Friday, March 22, 2013

"Why Priests?": PART 4: The Priesthood of the Apostles in the Early Church

Clement of Rome
In the previous post I examined a number of New Testament passages that describe the apostolic ministry in priestly terms.

The early Church clearly picked up on this tradition.

Indeed, there is an abundance of evidence that the early Christians saw their ministers as not just "elders" or "pastors" but "priests". Let us examine some of the evidence.

1 Clement and the Apostolic Priesthood

One of (if not the) earliest Christian document outside of the New Testament is Clement's Letter to the Corinthians, typically cited as 1 Clement. There we find a fascinating treatment of the role of the apostles and Christian bishops.

For our purposes it is worth noting that this "primitive" document clearly links these offices to priesthood. 

In 1 Clement 40 we read about Christian priesthood. 
Since, therefore, these things are now clear to us and we have searched into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do, in order, everything that the Master has commanded us to perform at the appointed times. (2) Now he commanded the offerings and services to be performed diligently, and not to be done carelessly or in disorder, but at designated times and seasons. (3) Both where and by whom he wants them to be performed, he himself has determined by his supreme will, so that all things, being done devoutly according to his good pleasure, might be acceptable to his will. (4) Those, therefore, who make their offerings at the appointed times are acceptable and blessed: for those who follow the instructions of the Master cannot go wrong. (5) For to the high priest the proper services have been given, and to the priests the proper office has been assigned, and upon the Levites the proper ministries have been imposed. The layman is bound by the layman’s rules. [Holmes, 73]
Going on, the letter expands upon the point made above, namely, that those appointed by the Lord must be given their due respect. 

St. Peter and Clement of Rome on the Apse
of San Clemente in Rome
In 1 Clement 42 we read that the apostles appointed successors from their earliest converts. 
The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. (2) So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order. (3) Having therefore received their orders and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and full of faith in the Word of God, they went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was about to come. (4) So, preaching both in the country and in the towns, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers. [Holmes, 75].
Next we read that some have challenged the divinely established roles of those appointed by the apostles. Clement here condemns such rebellion by appealing to God's vindication of the Aaronic priesthood when some rose up against it. 
And is it any wonder that those who in Christ were entrusted by God with such a work appointed the officials just mentioned? After all, the blessed Moses, “who was a faithful servant in all his house,” recorded in the sacred books all the injunctions given to him, and the rest of the prophets followed him, bearing witness with him to the laws that he enacted. (2) For when jealousy arose concerning the priesthood, and the tribes were quarreling about which of them was to be decorated with the glorious title, he commanded the leaders of the twelve tribes to bring him rods inscribed with the name of each tribe. And taking them he tied and sealed them with the signet rings of the leaders of the tribes, and deposited them on the table of God in the tent of the testimony. (3) Then, having shut the tent, he sealed the keys as well as the doors (4) and said to them, “Brothers, the tribe whose rod blossoms is the one God has chosen to be priests and to minister to him.” (5) Now when morning came, he called all Israel together, all six hundred thousand men, showed the seals to the leaders of the tribes, opened the tent of testimony, and brought out the rods. And the rod of Aaron was found not only to have blossomed, but also to be bearing fruit. (6) What do you think, dear friends? Did not Moses know beforehand that this would happen? Of course he knew. But in order that disorder might not arise in Israel, he did it anyway, so that the name of the true and only God107 might be glorified, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. [Holmes, 75-77].
Aaron and his miraculous staff
Clement could have chosen any analogy here in defending the successors of the apostles.

He could have spoken of how Israel rejected Moses. He could of spoken of God's vindication of Daniel or another one of the prophets. He could have compared them to the king, the Lord's anointed.

But he didn't. Clement describes the role of apostolic successors in terms of priesthood. 

In fact, to bring his point home, Clement brings his argument home in chapter 44, explaining that just as it was wrong to challenge the priesthood of Aaron in the Old Covenant, so too in the New Covenant it is wrong to expel those who have been installed as bishops and presbyters.

In context, the analogy is unmistakable: challenging the apostolic authority of such men is tantamount to challenging the divinely appointed priesthood of the Aaronites in the Old Testament.
Our apostles likewise knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the bishop’s office. (2) For this reason, therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the officials mentioned earlier and afterwards they gave the offices a permanent character; that is, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. (3) Those, therefore, who were appointed by them or, later on, by other reputable men with the consent of the whole church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ blamelessly, humbly, peaceably, and unselfishly, and for a long time have been well spoken of by all—these men we consider to be unjustly removed from their ministry. (4) For it will be no small sin for us, if we depose from the bishop’s office those who have offered the gifts blamelessly and in holiness. (5) Blessed are those presbyters who have gone on ahead, who took their departure at a mature and fruitful age, for they need no longer fear that someone might remove them from their established place. [Holmes, 77-79].
Clement therefore explains the role of bishops and priests in terms of priesthood. 

Other Patristic Sources
Ancient copy of the Didache

1 Clement is hardly the only patristic text that speaks of Christian ministers as priests.

The Didache explains, 
But every genuine prophet who wishes to settle among you “is worthy of his food.” (2) Likewise, every genuine teacher is, like “the worker, worthy of his food.” (3) Take, therefore, all the firstfruits of the produce of the wine press and threshing floor, and of the cattle and sheep, and give these firstfruits to the prophets, for they are your high priests. [Didache 13:1-3; Holmes, 267].
The Apostolic Traditions, in a section most recognize as authentically from Hippolytus, likewise affirm Christian priesthood, distinguishing it from the diaconate. 
And when a deacon is ordained, let him be chosen according to those things that have been said above, the bishop alone likewise laying on hands as we have prescribed. In the ordination of a deacon, let the bishop alone lay on hands, because he is not ordained to the priesthood but to the service of the bishop, that he may do those things that are ordered by him. [Apostolic Traditions 8 (Latin 76:6ff.); cited from Bradshaw et al]. 
Indeed, it is well known that in later works such as the Didascalia Apostolorum the terminology of "priest" is commonly applied to Christian leaders.

But what exactly is envisioned here? Isn't a belief in a Christian priesthood a rejection of the biblical teaching that Christ is the one "mediator" between God and man?  

More on that next time.


Nicholas Hardesty said...

Can you provide any writings from the early Church fathers that defend the practice of calling priests "father"? I would be very much interested in that. Most of the collections of ECF testimony on various topics do not include that topic.

Justin said...

Hi Michael. Great post! I have a question that's been bothering me lately. I've come across passages from the Fathers, such as the one you've quoted("For to the high priest the proper services have been given, and to the priests the proper office has been assigned, and upon the Levites the proper ministries have been imposed. The layman is bound by the layman’s rules") and they trouble me. Since we are the New Israel, and Christ has fulfilled all things, hasn't the priestly defroking of the golden calf now been abrogated? I'm Catholic and love all things priestly, Old and New, but why did the Fathers retain terminology and priestly structures reminiscent of Sinai (quarantining and non-universal) and Aaronic (as opposed to paschal)? Shouldn't all fathers and firstborn sons now have the ability to act as ordained priests, offering the Eucharist? Shouldn't the fulfilled priesthood be similar to the original Passover family liturgy? The way I have understood things, at the Passover liturgy, the father of the family acted as the high priest, the firstborn as his deputy high priest, his other sons as the normative priests, the mother as the chief priestly assistant, and the daughters as the assistants to the assistant. It is also much better now since women, too, are priests, but not high priests since they cannot possess fatherhood (John 13:23). Why didn't the Fathers allow for domestic Liturgies, according to this system, and Sunday Liturgies, wherein the Bishop offers the Eucharist with his priests (the representatives of all priests) surrounding him, in the presence of the entire Church? I can understand how Deacons are associated with Levites, but why is there a need for New Testament Levites in the first place, since there is no rebellion of Korah? Shouldn't Deacons, therefore, be considered a somewhat new phenomenon? Also, it would seem that Catholic and Orthodox lay people can only parallel the defroked pan-tribal fathers and sons. How does the Royal Priesthood, or the Priesthood of all Believers, work if lay people cannot offer the Eucharist?

Maria said...

During our Sunday Mass, the priest spoke about changes that may be considered in the Church including allowing priests to marry. Afterwards, my husband spoke to the priest and he said celebicy is just a "discipline" not theology and gave Peter being married as an example. My Husband a recent convert said he understood that priests did not marry because the Church was their bride. The priest did not agree. I know you have studied at length this subject--What is the theology? Thanks, maria

Nick said...

@Justin: We are royal priests by sharing in Christ's Priesthood and Kingship by offering up all things to Him Who reigns in our hearts, which were once ruled by our sins.

@Maria: Celibacy is a discipline, based on the doctrine that Christ is married to the Church. Hence Eastern Catholic Priests may marry before ordination.