Monday, July 23, 2012

Prophet, Priest and King: The Triplex Munus, the Church, and its Ministry

The website of a (surprisingly, to me) popular and influential Christian network reports the group's attempt to configure its ministry along the lines of the "three-fold office" (triplex munus) of Christ, an idea often attributed to John Calvin.

Calvin would have been among the first to point out that the triplex munus concept is a patristic one (granted that its elements are biblical). The first writer to come fairly close to the idea is Justin Martyr in the second century, who writes:
For indeed all kings and anointed persons obtained from Him their share in the names of kings and anointed: just as He Himself received from the Father the titles of King, and Christ, and Priest, and Angel, and such like other titles which He bears or did bear (Dial. 86)
But Eusebius of Caesarea is first to nail the trio. His interest stemmed from the title "Christ" which in Greek meant "anointed" and was applied to a variety of offices in the Old Testament writings as they appear in the Septuagint, the first Christian Bible. The most obvious was perhaps that of priest, as laid out in the prescriptions of the Levitical code:
Moses was the first to make known the name of Christ as a name especially august and glorious. When he delivered types and symbols of heavenly things, and mysterious images, in accordance with the oracle which said to him, “See that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain,” he consecrated a man high priest of God, in so far as that was possible, and him he called Christ (ὁ ἱερεὺς ὁ χριστός )(Ecclesiastical History 1.3.2.)
Eusebius then goes on to name the three offices or roles that were anointed and which became the basis for the idea of a set of anointed identities underlying that of Christ:
...so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets (1.3.8)
Eusebius' purpose is to establish the OT references as "types" or foreshadowings of Jesus' identity but does not enter into much discussion about the meaning of each. The last quote above suggests that he sees each of these offices as closely related to Jesus's identity as Word of God, which is for him as for the Fourth Gospel the core idea about Jesus and positions the others. As Word of God Jesus is cosmic ruler, intermediary and source of truth.
Only a little later a decisive move is made by John Chrysostom, who interpreting 1 Cor 1:21-22 makes the further and decisive move of linking this three-fold office not just with Christ's identity but with Christian identity:
And what is, “anointed,” and “sealed?” The gift of the Spirit by Whom He did both these things, making at once prophets and priests and kings, for in old times these three sorts were anointed. But we have now not one of these dignities, but all three preeminently. For we are both to enjoy a kingdom and are made priests by offering our bodies for a sacrifice, (for, saith he, “present your members a living sacrifice unto God;) and we are constituted prophets too: for what things “eye has not seen, nor ear heard,” (1 Cor. ii. 9.) these have been revealed unto us (Homilies on 2 Corinthians 3:2)
The three-fold office may have been less appealing in the Medieval West where the "two swords" doctrine of sacred and secular power prevailed; in any case, Luther and some other thinkers found a two-fold schema more appealing, perhaps also thinking of Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2 and the notion of a "kingdom of priests". Luther, in his On Christian Freedom, wrote:
[In ancient Israel] God sanctified to Himself every first-born male. The birthright was of great value, giving a superiority over the rest by the double honour of priesthood and kingship… His priesthood does not consist in the outward display of vestments and gestures…but in spiritual things, wherein, in His invisible office, He intercedes for us with God in heaven, and there offers Himself, and performs all the duties of a priest…As Christ by His birthright has obtained these two dignities, so He imparts and communicates them to every believer in Him.
Calvin presents the classic version of the formula, for the first time referring to the triple role as a munus or office:
Therefore, in order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king and priest…he received anointing on behalf of his whole body that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the Gospel (Inst. II.15.1-2)
Calvin was a good student of the Fathers and he seems to pick up both the three-fold formulation and also Chrysostom's application of it to Christians collectively; but he goes no further than the others in using this as a basis for thinking about ministry in the Church itself.
Subsequent Protestant theology has often used the triplex munus as a basis for its Christology; there have been critics of the conception including Albrecht Ritschl and Wolfhart Pannenberg, but Karl Barth famously used it fulsomely, emphasizing Calvin and the Apostles' Creed in his Christological and soteriological formulation:


according to the Apostles' Creed, whatever Christ is, he does. What comes next is simply the execution, the working out of what his name and title indicate. Therefore whatever is said about the birth, life, death, resurrection of jesus Christ will simply repeat and explain this: he is king, priest, prophet of the Holy Spirit (CD IV.1)
The more eccesiological or missiological aspect of the triplex munus is also a continuing thread in modern theology, though. A remarkable piece of evidence for ecumenical convergence comes in the Second Vatican Council's use of the idea, including in its pioneering reflection on the vocation of lay Christians:
[Christians] are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world (Lumen Gentium 31)
It should be apparent that the biblical and traditional functions of this concept are fundamentally about the person and work of Christ, and by extension about the Church as a whole as body of Christ. One of the achievements of the Reformation was to wrestle from a clerical caste the identity of the whole Christian community as a "kingdom of priests" - this priesthood being more fundamental than any ministerial priesthood/presbyterate established in the Church. Any step towards making these paradigms for ministry can only be undertaken with caution, and bearing in mind the dangers of a new clericalism wherein certain leaders determine that they have identities which really belong to those whom they serve - Christ and his body. In the recent case which I referred to at the beginning, the dangers are compounded by a profound misunderstanding of at least one of the offices, the priestly. I will return to the meaning of that office in a subsequent post.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Saints and Scrolls: The Greek Fathers at All Saint's Margaret Street

The richly-decorated chancel at All Saints' Margaret Street, the work of Sir Ninian Comper, includes murals depicting some of the Fathers of the Church, theologians of ancient Christianity whose teachings were influential in the nineteenth century revival of catholic liturgy and thought in Anglicanism so full displayed in the building.

On the north side, a group of four western Fathers are depicted according to iconographic conventions established in the medieval period, each with specific attributes that clearly conveys his identity. On the south however a group of eastern or Greek Fathers process towards the altar dressed almost identically (granted differences in colour) in the omophorion, the band of cloth equivalent to the pallium of the western Church.

The artist has offered some assistance to the keen-eyed by including the name of each in a nimbus or halo, but the most distinctive features are the scrolls they carry, which include quotations from their works. These are in the original Greek, in an authentic uncial script like that of Codex Sinaiticus, contemporary with them and parts of which are in the British Library. Although the codex - similar to the modern book - was prevalent in Christian liturgy by the time these saints lived, scrolls were often still used in art to depict books, being easier to use to convey an actual (if brief) text and not merely the fact of a written work.

The four quotations were obviously chosen carefully to reflect something of the significance of each theologian and his contribution.

The first of those depicted, moving left to right, is St Gregory Nazianzen (c.329-89), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with St Basil the Great (see below) and Basil's brother St Gregory Nyssen. Gregory was deeply involved in the controversies that established the doctrine of the Trinity in its orthodox form and contributed the term "procession" as a way of defining the Spirit's relation to the Father.

The quote on his scroll comes from his Oration 28, known as the second "Theological Oration"; he prays "that one illumination may come upon us from the one God, one in diversity, diverse in unity (μία<ν> ἐκ τῆς μιᾶς θεότητος γενέσθαι τὴν ἔλλαμψιν ἑνικῶς διαιρουμένηνμία<ν>" (Oration 28.1; PG 36:25D). So the Trinity is not merely an object of our contemplation, but the source of the grace that allows proper understanding.

Second is St Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373), another advocate of the Nicene doctrine of the unity and co-equality of Father and Son during the mid-fourth century when many opposed it (or as Jerome dramatically put it, "the world woke and groaned to find itself Arian"). Athanasius' commitment to belief that the Son was "of one substance with the Father" was not merely academic; salvation, he argued, depended on the incarnation of the one true God rather than of some subordinate. Hence he famously said in his work On the Incarnation, as quoted in his scroll at All Saints', "He became human that we might become divine (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν)" (On the Incarnation 54:3; PG 25:192B). This notion of salvation as a form of theosis or divinization has been influential in subsequent eastern and mystical theology.

Third is Gregory's friend St Basil of Caesarea (c.329-79), "the Great". Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit was the most important vindication of the full divinity of the third person of the Trinity up to that point, and his leadership was crucial to the eventual resolution of the trinitarian controversy. His scroll contains a quote from that work that emphasizes both the reality and divine sovereignty of the third person:  "The Spirit is a living essence, mistress of sanctification" (τὸ Πνεῦμα οὐσία ζῶσα, ἁγιασμοῦ κυρία)" (On the Holy Spirit 18.46; PG 32.53A).

Last of the four in the chancel is the greatest preacher of the Greek East in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom (c.337-407). John's contribution and reputation had less to do with doctrinal disputes than with the witness of the Church in the world. John's famous Homilies on the Statues are a model of public theology, and of meeting what was then a new challenge, to live as citizens both of the present state and of the kingdom of God. In this quotation, from another set of sermons, he characteristically urges his hearers: "Let us learn to be critical of human honours , rather than desiring them (Μάθωμεν τοίνυν, ἀγαπητοὶ, τῆς τιμῆς τῆς παρὰ ἀνθρώποις καταφρονεῖν καὶ μὴ ἐφίεσθαι)" (Homilies on John 42.5; PG 54:291A).

Together these four represent how the Oxford Movement saw the Church of the fourth century as a model, despite that having been a time of controversy and division. Although the lives of these four theologians were spent in controversy, they witnessed to a faith they had both inherited but also needed to establish, and had to innovate in order to do so. The designers and early leaders of All Saints were similarly both traditionalists and radicals.

[Note: These texts on the Greek fathers' scrolls had not been identified or translated, at least in recent years. This post arose from conversation with current Vicar of All Saints, Fr Alan Moses, prompting an offer to do so.]