The Priesthood Debate
by Jimmy Akin
I. OPENING REMARKS
When I was an Evangelical, I originally held the same view of the priesthood that my opponent does. I viewed it as a man-made institution which robbed the faithful of their place as God’s priests. I even quoted the same verses that my opponent does — the ones about us being a “kingdom of priests” or a “royal priesthood,” depending on the translation you are using.
But over the course of time, I began to realize that merely quoting those verses did not settle the issue. The Bible has far more to say on the subject.
An embarrassment of riches
Tonight I would like to share with you some of the Biblical insights that convinced me the Protestant understanding of the priesthood is wrong. I must admit that I have an embarrassment of riches on this subject. There are simply too many biblical passages and arguments for me to get to tonight. In fact some of the material I want to share with you will have to wait until later in the evening. But for now I need to say a few words about the subject of tonight’s debate.
We are not here to discuss “Father,” celibacy, bad priests
We are not here to discuss why Catholics call their priests, “Father,” why they have a celibate priesthood, or why there may be bad priests. If I have time, I will be more than happy to say a few words about these issues in one of my rebuttal periods, but for now we need to focus on the real subject of tonight’s debate. This is the question of whether there a sacramental priesthood in the New Testament.
Here are a few of the biblical insights
To show you that there is, here are a few of the insights that led me to realize just how unbiblical the standard, Protestant position on the priesthood is.
Insight #1: The Kingdom of priests verses
1. Catholics believe this doctrine, too
First, there are the verses my opponent has quoted about all believers being priests, that we are a “kingdom of priests” or a “royal priesthood.” Evangelicals often think this is a uniquely Protestant doctrine, but it’s not. Catholics also affirm that all believers are priests. The only difference is that they call this doctrine the “universal priesthood” instead of “the priesthood of all believers.” Catholics quote exactly the same verses Protestants do to show that all believers are priests. The writings of the popes and the councils are very firm on saying that ordinary Christians share a common priesthood. We are all priests who can offer intercessions, praises, and spiritual sacrifices.
2. Exodus 19:6
But if that’s so, why do Catholics claim that, in addition to the common, universal priesthood, there is also a special ministerial priesthood? Well, it’s because the very same verses which talk about the universal priesthood imply that there is a non-universal one. If you have a good Bible, those verses should have a footnote referencing you to Exodus 19:6. When we turn to that passage, we read that God tells the nation of Israel:
“[A]nd you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
3. The Old Testament History: Kingdom of Priests
So it isn’t just the Church which is a kingdom of priests. Israel was a kingdom of priests, too. This came home to me in a very forceful way a few years ago when a history of Old Testament Israel was released by Baker Book House. The book is called, Kingdom of Priests, and the author is an Old Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. So even mainstream Evangelicals, like the folks at Baker Book House and Dallas Theological Seminary, recognize that Israel was a kingdom of priests.
4. Exodus 19:21-22: Ministerial priests
But that did not stop Israel from having a special, ministerial priesthood. In fact, if you keep reading in Exodus 19, when you get down to verse 21 & 22, you will find God telling Moses to warn the people and the priests not to come onto the holy mountain, lest the Lord break out against them. So even in the very same chapter God is calling the whole nation a kingdom of priests, there is still a separate, ministerial priesthood.
5. This was not the Levitical priesthood
Incidentally, this priesthood was not the Levitical priesthood. That wasn’t created until much later in Exodus. This one was not founded on the Law of Moses, but predated the Law, meaning no one can say it was only God’s pattern to have special, ministerial priests under the Mosaic economy. God had priests long before the Mosaic law, as indicated not only by this priesthood in Exodus 19, but by Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, and by Abraham’s contemporary, Melchizedek.
6. The argument from parallelism
a. My opponent’s parallels
Now in tonight’s discussion, my opponent has pointed out that today we have Jesus as our high priest and we are all individual priests. This is quite true, and it is the same situation that existed in the Old Testament. There was a single high priest at the top, and there was the universal priesthood of all Old Testament believers at the bottom. But in addition to those two, there was also that middle, ministerial priesthood that was ordained and served Israel full-time.
b. The Old Testament parallels today
The same situation exists today. We have Jesus as our great, high priest at the top, and there is the universal priesthood of all New Testament believers at the bottom. But the Bible indicates there is also a middle, ministerial priesthood that is ordained to serve the Church full-time.
7. I’m happy!
For this reason, I am happy when my opponent insists that Jesus is our high priest or that we are all individually priests. I am overjoyed, since all he is doing is making my case for me. Because if that top level of high priest in the Old Testament corresponds to a high priest in the New Testament, and if that bottom level of universal priests in the Old Testament corresponds to a universal priesthood in the New Testament, then the middle, ministerial priesthood in the Old Testament corresponds to a middle, ministerial priesthood in the New Testament as well. My opponent can harp on those verses until he is blue in the face and I will be delighted, because the more he shows that Jesus is our high priest and that we are universal priests, the more he argues that there is a middle, ministerial priesthood as well.
Insight #2: The word “priest”
Now that was the first insight I wanted to share with you that led me to conclude there is a New Testament priesthood. The second is something I discovered when pondering the different offices in the Catholic Church. In my Protestant congregation, we had elders and deacons. I knew that the Catholic Church had deacons, but I had never heard of a Catholic elder. “Why was that?” I wondered. The answer involves a little lesson in translation.
1. The origin of the word
In Greek, the word for elder is presbuteros. That word was transliterated into Latin as presbyter, which then in English became shortened to priest. That’s why you never hear about “Catholic elders.” It is because Catholic priests are Catholics elders. That’s what the word “priest” means; it is simply a shortened English form of presbuteros. You can check any dictionary you want to confirm this. So obviously we can say that there is some kind of priesthood today because there are elders today.
2. Examples from the Douay-Rheims
In fact, if you read some older Catholic translations of the Bible, they will use the word “priest,” entirely appropriately, where the Protestant Bible says “elder.” For example, this is the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, which is the Catholic equivalent of the King James Version.
In Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus:
“For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldst ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee.”
In James 5:14-15 we read:
“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man; and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
This last passage leads us to the third insight I wanted to share with you tonight — the fact that the New Testament priesthood is a sacramental priesthood.
Insight #3: The New Testament Priesthood is sacramental
1. The definition of a sacrament
People often have messed up notions of what a sacrament is, so to try to clear the air I wish to begin by offering the historic definition of what a sacrament is — the definition that has been used all through Christian history, from Catholic giants such as Augustine and Aquinas to Protestant giants such as Luther and Calvin. The bottom line is this: Sacraments are outward, physical means that communicate God’s grace to us. Contrary to the hysterical claims of some, sacraments are not magic; they do not bend God to human will. They are the Biblical ways that God himself has appointed for us to reach out and humbly receive his grace.
2. The sacrament of holy anointing
Here in James 5 we have the priests of the church — that is, the presbyters or “elders” of the church — distributing the sacrament of holy anointing. The priests come in, anoint the sick person with oil, and pray over him so that he might be raised up and forgiven any sins he has committed.
When I discovered this passage in the book of James as a Protestant, I was disturbed because I recognized that my Protestant church was simply out of synch with the Bible on this point. It was in disobedience to Scripture and had made void God’s word by its human tradition of ignoring this sacrament and pretending that baptism and communion are the only two sacraments.
3. The sacrament of reconciliation
a. John 20:21-23
The reference to the sacrament of holy anointing forgiving a person’s sins also leads us to another sacrament the priests of the Church administer. In John 20:21-23, Jesus tells his ministers, “Receive the Holy Spirit. . . . Whoever’s sins you for give, they are forgiven; whoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.”
b. My former evangelical interpretations
When I was a Protestant I tried to force this passage to mean something about the preaching of the gospel, or about proclaiming people forgiven after they already have been forgiven by God. But I realized that this put Jesus’ order backwards. He did not say, “If they are forgiven by God, then you forgive them.” He said, “If you forgive them then they are forgiven.” I finally had to admit that Jesus meant exactly what he said: When his ministers forgive or retain sins, those sins are forgiven or retained.
c. “But only God can forgive sins!”
“But only God can forgive sins!” Well, that was the cry of the Pharisees when they saw Jesus forgive a man. But if you read Matthew’s gospel, you find out that Jesus did not forgive the sins in his divine capacity as God. He stated that the “Son of man” has authority on earth to forgive sins. And in Matthew 9:8, the crowd glorified God because, as the gospel-writer himself tells us, God had given such authority to men.
So men are instruments God uses to channel his own forgiveness. Jesus meant exactly what he said. His ministers have the power to forgive and retain sins, and my Protestant church was simply out of synch with the Bible on this point. Again, it made void the word of God by its human tradition of pretending this sacrament does not exist. In doing so, it warped the spiritual development of countless individuals.
4. The sacrament of ordination
But not only is the New Testament priesthood sacramental because it administers sacraments. It is also sacramental because one gains the priesthood by a sacrament, the sacrament of holy orders or ordination.
When I was a Protestant I did a major Bible study on the Holy Spirit and discovered that it is God’s pattern throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New, to give the Holy Spirit to his ministers on the occasion of their ordination, to empower them for the ministry he had just elevated them to.
a. John 20:22: “Receive the Holy Spirit”
In the New Testament we find this pattern in John 20:22, for example. When Jesus commissions his ministers to forgive sins, he tells them “Receive the Holy Spirit” and then breathes on them.
b. 2 Tim 1:6
We find the same pattern in 2 Timothy 1:6, when Paul urges his protégé to fulfill his ministry and says,
“I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”
c. 1 Tim 4:14
He spoke of the same thing in 1 Timothy 4:14, where Paul explains how he must fulfill his ministry as an evangelist and tells him:
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you.”
Other translators render this “which was given you . . . with the laying on of hands for the presbytery” or “in order to become a member of the presbytery.”
d. 1 Tim. 5:19-22: Pass it on!
This gift of the Holy Spirit, through the laying on of hands in ordination, was something Paul instructed Timothy to pass on in the future. Part of his duty as a bishop-evangelist was to ordain elders in different congregations. He tells Timothy he must exercise this ministry carefully, lest he ordain a priest unworthy of the office. In 1 Timothy 5:19-22 he tells the young evangelist:
“Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. . . . Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure.”
Paul tells Timothy not to lay hands on an elder too quickly; don’t ordain him until he has been tested and shown to be of excellent character. Otherwise Timothy will share in his sins.
e. The result in history: apostolic succession
Timothy, as well as Titus and other early evangelist-bishops, carried out this ministry of ordaining priests, and the result is what we have today in the Catholic Church: a sacramental priesthood with a chain of ordinations running straight back to the first century, whose links can be clearly documented from Church history.
Priesthood and sacrifice
A. The Universal Priesthoods
1. New Testament: Spiritual sacrifices
Of course every priesthood has sacrifices to offer. As 1 Peter 2:5 states, we in the universal priesthood have spiritual sacrifices we give to God. Romans 12:1 says we offer our bodies. Philippians 4:18 says we offer our donations. And Hebrews 13:15-16 state that we offer our praise, our good deeds, and our sharing with others.
2. Old Testament: Spiritual sacrifices too (Hos 14:2)
These were the same things offered by ordinary Jews as members of the Old Testament universal priesthood. They could pray to God; they could offer him praises; they could offer donations and good deeds; and they could offer their bodies in his service. In all of those things they were like us, offering up their own spiritual sacrifices to God. In fact, one of the references I cited, Hebrews 13:15-16, which says we offer the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips, is a reference to the Hosea 14:2, in which the Israelites are urged to promise to offer him the sacrifice of their lips in praise.
B. The ministerial priesthoods
1. The Old Testament priesthoods: drink, grain, animal
But formal, ministerial priests have a separate set of offerings. This is true both in the Old Testament and the New.
In the Old Testament the most notable sacrifices the priests offered were the drink offerings, the grain offerings, and the animal offerings that were prescribed by the Law of Moses.
2. New Testament priesthood
a. The priestly duty of preaching
i. Rom 15:15-16
The Bible indicates New Testament priests offer at least two sacrifices. One of them is discussed in Romans 15:15-16. In the New International Version of this passage, we read:
“I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Paul tells us that because he has been given a calling as a professional minister of Christ, he has a priestly duty of preaching the gospel so that the Gentiles may be an offering — a sacrifice to God.
ii. Every elder in every church
This is not something only he has. Every elder in every church has that same “priestly duty” of preaching the gospel. So Paul here conceives of the office of the New Testament minister as a priestly office.
iii. Ministers as priests, not the congregation
Notice that the hearers of the gospel in this passage are not depicted as priests, but as the sacrifice to God. Paul draws a distinction between himself and his duty of preaching the gospel, and his readers and their duty of hearing it. It is the minister, not the congregation, who is here pictured as priest.
b. The Eucharist
i. The name of the sacrament
But converts to the faith are not the only sacrifice our New Testament elder-priests are to offer. They are also charged with distributing the sacraments, and one sacrament in particular has a sacrificial character: communion, or the Eucharist, as the Bible refers to it in the Greek text of Mark 14:23, Luke 22:19, and 1 Corinthians 11:24.
ii. The separation of the body and blood
To show you the sacrificial dimension to communion, note that Jesus first says that the bread is his body and then that the wine is his blood. Whether this is literally or symbolically true is a question beyond the scope of our debate tonight. What I want to point out is that the bread and the wine, the body and blood, are separate. The sacrament thus shows his body and blood in a state of separation from each other, in a state of sacrifice.
iii. Joachim Jeremias agrees
The famous Protestant scholar Joachim Jeremias points this out in his book, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, which Protestant scholars have come to regard as the definitive work on this subject. He states,
“… [W]hen Jesus speaks of ‘his flesh’ and ‘his blood’ . . . [h]e is applying to himself terms from the language of sacrifice . . . Each of the two nouns presupposes a slaying that has separated flesh and blood. In other words: Jesus speaks of himself as a sacrifice” [p. 222].
iv. Symbolic or literal
By displaying the body and blood in a state of separation, the elements display a sacrificial character. This is true regardless of whether Christ is literally present in the sacrament or whether he is only symbolically present. Even if he is only symbolically present, then the Eucharist symbolizes a sacrifice. It is a symbolic sacrifice. Because elders have the duty of performing the sacraments, they have the duty of performing this sacrifice, again indicating the priestly character of their office.
v. “Do this in memory of me”
Further confirmation is found in the words Jesus used to instruct his ministers to perform it. His statement, “Do this in remembrance of me,” may also be translated, “Offer this as my memorial sacrifice” — a fact Protestant preachers never mention when they talk about this passage. But it has a most important bearing on our discussion tonight, because by telling the apostles to offer his memorial sacrifice, Jesus clearly ordained them as his priests.
vi. Symbolic or literal again
This is true regardless of whether Jesus is actually or only symbolically present in the elements. I recognized this fact even when I was still a Protestant: Regardless of the doctrine of the Real Presence, the sacrament of communion is a sacrifice, just as the early Church said it was, and just as the Christian Church throughout the ages has understood it.
II. CLOSING REMARKS
As we have seen, while the Bible clearly states that all Christians are priests, it said the same thing about the Israelites, yet this did not prevent there from being a separate, ministerial priesthood even before the Law of Moses was given.
Furthermore, since the top, Old Testament office of high priest corresponds to Jesus, the New Testament high priest, and since the bottom, Old Testament universal priesthood corresponds to the New Testament universal priesthood, the middle, ministerial priesthood in the Old Testament corresponds to a middle, ministerial priesthood in the New Testament.
This priesthood is identical with the office of elder. In fact, the term “priest” is simply a shortened, English version of the Greek word for “elder,” as any dictionary will confirm.
The office is sacramental because it is charged with administering the sacraments. The New Testament singles out the sacraments of holy anointing and confession in particular, though it is also charged with administering the other sacraments, such as baptism and communion, or the Eucharist as the Bible calls it.
The office is also sacramental because one receives it through the sacrament of orders or ordination. Paul discussed this sacrament in his letters to Timothy, in which he instructed the young evangelist to stir up the gift that had been given him through the laying on of the Apostle’s hands, and in which he instructed him not to lay hands on other people quickly, but to ordain them only after their character had been proven.
Scripture takes this distinction between clergy and laity very seriously. Both Old and New Testaments warn people against assuming an office to which they have not been ordained. For example, I direct your attention to Jude 11, a verse most people gloss over when they read the book. That verse discusses various wicked Church leaders and states,
“Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.”
All three examples cited in this verse — Cain, Balaam, and Korah — involve religious ministry. Hebrews 11 makes clear that Abel had offered a better sacrifice to God than Cain, for which Cain was jealous. 2 Peter 2 makes clear that Balaam was willing to corrupt his ministry for money.
Most of us know those two examples, but who was Korah and what was his rebellion? The story is found in Numbers 16, and it concerns precisely the issue which is before us today: Whether the fact that all believers are priests means that there is no ministerial priesthood. Korah said it does mean that, and he gathered a rebellion against Moses and Aaron to usurp the priesthood from them. Numbers 16 says:
“Now Korah . . . and Dathan and Abiram . . . took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said . . . ‘You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'”
“When Moses heard it, he fell on his face; and he said . . . “In the morning the LORD will show who is his, and who is holy . . . Do this: take censers . . . put fire in them and put incense upon them before the LORD tomorrow, and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi! . . . [I]s it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel . . . would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together; what is Aaron that you murmur against him?”
After this you can guess what happened. The men loaded up their censers and tried to offer incense before the Lord, but God caused the earth to open its mouth and swallow up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, then he caused fire to come out of the Tabernacle and swallow up the two hundred and fifty men offering incense, showing that they were not to be priests, not the ones to offer incense, even though God had said that in one sense the whole congregation were priests.
Moses also had to intercede to keep God from killing those in the congregation who merely supported Korah, even though they did not themselves offer incense. Later, when the people grumbled after Korah was dead, Moses again had to intervene to stop God from killing them all, but almost 15,000 of them died anyway for being followers of Korah.
It is against this sin that the book of Jude warns us, because the same thing can happen in the New Testament age. Don’t think you can confine the warning against Korah’s rebellion to the Old Testament age. Jude tells us it was going on in his day as well.
Just as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram came along and said, “Hey, in Exodus 19 God said we are all priests, so we don’t need a ministerial priesthood; we can do that ourselves!” today people come along and say, “Hey, in 1 Peter and Revelation God said we are all priests, so we don’t need a ministerial priesthood; we can do that ourselves!”
It is against this erroneous conclusion that the book of Jude warns us, proclaiming that people who fall into this error perish in the rebellion of Korah. In the New Testament age there were people rising up and assuming the priesthood who had not been authorized to do so, and Jude records their judgment for us.
For this reason, we must not listen to those who spread this erroneous doctrine. People had to ignore such preaching in the day of Moses. They had to ignore it in the day of Jude. And they have to ignore it today, even if the person spreading the error is himself a former priest. We must stay faithful to the word of God and keep to our position as universal priests, not assuming a priesthood to which we have not been ordained. Failure to do this puts us in danger of perishing in the same rebellion that Numbers and the book of Jude warn us against.
God will judge those of us here tonight for what we have seen. If we abandon our proper place as universal priests and usurp the ministerial priesthood, we will be judged. Furthermore, we will be judged if we follow those who have usurped the priesthood, just as Korah’s followers were in danger of judgment in his day. This is too serious a matter, and God punishes those who do not worship in his appointed way, in union with his appointed priests.
APPENDICES TO THE DEBATE
A. Old Testament Ordinations
To give some Old Testament examples of the Holy Spirit being given a ordinations, in Numbers 11:16-30 the seventy elders of Israel received the Spirit at the time of their ordination. Similarly, in Deuteronomy 34:9, after Joshua succeeded Moses we are told that he had the Spirit in him because Moses had laid his hand on him in ordination, which happened back in Numbers 27:18-23. The Jewish high priest also had a deposit of the Spirit by virtue of his office. This is made clear by John 11:51, where John tells us the high priest issued a prophecy because he was “high priest that year.”
B. “Offer this as my memorial sacrifice”
In Greek, these words are Touto poiete eis tan emain anamnesin. They are usually translated into English as “Do this in remembrance of me,” but this does not do full justice to the words.
First of all, the word poiein or “do” has sacrificial overtones. This can be seen by examining the way it is used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. As Protestant theologian D. M. Baillie says in his book The Theology of the Sacraments,
“There is no doubt that this verb is used frequently in the LXX in a cult or sacrificial sense. Gore says there are from 60 to 80 instances.”
He then goes on to give examples. For instance, Exodus 29:38: “This is that which you shall offer (poieseis) upon the altar: two lambs . . . ” Here the verb poiein should clearly be translated as “offer,” as all the Protestant translations of this passage have it. I checked the King James, the Revised Standard, and the New International Version, and they all render it as “offer.”
Just to name a couple other verses where poiein has the same sacrificial meaning, look up Leviticus 9:7 and Psalms 66:15. The first literally says in the Septuagint:
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Come to the altar and do your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people; sacrifice the offering that is for the people and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded.'”
The second says:
“I will do fat animals to you and an offering of rams; I will offer bulls and goats. Selah”
Jesus’ word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” also has sacrificial overtones. For example, in the NIV of Hebrews 10:3 we read, “But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.” The word for “reminder” in this passage is anamnesis. The passage thus tells us that these sacrifices are an annual anamnesis, an annual memorial offering, on behalf of the sins of the people. In fact, all of the occurrences of this word in the Protestant Bible, both in New Testament and the Greek Old Testament, occur in a sacrificial context.
An anamnesis of a memorial offering which one brings before God to prompt his remembrance. The thought is the same as when the Psalmist urges God to remember him, or the congregation, or Mount Zion, or how the enemy scoffs, or how God’s servant has been mistreated.
The idea of a memorial offering is to present the gift to God and prompt him to take action. For example, in the NIV of Numbers 10:10 we read,
“Also at your times of rejoicing . . . you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial (the Septuagint word here is anamnesis) for you before your God.”
Joachim Jeremias admits this in his book. While liberal Protestant scholarship tried to interpret the Lord’s Supper as a pagan memorial meal which merely commemorated a loved one, Jeremias saw through this and recognized the Palestinian background for the Lord’s Supper and its offering of the elements to God to prompt his remembrance of Jesus and what he did.
In his book, the Eucharistic Word of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias states,
“[T]he command for repetition [of the Lord’s Supper] may be translated: ‘This do, that God may remember me.’ How is this to be understood? Here an old Passover prayer is illuminating. On Passover evening a prayer is inserted into the third benediction of the grace after the meal, a prayer which asks God to remember the Messiah. . . . In this very common prayer, which is also used on other festival days, God is petitioned at every Passover concerning ‘the remembrance of the Messiah'” [p. 252].
So Jesus’ command to the disciples to “do this in memory” of him was a command to present the elements to God as an anamnesis, as a memorial sacrifice to bring to God’s mind the work that Jesus did on the cross for us.
C. The “once for all” sacrifice
My opponent has demanded that the fact Hebrews says Christ was sacrificed once for all implies that there is no Eucharistic sacrifice.
However, in my opening remarks I stressed that even if Christ is not present then the Eucharist symbolizes a sacrifice — a fact any Protestant theologian will admit. So even by Protestant admission, the Eucharist a symbolic sacrifice.
Now how does this relate to Hebrews? Well, if Christ were only symbolically offered in the elements then this obviously would not conflict with the fact that Christ died once for all. So even on my opponent’s own theory of how Christ is present, he has no grounds to complain.
Under the terms of our debate, I have no burden in this debate to address the question of how the sacrifice of communion relates to the sacrifice of the cross. I have already shown abundant reasons, completely apart from the Eucharistic sacrifice, why there is a sacramental priesthood today. I simply note that even on my opponent’s own theory of Christ’s presence it does not conflict with the sacrifice of the cross.
But what if the doctrine of the Real Presence is true? Again there is no conflict with Hebrews. Let me warn my opponent that I will not be drawn into a discussion of the Real Presence. That is a separate subject from tonight’s debate. If he had wanted to debate the Real Presence, then he should have asked to debate that topic instead of insisting on this one.
To be frankly honest with you, I have no responsibility to go into the Eucharistic sacrifice at all. My onus in this debate is to argue that there is a sacramental priesthood in the New Testament. I have shown that there are sacraments that New Testament ministers dispense, and I have shown that there is a priesthood because of Paul’s reference to the minister’s “priestly duties” in Romans 15. I have thus shown sacraments and sacrifice without appealing to the Eucharist. Whether there is a Eucharistic sacrifice at all is irrelevant to the proposition before us tonight. That is simply an additional sacrifice the Bible shows New Testament ministers offer in addition to the other one I have shown.
However, I will go beyond my responsibility and show how, on the Catholic understanding of Christ’s presence, the Eucharistic sacrifice does not conflict with the fact Christ died once for all. Indeed, Catholics are the first to insist that Christ died once for all. He died on the cross one time, and neither has died or can die after that time. This fact in no way conflicts with the Eucharistic offering of Christ to God as a living anamnesis, as a living sacrifice, as the Apostle Paul would say.
People who say the fact Christ died only once prevents a Eucharistic sacrifice have gotten this notion because they believe that in order for a sacrifice to occur there must be a death. But people who say this don’t know their Bibles very well, because there were many sacrifices in the Bible, such as the Old Testament drink offerings and grain offerings, in which no death occurred. Similarly, in the spiritual sacrifices offered by Old and New Testament believers, there is no death.
Death is not an essential part of a sacrifice. The essence of a sacrifice is the idea of presenting a gift to the deity. This gift may or may not be presented to God by killing it. There are numerous sacrifices in the Bible in which the gift is not killed. In fact, there is a class of sacrifices, known as “wave offerings” in which the gift is “waved” before God to present it to him. In wave offerings it is not at all required for the gift to be destroyed.
For example, if you read Numbers 8:11-21, you will see that the entire tribe of Levi was waved before God as a wave offering to consecrate them as ministers at the Tabernacle. So God’s ministers present themselves as a wave offering to God.
If you read Romans 12:1, you find out that we present ourselves to God as wave offerings, for Paul tells us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.
It is in this manner that the resurrected Jesus presents himself to God, as a wave offering, a living sacrifice, a living memorial offering that God may remember what he did on the cross and bestow upon us the graces of salvation. By his intercessory ministry in heaven, Christ continually presents to God what he did on the cross, he continually brings it before God as a memorial offering of what he did in the past, so that we might receive God’s grace.
Thus in Hebrews 9:23 we read:
“It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices [plural], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.”
And in Hebrews 13:10 we read: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
The Methodist author George Wesley Buchannan also agrees in his commentary on Hebrews in the Anchor Bible Commentary, meaning we have attestation to the Eucharist as sacrifice from numerous Protestant sources of different denominations: George Wesley Buchannan (Methodist), Joachim Jeremias (Lutheran), D. M. Baille (Presbyterian), plus innumerable Anglicans.
D. Things we are not here to discuss
In my opening remarks I mentioned that there were certain subjects related to the priesthood which, while not part of our debate topic tonight, are ones I would be willing to say a few words about because of the interest Protestants have in them.
a. Why Catholics call priests “Father”
The first is why Catholics call their priests “Father.” After all, Protestants say, didn’t Jesus say not to call any man your father? Indeed he did. But there is a question about how his words are to be interpreted.
Catholics recognize that his words here are a form of hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point, just as when he commanded us sinners to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand in Matthew 18:8-9, just a few chapters before.
Even the most hard-core Protestants will admit that his words are hyperbole, because if you took them literally you would not even be able to call your own dad, “Father,” and if we could not call our earthly fathers this then it would rob the metaphor of our heavenly father of all meaning.
So we know that Jesus’ words are hyperbole. We must therefore figure out how hyperbolic his words are. For this we must not rely on our own opinions, but read scripture in terms of scripture, to allow other passages to tell us how to interpret this one.
When we look elsewhere in the New Testament, we find that his words do not literally forbid calling religious leaders “father” because there are numerous examples of the apostles using this very terminology for themselves.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 4.15, Paul states that Christ is the father of the Corinthians in the gospel. In 1 Thessalonians 2:11 he states how he has dealt with the Thessalonians as a father with his children. In Philippians 2:22 he compares his labor with Timothy as a father’s with his son. In 1 Timothy 1:18 he refers to Timothy as “my son.” In 1 Timothy 5:1 he tells Timothy to treat elders — that’s priests — as fathers. In 2 Timothy 2:1 he again calls Timothy “my son.” And in 1 Peter 5:13 Peter refers to Mark as “my son.”
So by the example of Scripture itself, we know that Jesus words do not prevent describing religious leaders as “father.” Remember: Paul told Timothy to regard elders — priests — as fathers. Christ’s words are hyperbole, just as when he said to gouge our eyes out.
b. Priestly celibacy
There is a great deal of misunderstanding in this area. In fact, only the Latin rite of the Catholic Church has a celibate priesthood. The eastern rites of the Roman Catholic Church have married priesthoods. It is only the Latin rite which has instituted, as an internal, disciplinary decision, to make policy the apostle Paul’s advice to ministers to be celibate.
Even the Latin rite makes exceptions to this rule. For example, if ministers from other denominations become Catholic, as many have recently, they are allowed to become priests even though they are already married. In fact, one of our chaplains at Catholic Answers is a married priest. And there are other exceptions, too. Some priests are given permission to marry and still celebrate Mass privately.
All of this is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. The Bible does not require priests to be celibate. It is not a matter of doctrine, and the Catholic Church can change the discipline whenever necessary. It simply requires it because it is a good idea for ministers to be celibate, just as Protestant denominations often require ministers to have seminary degrees, not because the Bible says so, but because it is a good idea.
And it is a good idea for ministers to be celibate. The Bible itself says so. If you read 2 Timothy 2:4 Paul tells Timothy that as a soldier of Christ he should not get involved in civilian affairs, such as having a wife and raising a family. Paul himself too this advice and remained celibate, as he says in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 9:5.
Thus the tradition of priestly celibacy goes all the way back to the apostle Paul himself. And it was shared by others in the first century. We know that some first century religious were taking vows of celibacy, because in 1 Timothy 5:11-12, Paul regulates an order of widows, forerunners of modern nuns, and indicates it has a vow of celibacy as one of its entrance requirements. This was valuable because, while marriage is good, celibacy is better since it allows a person uninterrupted devotion to the Lord, as Paul states in 1 Cor. 7:32-34, 38.
c. Bad priests
Since every organization on earth is made up of sinful human beings, there are going to be bad priests and bad ministers in every Christian group. As a result, you cannot judge the truth of a theological position by looking at its human ministers, because humans will let you down every time.
I recognized when I was a Protestant that for every Catholic priest you can find who’s done something wrong, you can find a Protestant minister who has run off with his church secretary or organist.
There has always been a bad problem with bad priests because there have always been bad human beings. For example, if you read 1 Samuel 2:22, you will find out that the two priests who were sons of Eli were publicly known for sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. This was the ancient equivalent of sleeping with your church secretary.
Now if you had lived in Old Testament times and judged the religion of Israel by the performance of some of its priests, you would have missed out on the true religion. In the same way today, if you judge the Catholic Church by the performance of some of its priests, the same thing will happen: You will miss out on the true religion of God.
Jesus said that we are to judge a tree by its fruits, but that is a test for the quality of individual ministers, not the truth of religious systems. Even Protestants are quick to point out that one must not judge Protestantism by the performance of some of its most famous ministers, such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell.
So there is simply no room for the “bad priests” argument. It is a non sequitur to the question of truth.