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Why Do Anglicans Refer to Their Ordained Ministers as Priests?

ii.—the purpose of the ministry

1. The Work of the Ministry is two-fold, Evangelisation and Edification (Eph. 4:11, Greek). The New Testament is quite clear on this point. The minister, in the words of the Ordinal, is to “seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for His children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” This includes the winning and the watching of souls, the bringing them into the Kingdom, and the building of them up in their most holy faith. It is impossible to read the New Testament without seeing that the minister is beyond everything a preacher and a teacher of the Gospel. The various titles connected with the ministry show the paramount importance placed on the ministry of the Word. . .1 

1 Thus, the minister is a “herald,” an “evangelist,” a “witness,” an “ambassador,” a “servant,” a “shepherd,” a “teacher.” The various verbs used to express the work of the ministry point in the same direction: to “evangelise,” to “announce,” to “herald,” to “reason,” to “teach,” to “testify.”

It is impossible to read the New Testament without seeing that the minister is beyond everything a preacher and a teacher of the Gospel.

3. Nor is mediation any proper part of the purpose of the Christian ministry. The New Testament never uses the word “priest” to describe the minister. Indeed, in the singular number it is only found of Christ, and His Priesthood is said to be “undelegated” or “intransmissible” (Heb. 7:24). When it is used of the Church it is always in the plural, “priests” (Rev. 1:6), or collectively, “priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). The truth, therefore, is that Christianity is, not has, a priesthood.

The New Testament never uses the word “priest” to describe the minister.

The silence of the New Testament on this point is a simple and yet significant fact. It is what Bishop Lightfoot calls “the eloquent silence of the Apostolic writings.” And if it be said that the question is not one of words, but of things, Bishop Lightfoot may again be quoted: “This is undeniable, but words express things, and the silence of the Apostles still requires an explanation.” Neither the name nor the thing is found in the New Testament idea of the Christian ministry, and the reason is that it is irreconcilable with the letter and spirit of Apostolic Christianity. In regard to the priesthood “Christianity stands apart from all the older religions,” for it is “the characteristic distinction of Christianity” to have no such provision. 

Three things invariably go together; priest, altar, and sacrifice, and where there is no offering there is no need of an altar; where there is no altar there is no sacrifice; where there is no sacrifice there is no priest. As Hooker says: “Sacrifice is no part of the Christian ministry.” The New Testament is clear as to the absence of sacrifice, and in regard to the absence of an altar, Bishop Westcott points out that the term “altar” in Heb. 13:10 is inapplicable to the Lord’s Table, and, indeed, incongruous. He remarks that any such application to a material object would have been impossible in the early days. To the same effect, Lightfoot points out that St. Paul had a special opportunity of using the word “altar” in connection with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10), but that he quite evidently avoided it.

As Hooker says: “Sacrifice is no part of the Christian ministry.” 

It is sometimes said, however, that our Lord’s words in St. John 20:19–23 constituted the ministry a priesthood. First of all, it is now generally recognised that these words were spoken not to the ministry only, but to the whole Church as there represented. Then the question arises as to whether in any case the words can possibly be made to mean a sacerdotal priesthood. There seems to be some confusion in such an interpretation. A priest is one who represents man to God (Heb. 5:1), just as a prophet is one who represents God to man (Exod. 7:1). The passage is clearly to be understood of a messenger from God to man, and this is the function of a prophet, not a priest. So that to speak of priestly absolution is really a contradiction, since the Old Testament priest never absolved, and absolution as a message from God to man is the work of a prophet, not of a priest.

The title of a modern book, Ministerial Priesthood,” is therefore strictly a contradiction in terms, because a ministry is not necessarily a priesthood; indeed, the representative character of the Christian ministry is not a priesthood at all. It is a beautiful and ingenious theory that the Church, like Christ, is priestly, and that therefore its ministers are the organs of the Church’s priesthood, but this is really illusive, because it contains the doctrine of a special and specialised priesthood which is subversive of the New Testament priesthood of believers. Lightfoot explains the silence of the New Testament by pointing out that as there were no more sacrifices there were no more priests. It is only too easy to fall into fallacy and confusion by noticing how a view of ministerial priesthood develops from simple representation into substitution.

Lightfoot explains the silence of the New Testament by pointing out that as there were no more sacrifices there were no more priests.

The only passage approaching the idea of priestliness in ministerial functions is found in St. Paul’s words concerning his own ministry (Rom. 15:16). But the passage is quite evidently metaphorical, with preaching as the function and the Gentiles as the offering. On any showing the passage has no connection whatever with a “priest” offering or sacrificing the Holy Eucharist.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this simple, striking, and significant silence of the New Testament, that priestly mediation is no part of the purpose of the Christian ministry.

We, therefore, return to the New Testament view of the ministry, and call renewed attention to the striking fact of its absolute silence as to any special order of priests. The evidence taken separately in its parts is striking, but as a whole it is cumulative and overwhelming. There is no function of the Christian priesthood which cannot be exercised by every individual believer at all times. Differences of function in the ministry exist, but none in the priesthood. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this simple, striking, and significant silence of the New Testament, that priestly mediation is no part of the purpose of the Christian ministry.

In view of the foregoing it is sometimes asked why the term “priest” should have been retained in the Prayer Book, especially as it is well known that the word “altar” has been omitted since the Prayer Book of 1552.1

. . . it is sometimes asked why the term “priest” should have been retained in the Prayer Book

The question is one of history, and calls for the careful attention of all the pertinent facts of the case. The English word “priest” has to do duty for two quite different sets of ideas and terms; πρεσβύτερος, “elder” and ἱερεύς, “priest.” Lightfoot points out that it is a significant fact that in those languages which have only one word to express the two ideas, this word etymologically represents the word “presbyter,” and not sacerdos; French, prêtre; German, priester; English, priest; thus showing that the sacerdotal idea was imported, not original. The question at once arises, which of these two ideas was intended by the Prayer Book. It is a question of fact and must be tested by all the available information.

  1. Significant changes were made in the Holy Communion Service of 1552, showing an entire absence of anything sacerdotal and sacrificial.
  2. The Ordinal of 1662 is described as “The Form and Manner of Ordering of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons.” To the same effect are the words of Hooker: “Whether we call it a priesthood, a presbytership, or a ministry, it skilleth not.”
  3. In harmony with this the Latin Version of the Prayer Book, by Dean Durel, 1670, a few years after 1662, an almost official production, renders the term by presbyterus.
  4. The word “priest” is frequently interchanged with “minister,” as may be seen from the rubric before and after the Absolution at Morning Prayer, after the Creed, and before and after the Consecration Prayer in Holy Communion.
  5. Nor is it without point that priests are entirely omitted from the Te Deum, which Blunt, in his annotated edition of the Prayer Book, regards as an argument for the extreme antiquity of that Song of Praise.
  6. In Article XXXII, while the title speaks of “The Marriage of Priests” (Sacerdotum), doubtless referring to the Roman Catholic custom of celibacy, the Article itself refers to the three Orders, and describes them as “Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons.”
  7. It is scarcely possible to overlook the significance of the change of usage in the versicle from Psa. 132:16 from “Let Thy priests be clothed with righteousness” to “Endue Thy ministers with righteousness.”
  8. The Roman Catholic Church gives her “priests” power to “offer sacrifices.” But this is entirely absent from our Ordination Service.

In view of these considerations, together with the fact that there is nothing sacerdotal provided in the ministry of our Church, it seems clear that the word “priest” can only be equivalent to “presbyter,” and, as such, expresses the evangelistic and pastoral ministry associated with the Presbyterate in the New Testament.2

. . . the word “priest” can only be equivalent to “presbyter,” and, as such, expresses the evangelistic and pastoral ministry associated with the Presbyterate in the New Testament.

1 It is well known that the Prayer Book of 1549 retained the term “altar,” but it was removed in 1552, and has never been reintroduced. The action of the Reforming Bishops was in exact accordance with this omission, for in the reign of Edward VI altars were removed and tables substituted (Bishop Ridley’s Injunctions, 1550). Then under Mary, altars were restored, and under Elizabeth were once more removed and tables returned. See Injunctions of Parker and Grindal, and Canon 82 of 1603. The explanation is quite simple: an altar involved a sacrifice while a table implies a feast. An altar can be a table (Mal. 1:12), but a table can never be an altar. And anything that was placed on an altar for sacrifice was never afterwards removed for the purpose of being eaten.

2 While this is undoubtedly the proper interpretation, it is quite open to believe with Hooker that the word “presbyter” is more suitable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than “priest”: “What better title could there be given them than the reverend name of “presbyters” or fatherly guides? The Holy Ghost throughout the body of the New Testament, making so much mention of them, doth not anywhere call them Priests” (Eccl. Pol., Bk. V, Ch. LXXVIII).

~W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 315–320