April 9, 2022

Now online: Lancelot Andrewes, “The Power of The Keys, and Absolution” (1600)

Lancelot Andrewes, The Power of The Keys, and Absolution (1600)

This work is a significant Elizabethan text on the doctrine of absolution and apostolic keys. Preached at the royal court in March of 1600, this sermon powerfully unpacks on that doctrine of the keys and absolution which can be found in Sacred Scripture. Andrewes’ sermons (here as elsewhere) have an incredible ability to take one or two words, sometimes even just a comma or a sentence order, and from that to unpack a wealth of riches of God’s teaching. In our oversaturated era we’re accustomed to deal with gluts of information in every inquiry. Andrewes takes a different approach: less is more. Just a word or two, if they’re from God, are significant and interesting enough to spend an entire sermon on them.

The question Andrewes seeks to answer is: what is the Scriptural teaching on absolution and the apostolic keys, if we put aside all historical baggage? What riches can be mined from a patiently conducted careful and exhaustive study of the sacred text itself? The question of Apostolic Keys and Absolution was a source of controversy in that era. The Roman church had made it into a sacrament just 300 years earlier, and in face of such blatant change of doctrine, there was much pressure in the 16th century to strongly react into the opposite direction. The continental reformer Heinrich Bullinger, for instance, wrote that “the keys … are nothing else but the ministry of preaching the Gospel.” (Bull. V. 146.) Thus an initial superstition had inadvertently produced a reactionary secularization.

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Which direction, then, was undertaken by the Church of England? The divines took a remarkably judicious course of action, which avoided both the superstitions and the reactions, rooting themselves in the fathers and especially the Sacred Writ, which endureth forever. The consensus of the Elizabethan theologians gives to the keys and absolution a distinct and objectively real function, without the confusion of making it into a sacrament; the 1662 Ordinal officially distinguished the keys and absolution from the preaching of the Word. The text of Lancelot Andrewes shows how the Anglican divines had grounded their argument. Through a minute and painstaking exegesis of the text of Sacred Scripture, he proves that God gives the ministers of his Church the power to remit and retain sins. The sermon provides a way to understand, and rescue, the Catholic doctrine of Scripture and the fathers, without having to turn it into a sacrament, add theological confusion, and indulge in Roman superstitions. This, as in other cases, highlights the unique genius of the historic Church of England, as a guide to the eternal Godly doctrine and truth.

Lancelot Andrewes, The Power of The Keys, and Absolution (1600)