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: 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.


  1. I love your post Andrew. It reminds me of how important Ephesians 4:11-13 is: " The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."

  2. Andrew, your quote from Lumen Gentium 31 is a shocker. I had no idea that the church taught that believers derived such expansive authority from baptism. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. the threefold office is one of my favorite theological ideas because it is so elemental and simplifying. I know that you have another post detailing the priest concept. I believe the way Jesus modeled each of these offices should change the way we understand each of them. Any chance you are planning to help us understand the other two offices more clearly.

    I also have a few theories.

    the first has to do with the echoes of this idea that i see in scripture. When I was first introduced to this ideas, i started seeing threes everywhere in scripture. Some seem to correspond neatly to the offices. One example is the three characteristics given the spirit by paul: power, love and discipline. Do these correspond to the king, priest and prophet? The second are the personality/leadership styles of the inner circle of disciples. It seems that Peter=king James=prophet and John=priest. Can much or anything be made of these correlations? faith hope and love included?

    the second has to do with personality styles of Christians. Some personality types might be more drawn to different offices. A "D" dominate personality or lion might be more drawn to the office of king. In your opinion, does this have any implications for spiritual gifts or spiritual growth?

  4. I doubt very much the idea that Paul is referring to offices. The people in Corinth were poor. The only thing they had to offer was their body and their minds. In the secular world of Corinth, they were slaves or early slaves. Their capacities were all equal, they were labour force. Paul distuingishes and acknowledge theit gifts in capabilities. Their offering to the community is their private charismas. One body not in labour force as in the secular world of an army or an enterprise, but one body in the Remembrance of Christ and thus referring to Leviticus. Their offerings were thanksgiving and/ or purification.


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