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
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”
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
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
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.