in Spain at the beginning of the fourth century and at Cæsarea in Cappadocia. Pardon for a second lapse, however, was forbidden by Pope Siricius and was unknown to Augustine (Epist. cliii. 7), besides being rejected by the eleventh canon of the third Synod of Toledo, although Sozomen had already declared his conviction that " God has decreed that pardon should be extended to the penitent, even after many transgressions "(Hist. eccl., vii. 16).
As a matter of fact the "power of the keys" was exercised by the clergy under the supervision of the bishop, and the laity took no further part as early as the middle of the third century (cf. Cyprian, Epist., xix. 2, xlix., lix. 15; Augustine, Sermo cccli.). After excommunication and penance for a mortal sin, the penitent was again received into the Church. This act was termed reconciliation, and was performed by the laying on of hands, prayer, and the kiss of peace by the bishop, assisted by the clergy before the altar in the presence of the congregation. The pardoning power of the Church thus coincided with absolution (see CONFESSION), though not in the medieval sense, since the atoning force of penance rested in the act of the penitent himself, not in the reconciling power of the Church. While God alone forgave sins, the Church, as his merciful institution, could not refuse her cooperation, but pointed out to the penitent the way in which the wound of sin might be healed. Then evolved the attitude represented by Cyprian: "Outside the Church there is no salvation," even though the absolving power of the Church was not final, but must be confirmed at the Last Judgment, thus requiring prayer and the laying on of hands.
Beginning with Augustine, the tendency arises to bring the priest's activity in the exercise of the "power of the keys" into closer connection with divine grace; and the sinner is no longer considered as a wounded man to be healed, but as a corpse to be revived. Since this is impossible for the Church, a preliminary working of grace in the heart is assumed, which is later to be completed by the operation of the "power of the keys." While Augustine bases forgiveness in reconciliation simply on the petition of the congregation of the faithful, Leo the Great regards the priests as the specific intercessors for the fallen, basing his view on Matt. xxviii. 20, which he restricts to the clergy (Epist., lxxxii.; Ad Theodorum, 2). The Roman Catholic concept of a clerical priesthood independent of the laity, and with whose mediation all works of grace are connected, thus received sharp and conscious expression, and the accretions of later times are but the development of the basal idea of Leo. There was, however, as yet no formal pronouncement of absolution. An entirely different view is advanced by other Fathers. On the basis of Lev. xiv. 2 sqq., Jerome (Commentary on Matthew, iii.) held that ecclesiastical authority possessed merely the right to decide that they were set free whom the inward grace of God had freed, and that they were bound whom divine grace had not set free. Very similar are the terms used by Gregory the Great (Homilia xxvi. in Evangelia, 6), but it is clear from his own statements how little this theoretic distinction practically implied.
With regard to the theological definition of absolution, and the share of the priest in its administration two opposing views inherited from the patristic period, run almost parallel with each other during the first part of the Middle Ages. According to the one, the priest is simply judge in foro ecclesiæ; he declares that forgiveness has taken place by the act of divine grace in the penitent soul, but takes no part himself in the act of forgiving. The divine forgiveness takes place before the absolution by the priest, and even before confession, in the very moment the heart repents; so that the Church's absolution is but the declaration of what God has already done. How prominent this view was, even in the thirteenth century, may be seen from the manner in which Gratian treats the subject. He raises the question whether a sinner can satisfy God by repentance and secret penance without confession, then states the arguments and authorities on both sides, and finally leaves the reader to decide the question for himself. Peter the Lombard, the contemporary of Gratian, defines (iv. 17) the priest's power to bind and to loose merely as a power of declaration, signifying simply he loosed before the Church him who was loosed in the sight of God. Similar but still more explicit were the views of Cardinal Robert Pulleyn (Sent. vi. 52, 61, vii. 1) and Peter of Poitiers, chancellor of the University of Paris (d. about 1204). According to the other view, represented by Leo the Great and Alcuin, the priest is not simply a judge in foro ecclesiæ, but is a mediator, intercessor and reconciler between God and the penitent. This position, taken by the priests throughout the penitentials, and exercising a profound influence on the development of the doctrine of the "power of the keys," attained increased importance in the De vera et falsa pænitentia, a work belonging to the eleventh or twelfth century, but ascribed to Augustine. Here the priest appears as the representative of God in confession, and his forgiveness is the forgiveness of God; while the view of Gregory the Great, that sins in themselves beyond forgiveness become forgivable through penance (but not through absolution), is here modified so that the sinner in his confession does not become clean in the sight of God, but has his mortal sin changed to venial. This residue of venial sins no longer involves eternal punishment, but must be atoned for either by penance on earth or purgatory after death (chaps. 25, 35). These concepts were now evolved into a formal system by the Victorines. To Hugo of St. Victor the priest represents the humanity of Christ, is the visible medium needed by sin-bound man to draw near to God, and is used by God to pour his grace into the human heart. Thus the priestly absolution not only declares forgiveness, but effects it (De sacramentis, ii. 1 sqq., 8). Hugo regards the sinner as bound by the inner bondage of hardness of heart and the outer chain of merited damnation, the former loosed by God alone through contrition, and the latter by the priest as the divine instrument. Going still further, Hugo's pupil, Richard of St. Victor, in his De potestate ligandi et solvendi held that God himself released from sin either immediately or through the mediation of men who were not necessarily priests, this being done by contrition even before confession. He also held that through the priest, who possessed the "power of the keys," God transformed eternal punishment into a transitory one, and that the priest transformed transitory punishment into penance.
In the case of two views so divergent, yet running parallel, further progress could be possible only in their dialectic reconciliation and combination. This was attained by the great scholastics of the thirteenth century, especially by Thomas Aquinas, although Richard of St. Victor had plainly sought to effect such a result. In his Summa theologiæ (pars iv., quæstio 20, membrum iii., art. 2; quæstio 21, membrum i.; membrum ii., arts. 1-3) Alexander of Hales, closely followed by Bonaventura and Albertus Magnus, held that, while the power to bind and to loose belonged to God alone, the priest merely praying for and obtaining absolution, but not imparting it,
On this basis Thomas Aquinas completed the Roman Catholic doctrine of the "power of the keys." He distinguished between the clavis ordinis and the clavis jurisdictionis (Summa, quæstio 19, art. 3, resp.), the former, received by the priest in his ordination, opening heaven immediately to individuals through sacramentary absolution; and the latter having this effect only through excommunication and absolution before the forum of the Church. The clavis ordinis alone having a sacramental nature, laymen and deacons may possess the clavis jurisdictionis, which also includes the granting of indulgences (quæstio 25, art. 2 ad 1 m.). The exercise of the clavis ordinis presupposes the possession of the clavis jurisdictionis; but, on the other hand, the clavis ordinis becomes effective only through the clavis jurisdictionis (quæstio 20 art 1-2, resp.), so that by depriving schismatics, heretics, and the like of the clavis jurisdictionis, a bishop may withdraw from them the power of exercising the clavis ordinis (quæstio 19, art. 6, resp.). The sacramental clavis ordinis finds its exercise in priestly absolution, and it was through Thomas Aquinas that the individual elements of the sacrament of penance were united in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the "power of the keys." He bases his view on the concept that God alone remits sin and eternal punishment as a return for a contrition which is perfected by fulness of love and by a desire for sacramental confession and absolution. Such a penitent has the grace given him increased by the "power of the keys"; and in case his contrition is not sufficiently deep, the same power removes the obstacles to the entrance of the atoning grace, provided the sinner himself sets up no opposing barriers. The "power of the keys" remits a portion of the temporal punishment, the residue being atoned for by the prayers, alms, and fasting prescribed to the penitent by the priest as satisfaction (quæstio 18, art. 2-3). These latter, moreover, may be remitted by the clavis jurisdictionis through indulgences (quæstio 25, art. 1, resp.), which, in view of the concept of vicarious satisfaction on which they are based, may be used for the benefit of souls in purgatory. This development of the "power of the keys" essentially changed the form of absolution; for although Alexander of Hales states that in his time the deprecatory formula, was followed by the indicative, the latter must have been an innovation, since until thirty years before Thomas Aquinas the formula used by all priests had been Absolutionem et remissionem tibi tnbuat Deus. He himself defended the use of Ego te absolvo on its analogy to the other sacraments, and as exactly expressing the effect of the sacrament of penance and the " power of the keys," even though retaining the deprecatory formula as a prayer before the indicative, a usage still followed by the Rituale Romanum.
The teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the "power of the keys "was essentially adopted by Eugene IV. at the Council of Florence (1439) and still more fully by the fourteenth session of the Council of Trent (Nov. 25, 1551). While the Decree (cap. 6) and the Canons (9-10) of the Council of Trent declare that the absolution is not a mere statement of forgiveness, but is a judicial and sacramental set, the Roman Catechism makes the "power of the keys" extend to all sins without exception (i. 11, 5), while the absolution pronounced by the priest, who represents in all sacraments the person of Christ, actually effects the forgiveness of sins (ii. 5, 10, 11, 17). While, moreover, in contrition, confession, and satisfaction the penitent is active (opus operans), he is absolutely passive and receptive toward absolution, which works entirely ex opere operato.
From another point of view, the Roman Catholic priest is essentially a judge, not only in foro ecclesiæ, but in foro Dei. In this capacity he investigates the sins of the penitent to determine their proper punishment, and considers the spiritual state of him who makes confession, that he may know whether to bind or loose. Since, however, on the one hand, the formula Ego te absolvo implies that the absolution is infallible and absolute; while, on the other hand, the possible error of the priest, the infrequency of his ability to know completely the state of his penitent's soul, and the insufficiency of confession as a substitute for omniscience, render his decision only conditional, Roman Catholic dogmatics wavers as a result of the combination, without true union, of the two courses of development sketched above. Practically, however, the entire remission of sins requires from the penitents only contrition (repentance made perfect in love), confession, and satisfaction. For contrition is substituted attrition (mere fear of punishment), and what it lacks in earnestness and depth is made up by confession in its entirety and by absolution. The latter transmutes eternal punishment into temporal, and temporal into penance, this being remitted by indulgences. Thus the infallible judgment of the priest becomes fallible only in the case of the deliberate hypocrite; and the one firm and immutable result of the confused course of development here sketched is the infallibility of the power of the Church to bind and loose, the single unalterable kernel of the entire dogma of the "power of the keys" and of the sacrament of penance.
In the Greek Church private confession was introduced for the monks by Basil (d. 379); and from about the end of the iconoclastic controversy (see IMAGES AND IMAGE WORSHIP. II.) until the middle of the thirteenth century the "power of the keys" was vested exclusively in the monks according to their ecclesiastical grade. Collision with the priesthood
The divergent view of the "power of the keys" held by the Reformed, and especially by Calvin, was intimately connected with their distinction between the invisible Church of the predestined and the visible Church. which was to be organized and ruled according to the word of God; additional elements being the line drawn between the divine and the created factors of salvation and a concept by which forgiveness of sins presupposed only the true renewal by the Holy Ghost in regeneration. Accordingly, Calvin, distinguishing between Matt. xvi. and John xx, on the one hand and Matt. xviii. on the other, postulated a double "power of the keys" (Institutes, IV., xi. 1). Proceeding from the theory of individual need and individual pastoral care, he approximates the Lutheran idea of the consolation of private absolution (III., iv. 14, IV., i. 22) although this never gains the importance of an actual absolution. From this "power of the keys," which rests in the "ministry of the word" (cf. III., iv. 14, IV., vi. 4), must be distinguished the "spiritual jurisdiction and discipline" of the Church, which concerns the punishment meted out by the Church as a theocratic and secular institution. It is clear that here there is no question of a direct relation to God. Despite the difficulty of the reconciliation of Calvin's view with the promises of Christ regarding the "power of the keys," his double interpretation was retained in the Reformed confessions, as in the Helvetic Confession, 14, and the Heidelberg Catechism, 83. The Council of Trent, on the other hand, in its opposition to the Reformation, while abandoning the old theory of the two keys, retained the substance of the ancient dogma (session xxiii. 1); and postulated still more explicitly that the "power of the keys" was a prerogative granted by Christ to Peter and his auccesaors.
In the Evangelical churches, and especially the Lutheran, the exercise of the "power of the keys" became more and more restricted to the clergy, who used it, on the one hand, in private absolution after a general confession, and, on the other, as a punishment in the form of excommunication, though, as a matter of fact, the latter was restricted by the consistories to carnal sins. Gradually, however, protests were raised against the "power of the keys," in part through a more or less mistaken idea regarding the Reformatory concept of the consolation and the sacramental signification of the forgiveness of sins. The pioneer of this tendency was Theophilus Grossgebauer, who required only confession to God for secret sins, but held public confession and reconciliation to be necessary for open sins, in which alone At he believed the power to bind and loose to be effective, judgment being exercised by a body of elders chosen by the congregations concerned. Spener sought to transform private confession and absolution into a declaration before the pastor for counsel and spiritual investigation; but insisted that only the penitent might be absolved, doubtful cases being referred to a body of elders for judgment. While he held that the "power of the keys" belonged to the entire Church or brotherhood, and had wrongly become restricted to the clergy and
From the point of view of dogmatics the "power of the keys" may be defined as the duty and the authority of the spiritual Church to make the everlasting decision for mankind and for individuals dependent on the relation to her as the body of Christ. In this sense it presupposes not only special and general absolution, but the entire administration of the sacraments; and this must be exercised in the Holy Ghost. The determination of its concrete forms and its transmission from the spiritual to the earthly Church falls within the province of practical theology. Naturally, however, the "power of the keys" can be ignored only where the Church is regarded merely as a religious association based on the pious thoughts of men; but not where it is held to have arisen from the determination and the participation of the living God.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Morin, Commentarius historicus de disciplina in administratione sacramenti poenitentiae, Antwerp, 1692; J. Waterworth, The Faith of Catholics, i. 98 sqq., iii. 1-25, London, 1846; C. Elliott, Delineation of Roman Catholicism, ed. Hannah, ib. 1851; F. W. H. Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche, Halle, 1851; G. Steitz, Das römische Bussakrament, Frankfort, 1854; idem, Die Privatbeichte und Privat-absolution, ib. 1854; idem, in TSK, 1866, pp. 435-483; T. Kliefoth, Beichte and Absolution, Schwerin, 1856; G. F. Pfisterer, Luthers Lehre von der Beichte, Stuttgart, 1857 J. Barrow, A Treatise of the Pope's Supremacy, ed. A. Napier, pp. 94, 145 et passim, Cambridge, 1859; J. Bowen, The Power of the Keys and the Athanasian Creed, London, 1860; H. L. Ahrens, Das Amt der Schlüssel, Hanover, 1864; F. Frank, Die Bussdisciplin. Mainz, 1867; F. Probst, Sakramente und Sakramentalien, Tübingen, 1872; E. Löning, Geschichte des deutschen Kirchenrechts, i. 252 sqq, ii. 448 sqq., Strasburg, 1878; H. J. Schmitz, Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche, Mainz, 1883; H. C. Lea, A Formulary of the Papal Penitentiary in the 13th Century, Philadelphia, 1892; K. Holl, Enthusiasmus und Bussgewalt beim griechischen Mönchthum Leipsic, 1898; F. H. Foster, Fundamental Ideas of the Roman Catholic Church, pp. 41-42, 284, Philadelphia 1899 J. Köstlin, Luthers Theologie, ii. 245 aqq., Stuttgart, 1901; Neander, Christian Church, ii. 200, iii.-v. passim; KL, x. 1834-39; DCG, i. 929.
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