A common proof-text to which Protestants will go when trying to argue against the Catholic priesthood is Hebrews 7:23-24, which reads (in the KJV): “And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.”
The error in this reading of Hebrews is that it mistakes where the contrast is. We are meant to suppose that it is between “many priests” (whose priesthood is temporary because they die) and “one priest” (whose priesthood is eternal because Christ lives forever). But that is not where the contrast is; the contrast is between the priesthood of the Old Covenant and the priesthood of the New.
Hebrews 7:12 is equally important: “For the priesthood being”—not abolished, but—“changed.” There is still a priesthood, only it is no longer of Levi but of Christ.
So the Catholic priesthood is the priesthood of Christ.
John Calvin, who was probably the first to make the Protestant argument on this question, draws the wrong conclusion from the fact that the Levitical priests “were not suffered to continue by reason of death.” He says that Christ, who lives forever, has no need of priests whose priesthood ends with death.
- The first mistake Calvin makes here is to forget that Christ defeated death.
- The second mistake he makes is to overlook the permanent sacramental character of Holy Orders. Matrimony is “until death.” Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders are “for ever.” The same is of the priesthood.
Supporting this, the Council of Trent says, “[I]n the sacrament of Order, as also in Baptism and Confirmation, a character is imprinted, which can neither be effaced nor taken away.”
And the Catechism says, “As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.”
What this means is that a priest does not lose his priesthood upon the death of his body; he takes it with him into eternity. In the Levitical priesthood, this was different; Christ had not yet come to defeat death and open up the Kingdom of Heaven. Now he has. That’s the sense of the contrast in Hebrews 7:23-24.
And indeed there are many biblical texts that affirm the Catholic view that the priesthood is a sharing in the priesthood of Christ, not somehow a replacement of it.
Hebrews 3:1. Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.
Revelation 1:5b-6. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.”
Revelation 20:6. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
1 Peter 2:5, 9: Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. … But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Protestants like to object here that Peter is only speaking of the priesthood of all believers.
And he is, but he is also speaking of a sacramental priesthood since he uses the word ἱεράτευμα, hierateuma. This word is used in the New Testament to refer to the levitical priesthood and the priesthood of Christ For “sacrifices,” Peter uses the word θυσίας, thysias. This word is used elsewhere to refer to the sacrifices offered by priests, as well as the sacrifice of Christ himself, which he offered to God the Father on the Cross. If Peter meant to refer only to a priesthood of believers, why would he use these words, which imply something sacerdotal?
One might also object that Peter limits these sacrifices by using the adjective “spiritual.”
But that is just the point. The word here is πνευματικὸς, pneumatikos. This is the adjective form of pneuma, and it is used in the New Testament (along with its variant suffixes) to refer to unclean spirits, the gifts of the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit. It is never used to refer to some amorphous kind of thanks or praise.
And in fact, it is interesting that this very word pneuma is used in Matt. 27:50 to describe what Christ offers to the Father on the Cross: “He yielded up his Spirit.” This is what Christ sacrifices on the cross—his pneuma. And what kind of sacrifices does Peter say that priests in the New Covenant are to offer? Pneumatikas. They are “spiritual sacrifices” because priests do not sacrifice lambs but God (who is Spirit; cf. John 4:24), and because it is an unbloody sacrifice.
One should also note the Old Testament allusion in this text, to the Levitical priesthood, to Exodus 19:6: “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”
The priesthood has not been abolished but changed; the priesthood of the Old Covenant gives way to the priesthood of the New.
Christ gave the Church a share in his priesthood, as we can read in Matt. 28:18-19: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.
That Christ has “all power” does not mean that the Church does not share in it. It does not mean that the Church has “overthrown Christ” and usurped His power for itself. The Church’s authority is of Christ.
Moreover, Christ gives his disciples a specifically priestly role in other passages.
- The power of binding and loosing (Matt. 16:18-19): “And I say unto thee, 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.”
- The power to forgive sins (John 19:22-23; James 5:16): “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”; “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
- The power to celebrate the Eucharist (Luke 22:19-20): “And when he had given thanks, he took the bread, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”
- Holy orders and the power of exorcism (Mark 3:14-15): “And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils.”
- The power to anoint the sick (James 5:14-15): “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 he Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
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.