Saturday, June 20, 2009

Is a Presbyter a Priest?

Alice C. Linsley

Before reading this article, I recommend that this article be read first: What is a Priest?

In the New Testament the word "presbyter" is used to designate the one who presided when the body gathered for worship.  This probably didn't mean a priest, as only men born in the priestly lines would be considered priests and among these only some would have been sacrificing priests.  So the terms "presbyter" and "priest" do not represent the same concept. 

Some of the Apostles were likely born of the priestly lines, but that hardly matters since the Church's High Priest is Jesus and he was born of the priestly lines on his mother's side and Joseph's side.  Mary and Joseph were of priestly lines and cousins. Mary's father was the shepherd priest Joachim, and Joseph was of the priestly line of Mattai.

Ken Collins writes: “In the New Testament, the Temple has hierarchs and the church has presbyters. Most translate hierarch as priest, which is really incorrect, because priest is just an English contraction of the word presbyter. But if the translators put down priest for presbyter, it looks like they are discrediting churches that do not call their clergy priests. But if they put down presbyter, which is the untranslated Greek word, or elder, which is the word’s meaning, they discredit the churches that are so old that the word presbyter turned into priest as the language of their members changed.”

When did this morphing happen in history? Where do we find this expressed in Scripture? Clearly, there was a disjunction when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. thus bringing the sacrificial system to an end. However St. Paul and St. John clearly believe that there is an eternal priesthood (in the Platonic sense) that nothing can destroy. They see it as a fixed ordinance in the Kingdom of God, derived from the one True Priest, Jesus Christ. In other words, the priesthood lives in Jesus Christ, the Sacrifice once offered who is to be the focus of every gathering. 

HE is the continuation of the only priesthood that the Apostles knew, a priesthood that maintained itself through a particular kinship pattern among Abraham' s Horite caste. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born of Abraham’s ruler-priest bloodline.

Collins is right that many churches don’t have priests. These are churches removed from the Holy Tradition concerning the Christ received by the Apostles. Most are products of the Reformation and the many subsequent divisions that characterize churches that don’t hold to the sacramental center of the faith symbolized by the priesthood.

Now to Collins’ most provocative suggestion: that the oldest churches somehow morphed the word “presbyter” into "priest" over time. This is simply not the case.  Presbyter refers to elders, not priests.  There is no need to substitute priest for presbyter.  The early church had gatherings which were not presided over by priests.  No surprise there.  Many of the priests were hostile to Christians.  Yet some of those ruler-priests, men such as Nicodemus, came to believe and through them the Church recieved its priests after the order of Melchizedek, the prefigurement of Jesus Christ.

The true meaning of priest is defined by the Son of God whose Blood was shed for the life of the World. This Jesus was born to a long line of ruler-priests who are identified with the “order of Melchizedek” as an eternal priesthood. Presbyter means elder and not all elders are priests. But this is no reason to insist that the ancient churches which have priests have got it all wrong.

Related reading: The Priesthood in England (Conclusion); Who Were the Horites?; What is a Priest?; Growing Consensus that WO Must Be Addressed


David Ould said...

where do you find this disjunction in Scripture?

You find it in the NT descriptions of the role of the presbyter. He is a teacher, not a priest. If even one instance of a sacerdotally priestly function for the presbyter could be demonstrated in Scripture then I'll gladly eat my hat.

until then, I'm afraid Collins is right - the NT presbyter is not the equivalent of the OT priest, the Scriptures never make that association.

Alice C. Linsley said...

If the presbyter is only a teacher, his office doesn't point to the Presence of the Blood/Cross, which St. Paul sees at the center of our Faith. This is how Paul keeps Christianity from the spiritual vagueness of the Gnostics. Setting this aside has allowed much of Protestantism to slide in gnostic theology.

St. Paul writes of Reality as the pleromic “mystery of Christ” and he identifies this as the heart of the Gospel. It is the central message of the Apostle’s writings and the Reality of which the Creeds speak.

Jesus Christ is the fullness (“pleroma”) of all things in heaven and on earth, both invisible and visible. The term “pleroma” was used among the Gnostics to describe the metaphysical unity of all things, but Paul uses it to speak about how all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in human bodily form (Col. 2:9).

Against the Gnostics, the biblical writers used this concept to explain that the mystical Body of Christ fills heaven (glorified Saints and Heroes of Faith) and earth (militant Saints). Reality, is constituted of the fullness of all things hidden and revealed in Christ. Paul wants the churches to understand that they are “entrusted with the mysteries of God”, so that they may faithfully proclaim Reality so that truth-seekers “may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (I Cor. 4:1, Eph. 3:9 and Col. 2:2). This is why I have written that "Reality is Cross-shaped" here:

For the Gnostics, the pleroma is undifferentiated, but for Paul the pleroma is the manifestation of the benefits of the “Blood of Jesus.” Paul never allows the churches to wander far from the Blood of Jesus that brings eternal life. The presbyter not only teaches about His Blood, he is a sign pointing to His Blood (as much as he is "in Christ.").

Paul articulated his understanding of the pleroma as early as his second missionary journey when he preached to the Athenians that, “in Him [Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Paul’s thoughts on this developed further as he continued to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures, prayed and fasted, and received greater illumination by Christ. We find the fullest expression of the pleroma in Romans and in Ephesians: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10) And in Hebrews we find that the priesthood of the Son of God is connected to the "order of Melchizedek". This distinguishes the Christian presbyter from priests of faiths that reject Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Finally, the priest of the Church does not perform blood sacrifices because that work of Jesus Christ is once and for all. (This is where we run into problems with Transubstantiation.) Orthodoxy recognizes the presence of the real Body and Blood in the Divine Liturgy, and as it also holds the binary distinctions of Scripture between heaven and earth, the ancient priest code requires that should the priest accidently cut himself and bleed in the presence of the Blood, he must immediately leave the holy place. There can be only one Blood that purifies, redeems and secures unto eternal life. The priesthood is the single institution on earth that represents this Reality.

A teacher is no substitute for a priest. And were the presbyter only a teacher, Holy Tradition would not exclude women from the priesthood. Since blood is not involved if there is no priest... Besides, women gave instruction in ancient Israel (Deborah, Huldah).

Peter! Let's hear more from you on this.

Alice C. Linsley said...

You might find this of interest:

Forward in Faith may be the leaven in the loaf.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Sorry, David, I didn't mean to confuse you with Peter.

David Ould said...

Alice, would it be ok if I published up a detailed reponse on my own blog? I think this topic requires something like that.

And no offence taken over the misnaming - trust me, happens all the time.

I forgot to answer your previous post - I would simply love to see you do some further study. A phd would be of benefit to many of us, especially those of us who instinctively disagree - there's nothing more stimulating that disagreeing with someone who is well thought through!

Alice C. Linsley said...

David, as this question poses a challenge to the forming Anglican Church in North America and also to the universal Church, it would be helpful to open a forum at your blog. Go for it! I look forward to reading what you have to say and will comment.

Please leave another comment here with your blog's URL so readers can go there for further comments.

Alice C. Linsley said...

You might want to look at 2 Chronicles 15:3 which speaks of a teacher-priest, but appears to distinguish this from the role of priest as intercessor who offers sacrifice.

Unknown said...

Here is a discussion on the topic.

Catholics have long held that a Presbyter was a Priest. This is untrue, presbyter could be used of any council member or chief officer. Priests could sit on councils but not all councils were priests.

The Jewish Sanhedrin were known as Elders (presbyter), only a handful of the Sanhedrin were actually priests.

High Priest officiated (later the High Priest was replaced by a sage)

Tribal heads

Scribes (lawyers)

In New Testament times presbyter meant elder. A priest could be elder of his own tribe, thus could be a presbyter, but presbyter did not mean priest.

Since a few Priests were elders Catholics have purposely misused the term to create the false impression presbyter meant priest.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Clearly a distinction should be made between elders and priests. From ancient times, priests has always been linked to animal sacrifice. That is not true of elders.