You’re meeting your new girlfriend’s entire Reformed Evangelical family for the first time. It’s Easter dinner at her parent’s house. You’ve met and talked to her parents and three brothers at various times, but never all at once in such a formal setting. You’re scared to death!
In your mind, a successful evening would be for you to be able to conceal your nervous quivering for the duration. The furthest thing from your mind is entering into a religious discussion with them. The problem: You’ve recently helped convert your girlfriend, Mary, to the Catholic Church, and this has caused much discord among family members.
Mary has warned you to avoid religious topics for a while, especially during this first formal meeting with the whole family. You agree wholeheartedly. This seems the prudent course.
However, when you arrive at Mary’s home, things don’t go according to plan.
Upon entering the house you greet Mary’s parents, three brothers — Calvin, John, and Ronald — and their spouses (all these are Reformed as well). You can feel the tension in the room as you’re introduced to each one.
As everyone begins to eat and make small talk, you’re praying everything will go smoothly. But sure enough, it’s only about fifteen minutes into the meal when Mary’s father, Calvin Sr., speaks up. He tells of his concern for the soul of his daughter and asks if you would mind answering some questions.
Given the situation and the loving, concerned way in which he’s asking, it’s an offer you can’t refuse. As he begins the discussion you wonder if everyone in the room hears your heart beating. It seems all of your prayers for a peaceful and uneventful meal have been answered with a definitive no!
Mary’s father asks you why the Catholic Church believes in priests when “the Bible clearly teaches that we only have one priest, and that is Jesus Christ.” He reads aloud Hebrews 7:22-25, emphasizing certain words.
“‘This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’” Calvin Sr. concludes: “Jesus is our one Intercessor before the Father.”
Calvin Jr. then adds, “I’ll go a step further. The existence of a New Testament priesthood is illogical if you consider three simple points: First, a synonym for intercessor is mediator. Second, the definition of a priest is a mediator between God and men. And third, 1 Timothy 2:5 says: ‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’”
Then John pipes in and adds: “In 1 Peter chapter 2, verses 5 and 9 tell us, ‘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 . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.’ We’re all priests in the New Testament. There’s no mention of any specially ordained priesthood as Catholics claim to have.”
Mary gives you a nod of encouragement as if to say, “Go for it,” which helps ease your nerves a bit. With her by your side, you begin to respond.
You decide to point out first the obvious contradiction between Calvin Sr., Calvin Jr., and John. Calvin Sr. and Jr. each claimed there can only be one priest in the New Covenant based on Hebrews 7:22-25 and 1 Timothy 2:5: Jesus Christ. But then John pointed out, and rightly so, that all Christians are referred to as members of the “royal priesthood” in 1 Peter 2:5-9.
Houston, we have a problem. By your new Protestant friend’s own admission, it’s not a contradiction to say Christ is our one and unique priest/mediator/intercessor and yet see Christians playing the role of priest, mediator, and intercessor in the New Testament. The key is to understand the nature of the body of Christ.
Christians don’t usurp or diminish the priesthood of Christ when they’re referred to as priests; they participate in His unique priesthood. So intimate is the union of the baptized with Christ that St. Paul describes this mystical union as a “body” (see 1 Cor 12:12-27, Rom 12:5) with Christ as its Head (see Eph 1:22-23). What can be attributed to a hand in the body doesn’t somehow take away from the head or the body as a whole.
It’s obvious that Hebrews 7:22-25 and 1 Timothy 2:5 aren’t saying Christians can’t act as mediators or intercessors in any sense. In fact, just a few verses before that passage in 1 Timothy, St. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions” (2:1-2, emphasis added). The text urges Christians to act as mediators or intercessors. But we must understand that Christians can do so only because they are in the one true Mediator and act as members of His body.
Ronald now jumps into the fray and says, “Even if we were to accept the notion of Christians being priests as you say, and accept your interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5 and Hebrews 7:22-25, this in no way shows that there is a distinct ordained priesthood. As John pointed out before, 1 Peter 2 indicates that all Christians are priests. And, in fact, the ordained ministers of the New Covenant are called apostles (see Eph 4:11), presbyters (see Jas 5:14), and bishops (see Acts 1:20, 1 Tim 3:1). They’re not called priests, which is hiereus in Greek.”
You begin by pointing out the progress made thus far. At least Ronald has acknowledged that it’s possible to have priests within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. And this isn’t a contradiction when the priests are understood as participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Now you must prove the existence of a special ordained priesthood within the universal priesthood.
First, you point out First Peter 2:5 and 9, which John quoted; it’s actually a reference to Exodus 19:6: “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Scripture here indicates a universal priesthood under the Old Covenant.
And yet, in that same Exodus 19:22 we read, “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves.” There was already a universal priesthood in existence in the Old Covenant, but this didn’t mean there couldn’t be a distinct ordained priesthood as well. So it is in the New Covenant.
As far as the term “priest” is concerned: It’s not surprising that the Christians of the first century wouldn’t use the term “priest” (Greek hiereus) in describing their ministers. This was the same term being used by the more numerous Jewish (see Lk 1:8-9) and even pagan (Acts 14:13) priests. Christians used language to distinguish their priests from the Jewish and pagan priests of their day.
Now Elizabeth, John’s wife, takes her turn. She comes out with both barrels blasting and says, “You still haven’t demonstrated New Testament ministers are priests from Scripture. Isn’t this the whole point of the New Covenant? We don’t have to go to a mediator on earth anymore. We can go directly to God through Christ.”
“You’re right,” you respond. “We can go directly to God through Jesus Christ in offering our prayers and sacrifices in union with Him. But this isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s not the case that we either go to God or go to His representatives on this earth when we have needs. The Catholic Church, and the Bible I might add, says we do both. Let me demonstrate what I mean.
“Philippians 4:6-7 says: ‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Here we see St. Paul encouraging all Christians to exercise their universal, ‘royal priesthood’ before God. We all agree on that point.
“However, analogous to what we saw in the Old Testament, we also have here a special group of men called by Christ to a special priestly ministry within the body of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, each of the three ministers mentioned by Ronald is clearly presented as priestly in nature in the New Testament. Let’s look at the apostle first.
“In Scripture, we see our Lord definitively choosing and sending apostles to act as mediators between God and men (in Christ, of course). This, again, is the definition of a priest. For example, after the resurrection, our Lord appears to the apostles in the upper room. In John 20:21-23 He says to them: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
“Jesus communicates the power to forgive and retain sins to the apostles. This is a priestly ministry (see also Lev 19:21-22). In Second Corinthians 2:10, St. Paul says to the Corinthians (as your King James Version puts it): ‘For if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ.’ St. Paul evidently heard confessions in Corinth carrying out this priestly commission of the apostle.
“Jesus not only gives the authority to forgive sins to the apostles, but he gives them divine, infallible authority to proclaim the gospel as well. ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me’ (Lk 10:16). Once again, in Second Corinthians 2:17 we see St. Paul carrying out this priestly ministry. ‘For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.’
“Bishops (Greek episkopoi) are successors of the apostles according to Scripture. In Acts 1:20 when the apostles were choosing a successor for Judas, the text reads: ‘And his bishopric (Greek episkopee) let another take.’ So they’re called to carry on the apostolic ministry in their same priestly function.
“Presbyters are most definitely seen as priests as well. James 5:14 puts it quite plainly: ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (Gr. presbyteroi) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’
“Notice, the Scripture doesn’t say we should just go to anyone because we’re all priests. It singles out the presbyters, and once again they’re seen acting as mediators in the forgiveness of sins and healing.
“St. Paul tells us the presbyter has been given the ministry of reconciliation in Second Corinthians 5:20: ‘So we are ambassadors (Greek presbeuomen) for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’”
You now see several of Mary’s family wanting to respond, so you quickly get in two more points anticipating their objections.
“Don’t let the word ‘priest’ prejudice you from what the Scriptures plainly teach. New Testament ministers are, in fact, priests even though the noun isn’t found there referring to them. However, I do think it’s significant that the verb form of hiereus is found when St. Paulrefers to his apostolic ministry. He refers to his ministry as a ‘priestly service’: ‘because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Rom 15:15b-16a).
“I think people can easily fall into the same trap as those who would reject the doctrine of the Trinity because the word ‘Trinity’ isn’t found in Scripture. Yet the reality of the Trinity is there. The Church uses this word to define the mystery of three divine Persons in one essence. So it is with the priesthood.”
John’s wife is the first to speak, and she says that you’re twisting the Scriptures to fit a pre-conceived belief. She then gives an example by claiming she’s just recently been to a Bible study where her pastor explained John 20:21-23. He said the verb form used by St. Johnmakes it clear that when Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,” He actually meant that if you forgive the sins of any, they have already been forgiven. Not by the apostle, but by God.
You respond: “I want you all honestly to examine the text and see who is ‘twisting the Scripture to fit a pre-conceived belief.’ It’s true that a perfect passive form of the verbs ‘to forgive’ and ‘to retain’ are used in the text. And this does mean ‘have been forgiven’ and ‘have been retained.’
“But look at the text! It very plainly tells us when the sins were ‘already forgiven.’ When you (the apostles) forgive them! The Catholic Church isn’t saying the apostles are doing this by some magical powers or by their own powers. Jesus ‘breathed on them’ and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. But the fact is the apostles are the instruments of God’s forgiveness. If this isn’t a priest, then what is a priest?”
At this point you feel it’s time to cut the conversation short before the discussion turns heated. So before you change the subject and get to Mary’s delicious-looking strawberry pie, you just have to make one challenge to the family. You ask them to do what you have already done — what really helped solidify you in your Catholic faith: Read the early Church Fathers on this issue of the priesthood. From the very beginning, the central reason for the clergy’s existence has been to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as priests of almighty God.
You explain how Jesus acted as Priest of the New Covenant when He celebrated the Passover with His disciples in the Upper Room. This Jewish Passover was considered a true sacrifice — not only the bloody aspect of the Passover that took place on the first day of the Passover week, but the unbloody aspect of it as well. Exodus 12:1-14 and Malachi 1:7-11 tell us that the unleavened bread was considered an unbloody sacrifice just as the lambs of sacrifice were considered a bloody sacrifice.
When Jesus said the immortal words “This is my body” and “This cup . . . is the new covenant in my blood” (see Lk 22:19-20), He established this sacrificial banquet for all time. They would no longer be consuming a lamb that could never take away sins (see Heb 10:11), but rather the true “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 6:53-54). And when He then said to His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me,” He ordained them to go out and share this same cup of our salvation to the ends of the earth.
In the writings of St. Clement of Rome (A.D. 95), St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 110), St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 150), St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 180), St. Hippolytus (A.D. 200), and St. Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 250) and beyond you’ll read the same thing. They all speak of the priesthood’s offering the Holy Sacrifice. You’ll also read of confession, apostolic succession, papal primacy and much more, but one thing is certain: Christians universally understood the reality of the New Testament priesthood in the early Church.
Quickly now you move to accomplish three things:
First, ease the tension in the room by saying, “Perhaps we can talk about these things another time.”
Second, make the move on Mary’s strawberry pie.
Third, think of something else to talk about.
You accomplish the first two with no problem, but as you go to make small talk with Calvin Jr., the first thing out of your mouth is, “So tell me about your church.” He begins by saying, “We are staunch TULIP Calvinists.”
Oops! You realize you’ve just begun another debate.
This article was published in Envoy Magazine and is reprinted here with the permission of TIm Staples, the author. It is an excerpt from his book, Nuts & Bolts – Guide for Defending the Catholic Faith.