Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Biblical Evidence for Priests

By Dave Armstrong (5-9-06)

From my book, The One-Minute Apologist (2007)

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We are all priests. There is no special class set apart from others in the Church
The Bible says that we are to "call no man father." So why do Catholics do that?

Initial reply

The Bible teaches that there is such a thing as clergy, who are set apart from lay members of the Church, and also gives indication of priestly function.

Extensive reply

The priesthood as we know it today is not a strong motif in the New Testament. But this can be explained in terms of development of doctrine: some things were understood only in very basic or skeletal terms in the early days of Christianity. This is even true of doctrines accepted by all, such as the Holy Trinity or original sin. The canon of the biblical books was slow to formulate (four centuries). Also, it has been argued that priesthood was a subdued feature of primitive Christianity because it had not yet finally separated from Judaism; therefore, the authority of Jewish priests was still accepted. Acts 2:46 describes the Jerusalem Christians as "day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes". The Apostle Paul was presenting offerings in the temple around the year 58 (Acts 21:26), acknowledged the authority of the Jewish high priest, described himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:5-6), and observed Jewish feasts (Acts 20:6).

But one can indeed find evidence in the Bible of a Christian priesthood. Jesus entrusts to His disciples a remembrance of the central aspect of the liturgy or Mass (consecration of the bread and wine) at the Last Supper (Lk. 22:19: "Do this in remembrance of me"; Paul may also have presided over a Eucharist – Acts 20:11). These same disciples were (like priests) models of a life wholly devoted to God, as a matter of lifelong calling. Jesus had chosen and "appointed" them, and they had become His "friends" (Jn. 15:15-16). He was their sole master (Mt. 6:24). There was no turning back in their ministry (Lk. 9:62), and they were called to a radical commitment involving even leaving possessions and their entire families (Mt. 4:22, 19:27; Lk. 14:26). The priest-disciple must accept hardships and privations and embrace self-denial (Mt. 8:19-20, 10:38, 16:24, etc.), and (if so called) celibacy, for the sake of undistracted devotion to the Lord (Mt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:7-9). They served the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:5, 9:19; 2 Cor. 4:5), and dispensed sacraments (1 Cor. 4:1; Jas. 5:14), including baptism (Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38,41). A universal priesthood of "offering" (sacrifice) extending to "every place" in New Testament times is prophesied in Isaiah 66:18,21 and Malachi 1:11.

Protestants sometimes cite 1 Peter 2:5,9 (cf. Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 20:6) to the effect that all Christians are priests. But Peter was citing Exodus 19:6: "you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The problem with this is that the older passage couldn't possibly have meant that there was no priesthood among the ancient Hebrews, since they clearly had a separate class of priests (Leviticus: chapters 4-7, 13-14). This is even seen in the same chapter, since Ex. 19:21-24 (cf. Josh. 3:6, 4:9) twice contrasts the "priests" with the "people." Thus, it makes much more sense to interpret 1 Pet. 2:5 as meaning a people "specially holy" – like priests; a separate, holy, "chosen" people, as is fairly clear in context, in both parallel passages. The notion of "spiritual sacrifices" (faith, praise, giving to others) applies to all Christians (Phil. 2:17; Heb. 13:15-16).


How can Catholics explain calling their priests "Father" in light of Matthew 23:9: "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven"?

Reply to Objection

Jesus was simply teaching (using the common Hebrew method of exaggeration or hyperbole: see Mt. 19:24, 23:24; Lk. 6:42, 14:26) that God the Father is the ultimate source of all authority. He said this during the course of rebuking the Pharisees for spiritual pride (Mt. 23:2-10). Those who use this argument neglect to see that it would prohibit all uses of the word father whatsoever; even biological fathers. Since that is an absurd outcome, it is clear that the statement cannot be taken in an absolute sense. Beyond that, Jesus Himself uses the term father many times (Mt. 15:4-6; 19:5,19,29; 21:31; Lk. 16:24,27,30; Jn. 8:56, etc.). Several other passages from others utilize the term, too (sometimes twice), so unless it is believed that they were being disobedient to Jesus, the objection to calling Catholic priests father must be discarded:

Acts 7:2: And Stephen said: "Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, . . ."

Romans 4:12: . . . the father of the circumcised . . . our father Abraham . . .

Romans 4:16-17: . . . Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations . . ." (cf. 9:10; Phil. 2:22; Jas. 2:21)

1 Corinthians 4:15: For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
St. Augustine (354-430)

'But they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him for a thousand years' [Rev. 20:6]. This clearly does not mean only the bishops and presbyters, who are now called by the distinctive name of 'priests' in the Church; but just as we call all Christians 'Christs' in virtue of their sacramental anointing (chrisma) so we call them all 'priests' because they are members of the one Priest. And the apostle Peter says of them that they are 'a holy people, a royal priesthood' [1 Pet. 2:9].

(The City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972, XX, 10; p. 919)


Leslie Klinger said...

thank you. I was looking for help in replying to a 'Reformed Baptist" who claims the priesthood VANISHED at Pentecost. This helped.

Dave Armstrong said...

You're most welcome. Glad you liked it.