Are "Priests" Priests?

In what sense are ordained clergy "priests"? 

The term is used by Anglicans, as well as Roman Catholics and eastern Orthodox Churches, to refer to ordained ministers, and in particular those in the order of presbyters.

In wider usage, a "priest" is a religious functionary and in particular someone who offers sacrifices. So "priest" is the word used to translate the Hebrew cohen, the Greek hiereus, and Latin sacerdos, all of which refer to those who offer sacrifices in the temples of their respective divinities.

However the English world "priest" is derived from the quite different Greek word presbyteros, meaning "elder" or presbyter.

In the NT writings there are Christians called presbyteroi or elders, as well as diakonoi - servants or deacons - and episkopoi - overseers or bishops - but no priests. Christ himself is referred to as a priest, and the whole Christian community is collectively called a "priesthood" but no individual is a "priest" as such.

The two ideas of "presbyter" and "priest" came to be conflated historically because presbyters became the normal leaders of the sacred meal of the Eucharist, which from a very early point was seen as a sacrifice. Although the English reformers of the 16th century who formed the Anglican ordinal were unsympathetic to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, they left the term "priest" intact, both because it was universally known as a way of referring to ministers, and because its English etymology still allowed that different, more essentially "presbyteral", understanding.

Popularly now, "priest" seems to mean something else again, akin to "pastor". Anglican clergy of catholic leanings may understand their eucharistic ministry as part of their "priesthood", but are likely to place this within a more general notion of being a representative or mediating figure, in parish and pastoral relationships as much as anywhere else.

Something similar, or rather more problematic, occurs in the way Mars Hill Churches have appropriated the triplex munus, or three-fold office of prophet, priest and king, as a model for ministerial roles (see my earlier post here). Although they begin with the notion of priest as a mediator between God and humanity, this quickly devolves into an emphasis on pastoral care and relationships.

Just so we're clear about what "priesthood" centres on, here's a biblical view:
You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt-offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord. 
Priesthood is the messy business of sacrifice. Priests in the OT writings, from where the basic NT idea comes, are not involved in "pastoral care" as generally understood. When Jesus is presented as a priest in the New Testament writings, it is not as carer but as the one who offers sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews is the most famous and fundamental exposition of this idea.

Hebrews also presents the dilemma that underlies the classic debates about this terminology in Anglicanism. Jesus' own sacrifice is "once for all" (Heb 7:27 etc); the author of Hebrews is intent on drawing a contrast between the historic and imperfect sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple and the ideal/eternal offering made by Jesus the definitive High Priest. No more sacrifices (for sin, at least) are necessary.

On this basis the reformers were right to challenge the notion that the Eucharist was being offered as a sacrifice for sin. What they and their Catholic opponents (and perhaps Hebrews) all tended to assume, however, was that sacrifices were always about sin, expiation, or propitiation. But Leviticus prescribes various offerings, some which are gratuitous, and others for thanksgiving. And for that matter, other NT writings offer positive notions of ongoing sacrifice - not the cultus of the Temple (although the first Christians seem to have continued to relate to the Temple), but as living offerings (Rom 12:1), or of faith (Phil 2:12), or of praise (Heb 13:15), or of otherwise somehow spiritual but unspecified things (1 Pet 2:5).

Early Christians had no difficulty in seeing various forms of action as sacrifices in these senses, including fasting, charitable giving and the Eucharist itself. The earliest understandings of Eucharist as a sort of sacrifice, going back even to the second century, do not depend on it as a re-presentation of the death of Jesus, but as a fulfilment of the prophet Malachi's vision of a pure sacrifice offered throughout the world (Mal 1:11), as an act of thanksgiving (eucharistia) but not of expiation or propitiation.

The idea that a particular member of the Church is a "priest" of this eucharistic sacrifice is a slightly later development. Although some earlier writers make comparisons between Christian ministers and the Levitical priesthood, it is Cyprian of Carthage around 250 who first seems to call the minister of the sacrament literally a sacerdos, using the familiar Latin term that applied to traditional Roman cults. He was not referring to presbyters, but to bishops, since at that time the bishop was the usual presider at the eucharistic celebration. Only later again, with the growth of local congregations linked to a bishop but led by a presbyter, did the final shift take place: as minister of the eucharistic sacrifice, the presbyter was by implication a priest too.

So are "priests" priests? Certainly, in that all Christians are. However to label certain individuals as "priests" as opposed to others has to be done with caution. The only Christian priesthood(s) that can be seen in the NT writings themselves are those of Christ, and that of the Christians as a whole which derives from him. It is rare, in Churches of catholic tradition, to discern the sense that the priesthood of the faithful is more fundamental than that of individual ministers - but it is. On the other hand, it is hard to discern what Churches of protestant tradition understand priesthood now to be at all.

The extent to which presbyters are priests then seems to depend on two things. The first and most important is the way they represent the character of the whole Christian community to itself. They are priests, representing the priesthood of all; their priesthood is not the appropriation of what belongs to the whole Church, but its representative expression.

The second is the Eucharist. While Reformation-era polemics exclude seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice, pointing to the Medieval distortions in which the Mass seemed to repeat the sacrifice of the cross, ancient Christians did see the Eucharist as a sacrifice, but in a different sense. Inhabiting a world of sacrificial ritual, it was entirely conceivable to them that their Eucharist was a sacrifice, neither violent not expiatory, but an act of thanks and praise - entirely in keeping with the NT writings notion of a "spiritual" sacrifice, despite its material form. Those responsible for leading all in this sacrifice were logically, even necessarily, priests. The resolution of this question is therefore bound up with an adequate understanding of the nature of the Eucharist itself.


  1. Anonymous7:34 pm

    Lovely. There is a freshness. a rigour and an honesty about your writing Andrew. Thank you. Jonathan Gale.

  2. Anonymous8:18 pm

    'On the other hand, it is hard to discern what Churches of protestant tradition understand priesthood now to be at all.' I assume you mean from learned Protestant writers, not popular opinion (usually continuing our habit of defining ourselves over against another tradition)or poor practice. I wd have thought your historical and biblical exposition was firmly held and taught by my 'Protestant' colleagues past and present. Your careful correction and expansion of the notion of sacrifice is very helpful in enabling listening to one another without the hardened inherited prejudice. Many thanks. Robert Gribben (= this Anon).

  3. I suppose Robert I am operating in that slippery territory of "operational theology"- and yes I recognize that both my catholic and protestant teachers and colleagues have generally been capable of seeing past the polemics to more nuanced, and irenic, positions. In the contemporary Church however - my corner of it not least - things seem less nuanced than they once did... Thank you!

  4. Thanks for this post. When I think of "priesthood" I think of the entire congregation, or body of believers, of Christ. I also enjoy reading the OT so your last paragraph in this post was of great interest to me.

  5. Great post. Don't OT priests also have another function: teachers of Torah? Does that function figure in early Christian appropriation of the language of priesthood?

  6. James - yes, there is an element of that Israelite religion and Jewish scripture at least. My sense is that in OT terms it is less consistent than cultus but real - I addressed it in the talk this was based on. But I hadn't really thought about the early Christian appropriation, and am glad of the hint.

  7. I just came across your blog and I greatly appreciate your analysis, especially as it relates to the popular teaching being propagated by many of the followers of Keller & Driscoll. I would love to see a more detailed analysis of the entire leadership model that they call "triperspectivalism"


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