Re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ: The Fundamental Doctrines of the Eucharist and the Presbyterate in Scripture

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

We have examined how the word “priest” in English is actually a translation of the New Testament Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] (“elder”), etymologically distinct from the concept of a ἱερεύς [hiereus] or sacerdos, the sacrificing minister of the Old Testament; and thus “priest” is an appropriate title for the office of Christian ministry. We have shown how Jesus, in instituting a New Covenant, appointed the Apostles ministers of His New Covenant, and they in turn ordained bishops, priests, and deacons to continue in their ministry. We have examined how these early ministers understood themselves to be ministers of the New Covenant in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, and how even the Old Testament prophets foretold that the coming New Covenant of the Messiah would be served by priests.

Priests making sacrifice

But another, crucial aspect of the term priest (Latin sacerdos or Greek ἱερεύς [hiereus] or Hebrew כֹּהֵן [cohen]), essential to the understanding of that office in both Judaism and in every other ancient culture to which the term was applied, is that a priest makes sacrifices. In the tradition of the Church, some early authors came eventually to refer to presbyters synonymously as sacerdotes or ἱερεῖς [hiereis].* In asking whether it is appropriate to call Christian ministers priests, it is thus important to ask whether they make sacrifices, and whether the earliest Christians understood their office as such.

* I’m still working on this research, which is complicated by the fact that I don’t have very easy access to the source languages, and that at a certain point in even the Protestant-edited Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Schaff and Wace), the words presbyter, sacerdos, and ἱερεύς all begin being translated as “priest” without qualification. So far I’ve found that Tertullian makes reference to the Christian ministry as sacerdotalia munera (“priestly services”) (De praescriptione hereticorum XLI, c. A.D. 200). Cyprian very frequently refers to Christian ministers as sacerdotes (c. A.D. 250) who make sacrifices. Augustine casually refers to a sacerdotem tuum, quendam episcopum nutritum in ecclesia, “a priest [of God], a certain bishop brought up in the Church” (Confessions 3.12). In the East, Basil the Great calls the Christian minister a ἱερεύς, to be distinguished from a layman (λαϊκὸς) (Letter XLIV, c. A.D. 370). I will continue to work on this.

But an important preliminary to this question is whether the idea of sacrifice is even present in the New Testament.. The answer will hopefully seem obvious to most Christians: The idea of sacrifice, and sacrificial language, in fact pervades the New Testament.

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

As our critics have thus far noted in response to previous posts, the New Testament presents that all the Christian faithful, the whole people of God, are called to make spiritual sacrifices. Thus Paul urges:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

And Peter calls:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … [For] you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4–5,9)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews likewise presents Christian worship and even the Christian life as sacrifice to God:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15–16, cf. Hebrews 12:28-29)

The language of offering and sacrifice in fact does pervade the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul (e.g. Philippians 2:17, 4:18, Romans 15:16. This is understandable and fitting given the Jewish foundations of the Christian faith, its roots in the Old Testament, and the Pharisaical education of Paul. Most of all, it is fitting given the example of the Author and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece, c. A.D. 1524.

The New Testament is also clear in presenting the death of Jesus on the Cross as a sacrifice for our redemption, the gift of Himself out of love for us.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)

The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates on this understanding throughout the letter:

[Jesus] has no need, like those high priests [of the Old Covenant], to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:27)

Paul in particular explicitly presents Christ as our paschal lamb, the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, a new sacrifice to institute a new covenant:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei (A.D. 1635-40).

And the Evangelists — especially John — shared this understanding. John presents John the Baptist’s exclamation at Jesus’s approach:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Peter shares this understanding (1 Peter 1:19) as does John the Revelator (Revelation 5:6, etc.). It appears that the Synoptic Gospels might also allude to it:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7–8, cf. Mark 14:12)

The mention of the lamb and eating it is curious: for the lamb is not mentioned again. And in fact this was the day on which Jesus, the Passover lamb, had to be sacrificed.

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Many tomes have been written on the theology of the Eucharist; I cannot but begin to nick the surface here. But this seems to be the very burning heart of the disagreement between traditional Christians and Protestants regarding the priesthood: All seem to agree that Jesus gave Himself up as a sacrifice for us; but what is the relationship of His sacrifice on the Cross to His presentation of the Lord’s Supper? What is the meaning of His commandment to do this in memory of Him? What is the role of Christian ministers in this ritual?

Scripture itself presents that there is an essential connection between the Lord’s offering of bread and wine at supper that night and His Crucifixion the next day. It is clear, first of all, that the Lord’s Last Supper was the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13, John 13:1-2ff.). Jesus alluded, more clearly than He had up to that point, to His impending death (Matthew 26:2, etc.). At supper, he called out the one who was to betray him (Luke 22:21–22, etc.). After the meal, the drama of His Passion played out in His agony in the garden (Matthew 26:30–46). All of this, it might be argued, is simply foreshadowing, allusion to what is about to happen. But the meat of the matter — the subject of so much disagreement and debate and controversy — are His words and actions at the meal itself:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22–25)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26–29)

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14–20)

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper (A.D. 1324) (Wikimedia).

Discussions about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist tend to hinge, often fruitlessly, on the word is: “This is my body.” But I would like to draw attention to the tense of this verb, and to the tenses of His surrounding statements: He declares that the bread which He presents is His body, present tense, which is given, present tense, for us. Regardless of disagreements about what the bread and wine are — whether they are His Body and Blood as he said, or mere symbols or representations — His words indicate that what He was giving was being given in that instant. This was not “My Body, which I will give for you when I suffer,” or “My Blood, which will be poured out for you this day”: For Jesus, speaking at the Last Supper, the moment of His suffering had come. Even as most Passion plays present it, the events of the Cenacle to the Cross to the Tomb can be understood as one continuous movement.

Protestant opponents to the traditional understanding of the Eucharist (as our commenter) tend to get hung up on temporal and chronological aspects — calling it “science fiction” to suggest that Jesus could give His body up for us “before going to Calvary.” But this view seems to ignore the plainly sacrificial language of what Jesus was doing. Jesus did, Scripture insists, offer Himself up as a sacrifice for us. And in His own words at the Last Supper, he then and there gave Himself for us: “This is my body which is given for you.”

Jesus’s words consciously echo the words of institution of the Mosaic covenant:

And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant (διαθήκη) in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant (Septuagint διαθήκη) which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)

Even the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly acknowledges and relates this essential connection between the Lord’s sacrifice and His words of institution at the Last Supper:

When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. … Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant (διαθήκη), so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (διαθήκη). For where a will (διαθήκη) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will (διαθήκη) takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Hence even the first covenant (διαθήκη) was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant (διαθήκη) which God commanded you.” (Hebrews 9:11–12,15-20)

Our commenter attempted to make an argument that Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper must have been only symbolic and not essentially connected to the Crucifixion at all, since His words are here presented as a will or testament, and no death had yet occurred at the Last Supper, etc. But this is clearly wrongheaded, for the passage itself declares that the New Covenant is in effect, since a death has occurred which redeems us.

Moses concludes his covenant

The author of Hebrews thus presents Christ’s words of institution (His own declaration that His blood was a New Covenant) and His sacrificial death as essentially the same act: the declaration of the covenant and its ratification by blood. Just so, Moses’s institution of the Old Covenant in Exodus involved separate elements of the same act of institution: offering blood, words of institution (Exodus 24:8), and a meal between the parties of the covenant (Exodus 24:11). Such is the protocol of covenant in the ancient world: and it was played out again by Jesus in the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as a single act.

The chronology of these acts is thus irrelevant: Jesus’s institution of the covenant at the Last Supper was the presentation of His death as a sacrifice, using explicitly sacrificial and covenantal language. Jesus Himself told us that in the death of His body, He was offering Himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins; that in His blood, He was instituting a New Covenant for us. He offered the sacrifice of His body at the Passover supper, and gave it to his disciples to eat as the new Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The very idea that Jesus was our paschal lamb as Paul expresses depends on the understanding that Jesus was sacrificed and presented in place of the lamb at the Passover meal. Scripture is thus clear in this understanding.

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Dr. Brant Pitre’s study of the Jewish roots and context of the Eucharist casts a brilliant light on this reality. A valuable outline is available online: “The Fourth Cup and the New Passover.” Even more fruitful is his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. A quote in summary from the outline:

1. By vowing not to drink the final cup of the Last Supper (Luke 22:18), Jesus extended his last Passover meal to include his own suffering and death.

2. By praying three times in Gethsemane for the “cup” to be taken from him (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus revealed that he understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice.

3. Jesus also transformed the Passover sacrifice. In the old Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb would come first, and then the eating of its flesh. But in this case, because Jesus had to institute the new Passover before his death, he pre-enacted it, as both host of the meal and sacrifice.

4. Most important of all, by waiting to drink the fourth cup of the Passover until the very moment of his death (John 19:28-29), Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on the cross. By refusing to drink of the fruit of the vine until he gave up his final breath, he joined the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary. Both actions said the same thing: “This is my body, given for you” (Luke 22:19). In short, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, A.D. 1592-1594 (Wikipedia).

So Scripture is clear that at the Last Supper, Jesus presented His Body and Blood as a sacrifice. But what did He mean when He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me”? Do what, exactly? To whom was this command addressed? And if Jesus’s presentation was a sacrifice, what would be the character of others’ doing it in His memory?

Doing this was important enough to St. Paul to quote in full the words of institution and give specific instruction about what was to be done and why:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

Thus it is clear that the Apostles understood Jesus meant specifically to do this: to reenact the offering of Himself at the Last Supper, and to give the Christian faithful this food to eat (John 6:34). If the Lord’s presentation of Himself at the Last Supper was a sacrifice, then the re-presentation — which He commanded His Apostles to do — is the re-presentation of a sacrifice.

That Paul understood the re-presentation of the Eucharist to also be a sacrifice is also evident — for he explicitly compares the Eucharistic table to an altar of sacrifice, and opposes the food of the Eucharistic table to food offered in sacrifice to idols:

Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:14–21)

Paul thus implies that if pagans offer their sacrifices to demons and not to God, and in eating of the sacrifices become partners with demons, Christians do make their sacrifices to God, and in eating of them, have participation (Greek κοινωνία [koinōnia], literally “communion”) in the Body and Blood of Christ.

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Scripture is thus clear in understanding the re-presentation of the Eucharist as a sacrifice in some sense: a re-presentation of Christ’s own sacrifice. That this is the correct interpretation of Scripture can be verified in the earliest understandings of the Church after Scripture. Our commenter accuses that we must “go outside Scripture” to support the view that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, but on the contrary, all the support that is necessary is already evident in Scripture; looking beyond Scripture only further confirms the truth we find in Scripture. We read in the Didache, which many scholars reasonably date to circa A.D. 70, within the Apostolic age itself:

And on the Lord’s day of the Lord assemble yourselves together and break bread (Revelation 1:10); and give thanks (Greek εὐχαριστήσατε [eucharistēsate]) after having confessed also your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let not any man that is at variance with his fellow come together with you until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not polluted. For this [sacrifice] is that which was spoken of by the Lord: In every place and time offer unto me a pure sacrifice (Malachi 1:11), for I am a great King, saith the Lord; and My Name is wonderful among the Gentiles. (Didache XIV, from G. C. Allen, trans., The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [London: The Astolat Press, 1903])

The value of this testimony is not that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice depends on it (in fact, I wasn’t even aware of these passages before I wrote the above sections of the article), but that it demonstrates that the earliest Christians, taught by the Apostles themselves, shared the same understanding we now derive from Scripture. It also directly refutes the arguments our commenter has already advanced, that the Council of Trent innovated the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice, that “no Christian in the 1,600 years prior to Trent” held such an understanding. Not only is the understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice expressed in Scripture, but the earliest Christians, taught by the oral teaching of the Apostles, held and expressed this same understanding.

Opposition from Hebrews?

As clear as Christ’s command to re-present His sacrifice, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes just as clear that Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all; that Christ, our High Priest, has no need to offer repeated sacrifices; that He does not suffer repeatedly (Hebrews 7:27, 9:26). We know that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Thus it is clear that the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice which He commanded cannot be a repetition of His sacrifice, or a re-sacrificing of Christ; rather it must be a presenting again of the same once and for all sacrifice.

Rather than an argument against the Eucharist, as Protestant opponents insist to read it, Hebrews thus becomes a treatise on the Eucharist, an explanation to especially Jews that Jesus’s one sacrifice, and the sacrifices which Christians make in memory of Him, were not the kind of repeated and inefficacious sacrifices presented again and again in the Old Testament, but indeed one final, once and for all sacrifice for our redemption and salvation. Nothing about the argument of Hebrews nullifies or eliminates Christ’s command to do this in memory of Him; rather, it is only with His command in mind, and the understanding that this was practiced regularly as the central element of Christian worship (Acts 2:42,46), that the Book of Hebrews can be read with benefit in its proper context.

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

St. John Paul II celebrating Mass, New Orleans, 1987. (

So, then, as Scripture teaches, Jesus, through the sacrifice of His Body and Blood on Calvary, presented at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new covenant. The Book of Hebrews especially elaborates on this idea of the new covenant. Paul too understands this idea, identifying himself and his associates in ministry as “ministers of the New Covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

Scripture is not explicit in declaring that the ministers of the New Covenant make sacrifices, and it intentionally shies away from calling them ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. But the implications of Scripture are clear: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, becoming our High Priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]); he presented this sacrifice through the signs of bread and wine at the Last Supper; he commanded His Apostles to “do this in memory of me” — to re-present the sacrifice He had presented. What would they then be presenting, if not a sacrifice?

Indeed, as shown above, and as is evident throughout the literature of the Early Church, the earliest Christians did understand the presentation of the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. Once again, this testimony is offered in verification of the truths already revealed in Scripture:

Being vehemently inflamed by the word of His calling, we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure (Malachi 1:11). Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests. Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 116–117, c. A.D. 160)

Justin here makes reference to God’s priests, especially in juxtaposition to the Jewish priests of the Old Covenant, whom he says God now rejects. Justin thus seems to understand that even though all Christians are the “high priestly race of God,” there are nonetheless some who offer the sacrifices.

Who is it, then, who offers the sacrifices? To whom was Jesus giving the commandment when he said to “Do this in memory of Him”? As an Evangelical, I would have answered “to all Christians,” and this seems to be a common response (as there is a tendency in especially Evangelicalism to read all Scripture as if every statement were a direct address to the individual Christian). But most obvious to me now, the closed group to whom Jesus was actually speaking was His Twelve Apostles.

There are practical reasons to think that Jesus was offering a charge to His ministers and not to all Christians, as are played out in even Protestant churches. Just as Jesus presided over the Last Supper, the re-presentation of such must also be presided over: there must be someone to speak and offer the sacrifice, someone to operate in the place of Christ. By their very position, this role usually falls to pastors.

But in traditional Christianity, the charges of Jesus to His Apostles, not only in the ministry of the Eucharist but in the very roles of teaching and pastoring, are understood not just in terms of practicality but of office and authority. As we have already discussed, Jesus did appoint His Apostles to an office of ministry. In His charges to speak in His name and carry His message throughout the world — and to do “Do this in memory of Him” — He authorized them to carry out this ministry; to be His representatives (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

As we have discussed, Jesus appointed the Apostles to an ordained office of ministry, with specific duties and authorities (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23, etc.). The Apostles then appointed presbyters and bishops to continue in their ministry after them:

And when they had appointed presbyters for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

That this office and charge was only committed to another by the Apostles themselves or others in the order of presbyters is also evident:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of presbyters (πρεσβυτέριον [presbyterion]) laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)

Likewise Paul warned Timothy to take care with whom he ordained to the ministry:

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)

But nonetheless Timothy was charged to ordain others to continue in his own ministry:

What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

Thus Scripture presents the fundamental idea of apostolic succession: that the Apostles appointed ministers to continue after them, who likewise should appoint ministers to continue after them. And thus it was understood by the Early Church, as the earliest testimony of those who came after the Apostles bears:

[The Apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. … Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. We consider therefore that it is not just to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them, or later on by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favourable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement XLII, XLIV, c. A.D. 70s; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1912–1913])

Clement thus testifies to the earliest Church’s understanding of apostolic succession — and also, to add to our discussion here, confirms that offering sacrifices was part of the office of the episcopate (i.e. the office of bishop).

Ignatius of Antioch likewise confers, clarifying that offering the Eucharist was the express authority of the bishop and of presbyters he might appoint:

See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agapé” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans VIII, c. A.D. 107; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Lake)

Thus if we accept that specific duties of ministry were the charge of the offices of ministry to which Jesus appointed the Apostles and to which they appointed other faithful men, then it follows that offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist — which Scripture presents as a central element of Christian ministry and worship — would have been a key component of those offices, and not a casual celebration which any believer could conjure at his whim. The earliest testimony of the Apostolic Fathers confirms that this was the case, as it has been understood throughout Christian history and tradition.


Priests, Westminster

This is the outline of the doctrine presented by Scripture: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice to God for our redemption (Ephesians 5:2, etc.); He presented this sacrifice at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19, etc.) and perfected it on the Cross (John 19:30, etc.). He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in memory of Him” (Luke 22:19) — that is, to re-present the sacrifice which He had presented. This office was carried forth by those Apostles and by others whom they appointed to their ministry. That these were the doctrines which Christ taught, which the Apostles communicated, and which they committed to Scripture, is confirmed by the fact that this is the way the earliest Christians received and understood such teaching.

Thus we have an order of ministers, called by God and ordained to an office, to serve the New Covenant of God (2 Corinthians 3:4–6). Thus even the Apostle Paul saw this ministry to be analogous to the priesthood of the Old Covenant (Romans 15:16). The prophets of the Old Testament foresaw that God would call a new order of priests in service of His New Covenant, to offer sacrifices forever (Isaiah 61:6, 66:18, 20–21; Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22). Jesus commanded His ministers to re-present His sacrifice — and in so doing what they presented was a sacrifice. The order of Christian ministers in service of Christ’s New Covenant thus do make sacrifices, in some mysterious sense that does not call into question the oneness or finality of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice. Christian ministers can thus rightly be called sacerdotes — priests — in the service of Christ.

Over the generations to come, through prayerful reflection and close study of the Scriptures, the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and the priesthood deepened and expanded. Priests, teachers, and theologians would explore the mystery of faith, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, to attempt to understand and explain its beauty, majesty, and truth. Church Fathers such as Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine offered forth elaborate theological treatises, practical instructions, and glorious panegyrics in praise of the Eucharist — but these were only the flowering forth of the core truths of the faith, which had been present, in Scripture and Tradition, from the beginning. Our recent commenters here have raged against the “nonsense” they can cite from the Council of Trent and other late promulgations of doctrine, arguing that such elaborations of doctrine were nowhere found in Scripture — but attacking a mere flourish is as ineffective in refuting the core truths of traditional Christianity as plucking leaves from a tree. The outline, the seed, is here, presented in Scripture and verified by the testimony to Tradition.

Ministers of the New Covenant: Why Christian Ministers Are Priests

Ordination of priests

Why do Catholics call their ministers priests? Is this concept of priests as ministers of the New Covenant of Christ valid and scripturally sound? In my last post, I demonstrated that the English word “priest” derives etymologically from, and was originally a translation of, the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), attested in the New Testament Scriptures (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1:5,7) and translated in Latin as presbyter, and is thus an appropriate term for the Christian ministry. That the ministers of the Old Testament are also called “priests” in English is mostly the result of a linguistic accident: originally כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew, and translated in Greek as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin as sacerdotes, at some point in the history of transmission these terms became synonymous with Christian priests. The terms became synonymous, apparently, because Christians saw the offices to be synonymous, or at least analogous to one another.

Ministers of the New Covenant

Fr. Charles Merrill, Ash Wednesday 2014

Fr. Charles Merrill, at Ash Wednesday 2014, Annunciation of the Lord Church, Decatur, Alabama. (The Decatur Daily)

The New Testament does not refer to Christian ministers as ἱερεῖς or sacerdotes. It is evident that Jesus did not explicitly institute a formal, liturgical priesthood akin to the Aaronic priesthood: He did not command the Apostles to don ephods or breastplates or robes (or albs or chasubles or stoles, as the case may be); He did not formally anoint them as a new priesthood as Aaron and his sons were anointed (Exodus 28). Yet nonetheless, Jesus did appoint the Twelve to have special roles in His ministry, and invested them with His authority, to preach with His voice, to cast out demons, to heal the sick, to forgive sins (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23). This was more than just a casual charge to all Christians, but a formal office for which the Apostles were selected and which they saw the need to fill in replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15-26). These Apostles did appoint elders (presbyters) in every church they founded, to carry on their ministry after they departed (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). We see the outlines of this ministry in the offices of bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon, with their roles, duties, and requirements (1 Timothy 3). Thus Scripture demonstrates that Christ did institute, and the Apostles did perpetuate, a new order of ordained Christian ministry, ministers of Christ’s New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6).

A “Priesthood of All Believers”

Bishop, priest, and deacon

Bishop, priest, and deacon.

To answer a common charge of Protestants, a distinction should be made between the universal priesthood in which every believer is called to participate (e.g. 1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6), and the ministerial priesthood, the official roles and offices of Christian ministry and service to which individual believers are specially called. St. Paul is clear that not every believer is called to the same ministry, function, or role (1 Corinthians 12:27-30, Ephesians 4:11-12), but that every member in every role is essential to the working of the body and none essentially “higher” or “better” than any other (1 Corinthians 12:4-26). While the New Testament people of God are a “royal priesthood,” called to exercise Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king (CCC 1546-1547), this does not detract from the necessity that not all are called to serve in ministerial roles. An analogy is made to the Old Testament people of God, who were likewise called “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but who nonetheless had an order of men specially called to serve as priests.

Priests by Analogy

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1740)

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1741). (

But if the New Testament does not call Christian ministers sacerdotes (or ἱερεῖς in Greek) — in fact, it seems to make efforts not to equate them with the old order of sacerdotes — why should they come to be referred to as such? — and why should calling them thus be accepted as scripturally sound? Given the evidence that God constituted an order of priests (sacerdotes) for the Jews in service of His Old Covenant, and that Jesus appointed a new order of ministers in service of His New Covenant, it seems natural that Christians should see their ministry as being in some sense analogous to the priestly ministry of the Old Testament. In fact, St. Paul applied this analogy explicitly even within Scripture:

Because of the grace given me by God, [I am] a minister (λειτουργός, [leitourgos]) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (ἱερουργοῦντα [hierourgounta], literally serving as a priest, i.e. sacerdos) of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:16).

Thus, in explicit language, Paul relates his ministry as an Apostle of Christ to the ministry of a priest (sacerdos), one who aids the Gentiles in making an offering of themselves to the Lord.

That he sees himself as a member of an order of ministers is also evident:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

That Paul is speaking with reference to himself and his apostolic associates, and not to all believers, is also evident from the context. Writing to the Corinthian Church, he makes plain distinction between the first person “we” and the second person “you,” asking, “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” To this he answers to the Corinthians that You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).


Our recent commenter complained that the idea of there being a new order of “priests” in the New Testament is contradictory to Scripture, especially to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Is this true? Hebrews does argue that Jesus as our high priest supersedes the old order of Aaronic priests, and with His once and for all atoning sacrifice on Calvary, makes their repeated sacrifices obsolete and unnecessary (Hebrews 7:27, 8:6–8, 13, etc.). But is this relevant?

I have not yet approached the question of the ministerial priesthood’s role in the Christian Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, the presentation of the Lord’s Supper. This is directly relevant to the Book of Hebrews and will have to be addressed. But this post is already long, and I will have to save the sacramental element of the priesthood for another post or posts. Suffice it to say, by way of preview, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice: not a repetition or a continuation of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice at every Mass, as Protestant critics allege, but a re-presentation of that one sacrifice, a making present for all time, just as Jesus Himself commanded his ministers to re-present it: “Do this in memory of me.”

For the aspects of the priesthood discussed here — the fact that priests are ministers of Christ’s New Covenant, appointed to carry out roles of ministry in the Church — the passages in Hebrews are not relevant at all. The Old Covenant is obsolete and passing away, superseded by a New Covenant; but nothing about this understanding would exclude the idea that the New Covenant should have its own ministers. In fact, such an understanding would contradict the scriptural passages already discussed above.

Priests by Prophecy

Prophet Isaiah (Bible card)

The Prophet Isaiah, from a Bible card, c. 1904. (Wikipedia)

Not only did the ministers of the New Covenant see their roles in ministry as analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, but the Old Testament prophets prophesied that with the coming of the Messiah, a new order of priests would be ministers of God and shepherds of His people. The prophet Isaiah foretold that in the coming of the Messiah, an order of priests would serve him:

You shall be called the priests of the LORD,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.
(Isaiah 61:6)

For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory. … And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:18, 20–21)

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied that just as the royal throne of David would never be empty, the Lord God would be perpetually served by priests making sacrifices:

For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices for ever. … As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me. (Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22)

Jeremiah also foretold that the Lord would give His people shepherds:

And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)

I will set shepherds over [my people] who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:4–5)

Jeremiah clearly associates these shepherds with the coming of the Messiah also; and also with the former leaders of Israel who have led the Lord’s flock astray (Jeremiah 23:1-2), especially with priests and prophets (Jeremiah 23:9-11, 33, etc.). Therefore the new shepherds of the Lord’s flock will take the place of these.

It is understandable, then, that Christian exegetes reading these texts, understanding Christ and the Church to be the fulfillment of these prophecies, should understand that their ministers, ministering to the Lord and shepherding His people, were analogous to priests.


We have discussed how the New Testament itself presents that Christ appointed His Apostles to specific roles within His ministry, as ministers of His New Covenant, and how they ordained other ministers to carry on their ministry; and how these ministers of the New Covenant saw themselves to be in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant. We have explored how the prophets of the Old Testament perceived that God would institute a New Covenant, and employ a new order of priests and shepherds in service of that covenant and His people, and that Christ and His Church are understood to be the fulfillment of these prophecies. Now we must return to a third and perhaps most crucial aspect of whether the ministers of the New Covenant should be considered priests: Do these ministers make sacrifices? And if, in the Christian understanding, they do make sacrifices, is this not contradictory to the teachings of the scriptural Epistle to the Hebrews, which declares that Jesus, our High Priest, has made a final, once and for all sacrifice and thus made obsolete the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant? Next, I will examine these questions, and show how the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice is presented by Scripture and received by tradition.

How Both New Testament “Presbyters” and Old Testament “Cohenim” Became “Priests” in English

Marc Chagall. Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

Marc Chagall, Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

A recent commenter complained, as Protestants often do, that there is “no biblical basis” for the New Testament priesthood. My immediate response: Of course there is. There is ample demonstration throughout the New Testament of ministers — deacons, presbyters, and bishops — who are called to serve the Lord and the Church in a special way and appointed to that purpose. The Greek word presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), even, is the root of our English word priest. Even saying it, though, it struck me as odd: If the New Testament Greek word presbyteros is the origin of the English word “priest,” why is it that the Old Testament priesthood is translated with that word in English today, and not the New Testament?

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

If fact, the word priest is the word applied in English to any religious minister in any religion, especially to one who makes sacrifices. But the word for those ministers in each of the various source languages is not priest or anything related to it. So what happened? How did a Christian minister come to be called a “priest” at all? How did this word that originally referred to the New Testament Christian minister come also to be applied to a Jewish minister of the Old Covenant, and in fact to any religious minister? And how is it that, in English today, this word “priest” no longer refers strictly to Christian ministers at all, such that modern Bible translations use the word in the Old Testament (in which it has no historical or etymological root) but not the New Testament (from which it actually derives) — and Protestant Christians are left to question why the New Testament ministry is even called a “priesthood”?

In answering these questions, I embarked on a fascinating journey through language, etymology, and Bible translation, uncovering surprising accidents of translation, usage, and reaction.

Catholic priest

The complaint of some Protestants that the “priesthood” of the Catholic Church has no biblical basis has two separate fronts: a linguistic one, opposed to the use of the word “priest,” and a theological one, opposed to the idea that the New Covenant of Christ has any need of a “priesthood” akin to that of the Old Covenant. Regarding the first point, I will show that the use of the word “priest” in English to describe the ministers of the Christian New Covenant is entirely appropriate, and the use of that same word to also describe ministers of the Jewish Old Covenant is mostly the result of a linguistic accident. I will address the second point in another post.

I. The Words of Scripture

A. “Presbyters”

Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs

From an icon of Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs at Antioch (Wikimedia).

As any student of the New Testament knows, St. Paul instructs us in Scripture, according to most modern Bible translations in English, about the ministry of elders and overseers. There is no mention at all in many recent translations of “priests” or “bishops” — leading Protestant readers especially to presume that the Catholic priesthood has no basis in Scripture, and stems only from “traditions of men.” In this case, though, the titles used in English in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches are primarily an etymological tradition (handed down by language and words) that does have a very firm basis in Scripture.

Modern Bible translations are correct in their translations of the original meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament. The Greek word translated “elder” is πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], and in Classical Greek, it literally refers to an elder or older man. Likewise, the word translated “overseer” is ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], meaning literally one who sees (skopos = Latin scopus) over (epi) others. These two offices were apparently more or less equivalent in practical biblical usage (cf. e.g. Titus 1:3, 5).

St. Timothy.

St. Timothy.

But almost immediately upon their introduction, these terms came to have meanings apart from their literal senses and apart from the literal interpretation of Scripture, referring specifically to the offices which they named in the developing Christian Church. Timothy, the recipient of Paul’s epistles, by all appearances was an elder or overseer, exercising the duties appointed to those offices (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:11-16, 4:17) and having the authority to appoint both (1 Timothy 3) — and yet Timothy was not an “older man” at all, but one to whom Paul exhorted, “Let no one despise you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ignatius of Antioch, writing in circa A.D. 107, commended an overseer who was likewise not an “older man” (Epistle to the Magnesians III). The office of presbyter, then, was not exclusively limited to “older men,” and came to mean more than the literal meaning of the Greek; and that word continued to be used, even when a younger man held the office.

The fact that the Christian office took on a different meaning than its literal Greek etymology is also evident in the fact that when the New Testament was translated into Latin, and when early Christian writers of the West wrote of Christian ministers, the Greek word πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] was transliterated, copied directly into the Latin as presbyter, and not translated: “older men” in Latin would have been seniores (the word used in other locations of the New Testament where an older man is clearly meant, e.g. Matthew 27:1).

B. “Cohenim,” “Hiereis,” and “Sacerdotes”


We now turn to those Jewish religious officials in the Bible who are today generally translated into English as “priests.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for the ministers of the Old Covenant is כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [kō·hēn·īm or cohenim], singular כֹּהֵן [kō·hēn or cohen]. Despite the fact that the word “priest” originates from the New Testament presbyter, and that that word has no immediate, etymological connection to the ministry of the Old Covenant — these Hebrew ministers came to be called “priests” in English, and in fact there is no other word in English that can adequately be applied to them or what they did.

The same Hebrew word cohenim was used to describe Egyptian religious ministers (Genesis 41:45) and ministers of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7), and others. So it appears that even in Hebrew the word was a generic term for what a minister did, his role and relationship to a divine cult, and not anything specific to the Hebrew God or covenant. It is fitting, then, that when the Hebrew ministers were described in other languages, they were likewise described with those languages’ words for a sacrificing religious minister.

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (c. 1890) (Wikimedia).

In the Greek New Testament, when the Jewish religious officials are described in the Gospels, or when Jesus is called our “high priest,” the Greek word used is ἱερεύς [hiereus], plural ἱερεῖς [hiereis], from ἱερός [hieros], hallowed or holy [cf. English hieroglyphics, “holy symbols”]: meaning a minister in the cult of a god, especially a minister who makes sacrifices. It is the same word used in Greek for the ministers of the pagan Greek religion. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the cohenim of the Old Covenant were likewise translated as hiereis.

Likewise, when the Christian Bible was translated into Latin, and when the Old Testament was described by the Latin Fathers of the Church, the ministers of the Old Covenant (Hebrew cohenim or Greek hiereis) were translated as sacerdotes [singular sacerdos], literally those who make holy gifts [sacer (holy or sacred) + dos (gift)]. It is the word used in Latin for the ministers of the Roman religion as well as the Greek religion and other similar religious officials.

So in the earliest writings of the Hebrews, the ministers of the Old Covenant did not have a distinct, unique word applied to them. The Hebrew word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] was a generic word for a sacrificing religious minister to any god. Accordingly, this word was translated into Greek and Latin with those languages’ words for sacrificing religious ministers, ἱερεῖς [hiereis] in Greek and sacerdotes in Latin. These words cohenim, hiereis, and sacerdotes have no essential connection to the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], originally denoting an older man but in Christian usage coming to refer to the office of presbyter, a presiding elder at a local church.

II. Words in Time

A. “Priests”

The Venerable Bede translating John

The Venerable Bede translating John. Bede was contemporary with these linguistic developments in English.

How, then, did presbyters come to be known as “priests” in English? It is important to note that the English language first developed (as Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons) in the Christian era, only after the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized in the seventh century A.D. That being the case, our historical evidence of the English language has no surviving indigenous terms (that I’ve been able to discover) for religious ministers.

Thus from the very beginning in English, Christian ministers — the presbyters of the New Testament — became known as prēostas (priests) — the term simply being adopted from Latin biblical and ecclesiastical language. The term bisceop (bishop) was likewise simply adopted from the Latin episcopus (Greek ἐπίσκοπος). On the other hand, Old English adopted the word sacerd (plural sacerdas), from Latin sacerdos, to refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, and in fact as a generic word for any priest (as sacerdos is in Latin). Jewish and pagan ministers were also sometimes called bisceopas (bishops) in Old English. Only Christian ministers were thus originally known as priests in English, and Jewish and other ministers called something different. From the very earliest English manuscripts, there was some overlap in the use of the word bishop.

By the Middle English period (post-Norman conquest), however, the word sacerd had fallen into disuse, and prēost became the generic term for any religious minister. This is the term that came to be used to describe Christian ministers, pre-Christian pagan ministers, Jewish ministers, and Greek and Roman ministers, and any other religious office. Because ministers in their adopted Christian religion were called “presbyters,” it is from this term that the Anglo-Saxon people eventually adopted the word for all religious ministers. Historical linguists are uncertain how exactly the Greek and Latin word presbyter phonologically evolved into the Anglo-Saxon prēost. Perhaps, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a late Latin form of presbyter was prebester, leading to prēost and similar developments in other Germanic languages. It is also uncertain why the generic term sacerd was lost.

So rather than the Catholic Church “inventing” the idea that New Testament Christian ministers were priests in analogue to the Old Testament priesthood, quite the opposite happened: The English language, developing around the Christian religion, called Christian ministers priests first. The cohenim, the priests of the Old Covenant, came also to be called priests only after the Christian ministers, because they were seen to be analogous to Christian priests, not the other way around.

So we find, for example, that when John Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, in the late 14th century, he translated the ministers of both the New Testament and the Old Testament as priests:

For cause of this thing Y lefte thee at Crete, that thou amende tho thingis that failen, and ordeyne preestis bi citees, as also Y disposide to thee. (Titus 1:5)

And the preest schal brenne tho on the auter, in to the fedyng of fier, and of the offryng to the Lord. (Leviticus 3:11)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe.

Even Wycliffe, a proto-Protestant, understood the ministers of the New Testament to be rightly called priests, and the Latin word presbyter he was translating to be the root of the English word priest. Wycliffe, too, translated the ministers of the Old Testament — sacerdotes in the Latin — as priests in English. As tempting as it is to pin this coincidence on Wycliffe, it is unclear how much influence Wycliffe’s translation had on later translators. His translation choices probably reflected the common usage of his day: the ministers of both the Old and New Testaments were called priests. (Wycliffe also retained the traditional English translation of bishop for episcopus.)

The original meaning of the Greek πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as “elder” had thus been lost in translation: but then again, the identity of the Christian presbyter as an “older man” had ceased to be essential to the office almost as soon as it originated (see I.A.3 above). Early English speakers, and the earliest translators of Scripture into English, likewise saw the office of “priest” as distinct from its etymology.

B. “Elders”

With the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the original texts and languages of the Scriptures. In the early sixteenth century, the first polyglot editions of the Scriptures, including the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, were printed. This paved the way for the work of William Tyndale and other Englishmen who translated the Scriptures directly from their original languages into English.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale.

Tyndale, translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, translated πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] according to the literal meaning of the Greek: he translated it elder. But not even Tyndale objected to calling these Christian officers priests. Tyndale, in fact, makes an essential connection between the elders of the Old Covenant and the elders (presbyters) of the New Covenant:

In the Old Testament the temporal heads and rulers of the Jews which had the governance over the lay or common people are called elders, as ye may see in the four evangelists. Out of which custom Paul in his pistel and also Peter, call the prelates and spiritual governors which are bishops and priests, elders. Now whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God, unto the which all men both high and low that will not rebel against Christ, must obey as long as they preach and rule truly and no longer. (“W.T. unto the Reader,” preface to 1534 edition of New Testament)

The fact that ministers in the Anglican Church continued to be called priests indicates that English-speakers at the time of the English Reformation saw no disconnect between the words presbyter and priest — in fact probably recognizing their essential and etymological connection.

In the Old Testament, Tyndale likewise translated the word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] as priest. By the 1530s, there was simply no other word in English to capture the meaning. As the English language developed, priest had become the word for any religious minister, especially one who sacrifices, thus becoming synonymous with the Latin sacerdos.

(Tyndale, on the other hand, retained the traditional English translation of bishop for ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], as does the King James Bible — leading to a generally greater acceptance of that term among Protestants.)

The heirs to Tyndale’s translation, including the King James Bible and every major English translation since (including most Catholic ones) have translated the word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as elder. There is certainly a element of reaction and even rebellion in some Protestant translations, particularly in more recent ones: a conscious rejection of the idea of a New Testament ministerial priesthood. It is worth noting that they translate the words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos] according to their literal, primitive meanings as elder and overseer, but not the word διάκονος [diaokonos], which is rendered not by its literal meaning of servant but by the traditional deacon in most English translations. This acknowledges that the word diakonos here has taken on an additional and traditional meaning, referring to the Christian office, more than its literal meaning of servant. Why not, then, leave the other offices to their traditional renderings as priest and bishop — which likewise have taken on additional, traditional meanings more than elder and overseer? The reaction seems particularly pronounced for the word priest, given that the same word is now applied to the Old Testament priesthood, and there is an understandable effort to make a distinction between the two.

Over time, as the English language continued to evolve, the etymological connection between presbyter and priest was lost and forgotten — such that I was taken aback to learn of it as I was becoming Catholic, just as many others are.


Pope Francis at Mass

Pope Francis at Mass.

The premise — which I myself held once — that to call the Christian ministers of the New Testament “priests” is an innovation not supported by Scripture — is false on its face. Stemming directly from the word in the original Greek, πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] or presbyter, the word “priest” was the original term for Christian ministers in English and a perfectly appropriate one. The ministers of the Old Testament — כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew — were originally called sacerdas (after Latin sacerdos) in Old English, and only in time, as an analogy to Christian priests, came to be called priests in English also.

It should be noted, too, that equating the priests of the Old and New Covenants with a single word is not endemic to Catholicism but only to English and other Germanic languages (though French, with Germanic influence, seems to do the same). In several of the Romance languages (Spanish and Italian notably), the words for priest used in Catholic teaching are still more obvious cognates to presbyter (presbítero and presbitero respectively) — while those languages still refer to priests of the Old Covenant as sacerdotes and sacerdoti. In those languages, Christian priests can also be called sacerdotes in analogue to priests of the Old Covenant.

This reflects another development that took place long before even the development of the English language, that no doubt contributed to the ministers of both the Old and New Covenants being called priests in English: Even in Greek and Latin, Christian ministers came sometimes to be referred to as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. This appellation, which can be found in some of the very earliest Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril, was primarily by analogy: Christian priests were like the cohenim of the Old Testament in their ministry toward God and His people, adminstering Jesus’s work as our high priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]) to the Christian flock. In this sense, priests became synonymous with sacerdotes first in Greek and Latin — paving the way for them to become synonymous in English.

And this begs the question, and the second point of the Protestant charge: Is there any analogue between the priests of the New Covenant and the cohenim of the Old Covenant? Is the priesthood of the Church a sacrificing priesthood, as the Old Testament priesthood certainly was and as the Greek term ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin term sacerdotes understand? Were the Church Fathers correct in applying this analogy, and is there any merit to referring to the priests of the Old and New Covenants by the same term, as we do in English? Or were the Protestants correct to stress the distinction between the two orders? How did the early presbyteri of the Church themselves understand their role? I will strive to address these questions in my next post, so don’t go away!

A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis

This is a bit heavier than my usual posts here, but it answers an important question that Protestant apologists have posed to me and other Catholic converts: Was I only drawn to the Catholic Church because its claims to authority offered an “easy out” to the difficulties of weighing Scripture and doctrine for myself?


A Catalogue of Sects

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. Broadsheet. 1647.

I’ve been accused before, and I readily admit that it’s true, that as a Protestant, I never had a very thoroughgoing commitment to Protestant theological principles. It was not for lack of trying: for a number of years I had studied theology, prayed, and pored over the Scriptures in an earnest attempt to arrive at some apprehension of the truth. But no Protestant theology, despite the ardent, sometimes vehement assertions of each’s adherents, had a firm enough foundation to convince me. Each was based in subjective interpretations of the Scriptures that lacked either the context or the clarity to convey everything their doctrines demanded of them. Each’s interpretation conflicted with every other, and yet was based in the very same texts; and each had no greater claim to being the correct and sole interpretation of those texts than the rest. I had not the knowledge or the faculty to sort it all out, and even if I had, any conclusion I reached would be, I realized, my own subjective conclusion, based only on my own interpretation and whosever opinion happened to sway me at that time. I realized the inherent weakness, instability, and insufficiency of this position. Though I would never have articulated it this way then, it was clear that Scripture by itself could not teach me everything I needed to know about God and His salvation.

So as a Protestant, I resigned myself to uncertainty, to never being sure exactly what Scripture was trying to teach; to never knowing, in the sea of competing and conflicting doctrines, which ones were the true ones. Since I could not discern, from Scripture, the truth or falsehood of every doctrine and theology, I was lulled into a sense of complacency, what I called a thoroughgoing ecumenism: if I could discern no school of theology to be absolutely true, then each of them must be more or less acceptable and worthy of consideration. On one hand, I am glad for this: it made me tolerant and accepting of a wide diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, and open-minded enough to listen to and consider what they have to say. It was an open-mindedness that eventually made me willing to examine the Catholic Church and finally found welcome in her walls. It troubled me, and still does, the Protestants who could assume a stance of enough certainty to condemn and judge the doctrines of other believers, based on so unsteady a foundation as I perceived theirs to be. On the other hand, this ecumenism eventually reached a point of doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, or universalism: that not only could we not know the truth of doctrine, but that it didn’t really matter and that God loved and accepted us all anyway.

A Protestant apologist recently referred to this as the “paralysis” of the Protestant mind; apparently it is common enough to have its own name. This apologist also suggested, as I have heard other Protestant apologists charge against other Catholic converts, that the Catholic Church was attractive to me simply because it offered a way to break this “logjam”: that I accepted the Church’s claims only because they asserted a singular authority, because the Church could dictate the answer rather than leave me to muddle it out on my own, and not because there was anything compelling or convincing about the claims of themselves: in short, that the singular, magisterial authority of the Catholic Church was a crutch, an escape, a deus ex machina, an easy out of the Protestant conundrum of having to reason through the Scriptures.

There are several answers I’d like to make to this charge.

I resisted until I couldn’t


First, I wasn’t looking for such a crutch. I was well aware of the position of the Catholic Church in claiming to be the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture for years before I ever considered Catholicism — and rather than being an attractive prospect, it horrifed me more than almost anything else I knew about the Church. It seemed the perfect setup for the many doctrinal abuses I had heard about and believed existed in Catholicism: if the Church can dictate that some thing in Scripture means something different than what it says, and that doctrines don’t even have to have a biblical basis at all, then she can teach her followers anything, no matter how contrary to reason and truth, and compel them to accept and believe it. (Of course, these are all mischaracterizations of what the Church teaches.) As an academic, I cared about and was convinced by reason and evidence, and was suspicious of claims without solid factual foundation. The Catholic teaching authority, as I understood it, was a proposition that I strongly and vehemently resisted, not one that I readily embraced as a savior.

“Authority” in a Different Sense

Leaf from a manuscript of Augustine at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, dated c. 7th–8th century (

Once I examined her in earnest, the Catholic Church won me over, against my expectations or inclinations, because her arguments were compelling: not merely because they claimed to be authoritative, but because they were based on actual authority, on an authentic, continuous, and documented tradition of authoritative testimony. Protestants tend to think of “authority” only in terms of divine authority, the absolute, unquestionable authority of God, which they find solely in Scripture. In this regard — even if they acknowledge that Jesus granted authority to His Apostles — they find no essential connection between that authority and the Church, and so presume that the claims of the Catholic Church to be “authoritative” are based only on bald assertion. But to me as an historian, “authority” also has another meaning: the authority of support for a claim or argument. And rather than bald assertions or empty, unsupported claims, as I had been led to believe the Catholic Church stood on, I found, for every substantive point of Catholic doctrine, well-articulated, well-defined, and well-supported arguments based in a rich, academic, scholarly tradition and founded on a continuous and consistent corpus of authoritative documents and teachings spanning twenty centuries.

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

In most everyday matters, it is precisely this latter understanding of authority that is the substance of Catholic teaching, and not the sort of dictatorial pronouncements that Protestants presume. For example, Protestants commonly understand that the Catholic Church must dictate to the believer how to interpret every jot and tittle of every passage of Scripture, such that believers cannot read and interpret Scripture for themselves. But the truth is that the Church has given authoritative teachings on only a very small portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. The sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture subsists not only in such pronouncements, but in the exegetical tradition of Church Fathers, bishops, teachers and theologians, whose mind and understanding is faithfully passed down and preserved in the Church — whose teaching is authoritative by its own merit, because of their great learning and holiness and their nearness in history to Christ’s revelation. Though not having divine authority on its own, this is more authoritative by bounds than the subjective, substantially unsupported interpretations of Protestants.* In exactly the same way, I accept the writings of past historians as having great knowledge and insight, as being authorities into their subject matter.†

* There are some Protestants, especially the great theologians, who do seek to support their exegetical arguments with appeals to the authority of the Church Fathers; but generally, I find, they do this selectively and unevenly, accepting a Father’s argument where it suits them but ignoring him where it does not, and looking to the Fathers only as a last recourse, designed to support their own subjective interpretation, and not as a primary means to discerning the meaning of the Scriptures in the first place.

† Of course, some historians are simply wrong; and Church Fathers can also be wrong. Here the consensus of the Church, the opinions of other Fathers and teachers and theologians, is important. If the consensus of later writers is that Augustine was a great and orthodox teacher, then that is the reputation and the authority he enjoys. If the consensus is that Tertullian strayed off track in his later life and expressed some opinions that are not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, then we read those opinions of Tertullian as dissenting and sometimes heterodox arguments. Nevertheless, because of his position in time, so close to the Apostles themselves, Tertullian’s authority as an historical witness to the doctrines believed and taught in his time is absolute.

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

This is the raw material: Scripture and the generations of holy men and women who taught, prayed, and commented on it, preserving and passing on the teachings they had received, the inheritance of the faith delivered once unto the saints, and with it the teaching of Christ and the Apostles themselves. When the Catholic Church does make official pronouncements of doctrine — whether from a council of bishops or pastorally from the pope — these teachings are not invented from nothing, but are drawn from, based on, and supported by this raw material. Especially when the meaning of Scripture and doctrine is not completely clear from the sources themselves, and when there is uncertainty or dispute, it is the role of the Church’s Magisterium, her teaching authority, to weigh the body of evidence and discern the truth from it. Even then, the conclusion is not arbitrary: the Magisterium cannot declare something contrary to the evidence, contrary to Scripture or to the orthodox teachers of the faith; she cannot declare a circle square, or dictate something that revelation has not itself revealed, or compel her faithful to believe something not already contained in the deposit of faith. The Church teaches what she has received (1 Timothy 4:11): not anything more and not anything less.

A Well-Built Building


Catholics believe that in such teachings, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (John 16:13) — and this is a simple matter to believe, because they are evidenced by the constant and unchanging course of that guidance, and founded in reasonable and well-supported arguments from authority. For example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the epitome of Catholic doctrine, is not a book of empty assertions, but bases its every sentence on several thousand citations to authority in Scripture, the Church Fathers, councils and popes. Every one of these citations can be followed to find the origin and basis of the Church’s teaching, like a well-built building, every element borne up by the support of another, until it reaches the ground of absolute authority in Christ’s revelation itself. Even the declarations of the most controversial doctrines to those outside the Church, such as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, rest not on bald assertion or any empty claim to papal privilege or authority, but on carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments from the tradition of received authority.

Thus, the charge that I was drawn to the Catholic Church solely because her claims to authority were a cure for my exegetical paralysis, a crutch and an escape from having to discern and decide for myself, is completely false. The Catholic Church did cure my exegetical paralysis, but I was not seeking and did not believe there could be a cure: I was taken by surprise, and thoroughly convinced, by something I was not expecting at all, something I never imagined could exist: a Christian body who based its arguments not on subjective interpretations of Scripture, not on concepts and constructs of theology with no other basis than such interpretations, not on vitriolic polemics against other sects — but on the very concepts of authority, evidence, and tradition I had been taught to embrace and accept as an academic; on a sturdy and unshakeable foundation of such authority reaching back through the ages to the Apostles themselves, evincing and confirming the origin of all authority, Christ Himself.

The signposts converge

The next chapter in my conversion story, and the continuation of my post about the first time I went to Mass in Oxford, Mississippi.

Roma signposts

All roads lead to Rome. [Source]

So I checked the Catholic Church in Oxford off my list. Before I even moved to Oxford, I had made an informal list of churches I wanted to visit. It included, as I recall, Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and various other Evangelical churches (it had not actually included the Catholic church). I wanted finding a church to be a new experience and adventure, to finally find where I was supposed to be in the Body of Christ.

Alas, I was big on planning but short on fortitude. I was never able to show up alone to an entirely new church where I didn’t think I knew anyone. I visited the big United Methodist church in town several times with a couple of fellow teaching assistants, but I never felt like I belonged there. As the pressures and demands of grad school set in, I gave up, and within a couple of months, I was not going to church at all.

The first semester of grad school went very well; but the second semester got off to a very rocky start. I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I felt completely disconnected from people, more at odds with my classmates and professors than cooperative. I had no friends, I frequently thought. I had run into Audrey a couple of times at lectures, and she was just as friendly as she was when we met the first time, and though each time we promised to meet for coffee, nothing came of it.

I was washing out and I knew it. My classwork was suffering. I spent most of my time alone at my apartment. I went to bed each night with the overwhelming feeling of sinking. So I can only describe what happened next, something so personal that I’ve only told one or two others, as an act of God’s intervention. What I know is that this is not something I did, planned, or even expected at all.

Waking up

Roma sunrise

Sunrise over the Vatican. [Source]

I had a dream, about Audrey — about a friendship that was supposed to be. The dream was nothing at all romantic — she’s now married, and was very much taken even then — but it was real and personal and intense. I woke up feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time, and longing for that connection.

It was Saturday morning when I woke up from the dream, and suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to go to the library. I couldn’t explain it or why it was so important, but I felt that it was what I was supposed to do, like my life depended on it.

I was heading up to my study carrel, my hidden perch in the rafters of the library where I would withdraw and see no one else, when I almost ran into Audrey on the third floor landing. We stopped and talked. I remember being shushed (it is the quiet study floor), so we probably only spoke for a few moments. We talked about church — she must have brought it up, because I don’t think I would have.

She asked me where I was going to church, and I told her nowhere, and she said I should come with her sometime. I don’t think I mentioned my previous visit to St. John’s, but I started to rattle off my rehearsed list of Catholic objections: “I don’t like how the Catholic Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.” What Audrey said next was simple, but it made perfect sense, and I felt my objection crumbling: “It’s like authority for a historian.”

I’ve written about this conversation and this matter before, and I plan to write still more as I examine how I grappled with sola scriptura in my final approach to the Church. But the most important part of this meeting: she invited me to church, and I accepted; not the next day, I don’t think, but the Sunday after that.

Coming inside

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford. [Source]

The second time I attended Mass at St. John’s was an entirely different experience than the first. The first time I was frightened and unsure, a foreigner on the outside looking in to something foreign. This time I had been invited inside. Just that simple change — knowing that I knew somebody; knowing that somebody wanted me to be there; that I wasn’t a foreigner, but a welcome guest — made all the difference in the world.

I was taken aback by things I hadn’t noticed before. For one thing, this was the early Mass, on a typical Sunday (as opposed to the later Mass on an overcrowded Sunday I had witnessed before); and I got there early. People were quiet, reverent in the church, not socializing and carrying on, but kneeling and praying. I had never seen that sort of reverence before in church, except perhaps in Rome. Audrey had her magazine, the Magnificat, which had the prayers and readings from the Mass as well as reflections and stories about the saints. I was intrigued, and caught myself asking her about it in a normal tone of voice, not realizing that she wanted to pray and that I should be quiet.

From the very beginning of Mass, I think I was captured. The liturgical singing was according to traditional chant forms — I only knew that it sounded very ancient. As the cantor sang the closing, descending strains of Kyrie eleison, I imagined that what I was participating in reached back through the ages to the worship of the Apostles themselves.

It was the same priest as before, the one I had thought was “goofy,” but somehow he didn’t seem that way at all this time. The difference, I think, was me: this time I was not there to be served but to earnestly seek. The people, the liturgy, the experience all seemed so much realer.

A Presence

Holy Eucharist elevation

The elevation of the Eucharist at the consecration. [Source]

When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, especially the consecration, I was overcome with an awe I can’t explain. I surely understood what Catholics believe about the Lord’s Supper, about Jesus’s Real Presence, and I had even entertained the thought in Protestant services; but I cannot say I was anywhere close to accepting it before that point. But in that moment, something came over me; I sensed something profound happening at the altar. It was more powerful, more immediate, more earthshaking than all the times in my youth I spoke of feeling the presence of God in the Holy Spirit; all the times I laughed or danced or was “slain in the Spirit.” It was not a fire, or a wind, or an ecstasy, but simply an overpowering presence. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” I said (as the liturgy of the Mass at that time read). Not only that, but I felt singularly unworthy to even gaze upon this mystery. “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I lowered my head and shielded my eyes, and did not look up again until we rose for the Lord’s Prayer.

For the longest time, I thought that what I was looking for more than anything in a church was community, fellowship with people like me with whom I could relate and share. That wasn’t what I immediately found in the Catholic Church: it was slow meeting people, and it was far from the social atmosphere I had envisioned. But then one day after I had been attending Mass for several weeks, as I was speaking the words of the Memorial Acclamation, I was again overcome by a feeling: I was not alone. More profoundly than I had ever felt it, I felt connected — not only with the couple of hundred people in that room, but with countless others whose presence I could only sense, not only connected by space throughout the world, but by time through all the ages: I was there, together with all the Christians who had ever lived, at the altar of the Lamb. It was still more than a year before I could partake in the Eucharist with the Church, but even in that moment, I felt the truth of true communion with the Lord and with His Body, the Church, in the Blessed Sacrament: the communion of saints.

I was falling in love with the Mass, both the visible and the invisible. I realized with a painful start that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church all those years, all the times that I presumed that it was “dead in religion,” bound up with empty ritual without any meaningful relationship to Christ. It was not the end of my journey to the Church, not by far, and there is still much to tell and share, how I dealt with doctrine and doubt. But this marks the beginning of the end: the day when I was finally confronted with, and brought to accept, the reality of where the Lord had been leading me for so many years. This was the destination of all my wanderings: my musical romance; my journeys with history; my long approach to Rome; my pilgrimage to the Eternal City itself; and every other landmark. All the signposts pointed here, I soon realized, with a gravity, finality, and not a little fear.

I went to Mass and didn’t like it: Faltering steps in my journey to the Church

The other day was the three-year anniversary of my entering the Church. And as I’ve been helping dear ones through their own conversions this year, it occurs to me that once again, I’ve left my own conversion story hanging. Here is another chapter.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

The first week I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school, I visited the Catholic Church. I guess I was thinking of Audrey and the other people I had met when I visited, and hoping to make some kind of social connection. I was desperately afraid that unless I quickly formed some kind of support system in this new town and university, I would not be able to cut it in grad school.

My thinking on the purpose of the church at that time was that it existed solely as a community for the support of the fellowship of believers. So that is exactly what I was looking for the first time I attended Mass at St. John’s in Oxford: for social connection; for fellowship with people like me who could support me and encourage me. And I couldn’t have been more disappointed and discouraged.

Packed pews

I went to the eleven o’clock Mass on what I later learned was one of the busiest Sundays of the year, the Sunday of move-in week, when the families of all the undergraduates were in town to get their children settled and off to a good start. The place was packed, standing room only, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. From the beginning, this worked against my social anxiety and my comfort level. I was further dismayed that no one greeted me, in the way I had come to expect as a Protestant. No one seemed to notice I was there. I narrowly squeezed into a seat in one of the back pews.

Several key things stand out in my memory from that visit. First, I thought the priest was goofy. He seemed not entirely put-together, dignified, or solemn as I expected a Catholic priest to be. Second, he was reading the liturgy! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was deeply bothered by this: Much as many Protestants feel that composed prayers, as opposed to extemporaneous ones, are somehow less real and less genuine, I felt that this priest did not really, sincerely mean or even understand these words he was reading out of a book about God, Jesus, and salvation. Did he even have faith at all, or was this just the “dead religion” I had been fearing for so many years? How does reading prayers out of a book make them applicable to me? How does reading prayers out of a book serve me? It contradicted my whole understanding of what a church service was supposed to be.

Hands raised in worship

Emotion is what I grew up with.

Perhaps most important, I didn’t feel anything. I did not feel the presence of God. I did not hold this up as a standard — this focus on my own feelings had defined my existence as an Evangelical, whether and how I felt the presence of God, and I understood this had been a problem for me and one of the main reasons for my searching — but nonetheless it troubled me a lot. It wasn’t that I was closed-minded to any part of the experience; indeed, I had felt God’s presence profoundly when I had been in Catholic churches before. But I wondered that day if God was really there in the Catholic Church at all.

At Communion, I went forward to receive a blessing at the invitation of the priest. I was in the line of a lay extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a female, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there awkwardly crossing my arms. She seemed impatient and frustrated (I’ve since learned that laypeople really ought not to be giving blessings at all), and I felt unwelcome. I took a visitor card and filled it out, but had a difficult time finding anyone to give it to. I ended up giving it to the same extraordinary minister, who again acted (I imagined) as if she had no idea what I was doing there if I wasn’t Catholic.

I did not see Audrey or anyone else I knew. Not only did no one greet me, but no one really spoke to me at all. I left feeling singularly foreign and unwelcome, disappointed and unfulfilled, and more than a little disheartened and disturbed. What I came looking for — a social community — was nowhere to be found. I had been in denial for a while about my attraction to the Catholic Church, maintaining a ready collection of objections to Catholic doctrine. Now those objections were bolstered, and I added one more. This was a major setback: I would not consider the Catholic Church again until some six months later.

The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="">Wikimedia</a>)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511)

Last time, we examined how, in the usage of the New Testament authors, especially Paul and Luke, the churches of Christ were often referred to in the plural, not as a single body — giving rise to a common Protestant claim about the independence of the New Testament churches — yet how Paul’s frequent exhortations to be of one mind betray a certain sense of unity among all Christian believers. This is made clearest in the words of Christ Himself: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us” (John 17:20–23).

Many Protestants tend to read these appeals to unity as references to a vague, undefined, invisible “unity” that somehow contains all believers “in the Spirit,” regardless of the depth of their actual division and disagreement. But such notions of “unity” do not fit with or maintain the biblical call for a true oneness in mind and spirit; they are not the reality of the Church Jesus founded or Paul exhorted.

One Body

Jesus prayed that all who believed in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one: that is, not just in a loose, spiritual affiliation, but completely, indivisibly One in Christ, of the very same substance and being. Paul tells us that we are one not only spiritually, but corporately:

I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. … Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1, 3–6, 15–16)

These words go beyond exhortation: Paul describes the oneness of the Body not merely as a worthy model to strive for, but as a transcendent reality: There is One Body, One Spirit, One Lord. This oneness applies not only within each local body of believers, but across all believers, the entire, whole Body of Christ: the Epistle to the Ephesians is generally thought to have been a circular letter, circulated among a network of churches if not all churches. And lest there be any question that this Body of Christ to which Paul refers is to be understood as the Church, he tells elsewhere in the same letter:

[God] has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23)

And in other letters:

He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. (Colossians 1:18)

One Church

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Greek word usually translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Most literally it means a calling out of people into a gathering or assembly or congregation; it was a standard word in Greek for a legislative assembly. I have heard Protestants seek to argue that the New Testament only understands the church in this general sense (the “little-c” church) and not as a single, corporate, universal body (big-C Church). But the verses already cited should leave little doubt to the fact that, just as we (even Protestants) today make a distinction in English between those two usages (the local church and the body of all believers), the New Testament authors and even Jesus Himself also saw a higher meaning of the word ἐκκλησία:

“On this Rock I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The use of that word ἐκκλησία had an even deeper meaning for a Greek Christian: ἐκκλησία was the common Greek translation the Hebrew קהל (qahal), that appeared in their editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, commonly translated in English as assembly — the assembly or congregation of the Israelite people. The ἐκκλησία, in the mind of a New Testament Christian, was not merely a local assembly of believers: the word evoked striking imagery of the Exodus, the calling out of God’s covenant people out of bondage and into promise.

And so, Jesus’s words echo even more powerfully when He said, “I will build My Church”: not a building, not an institution, not a mere gathering of people, but a calling out of His people, a covenant people of His own. Here He laid its foundation, built on His apostles and prophets, destined to become a holy temple for the Lord (Ephesians 2:20). Here is the One Body of Christ, the Church.

Next time: “The Universal Church”: how the One Body of Christ proceeded whole and undivided; and how it came to be identified as the Catholic Church.

Why the Catholic Understanding of Justification Is Not “Faith Plus Works”

In response to a question on Facebook, after I shared this article from Catholic Answers.

I might say that “faith plus works” can be a valid but misleading generalization — but not “grace plus works” (even though the article does clumsily put those side by side). Catholics do (and the Council of Trent did) fully affirm that salvation is by grace alone. Because everything is grace, even the works we do, since it is only by grace that we can work at all or even will to do good (Philippians 2:13, John 15:4). Even in that case (“faith plus works”), we are not saying that “works save us,” and in no sense do we mean works can “earn” salvation, or that anything must be added to the cross of Christ — which is why I generally disagree with the characterization “faith plus works.”

Catholics fully affirm that our initial justification — our initial rebirth in Christ — is entirely by faith alone through grace; it cannot be earned or deserved by anything we do or are. Since Protestants tend to compress the whole salvation experience into that initial justification, it’s easy to get the wrong idea when Catholics say that anything more (and “works” at that!) is required. But Catholics understand salvation as an ongoing process (so does Scripture: e.g. Philippians 1:6, 2:12–13, etc.), and roll into a part of “justification” what Protestants call “sanctification,” the ongoing process of being converted and conformed to Christ. And that — and most Protestants would agree — is wrought by “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6, James 2:24).

Salvation is more than just being once forgiven; it’s been healed, renewed, and transformed by the love and grace of God. And God has designed to make us participants in that life of grace; we are not just passive recipients, but we receive that grace and bear fruit (John 15:1–4). Protestants say that good works are a fruit of grace, and Catholics agree. And just as Protestants say that a Christian who isn’t bearing any fruit possibly isn’t really “saved,” Catholics would likewise agree — only we would say that bearing that fruit is part of the ongoing process of being saved, being renewed and transformed in His image — which begins when we first receive His grace, and ends when we see Him face to face.

Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

The beginning of a series: “How do I know the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded?”

It is a commonplace of Catholic apologetics that we claim that “the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded.” On the other hand, opponents charge that the Catholic Church was in fact founded at some later date, often said to be the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine is a usual suspect for some charge of “invention” or another, or some other arbitrary date. Both these claims are empty without evidence. What is the evidence for the Catholic claim and how can we evaluate it?

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), Paul Preaching in the Areopagus (BBC).

In a world with so many churches, how can we know which is the one Jesus actually founded? Can we even know? Is it even a valid claim at all to say that Jesus founded one Church?

Examining Scripture, Protestants tend to emphasize the apparent independence of the churches in the New Testament: The various apostles fanning out across the world founded churches, not one Church, they say:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

And [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. … So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 15:41, 16:5)

But is it truly good ecclesiology to claim that each individual church was independent of one another? Is this assumption consistent with the rest of the New Testament — or are there assumptions being overlooked by this very premise? I would argue that the very fact of the collective plural — the churches referred to as a group — betrays a unity that countermands this whole argument.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:16)

All the churches greet the church of Rome with one voice — and one man, Paul, has the authority to speak for them.

Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

Likewise, Paul has the same, singular, recognized authority over all the churches. Does their unitary submission to the same leaders not contradict any notion of “independence”?

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622) (WikiArt).

Does anything at all in the New Testament really suggest that these individual churches were truly independent of one another? On the contrary, the very fact that we have a unified collection of Christian documents known as the New Testament attests that all the churches were, in the beginning and for some time thence, unified in the same mind and purpose.

In fact, that is exactly what St. Paul admonishes again and again:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:1–2)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Being of one mind, in full accord, of the same judgment and same love: this requires a constant, conscious, and active agreement, both within churches and without: a guiding of one church to another, a submission of one’s independence and a commitment to communion.

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

“Getting Saved” as a Catholic: The “Sinner’s Prayer” and Other First Steps in Grace

Getting saved by a prayer
How do you “get saved” as a Catholic? This is something I’ve had on the burner for a long time, and have started writing more than once before. Now my dearest reader asks the question and I’m motivated to come up with a concise response.

“Getting saved,” in the parlance of Evangelical Protestants, refers to the experience of salvation by faith, being regenerated and justified by God’s grace, receiving the Holy Spirit, and becoming a Christian. It’s not a term that Catholics generally talk about: In the Catholic understanding, as I’ve discussed before, salvation is not a singular, one-time event, but a journey and a process, an ongoing series of events and encounters with God’s grace, especially through the Sacraments.

Southern Baptist baptism

The reader will know from my blog how one already a Christian becomes a Catholic; but how does one who has no relationship with God at all, the unchurched sinner, become a Christian in the Catholic Church? Does one pray a “sinner’s prayer”? I was taken aback by the question; I’d never really thought about it. The “sinner’s prayer,” in the Evangelical tradition, is a simple acknowledgement to God that one is a sinner in need of His grace and salvation, repenting of those sins and asking Him to come into one’s life and heart. In the traditions my reader and I grew up in, “praying the sinner’s prayer” is shorthand for salvation, after which one is “saved”; and while many even in those traditions would admit that God continues to work in our lives through sanctification, that is generally understood to be “it,” all there is to “getting saved.” (Interestingly, even in the Southern Baptist Convention there has been a recent turn away from this attitude.)

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Generally speaking, no, Catholics do not believe that praying a “sinner’s prayer,” by itself, will “get one saved.” So if, in the Catholic understanding, salvation is a journey, how does one take her first steps? Sacramentally speaking, Baptism is the entrance into the Christian life of grace and into the Church, one’s initial justification and when one can rightly say to be “getting saved.” But generally, one must go through months of classes as a catechumen in RCIA before one can even be baptized — which seems to the Evangelical mind to be the very antithesis of evangelism and outreach, making it positively difficult, apparently, for sinners to come into the kingdom.

(The critic would raise, and he would be right, that the earliest Christians in Acts 2 didn’t have to endure through months of a catechumenate before they could receive Baptism. But St. Justin Martyr attests that by the mid–second century, some period of preparation and instruction in Christian doctrine was required. There are exceptions: Any priest can expedite the process of initiation if there is a good reason to, e.g. the catechumen demonstrates a thorough understanding of what she’s getting herself into; and in fact anyone, even a layperson, can baptize in cases of dire need, e.g. the sinner is in danger of death. Since the earliest times, the Church has understood that for the catechumen awaiting Baptism who dies in that desire, God works that saving grace anyway.)

What is the sinner supposed to do, then, who longs to know God and partake of His grace, but is told she has to wait and first be instructed? The Evangelical mode, at least, serves that immediate moment and desire — though there is then the danger of considering salvation “over and done.” And certainly there is that desire, and it can start with a moment, and in that moment and even before, God’s grace is working in the sinner’s life, calling her to repentance and faith.

I think one reason Evangelical Protestants so easily misunderstand the Catholic view of salvation, calling it salvation by works in contrast to salvation by faith, is because faith is immediate and cannot be put off. Saying that salvation begins with Baptism seems to dismiss the role of faith and place emphasis on what seems to be a work. But just as the Catholic understanding of salvation is that of a journey, the preparation for that journey is itself a journey, the journey to the baptismal font: and in those initial steps God’s grace is already working, cultivating the sinner’s faith. Marriage begins with a wedding: a pledge of faith, commitment, covenant, and espousal; but generally one does not choose to be married unless one already has faith in one’s betrothed: one’s relationship with the Bridegroom has already been building for some time. Catholics take a long and patient view of salvation; and we should: we’ve been ushering sinners down that road for 2,000 years!


I would say, now that I’ve thought about it, that something like a “sinner’s prayer” is a good first step, even for embarking on the Catholic road: not that the formulaic words themselves are efficacious or “get one saved,” but that the confession that one is a sinner and wants to make Jesus Christ Lord of one’s life is an appropriate response to what is surely the grace of God already working in one’s life and bringing one to repentance and faith. Pray a “sinner’s prayer”; better yet, make that confession out loud to God and to others. Begin reading the Bible and the Catechism and attending Mass. Talk to a priest and enroll in RCIA. Through all this, God is working in your life, building you in faith, drawing you nearer to Him; and when it does come time for you to receive the graces of Baptism and the Sacraments, you will be saved by faith.