The Catholic Priesthood Does Not Replace Christ’s (Part 2)

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Last week I made several points to counter the anti-Catholic believe that the Catholic priesthood somehow replaces the priesthood of Christ. Read that here. To the point, I clarifies the mistakes John Clavin made hermeneutically:

“If “Christ be­ing im­mor­tal,” as Calvin says, “had not the least oc­ca­sion to have a vicar sub­sti­tuted for him,” then Calvin has the burden of explaining how it is that Christ is substituting vicars all the time. Though Christ is the High Priest, priests are members of his Priesthood (cf. Rom. 12:4-5). It is not that the priesthood somehow usurps Christ’s; rather, it flows from Christ’s.”

Continuing the discussion…

To further understand how a special priesthood–not just a priesthood of all believers–is supported by the New Testament, we can turn to Romans 15:16:

That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.

The Greek words to watch are the ones translated “minister” and “ministering.” Here is Romans 15:16 in Greek:

εἰς τὸ εἶναί με λειτουργὸν Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ εἰς τὰ ἔθνη, ἱερουργοῦντα τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα γένηται ἡ προσφορὰ τῶν ἐθνῶν εὐπρόσδεκτος, ἡγιασμένη ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ

λειτουργὸν, leitourgon (the English word “liturgy” comes from this), is used in Greek (see the lexicons of Thayer & Liddell-Scott) to mean a either a public servant, including a military conscript, or a priest.

ἱερουργοῦντα, hierourgounta (translated “ministering”), comes from the Greek noun hiereus, which is the normative Greek word for “priest”—that is, one who offers sacrifice. It is the word used in Hebrews to refer to Christ the high priest, to Melchizidek, and to the Old Testament levitical priests. But in Romans, Paul uses it to describe the ministry of the Gospel.

Normally, the New Testament uses the word πρεσβύτερος, presbyteros, rather than leitourgon or hiereus; it is translated variably “presbyter” or “elder.” There was a practical reason for this. Early Christianity was, in the beginning, an effort to bring Jews into the new faith. But in their mind the priesthood was Levitical, by definition. They would have had a hard time even with the idea that Jesus was a priest, since he was from the tribe of Judah. So while Christianity remained largely a Jewish sect, the priesthood of Christ and the apostles was mentioned only rarely, and πρεσβύτερος used instead.

In fact, so foreign was the idea of a non-levitical priesthood to the Jews that the author of Hebrews (note the title) needed to write an entire book in order to justify the idea to them. Far from Hebrews being an argument that only Christ is a priest, it is in fact an argument that the priesthood under the New Covenant is no longer Levitical. It is not that there is now no priesthood; that would have been far too radical an idea for any Jew to possibly accept. Rather, the priesthood has been transferred from Levi to Christ.

Thus when the New Testament speaks of “elders” or “presbyters,” it is in the context of duties that are specifically priestly in character.

  • Acts 14:23. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
  • 1 Timothy 4:14. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
  • Titus 1:5. For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.
  • James 5:14. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

And so when we find the word “presbyter” in the early Church Fathers, we know that they were using the Greek word πρεσβύτερος and speaking of this New Testament priesthood which (1) ordained; (2) practiced the laying on of hands; (3) anointed the sick with oil.

  • Ignatius of Antioch. Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.—Letter to the Magnesians 6:1
  • Ignatius of Antioch. Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery.—Letter to the Magnesians 13:1-2
  • Ignatius of Antioch. In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church.—Letter to the Trallians 3:1
  • Ignatius of Antioch. [A]nyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does not have a clear conscience.—Letter to the Trallians 7:2
  • Clement of Alexandria. Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel. Miscellanies 6:13:107:2
  • Hippolytus. On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains.—The Apostolic Tradition 9.
  • Council of Nicaea. “It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer them.—Canon 18

So the priesthood is from the beginning. Christ commissions his apostles priests, the apostles function as priests, and their priesthood is described as flowing from (not supplanting) the priesthood of Christ. It is also functionally and sacramentally different than the priesthood of all believers.

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