Sunday, June 30, 2013
Keys to the Gates of Peter
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri describes a place between the dolorous regions of Inferno and the blessed abode of Paradiso. It is the challenging and redemptive Mountain of Purgatory. This is the place where Dante and his travelling companion Virgil – and by extension the rest of humankind – learn how to cleanse themselves of the seven deadly sins that are endemic to humanity.
In order to be allowed passage from Inferno, one must pass through a small gate that is guarded by the Apostle Peter, or by one of his angel helpers. This is the place that has been recognized in Christian literature and art as the Gates of Peter. This is the Christian recognition of Peter’s role – proclaimed by Christ Himself (in the 16th Chapter of The Gospel of Matthew) that, “Thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
These gospel verses have tremendous significance in Christian history although they are largely passed over by theologians. The meaning doesn’t really seem to be difficult to understand. Early Christian writers (along with most of their subsequent followers) understood them to vindicate the leadership of the Catholic Church – manifest in Christ’s recognition of Peter.
So, for example, Theodore of Mopsuestia indicated that this verse, “shows, in consequence, that this is the common good of the church … that in the church would be the key of the kingdom of heaven.”
John, Patriarch of Jerusalem (575-593 A.D.), wrote: “As for… the Holy Church, we have the word of the Lord who said to Peter, Chief of the Apostles, when giving him the primacy of the Faith for the strengthening of the churches. “Thou art Peter, etc.” To this same Peter He has given keys of heaven and earth; it is in following his faith that to this day his disciples and the doctors of the Catholic Church bind and loose; they bind the wicked and loose from their chains those who do penance.”
Saint Theodore of Studium (795-826 A.D.) would likewise affirm: “Since it is to the great Peter that Christ our God gave the Keys of the Kingdom and entrusted the dignity of the Chief of the flock, it is to Peter, that is to say, his successor, that one ought to submit every innovation which is made in the Catholic Church by those who turn aside from the truth.”
The sources from the time of the creeds to this day are fairly consistent within the Catholic Church: the keys given to Peter are granted to the Catholic Church as emblems of spiritual authority.
But this is not really the emphasis that we see in Matthew’s account. Instead of emphasizing the role of keys as symbols of power and authority, the context of the narrative is that of salvation in the world beyond the veil: the “gates of hell”, “the kingdom of heaven”, “whatsoever…shall be bound in heaven”. This is quite a different perspective than the traditional one emphasized in ecclesiastical history.
There have been, however, notable exceptions. The heavenly tradition (if I might call it that) is quite clear in the Divine Comedy. Here Peter has been given charge of granting passage to the departed souls seeking escape from the sufferings of Inferno – not of an ecclesiastic position of authority.
Clearly these two interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19 have existed side by side for a very long time. So, for example, George Ladd (formerly Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary) states clearly that “The truth is implicit in the statement that the gates of Hades should not prevail against the church.” He then goes on to admit that the “image of the gates of the realm of the dead is a familiar Semitic concept.”
For anyone interested in Old Testament references to the gates to the realm of the dead see: Isaiah 38:10, Psalms 9:13, Psalms 107:18, Job 38:17, etc. One particularly interesting reference is in Genesis 28 (verses 17-18) where Jacob stops in his travels to sleep and dreams that he sees the Lord. When he awakes he understands that, “Surely the Lord is in this place … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
The gates of Hades mentioned in Matthew’s text do not refer to the Catholic Church. The sense of the dialogue between Christ and Peter is concern for the souls in the Kingdom of Heaven. The keys given to Peter are to save the spiritual lives of men and women, both in this life and in the life beyond. They are not a grant of political power in this world, whether that be civic, ecclesiastic, or of any other institution.
Hugh Nibley made this quite clear in Mormonism and Early Christianity. In the important passage, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” the word it is all important. It has been understood almost exclusively to refer to the church. But as Nibley says: “Moreover, the thing which is held back, is not the church, for the object is not in the accusative but in the partitive genitive: it is “hers,” part of her, that which belongs to her, that the gates will not be able to contain.” Clearly this is a reference to those in spirit prison. “[A]nd the gates of hell shall not prevail against [those that are now a part of her – i.e. those that are in spirit prison]”.
This is the meaning that Dante understood when he wrote of the gates of Peter. It is also the tradition that we have preserved in the image of the “pearly gates” – mentioned at the end of the 21st chapter of Revelations (verse 21) – where the gates of heaven are made of pearls.
Yes, Peter became the leader of Christ’s church on earth. But the keys themselves have always been meant to save others – whether in this life or beyond the veil – not as a means of power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” proclaimed Jesus to Pilate. Why should He then grant to Peter keys to something that is not His – keys, that is, to earthly power?
Clearly this was not the intent. The keys of the priesthood are keys to salvation. They allow for the work of redeeming the dead. In the meantime we are left to the powers that be (often lamentably so). This doesn’t mean that we are to passively suffer the injustices imposed on us by the purveyors of power. Far from it. It does mean, however, that God’s work can continue in spite of these injustices.
Yes, The Kingdom of Heaven will come and Christ will be its ruler. But in the meantime, the leader of His church on earth will hold the keys to the temple, not the keys to the White House. It was never meant to be any other way.
The famous verse in the Gospel of Matthew is Chapter 16 verses 18 and 19. Theodore of Mopsuestia’s quote is from Fragment 92, cited in Manlio Simonetti’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ib (Thomas C. Oden General Editor). Intervarsity Press, 2002. The quotes from Saint Theodore of Studium and John, patriarch of Jerusalem can be found in James Likoudis’s St. Thomas Aquinas, Papal Supremacy, and the Witness of the eastern Churches in the First Millennium (www.credo.stormloader.com/Ecumenic/thomaqui.htm). George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament was published by Eerdman’s in 1974. The references to the realm of the dead are on page 116. For Nibley’s discussion see Mormonism and Early Christianity (Deseret Book Company, 1987) pages 106-108.