The Meaning and Significance
of “Bind” and “Loose”
in Matthew 16:19


A Thesis
Presented to
The Capital Bible Seminary


In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts

Catherine Millard
April 5, 1983
(Copyright 1983 by Catherine Millard)

The Need and Purpose for the Study
Approach and Organization of the Study

Word Studies
The Jewish Nature of Matthew’s Gospel
Aramaic and Hebrew Sources of “Bind” and “Loose” in Rabbinic Law
The Jewish meaning
Illustrations of the Jewish meaning
The meaning of the pronouns o and osa
The Jewish meaning rules out an interpretation of remission or retention of sins
“Bind” and “Loose” in their immediate context
The future perfect tense, its relevance and meaning
The mistranslation of the grammatical construction of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18.
Cadbury versus Mantey

“Bind” and “Loose” as interpreted by the Early Chruch
Testimonies of the Ante-Nicene Fathers
Testimonies of the Post-Nicene Fathers
Summary of views
An Historical Overview of Biblical Exegesis during the Early Middle Ages
A study of historical methods used
The Vulgate – an early Latin translation
The problem
The Roman Catholic View – the Import and Bearing of Matthew 16:19 upon Papal
Succession and Infallibility
The development of Papal Infallibility
Interpretative views of foremost Catholic theologians
The New Dutch Catechism
An inquiry into the exegesis of two recent Catholic translations of the Bible
The Jerusalem Bible
The St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible
Reformed Theological Perspectives
John Wycliffe’s interpretation
John Hus’ interpretation
Martin Luther’s interpretation
John Calvin’s interpretation
Opposition to the Traditional Stance of the Catholic Church

Usefulness of study

(Notations and bibliography not included on internet site.)

*Original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek language not reproduced on internet site.)


The Need and Purpose for the Study
Matthew 16:19 has long been a target of intense theological debate. It has been a key verse in the Roman Catholic Church’s stance upon papal infallibility and a pivotal issue in Protestant-Catholic differences since the Reformation. The Second Vatican Council, together with modern-day scholarship, has reopened this debate and a new quest for biblical truth has emerged. There is therefore a need to reassess the scope and power of papal authority which is based upon Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:19: “What you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” A consistent misinterpretation of this passage to read: “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” occurs in the majority of biblical texts.
The passage in question was the basis for establishment of ecclesiastical authority on earth, and upon the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. It provided the justification for sacerdotalism, i.e. the endowment of divine power upon certain men to remit or to retain sins in behalf of God. Hence, it is important to examine the validity of the traditional interpretation.

Approach and Organization of the Study
The problem to be dealt with is the correct interpretation of Matt. 16.19. The position taken in the paper is that there are five basic flaws in the traditional interpretation.
The first relates to the meaning of the terms “bind” and “loose.” The paper will review evidence on the meaning of these words in Jesus’ day, pointing out that in Rabbinic and common usage the terms did not connote what they have been taken to mean in the traditional interpretation.
The second flaw is an error in translation. The tense in which Jesus spoke as reported in Matthew was not the verb tense used in the translation to Latin. The arguments of contemporary Greek scholars who have reached this conclusion will be reported. The error largely stems from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation (c. A.D. 400) of Greek manuscripts. At that time and for centuries thereafter the study of the Greek language used in the New Testament was not as scholarly, as precise, nor as highly developed as it is today. Evidence on this point will be introduced.
A third flaw is on the interpretation of “whatsoever” (shall be bound). The term refers to forms of behaviour, not to people, and is incorrectly interpreted to mean “whomsoever.” Hence, there is no basis in the Greek for church authority to consign people to heaven or hell.
The fourth objection to the traditional interpretation is one raised by leaders of the Reformation, and provided reason for subsequent formation of Protestant churches. In effect, the Reformers pointed out that the Catholic church interpretation of Matt. 16:19 was inconsistent with other portions of Scripture. On these grounds they questioned Papal infallibility and supremacy over others, including claims of absolute Papal authority over men’s souls, i.e. to remit or retain men’s sins.



Word Studies
The Greek word “bind” comes from _____ and the word “loose” from ____. ____occurs fifty times in the Septuagint, where its usage applies to eight Hebrew words as follows:____, ____,____,____,____,____,____,____. These terms all carry with them the meaning “to bind,” the distinctives of each being as follows: ____, “. . .to make fast, to put in bonds, to make captive . . . to prohibit, to forbid”; ____, “to bind . . . to saddle. . . to restrain”; ____, “to surround, enclose with a wall”; ____, “not to be opened . . . not to be set free”; ____, “to compress, to bind together, to besiege . . . to press upon”; ____, “to bind, to conspire . . . compacted”; ____, “to tie, to bind, to be bound”;____, “to make, render, to set.” ____ appears forty-two times in the New Testament. The word denotes the following: to bind, to tie, to fetter, to keep in bonds or to enchain.
Arndt and Gingrich translate the word in terms of:
to bind, to the, of actual binding and imprisentment, to bind someone with chains, to bind someone and put him in prison, to bind hand and foot, of binding by law and duty, as a wife to her husband; to fasten, or as that which is forbidden by the Rabbis.
In the Septuagint the word “loose” (from____) is used on thirty-three occasions for seven Hebrew words, as follows:____,____,____,____,____,____,____. They all convey the meaning “to loose,” their derivatives being as follows: ____, “to receive, to be lifted up, to be exalted . . .”; ____, “to draw out, to put off . . .”; ____, “to cause to tremble, to shake off, to loose captives”; ____, “to hide, to destroy”;____, “to open, to let loose, to begin . . .”;____, “to be graciously accepted, to be paid off”; ____, “to loose, to be loosed from bonds, to dwell.”
Liddell and Scott list the following meanings for ____:

to loosen, to unbind, to unfasten, to strip off, to undo, to unharness, to unyoke, to release, to deliver, especially from bonds or prison, difficulty or danger; to let loose or set free, to bring to naught, to put an end to, to release, to redeem, to atone for or to pay in full.

The word occurs forty-three times in the New Testament and carries with it an identical meaning.
The general and immediate contexts of____ and____must be investigated in order to arrive at an accurate interpretation of the words as they occur in Matt. 16:19.

The Jewish Nature of Matthew’s Gospel

Of foremost consideration is the purpose and intent of the author of Matthew’s gospel. The first book of the New Testament was composed primarily for a Jewish audience. The book begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham, its main purpose being to portray Christ as King of the Jews. Hebrew terminology is employed throughout. A study of the Palestinian expressions found in Matthew’s text gives clear indication of its Jewish tonality. Examples include: “The kingdom of heaven, flesh and blood, the gates of the underworld, the law and the prophets and to bind and to loose.” Even more revealing are the procedures by which Matthew identifies himself with the Jewish world. The entire gospel bears a Hebrew stamp upon it. It can be deduced from the above that a good proportion of the words used in the first gospel account are Jewish in origin and meaning. A clear perception of the Jewish meaning of these words is of importance for a thorough understanding of the gospel message.

Aramaic and Hebrew Sources of “bind” and “loose” in Rabbinic Law

The Jewish meaning

Arndt and Gingrich say the following in regard to “bind” and “loose:”
Another interpretation starts from the Jewish viewpoint. Aramaic___ and____ are academic language for the decision of the Rabbis as to what was to be regarded as “bound”____ i.e. forbidden, or “loosed”____ i.e. permitted.

Edersheim expresses the view that “binding” and “loosing” were very familiar in Rabbinic law. The terms carried with them the prohibition or the permission of acts or things, declaring them lawful or unlawful. In a true sense, therefore, this is rather administrative, disciplinary power. Edersheim states:

No other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic Canon-law than those of binding and loosing. The words are the literal translation of the Hebrew equivalents of ____, meaning to bind in the sense of prohibiting; and____, which means to loose in the sense of permitting. . . Binding and loosing included all the legislative functions of the new church. In view of the Rabbis, heaven was like earth, and questions were discussed and settled by a heavenly Sanhedrin.

Plummer agrees with the view that “bind” and “loose” are literal translations from____ and____, signifying on the one hand, prohibition or holding to be invalid and non-applicable; and on the other, permission, or holding to be valid or applicable.

In support of the above interpretation, M’Neile states:

Bind and loose appear to represent the Aramaic____ and____ which were technical terms for a verdict of a teacher of the law, who, on the strength of his expert knowledge of the oral tradition, declared some action or thing bound, i.e. forbidden, or loosed, i.e. permitted. Many things which the school of Shammai bound, that of Hillel loosed.

The sages of Palestine or the “Rabbis” were ordained by the Sanhedrin to teach both the Scriptures and the oral and traditional laws to the Jewish Community. The highest religious authority in the land was the great Bet Din or the Religious Sanhedrin, which upheld and enforced Talmudic teachings. Talmudic tradition traces its origin to the seventy elders who assisted Moses in the government of Israel, forming the first Sanhedrin. Pharisaic teachers presided over the great Bet Din. Its order of authority consisted of a President (“nasi”) followed by a Vice-President (“ab bet din”) or “father of the court.” The members of this judiciary college or Bet Din were well-versed in the traditional interpretation of the law. Three positions were thus open to the Rabbis: (1) The Presidency of the “Bet Din,” (2) Head of the judiciary of the “Bet Din,” and (3) Master of civil and ritual laws; leader in charitable work and exemplary moral conduct.

The Jewish interpretation of “bind” and “loose” consisted of three main parts: (1) authority to declare a thing lawful or unlawful, (2) to pronounce an action accordingly, criminal or innocent; (3) thereupon to pronounce a ban or to revoke it.

The original Aramaic words____ and____were thus technical in nature and application.

Illustrations of the
Jewish meaning

“Binding” and “loosing” were commonplace phrases in the Jewish schools and referred to things and not persons. In order to familiarize the reader with the idiom of Christ’s day, a number of specific expressions from the Talmud are here quoted:

The school of Shammai saith: “They do not steep ink, colors and vetches (on the eve of the Sabbath) unless they be steeped before the day be ended.” But the school of Hillel looseth it.

In respect of the Sabbath: “…once the fuel has been extinguished, the school of Shammai bindeth putting (foods) back on the stove, the school of Hillel looseth it…” “Rabbi Juda looseth the moving of a new candelabrum and bindeth placement of an old one (which has already been used).”
The expression was of frequent occurrence in Jewish custom of that day. The usage pertained to doctrine and judgments concerning things allowed or prohibited by law. “To bind” is the same as to forbid or to declare forbidden. When Christ used this common Hebrew expression, He was therefore clearly understood by His predominantly Jewish audience as referring to the usual, literal meaning of the term.

The meaning of the

The words___and___, interpreted to mean “what” and “whatsoever” (Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 respectively; precede the terms “bind” and “loose” and thereby designate that actions and things were spoken of, and not persons. The implications of the pronoun form indicate that a correct interpretation is “whatsoever thou shalt bind,” denoting things and not “whomsoever thou shalt bind,” which would designate persons.

The Jewish meaning rules
out an interpretation of
remission or retention of

It follows from the above that the Jewish term “bind and loose” does not include either remission or retention of sins. Gaebelein reiterates this fact in his statement that “binding and loosing” refers only to discipline on earth. The term excludes both the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. Toussaint reinforces the view. “To bind and to loose” could therefore be used in two ways: either in reference to rules (halachah) being promulgated by a binding authority, or else to the discipline exercised within a congregation. These two functions are closely connected with the life of the synagogue. It is quite conceivable, however, that Matthew uses the former meaning of the phrase in Matt. 16:19, i.e., Peter symbolizing the Chief Rabbi; and in the second sense to include leaders of the congregation. The divine prerogative to practice Church discipline, that is to declare lawful or unlawful matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline, is thereby conferred upon Peter (Matt. 16:19) and subsequently upon the apostles, (Matt. 18:18). In Acts 15, the “binding” of circumcision, of eating of food offered to idols, of things strangled and of blood, is enacted; and in Acts 21:24, the “loosing” to Paul and his companions of purification, takes place. Both these instances are clear examples of this authority in action within the early Church. Thus, in matters concerning decrees pertaining to Mosaic rites and judgments or the determination of legal doctrine and practice, they were to exercise their special prerogative of “binding” and “loosing.”
This concludes the consideration of the meaning which should properly be ascribed to these two terms as used in Matt. 16:19. A review of the customary usage of “binding” and “loosing” in the sense in which Jesus used the terms indicates that they applied to behaviour and constituted ruling as to what was allowed or prohibited by law. There is nothing in the record to suggest that they applied to the “binding” or “loosing” of souls, or to remission or retention of sins.

Bind” and “loose” in their Immediate Context
The future perfect tense,
its relevance and meaning

A second objection to the traditional translation of the verse concerns the tense of the verb. The tenses in Matt. 16:19 are periphrastic future perfect, which is the equivalent of the future perfect, according to grammarians (cited below). The periphrastic future perfect consists of a future tense____, together with a perfect participle_____and_____. This type of construction occurs rarely in the New Testament but is to be found also in Matt. 18:18. Periphrastic tenses were a characteristic of the Aramaic and Hebrew languages. In Hellenistic Greek they express more emphatically the existence of a new state of things. A survey of the meaning and usage of the future perfect tense results in the following consensus: “The future perfect denotes an action that will be already finished at some future time. It is thus a perfect transferred to the future.” “It is a future action as completed in relation to another future action. Hence a future prior to another future.”
The future perfect simply projects the whole unit into the future and conceives an act which will have been completed at the time contemplated in the future and of which the results will abide.
“It is a future state that will result from a prior act. The state is commonly that of the subject in intransitive and passive verbs.” The future perfect tense thus expresses perfect action in future time.
The periphrastic future perfect passive found in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 has therefore the same force according to these grammarians as the usual future perfect passive construction.

The perfect tense

Greek grammars indicate that the perfect indicative carries with it the following meaning: “It implies a past action and affirms an existing result.” “The perfect represents an action as finished at the time at which the present would represent it as going on.” “It denotes the continuance of completed action.” The Greek perfect tense indicates the present “state of affairs” resulting from a past action, e.g. John is risen from the dead. “It is always present complete, predicating a present resulting from that event or act.” “It describes an action as completed at the time of writing or speaking, with abiding results.
The perfect therefore states that an event occurred and continues to have significant results. The reduplication is an effort to express completion in the verb stem itself.
The perfect is employed in strict accordance with its proper import, that is when something past is intended to be represented as something just now (in the present) completed.
Examples such as____”I have seen, therefore I know” and____”I have persuaded myself, therefore I trust,” bear out this fact.

A mistranslation of the
grammatical construction
of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18

It is the verdict of many eminent nineteenth and twentieth century Greek scholars that the grammatical construction of Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 has been consistently mistranslated into the vernacular. Charles Williams is cited as an unusual example of exegetical accuracy in his rendition of Matt. 16:19 and 18:18. An appraisal of the translation leads to a conclusion that this translator does justice in bringing out the tense significance of Greek verbs. The passage reads as follows: “Whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven” and “Whatever you permit on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven.” The error resulting from mis-interpretation of the Greek future perfect tense in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 (together with the Greek perfect tense in John 20:23) is one of the most prevalent and significant errors in Christendom.

Cadbury versus Mantey

Henry J. Cadbury, a firm advocate of translating the Greek future perfect tense into a simple future tense, asserts that the action or condition implied in the perfect is not necessarily prior to that of the other clause. He is of the opinion that in the two Matthean passages, the future perfects seem to imply a permanent condition rather than a condition prior to the time of the relative clause. As has already been demonstrated, however, leading Greek grammarians are opposed to this view, classifying both perfect and future perfect tenses in terms of an action or state whose inception and occurrence were completed in past time, and a state of completed action in future time, respectively.
Cadbury states that the difference of idiom existing in English and Greek precludes any adequate rendering of the Greek nuances of such terms into plain English tense forms. A refutation of this view is presented by the fact that after the Greek future perfect disappeared from use, as in modern Greek, the simple future tense was employed in its stead. So also in Hebrew, where there is no future perfect, the simple future is at times used as one, e.g. Isa. 53:10: “When thou shalt make,” signifies “When thou shalt have made.”
Mantey’s thesis is that the perfect tense had been mistranslated in these passages, rendering both sacerdotalism and priestly absolution unscriptural. His article appeared at the same time as Cadbury’s reply. Mantey’s thesis exposed the grammatical error in the interpretation of a Greek future perfect by means of a simple future tense. A stress was laid upon the completed action or state in both perfect and future perfect tenses in the original Koiné Greek texts. Cadbury’s conclusion was that the case for or against sacerdotalism “does not rest upon disputable points of Greek grammar.” Cadbury demonstrates his point by giving other New Testament examples of the perfect in the apodosis which, in his view, do not specify an action or condition prior to the time of the apodosis. Four such examples are cited, as follows: I John 2:5; James 2:10; Rom. 14:23 and Rom. 13:8. His conclusion is that the Greek perfect tenses do not always connote antecedent time. Mantey’s argument points to the fact that in the vast majority of cases where the Greek perfect tense is used, antecedent action is indicated. The exceptions cited by Cadbury cannot therefore be taken as an indication of the usual use of the perfect tense.
A product of Harvard University and a member of the newly-selected Committee on Revision at the time, Cadbury was presented with a doctoral dissertation compiled by a candidate majoring in New Testament at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research findings and conclusions coincided fully with those of Mantey (on the Greek perfect tenses). The Committee having completed their work of revision, however, the issue remained unaltered.
Chamberlain, Professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, quotes Matt. 16:19 as an example of the error which the Revised Version failed to correct. It should, according to the author, read: “shall have been bound or loosed” in lieu of “shall be bound or loosed.” The theological implications resultant from these two meanings is of significance, being a question of “Whether Jesus means that heaven determines the policy for Christian ministers, or whether the ministers have authority over heaven.”
The evidence lies in favour of the future perfect passive rendering of_________________into “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed” as opposed to the customary “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed” of the Authorized and Revised Standard Versions. Hence, an accurate translation of these passages renders the teaching on sacerdotalism obsolete, being contrary in meaning to the original text.


This chapter has been concerned with the usage of “bind” and “loose” in both the Old and New Testaments. A Jewish meaning for these terms was established based upon the Rabbinical nature and origin of the words. Examples of their frequent occurrence in the Talmud were given, together with the Jewish interpretation consisting of a pronouncement of judgments pertaining to the prohibition or permission of things or actions. It was demonstrated that the original Jewish/Aramaic terms were technical in nature and application. The usual, literal meaning of “bind” and “loose” thus precludes the remission or retention of sins. An essential part of the chapter dealt with the syntactical structure of Matt. 16:19b, with an emphasis upon the grammatical construction of the Greek future perfect and perfect tenses, together with their relevance and bearing upon priestly authority within the Church. Foremost Greek grammarians were consulted and their views weighed. A valid conclusion was then drawn in favour of the future perfect passive rendering of_________ and__________into “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed” in contrast to the simple future tense translation of “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed” in the apodosis of Matt. 16:19b. It was noted that a persistent error in the interpretation of these Greek tenses rendered sacerdotalism scripturally unsound.



The history of the Catholic church has been greatly influenced by reliance upon the traditional translation and interpretation of Matt. 16:19 as authority for the exercise of spiritual power.
The mistranslation of Matt. 16:19 has resulted in more than half of the professed Christians in the world believing in sacerdotalism, i.e., that certain men are divinely endowed with power to remit or to retain sins in behalf of God. The implications which sacerdotalism impart is that the servants of God should have the Divine prerogative to “bind heaven in order to ratify their own exclusions from and inclusions in the kingdom of heaven.”
The purpose of this chapter is to present the traditional views of “bind” and “loose” as interpreted by the fathers of the early Church, together with more recent Catholic theological perspectives. The study will incorporate an examination and inquiry into the methods of biblical exegesis employed during the Early and Middle Ages. The import and bearing of Matt. 16:19 upon Papal succession and infallibility, as interpreted by the Catholic church and subsequently refuted by the Protestant Reformers, will be a focal point of the chapter.

“Bind” and “Loose” as Interpreted
by the Early Church

Testimonies of the Ante-
Nicene Fathers

As early as A.D. 195, Tertullian, a contemporary of Irenaeus, makes mention of the power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth as having been bestowed upon Peter, and through him, upon the Church. The above words clearly indicate sacerdotalism in its primitive stage, Peter and the Church being endued with supernatural powers of binding and loosing in heaven as well as on earth. The church Father Origen (A.D. 216) saw Matt. 16:19 as relating directly to Peter’s supremacy and referred to the apostle as chief authority over the Church. Saint Cyprian (A.D. 246) illustrious Father of the Ante-Nicene period, quotes Matt. 16:18-19 in his defense of Peter’s chair and his supreme power within the church. He equates binding and loosing with the remission or retention of sins. Cyprian’s rendition of the passage reads as follows: “And what thou shalt bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” Firmilian (A.D. 231) advocates sacerdotalism based upon the scriptural passages of Matt. 16:19 and John 20:23. In concert with Cyprian, he affirms that the power of forgiving sins was given to the apostles and to the churches which they, sent forth by Christ, founded, and to the bishops who by vicarious ordination, have succeeded to them.

Testimonies of the Post-
Nicene Fathers

An excerpt from the writings of Hilary of Poitiers (A.D. 356), reveals his correlation of the passage under consideration with Peter’s confession, which earned for him the title of “Door-keeper of the heavenly kingdom and in his judgment on earth, a judge of heaven.” In conformity with his predecessors, Hilary utilizes the simple future translation in the apodosis of Matt. 16:19 as follows: “Whatsoever he should bind or loose on earth, that should abide bound or loosed in heaven.” St. Ephraem of Syria (A.D. 370), takes the passage a step further when he refers to Simon Peter as binding and loosing those in heaven, and those under the earth. He also views Peter as “The Keeper of heaven, the Firth-born of those that bear the keys.” The Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, St. Epiphanius (A.D. 385), elevates Peter to a position of supreme authority in the Church when he says that “In every way was the faith confirmed in him who . . .looses on earth and binds in heaven.” “For in him,” he continues, “are found all the subtle questions of the faith.” The Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (A.D. 387), views Christ as having placed the keys of heaven into the hands of Peter, thereby entrusting to him “the authority over all things in Heaven . . .who extended the Church to every part of the world and declared it to be stronger than heaven.” Likewise, this church Father translates Matt. 16:19 with the traditional simple future tense, extracting from it the basis for Peter’s divine authority to forgive sins.
In the fifth century A.D., St. Augustine’s writings on the subject clearly indicate a correlation which this learned Father saw between the power of binding and loosing and the church’s authority to retain or to remit sins. He states that “A spiritual judgment, founded on what is written, ‘that which ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Matt. 16:19), is binding on souls . . .” Peter Chrysologus (A.D. 440), in his defense of Papal supremacy, sees Peter as head of a princedom over the apostolic college, to whom was given the power to bind the guilty and to absolve the penitent.

Summary of views

A summary of the above teaching leads to the following conclusions: (1) The Scripture passage under consideration is consistently quoted with a simple future tense in the apodosis; (2) Both the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers interpreted the term “bind and loose” in direct relation to a judicial power of the keys bestowed, first upon Peter, and subsequently on his successors; (3) This power is further described as extending into the realm of the retention or remission of men’s sins. Sacerdotalism is thereby advocated and reinforced by the tradition of the early Church Fathers.

An Historical Overview of Biblical Exegesis
During the Early Middle Ages

A study of historical
methods used

A study of the historical methods of exegesis employed by the medieval Church reveals its heavy dependence upon the procedural patterns of four Latin Fathers, namely, Ambrose (d. 397), Augustine (d. 430), Jerome (d. 419), and Gregory the Great (d. 604).
Daniélou states that Origen was the first of the great exegetes, and that all of his successors, even Jerome, who reacted against him, owed him nearly everything. Origen’s method of interpretation was one of uncertainty. “Scripture was for him a mirror, which reflected the divinity now darkly, now brightly; it had body, soul and spirit; a literal, moral and allegorical sense . . .” Ambrose expounded upon a form of exegesis comprised of the somatic (literal, grammatical), psychic (moral) and pneumatic (allegorical, mystical) understanding of Scripture to which biblical exegetes were exposed. The methods of exegesis of Gregory the Great were as follows:

First we lay the historical foundations, next, by pursuing the typical sense, we erect a fabric of the mind to be a stronghold of faith, and moreover as the last step, by the grace of moral instruction, we, as it were, clothe the edifice with an overcast of coloring.

When compiling his commentary on Job, Gregory was urged by the monks in Constantinople not only to bring out the allegorical meanings in his work, but also to give to those allegorical meanings their moral applications. It is thus that Gregory sees Job, by virtue of his trials, as a prototype of the passion of Christ.
Jerome was a product of the Alexandrian school of exegesis. Throughout his lifetime, he was preoccupied with a search for the spiritual meaning of scriptural passages, much in the same way as was Origen. However, Jerome progressed in maturity, applying more of a literal sense to his original mystical approach to exegesis.
In the Early Middle Ages, Augustine was considered to be the greatest of all the Church Fathers. He stated:

In every sacred book one should note the things of eternity which are communicated, the facts of history which are recounted, future events which are foretold, moral precepts which are enjoined or counseled.

The above examination of the interpretative methods used by Gregory the Great, Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose, reveals that allegorical, moral and historical meanings were applied to Scripture, supplanting its literal sense.
It is reasonable to assume that the varied objectives and emphases given in exegesis in that era would lessen the importance of seeking first and foremost an accurate translation of Greek to Latin that would capture fully the intended meaning of the original. This was undoubtedly one objective, but not necessarily as central as it is today in the work of Greek scholars.

The Vulgate – an early
Latin translation

In A.D. 382, Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to undertake a thorough new revision of the biblical texts. The latter appears to have been hurried in this formidable task, to the point where his work was neither consistent nor systematic. Nevertheless, the Vulgate translation of the Bible was accepted as the book par excellence of the Middle Ages. No other book was copied as often and with such artistic extravagance.
The Encyclical letter, “Spiritus Paraclitus” celebrated the 15th centenary of the death of St. Jerome. In it, Pope Benedict XV addressed himself to Jerome’s firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. The Pope relates how Jerome, faced with vehement opposition for making corrections in the gospels contrary to the authority of the Fathers and of general opinion, simply replied that he was not “so utterly stupid nor so grossly uneducated as to imagine that the Lord’s words needed any correction or were not divinely inspired.” Similarly, when interpreting Ezekiel’s first vision as a portrayal of the Four Gospels, Jerome remarks:

That the entire body and back were full of eyes will be plain to anybody who realizes that there is naught in the Gospels which does not shine and illumine the world by its splendour, so that even things that seem trifling and unimportant shine with the majesty of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Benedict further elaborates upon the fact that what here is said of the Gospels is indicative of Jerome’s commentaries upon the remainder of the New Testament, which he regards as “the very rule and foundation of Catholic interpretation.” According to Jerome, the distinguishing mark between a true and false prophet rested upon this very note of truth.
In an epistle addressed to Pope Damascus, at whose request Jerome undertook His revised translation of the Bible, the latter speaks of the numerous Latin translations and says that “there were almost as many text types as there were manuscripts.” He describes the undertaking in terms of a pious but perilous task, that is:

. . . of seeking truth from the fountainhead and collating the Latin text with the most ancient Greek manuscripts, making no more alterations, than were absolutely necessary to correct the sense.

Given a predisposition to make few alterations, and given the importance of such (incorrect) translation as scriptural foundation for church authority, it is quite possible that Jerome did not even question in his own mind the possibility of error in the translation of Matt. 16:19. Jerome’s revision of the Gospels in the Latin lingua vulgata (common language) first appeared in A.D. 382. The entire rendition of the Vulgate Scriptures was completed by the year A.D. 405. Jerome’s Vulgate translation is the one upon which the vast majority of our translations are based. This Latin translation incorrectly interprets Matt. 16:19 to read: “. . . and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The problem

Why was it that the expositors and translators of the Bible in the Early Middle Ages failed to note and correct the mistranslation of Matt. 16:19? The original text of the New Testament was penned in Koiné Greek. During the period A.D. 650-1000 almost all biblical exegesis was characterized by a reluctance to differ with the inherited interpretations, particularly of the Latin Church Fathers. This patristic exegesis commanded respect, and was accepted by early medieval theologians in view of their firm commitment to church tradition. But it was also due in part to the lack of adequate scholarly training in Greek. The Greek which entered into early medieval biblical literature consisted almost entirely of disparate words cited from the Fathers or from various literary remnants of late antiquity. Another historian describes the situation in these terms:

When one considers the scope of Biblical texts which were copied until the middle of the 9th century . . . a sad mixture of excellent texts and deplorable ones; sometimes two translations of the same book juxtaposed; ancient versions interspersed with the Vulgate in indescribable confusion, and in each manuscript books of the Bible copied, following a different order.

The Venerable Bede, a compiler, is purported to have “occasionally used Greek authorities, but he seems only to have done so in Latin translations.” He made extensive use of the writings of the Church Fathers, in particular Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory. McNally states that there is evidence of Greek words being invented, this being especially the case among the Irish. An indication of the lack of Greek scholarship at the time of Alcuin is stated in different terms by another authority, when he affirms that the “Greek Fathers were presumably in Latin dress, for neither Alcuin, nor any of his contemporaries could have understood them in the original.” Thus, there appear to be several reasons that the mistranslation by Jerome of the passage in Matthew was not noted and rectified in succeeding centuries. One was undoubtedly a reluctance to question the work of an esteemed Church Father. Another was a relatively low level of Greek scholarship. A third may well have been the tendency to accept the traditional translation and interpretation as correct because it was in accord with the reality in which they lived, i.e., actual Church practices.


Chapter Three has consisted of an examination and inquiry into the various perspectives of biblical interpretation of “bind” and “loose.” Both Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers testified to the supremacy of Peter and to Apostolic Succession based upon their translation and application of Matt. 16:19. Early Church tradition advocated and reinforced the custom of sacerdotalism and priestly absolution within the Church.
A study of the methods of exegesis employed during the early and Middle Ages indicated a lack of Greek scholarship and critical methodology in the translation of biblical texts. The methods of exegesis of Jerome were commensurate with those of the allegorical school of Alexandria. It was also true that patristic exegesis commanded respect and unquestioned compliance. This paper questions the assumed inerrancy of the traditional interpretation of Matt. 16:19 on the basis of the lack of exegetical expertise.

The Roman Catholic View – the Import and Bearing
of Matt. 16:19 upon Papal Succession
And Infallibility

The development of Papal

An important consequence of the unquestioning acceptance of Matt. 16:19 in its traditional form was the expansion over the centuries of the scope of Church authority. Eventually, it took the form of the explicit doctrine of Papal infallibility, but well before then it was implicit in the policies and actions of the Popes.
The doctrine of Papal infallibility is a record of gradual development. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) declared that:

. . no one, relying on his own skill, shall presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church—whose it is to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; . . .

In 1870, Vatican Council I proclaimed the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff as a dogma of faith as follows:

. . . we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; . . .

A former Professor of Canon Law in the Pontifical Institute of Canon and Civil Law in Rome quotes Canon 218 in support of the Pope’s infallibility:

The Pope’s plenary, absolute and strictly monarchial jurisdiction manifesting itself in the exercise of judicial, administrative and especially legislative power, is restricted by no human authority . . . The end of the ecclesiastical society is higher than that of every human society and authority. In the words of Jesus Christ, (Matt. 16:19), whatsoever His Vicar binds upon earth is bound also in heaven, and whatsoever he looses is loosed also in heaven. But if his authority depended in any way upon one of the above-mentioned powers (Cardinals, Bishops, Princes or people), then it follows that what they bind or loose would be bound or loosed in heaven. This, Christ did not promise, nor is it true.

Vatican Council II, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, decreed that:

The Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful . . . and he is always free to exercise this power . . . It is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter (Matt. 16:19), was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head (Matt. 18:18).

Interpretative views of
Foremost Catholic

James Cardinal Gibbons, well-known and much respected interpreter of Catholic doctrine, is in full agreement with this dogma of Papal infallibility. In support of the view, he gives the following doctrinal grounds:

And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 16:19a). Thou shalt hold the keys of truth, with which to open to the faithful the treasures of heavenly science. Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven. (Matt. 16:19b). The judgment which thou shalt pronounce on earth I will ratify in heaven . . . .

Gibbons adds to this that the God of truth is surely incapable of sanctioning an untruthful judgment. This foremost authority on the church expresses the view that Christ says to every Christian: “Here, my child, is the Word of God, and with it I leave you an infallible interpreter, who will expound for you its hidden meaning and make clear all its difficulties.” In refuting the argument put forth by a Protestant bishop who stated that he had an infallible Bible, and that this was the only infallibility which he required, Gibbons responds: “O what use to you is the objective infallibility of the Bible, without an infallible interpreter?” This would necessitate every man to become his own pope.
Butler, a firm advocate for infallibility, states that “To be a Catholic a man must have a generous loyalty towards ecclesiastical authority and accept what is taught him with what is called the pietas fidei.” In his defense and recommendation of the Catholic faith, the author states that Catholic theologians are not subject to “an unfortunate intellectual predicament,” as they are able to discern and differentiate between official and unofficial Papal utterances. Implicit in this logic is the distinguishing between fallible utterances and those which fit into the Church’s definition of Papal infallibility.
Another prominent theologian, Monsignor van Noort, describes the Catholic Church’s properties as “those qualities which flow from its very essence and are a necessary part of it.” They are: invisibility, indestructibility, infallibility, unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. Infallibility is defined as “a necessary immunity from error.” It carries with it the significance that the Church can neither deceive, nor be deceived in matters of faith and morals. The most striking testimony to St. Peter’s chair and privilege, according to Father Vincent McNabb, is Matt. 16:17-19, where no other apostle is given a function comparable to this one. The author sees Peter’s primacy as beginning with the beginning and continuing to the end. It is well to note that Father McNabb’s rendition of the scriptural text under consideration is with the simple future tense, in conformity with his contemporaries and predecessors of the Catholic church.
In Thomas Allies’ respected work, to Peter is attributed the titles of “Rock of the Church, the Source of Jurisdiction and the Centre of Unity.” Peter’s supreme power, says Allies, is derived from “the keys of the kingdom of heaven, that is the symbol of supreme power, the mastership over the Lord’s house, the guardianship of the Lord’s city, are committed to him alone.” He affirms that the power of binding and loosing sins, of inflicting and removing censures, of enacting spiritual laws, is here given to him singly.
Corte, a French author, affirms unquestionably the primacy of Peter based upon the simple future tense of Matt. 16:19. “In vain,” says he, “have they tried to interpolate the text. From the critical point of view, no text is more reliable. All the versions and all the manuscripts contain it.” The author continues by stating that the primacy of Peter and his successors always finds its source in that solemn proclamation of Christ.
The problem which the latter view presents is not whether the verse appears in all versions and manuscripts. It is a fact that the original Greek manuscripts testify to the inclusions of Matt. 16:19. The question which necessitates resolution is uniquely one of exegetical accuracy in interpretation.
David Wells states that “the struggle over authority in the Roman Church is the most tangible evidence of the power which the New Catholicism has acquired.” Increasing numbers of contemporary Catholics are opposed to the Church’s firm stance upon Papal control. The serious compromise (for both sides) which is essential in order to bring about reconciliation between old and new in the church was, however, out of order and unfeasible. In presenting the Catholic point of view, Wells concludes that the work of salvation has been committed by God to His Church. The Pope, as Christ’s representative upon earth, has been entrusted with a direction of this important task. “Therefore, to know God, one had to belong to the Church, and to obey God, one had to heed His representative.”

The New Dutch Catechism

The New Dutch Catechism for Catholics, published in 1969, states that the terms “bind and loose” mean both to declare something permissible or forbidden, and to ban (excommunicate) someone or admit him once more into the fellowship of believers. The Apostolic office of headship over the church was passed down in its entirety to the bishops, and in part to the priests and deacons. “Hence, anything that the apostles bind or loose is bound or loosed in the reality of the divine sphere. This authority, bestowed upon certain appointed men, is thus sublime. Its power incorporates salvation and the forgiveness of sins.

The special task of the Bishop of Rome is that of Peter: to be the principle of unity in the Church, to keep it one in faith and life. . . As head of the infallible College of Bishops, he possesses infallibility in a special measure. He is the beacon . . . Since union with the Pope is the touchstone for belonging to the unity, an utterance of the Pope is certainly full of the truth of God’s Spirit, at least when he affirms explicitly (which happens very rarely) that he is speaking infallibly and binding all Christians.

The Primate is hence in possession of the invisible keys, endued with absolute authority and fulfilling his function of regent of which Isa. 22:21-22 speaks.

An inquiry into the exegesis
of two recent Catholic translations of the Bible

The Jerusalem Bible. To substantiate the above assertions on the Catholic Church’s stance upon Papal infallibility in light of the scriptural interpretation of Matt. 16:19, attention is now turned to two of the recent and more widely distributed revisions of the Catholic Bible. The Jerusalem Bible, published in 1966, renders Matt. 16:19 as follows: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” From the editor’s note it is learned that, for the much greater part, the initial drafts of the English translation were made from the Hebrew or Greek and simultaneously compared with the French when questions of variant reading or interpretation arose.

Whichever system was used, therefore, the same intended result was achieved, i.e. an entirely faithful version of the ancient text, which in doubtful points preserves the text established and (for the most part) the interpretation adopted by the French scholars in light of the most recent researches in the fields of history, archeology and literary criticism.

The St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. This version was published in 1970. Matt. 16:19 is translated as follows: “Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” An introductory letter from the Vatican affirms that this translation took twenty-five years to complete, and was carried out in accord with Pope Pius XII’s directive, in his Encyclical letter “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” together with the decree of the Second Vatican Council. These two papal documents prescribed “up-to-date and appropriate translations to be made in the various languages, by preference from the original texts of the sacred books.”
Both these recent translations have simply reinforced Jerome’s original Vulgate translation of Matt. 16:19, substituting the future perfect tense in the apodosis with the simple future tense, rendering it: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven,” and “Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven.”

This chapter has presented evidence to indicate the continued acceptance by the Catholic church of the doctrine of Papal infallibility. This church today stands firm upon the necessity of an infallible Pontiff for the correct interpretation and transmission of Scripture and of doctrine stemming therefrom. However, Béda Rigaux expresses the view that Catholic exegetes are making some attempts to avoid imposing on the texts a tone and a meaning that are nothing more than theological deductions. He concludes that only time will tell whether “common rules of objective interpretation will get the better of confessional disputes.”
Such speculation about the future does not weaken the point of this chapter: the structure of authority of the Catholic church over the centuries has been based upon Matt. 16:19—in mistranslation! The consequences of this error have been important beyond belief, to the detriment of thousands and millions of earnest pilgrims, misinformed and misled.

Reformed Theological Perspectives

The Reformation represents a turning point in the extent to which Christendom accepted the authority traditionally claimed by the Catholic church over the souls of men, based upon Matt. 16:19. It was a rebellion against the idea that the church, not God, is the final arbiter of the believer’s relationship to Christ. A common theme was that man may have a relationship to God through Christ which is not ultimately dependent upon other men, men of the cloth.
This paper now examines some views of four great figures of the Reformation. Wycliffe, Hus, Luther and Calvin. The focus is upon their interpretation of Matt. 16:19.

John Wycliffe’s

Wycliffe was an early Reformer who questioned the authority of the Pope. His objections were based not upon awareness of the flawed translation, but upon his knowledge of other Scripture. He stated that all Papal bulls were to be tested by conformity to Scripture. He insisted that since God alone holds all power over heaven and earth, “binding and loosing” have to be in accordance with God’s will.
Wycliffe (1324-1384) served as Professor of Divinity at Oxford. His understanding of the passage in question was that the power of the Keys was given to Peter as a representative of the priesthood, which fact precludes conferral of any special privilege upon the Roman Pontiffs. It is his view that, as no apostle possessed all of Christ’s human powers, in like manner the Popes were not endowed with all the powers of the apostles. To substantiate this fact he adds that the working of miracles by our prelates has ceased to exist, being unnecessary in the New Testament church.
This English Reformer sees the Pope as claiming to be a judge of souls, both in heaven and hell, to the inclusion of purgatory. In his view, such claims are invalid, however, as God alone holds all power over heaven and earth. The only ultimate authority therefore, is Scripture, for “the Pope and curia err, and their bulls are often falsified.” “Even Peter,” says Wycliffe, “could bind and loose only in accordance with God’s will, which he knew by divine inspiration.” It is thus that Wycliffe labels the notion of Papal infallibility (together with other related opinions), as heresy. The Roman Church’s claim of unconditional and irreversible bindings and loosings on the part of the Pope was for him an absurdity. It was his contention “that no power can be granted to man except subject to the will of God.” This reformer concludes that a Papal decree is binding upon men only insofar as it conforms to the will of God as outlined in His Word. Thus, in the case of a Papal utterance which is contrary to Scripture, Wycliffe advocates compulsory disobedience on the part of all true believers. An important part of his doctrine is that the Pope, being human, is capable of falling into sin. The authority of Holy Scripture, therefore, is “the sole and indisputable rule of the Christian Church.”
It is of further interest to note that Wycliffe attributed the Church power of invalidating treaties and oaths as originating in the power of binding and loosing, which the Catholics derived from Peter’s primacy. To attach the same power to Holy Scripture as to the bulls of the Pope was thus erroneous, as the Pope’s words have no authority over man whatever except they be firmly grounded in Holy Scripture.

John Hus’ interpretation

John Hus (1369-1415) challenged the authority of the Pope and Cardinals from Prague. A chapter entitled “The Power of Binding and Loosing,” in Hus’ De Ecclesia, elaborates upon said power in the following manner: Christ’s power or authority was bestowed upon His vicars, authenticated by the words: “I will give unto thee the Keys of the Kingdom of heaven,” i.e., the power of binding and loosing sins. This is a spiritual power. The promise was made to the whole Church militant, in His address to Peter as its representative. Therefore, concludes Hus, the power of the Keys belongs to the entire Church, made up of its component and individual parts, insofar as each member is suitable for the administration of this power. Therefore, says Hus:

. . . If we are not sufficient to think except God imparts the thought, how are we sufficient to bind and loose except God have previously loosed and bound? Further, it is clear that no man may be loosed from sin or receive the remission of sins, unless God have loosed him or given him remission . . . Therefore, the presbyters are wildly beyond themselves who think and say that they may, of their own initiative, loose and bind, without the absolution or binding of Jesus Christ, preceding their act. For loosing and binding are in the first instance the simple (absolute) act of God. Therefore, the Gospel says, ‘whatsoever is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven,’ but it does not say that it is bound in heaven at a later time and not previously. Hence, the ignorant think that the priest binds, and looses in time first, and after him God. It is folly to have this opinion . . .

Thus, Hus’ exposition of Matt. 16:19 makes it quite clear that God’s act of binding a loosing takes place in heaven first, and subsequently on earth. Therefore, there is no article of faith of greater significance than the inability of any member of Christ’s church to bind or loose sins without prior conformity to its head, which is the Lord Jesus Christ. The Reformer exhorts believers to be wary of the following advice: “If the Pope or any other pretends that he binds or looses by a particular sign, then by that very fact the offender is loosed or bound.” For in complying with this form of statement, they concur that the Pope is as perfect as God, for otherwise he is fallible and capable of misusing God’s power.
In like manner, God is the only being who can judge impartially in respect to whose sins may be forgiven or retained, and therefore He is the only Person who cannot be swayed by an unjust motive in His judgment. However, a vicar of Christ can fall into error and be motivated by a wrong judgment in binding and loosing. Therefore, a combination of priests or vicars are incapable of forgiving an unrepentant sinner who persists in his sins. Likewise, all of God’s priests are unable to bind a righteous man or to withhold forgiveness of his sins should he repent with a contrite heart and turn to God in true humility.

Hus’ premise in respect of the powers attributed to the Roman Pontiffs, is that Scripture has been abused in the interest of clerical power. For, by virtue of the words “whatsoever thou shalt loose,” Peter could not loosen the Scriptures, as Christ Himself said: “The Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35).” The Reformer’s conclusion on the problematic issue of Papal infallibility and Pontifical power is as follows:

To be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation for every human being. But there is no other such Pontiff except the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, our Pontiff . . . John the Baptist also, Peter the apostle and other saints now in heaven, and for none of these was it necessary for salvation to be subject to any other Roman Pontiff besides Christ, seeing that they are already saved persons whom no Roman Pontiff can loose or bind.

Therefore, says Hus, Clement went far beyond the scope of his Papal authority in his bull entitled “The Angels of Paradise” when he gave orders to the angels to conduct safely to heaven the soul of one who had expired on his way to Rome to obtain an indulgence. The Pope thus absolved this soul from purgatory with a request that the pain of hell not be inflicted upon that soul in any degree. Hus’ interpretation of Matt. 16:19 is the following: He sees the passage as referring to a spiritual power of discerning sins and either forgiving them or retaining them; not in terms of Papal or hierarchial jurisdiction.

Martin Luther’s

To Martin Luther (1483-1546) is attributed the title of

“Matchless translator of the Bible in the vernacular, and consummate expositor of its real doctrinal essence; heroic figure that marks the second greatest turning point in human history.”

While his translation of the Bible was a major accomplishment in the field of interpretation of Scripture into the language of the common people, a closer examination of the exact meaning and significance which he attaches to Matt. 16:19 is called for.
Luther’s Short Catechism expounds upon the interpretation of this passage to mean the remission or retention of sins by virtue of the authority vested by Christ in Peter and the apostles (18:18). The question asked is: “What is the Office of the Keys?” The following answer is provided:

It is the peculiar Church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners unto them, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.

Section 302 of the Catechism raises the question as to why the Office of the Keys is called peculiar church power. Under the related Scripture section, Matt. 18:18 is quoted as follows: “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” A further query entitled: “What does this power comprise,” quotes Matt. 16:19 with the same wording as 18:18. The author’s answer is that the Word of God comprises the power to preach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments, and especially the power to remit and to retain sins. Section 304 asks the question: “Why then is this power called the Office of the Keys?” Luther acclaims that it is by reason of “the remission of sins that heaven is opened and by the retention of sins that heaven is closed.” Thus it is gleaned from this Reformer’s exposition that Christ invested His Church upon earth with a spiritual power, and more particularly, this power was given to every local congregation.
Luther sees Matt. 16:19 as having been “woefully martyred by the Pope.”

In the first place, he claims to be the head of the Church and that he alone has the power of the keys, and secondly, he has designated those keys to be not only as the power of forgiveness of sins and the ban, but that he may make laws and command what he pleases even in temporal affairs (against the kingdom of heaven).

In regard to the sacrament of penance, Luther is of the opinion that the Papists have “adapted to the purposes of their own tyranny” the promise of Christ provided in Matt. 16:19: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In support of his premise, Matt. 18:18 and John 20:23 are quoted in conjunction with this verse.
The Reformer states that these words of Christ “are designed to evoke faith from the penitents, in order that they might request and receive forgiveness of their sins.” He concludes, however, that in lieu of the true import and significance of the passage,

Some have even begun to give orders to the angels in heaven and to boast, with an incredible frenzy of piety, that they have received the right to rule in heaven and on earth, and have the power of binding even heaven. Thus they say not a word about the saving faith of the people, but talk largely of the tyrannical power of the Pontiffs; whereas Christ’s words do not deal at all with power, but entirely with faith.

It was Luther’s contention that, should he consent to a trial, it would only be under the auspices of God’s Word, for Councils and Popes were prone to error and therefore fallible. This notable leader of the Reformation points out that in Matt. 16:19 nothing in particular was given to Peter as an individual, but rather, the words incorporated other Church leaders as well, with Peter merely acting as spokesman on this occasion. He asserts that these words of Christ are but gracious promises extended to all of Christendom, so that “poor, sinful consciences are consoled when they are ‘loosed’ or absolved by man.” However, the author concludes that the text has been misinterpreted and misused for the purpose of strengthening and justifying Papal authority.

John Calvin’s

John Calvin (1509-1564) interprets the “binding and loosing” of Matt. 16:19 as directly pointing to the forgiveness of sins; for Christ, in delivering us by His Gospel from eternal damnation, “looses the cords of the curse by which we are held bound.” The message of the Gospel is therefore proclaimed in order to loose men’s bonds, so that, being loosed on earth through the witness of men, they may be actually loosed in heaven. In like manner, the authority to bind is bestowed upon ministers of the Gospel. Calvin adds that this is not part of the actual nature of the Gospel, but is “accidental.” He refers to the reasoning of Cyprian and others, who contend that Christ spoke to all in the person of one man, in order to maintain the unity of the Church. The Papists reply to this is that Peter, who was granted a special privilege on this occasion, was selected in preference to all the others. Calvin sees this reasoning to be defective on the grounds that Peter held the same apostolic office as his colleagues; “for the power of binding and loosing can no more be separated from the office of teaching and the apostleship than light or heat can be separated from the sun.” The Reformer argues that even were it the case that Peter had been given more than his companions, so as to elevate his apostolic office above the others, it is foolishness on the part of the Papists to infer that he became the supreme head of the Universal church. The Reformer states:

All that was given to Peter, therefore, must be limited to the measure of grace which he received for the edification of the Church and so that vast dominion, which the Papists claim for him, falls to the ground.

In addressing Pope Paul III, Calvin dismisses and discredits as fictitious and unsound, the theories of Papal infallibility and Apostolic Succession. According to this Reformer, there will always be a distinction between apostles and their successors. The former are the true “amanuenses” of the Holy Spirit who wrote down the oracles of God; the latter are appointed to teach and transmit God’s truth as it appears in His Word. Calvin further sees the passage under discussion as referring to the preaching of the Gospel, whereby the repentant are loosed and the unrepentant bound. This power, however, is ministerial rather than authoritative in nature, for, strictly speaking, the power bestowed by Christ was to His word, of which certain men were chosen to serve as ministers.
The Reformer also sees a second meaning attributed to Matt. 16:19 and 18:18, which is the ecclesiastical authority bestowed upon the Church to dispense with discipline. Thus, should a person be “bound” by the Church, he is excommunicated; when reincorporated into the fellowship of believers, he is “loosed.” However, this church authority belongs to God. The Church further holds the right to remit or to retain sins, all within the bounds and jurisdiction of Holy Scripture and relying upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, “for God can only ratify a decision over which He, by His Spirit, has presided.” Thus Calvin concludes that:

The Holy Scripture is given by inspiration of God. The Pope will boast that all he hath put forth is from God; thus we see, that by using the name of God for a cloak and covering, the world hath been deceived and kept in ignorance from the beginning.


Wycliffe, Hus, Luther and Calvin all accept the translation of Matt. 16:19 with a simple future tense in the apodosis. All four interpret the passage as including the remission or retention of sins by the Church, but agree that the Church must rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance, rather than bind or loose independently. They deny Papal infallibility on the basis of Christ’s unique supremacy. They see apostolic succession as applying to the clergy. Sacerdotalism, in the form of absolute power and authority over the souls of men on the part of the Church, is seriously challenged. “Binding and loosing” is seen as action by the Church which reflects God’s true perception of sinners and believers. It does not precede Heaven’s judgment nor compel Heaven to follow.

Opposition to the Traditional Stance
of the Catholic Church

At this point in history one might suppose that an enlightened view of the Christian faith would favour examination and re-examination of the scriptural basis for church doctrine and practice. Indeed, this is increasingly characteristic of that portion of the Protestant church in the United States which is expanding and undergoing revival.
Yet there is no change perceptible in the official Catholic position on Matt. 16:19. Nor is there likely to be. One important reason is the Church’s insistence that any examination of Scripture taken into account be guided by the traditional interpretations given by leaders of the Catholic Church in centuries preceding.
Such a Church policy regarding interpretation of Scripture is sharply criticized by J.C. MacCaulay in his discussion of “Roman Infallibles.” He quotes the following verse of Scripture: “To the law and the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:20). The author is of the opinion that the “Roman Church is the perfect successor of the scribes and pharisees in respect to the substitution of traditions and commandments of men for the plain teaching of Holy Scripture.” He further states that the supreme authority and infallibility of God’s Word has been demoted to a secondary position. The same author asserts three things to have been given an equal share in the glory of divine authority and infallibility of Scripture—namely: The Apocrypha, tradition and the Church’s interpretation.
On this issue, MacCaulay concludes that the Church whose prerogative is centered in the supreme Pontiff, becomes “the infallible guide, the sole interpreter and the ‘faithful’ must not exercise their own hermeneutical powers, but receive the Word as interpreted by the Church without question”. It follows therefore, that the Church of Rome has not only added its traditions and interpretations to Holy Scripture, but has rendered them equally valid and binding upon the souls of men as the Word of God itself. “Thus sayeth the Lord” has been replaced with the Roman equivalent of “the Church says so.”
In conformity with the above, another spokesman against Papal infallibility states the following:

One of the facts most damaging to Rome’s claim for Papal infallibility is that, realizing her need for some semblance of scriptural support, she first corrupted the Scripture, then based her doctrine on the falsified text, and then openly presented it as Scriptural truth.

Alexander Stewart states that before 1870, the Catechism described the infallibility of the Pope as “a Protestant invention,” but this official denial of the doctrine has now materialized into a Catholic dogma of faith. His conclusion is that the Roman doctrine of Papal infallibility is unfounded and unwarranted in respect to Scripture.
George Salmon, reputed theologian and representative of the Church of England, states that “whatever is incapable of Scripture proof, even if it may happen to be true, is not required of any man to be believed as an article of faith.”
A sound argumentation put forth is that even the most revered traditions, such as the creeds, are received and accepted purely on the basis of their scriptural proof.
It is Salmon’s premise that the decrees of the council of Trent promote “the principle of the perfect equality of Scripture and tradition as a means of proving doctrine.” Furthermore, the Creed of Pius IV requires all Catholics to promise unswerving loyalty to Holy Mother Church and her judgment of the true sense and interpretation of Scripture, together with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
However, Catholic tradition is a compilation of compact decrees and documentation. The Latin Fathers alone comprise two hundred and twenty-two volumes, whereas the Greek Fathers represent one hundred and sixty-seven volumes of Church tradition. This does not include councils, decrees and Church dogmas, which must be found elsewhere. It is well to note that these writings bear no clear mark of Apostolic tradition nor is any indication given of their Apostolic origin, yet they deter consideration of the truth found in the correct translation and interpretation of Matt. 16:19.




A review of the translation made from the original Greek, and of the meaning of key concepts which were used by Jewish Rabbis at the time of Christ, indicates that the Catholic dogma of Papal infallibility was based on faulty translation and interpretation of the words of Christ in the passage in Matt. 16:19.
Specifically, the terms “binding” and “loosing” were Judaistic expressions signifying the prohibition or permission of acts or things. These meanings were clear and had to be well known to the disciples. There is no indication available that suggests the terms were meant to be understood in a different way. Therefore, it is logical that “bind” and “loose” referred to New Testament ministries which Peter and the Apostles were authorized to practice, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. They incorporate the legislative functions of the new Church, i.e., the authority to declare lawful or unlawful matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline. As the scribes laid out detailed principles of God’s law and the application of discipline, and the Rabbis passed judgment on a transgressor of the law, likewise Peter and the disciples were entrusted with similar responsibilities in the New Testament church established by Christ. Furthermore, there was a serious error in the translation of the Greek future perfect tense into a simple future tense, in Matt. 16:19.
These errors have had consequences of unmeasurable scope over the centuries, justifying such practices as the sale of indulgences, and obscuring the truth that men are saved by grace, not works.
A further conclusion is that: an erroneous translation and interpretation will not be in accord with other Scripture. This conclusion is based upon the meaning ascribed to Matt. 16:19 by the leaders of the Reformation in contradistinction to the then traditional interpretation of the Catholic Church.

Usefulness of study

The aim of this thesis has been to inquire into the utility of traditional exegesis as it relates to present-day Church doctrine based on Scripture. This thesis is an example of exegesis of a key verse in Christian church doctrine; Matt. 16:19. The work is based upon a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and its divine inspiration, and upon the conviction that sound doctrine can stem only from correct exegesis. A need for further study in the area of the Greek perfect tenses is therefore indicated.

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