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Priesthood, Analogical and Formal: A Reply to Fr. Greg on the Sacrifice of the Mass

I was expecting an eventual response to my piece Why I Don’t Agree With the Concept of the “Sacrifice of the Mass” and received it from Fr. Greg.  You can find it here.

In his response, he’s shifted the discussion from the purely theological to the ecclesiological, and that brings up many issues.  But let me first start with the points of contact, and let me repeat something I said in the original post:

Tying the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist and the perpetuity of all things in God, the question remains: is the Mass a sacrifice in and of itself, or it is the re-enactment and/or extension of the original sacrifice?  The scripture makes that answer clear:

But, this priest, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins, which should serve for all time, ‘took his seat at the right hand of God,’ and has since then been waiting ‘for his enemies to be put as a stool for his feet.’ By a single offering he has made perfect for all time those who are being purified. (Hebrews 10:12-14, TCNT)

Given that there is only one sacrifice, and that the nature of this sacrifice is unique, the Mass must be an integral extension of the original sacrifice.

In this respect, there’s no way to avoid saying that the Eucharist (to set things a little broader than Roman Catholicism itself) is a sacrifice in this sense.  But that’s not the way it’s presented in Roman Catholicism, and that’s not the way that Fr. Greg presents it either.  Fr. Greg, to his credit, has clarified the issue by shifting it to the nature of the priesthood and, by extension, the nature of the church.

He begins by referencing the early Fathers on the subject.  (As an aside, I’m surprised that Abu Daoud didn’t come back on this first after his posts, specifically this and this.)  We have to ask ourselves this question: how did they mean this?  This isn’t an illegitimate question, because the Ante-Nicene Fathers could be very imprecise on key issues.  The best examples of this are the Christological ones.  Great teachers such as Tertullian and Origen could have saved those who came after a lot of trouble if they had more precisely defined what they meant.  (On the other hand, I’m not sure if they had the philosophical frame of reference to do the job completely, as I lay out in detail here.)   Did the Fathers really mean that Jesus’ sacrifice is repeated again and again in the Eucharist?  Did they think their ministers were full priests, standing as a formal mediator between man and God as Jesus himself did?  Or were they simply using concepts that were familiar to both their pagan and Jewish converts?

It is essential that the teaching of the church, patristic and otherwise, be in concord with the Scriptures.  The early fathers were aware of this, if their efforts don’t always pass muster today (or even a generation or two after their passing.)  So, in order to construct a proper understanding of what one means by “priest” and “sacrifice” we need to consider everything in light of the most authoritative revelation from God.

Jesus Christ is the only formal mediator between man and God.  That is the core message of the New Testament.  By “formal” I mean the “official” agent who is capable of the task at hand, i.e., mediation.  We can say there are other mediators.  For example, Evangelicals frequently say that we are the only Bible many ever read.  (And we are!)  But that doesn’t mean that we are a mediator in the same sense that Jesus Christ is.  It’s tempting to say that we are “secondary” mediators, but the term I plan to use is “analogical.”  By this I mean that, when we present the Gospel to others (and I don’t just mean exclusively in a specific outline, but also by the way we live) we are mediators by analogy.  Ultimately anyone who is led to God in this way must come to eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church presents itself as not only a formal mediator between man and God, but the formal mediator, by positioning itself between man and Jesus Christ.  It claims that no one can come to Jesus Christ except through the church, and that the church has the authority to deny that access if it believes that it is necessary to do so.  Fortunately for everybody it has an elaborate set of rules and regulations to make application of that exclusion an exceptional event (although one longs to see it for the likes of Patrick Kennedy.)  But that doesn’t change the church’s view of itself or its role.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the most scathing critique of this comes from the Orthodox world, namely the parable of Christ and the Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  Here Dostoevsky inverts the role of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church as personified in the Inquisitor.  It’s not a pretty picture, but unfortunately for many Roman Catholics it’s the deal.  (And, Fr. Greg, remember this: when I think of Orthodoxy, it always comes back to the Russians!)

Closely tied to that is its view of the priesthood.  As Fr. Greg confirmed for the Orthodox churches, in Roman Catholicism the priests are seen as the replacements for the priests of Judaism.  If that’s the case in a formal sense, then their sacrifices are no better than those of the Temple, because the purpose of the sacrifices in Judaism were principally if not exclusively for the sins of the people.  If that’s the case, why Calvary?

There’s no question that the Fathers saw the Jewish law and sacrificial system as a type of the work of Jesus Christ and the church.  Typology runs rampant in the interpretation of the Scriptures by the Fathers (Origen is especially associated with this.)  And perhaps a typological or analogical approach is what is called for here to solve this dilemma.

I think that, if we admit to any kind of priesthood in Christianity, we must admit to this in an analogical sense, especially relative to Judaism.  We simply do not need a priesthood to perform the most important function of same, i.e., obtaining the forgiveness of sins or other favour of God.  I think it is reasonable to posit that certain ones in the church be those to preside at the “sacred pledge of the Eucharist” (to use Bossuet’s wonderful phrase.)

I don’t think this is as far off from the early Fathers’ intent as one would think.  What sense does it make to have priests and bishops when the latter at least were elected by their flock, as was the case through most of the Roman Empire church?  Isn’t that the lesser choosing the greater?  Roman Catholicism, consistent if not correct, has eliminated this feature and many other “democratic” ones, as the Anglo-Catholics are about to find out.  If the ecclesiastical hierarchy on earth is a reflection of the celestial hierarchy in heaven, shouldn’t it have been a strictly top-down business?

The same idea can be applied to the church as well.  Only one formal mediator is necessary and sufficient between man and God.  But the church has been entrusted with the mission to be one in an analogical (if very important) sense.

I’ll end this part of the diatribe by quoting from Origen’s Commentary in John, the very start:

That people which was called of old the people of God was divided into twelve tribes, and over and above the other tribes it had the Levitical order, which itself again carried on the service of God in various priestly and Levitical suborders. In the same manner, it appears to me that the whole people of Christ, when we regard it in the aspect of the hidden man of the heart, (Rom. 2:29) that people which is called “Jew inwardly,” and is circumcised in the spirit, has in a more mystic way the characteristics of the tribes.

And a little later he adds, in a way that suggests the analogical treatment I propose:

But what is the bearing of all this for us? So you will ask when you read these words, Ambrosius, thou who art truly a man of God, a man in Christ, and who seekest to be not a man only, but a spiritual man. (1 Co 2:4) The bearing is this. Those of the tribes offer to God, through the Levites and priests, tithes and first fruits; not everything which they possess do they regard as tithe or first fruit. The Levites and priests, on the other hand, have no possessions but tithes and first fruits; yet they also in turn offer tithes to God through the high-priests, and, I believe, first fruits too. The same is the case with those who approach Christian studies. Most of us devote most of our time to the things of this life, and dedicate to God only a few special acts, thus resembling those members of the tribes who had but few transactions with the priest, and discharged their religious duties with no great expense of time. But those who devote themselves to the divine word and have no other employment but the service of God may not unnaturally, allowing for the difference of occupation in the two cases, be called our Levites and priests. And those who fulfil a more distinguished office than their kinsmen will perhaps be high-priests, according to the order of Aaron, not that of Melchisedek. Here some one may object that it is somewhat too bold to apply the name of high-priests to men, when Jesus Himself is spoken of in many a prophetic passage as the one great priest, as (Heb. 4:14) “We have a great high-priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” But to this we reply that the Apostle clearly defined his meaning, and declared the prophet to have said about the Christ, “Thou (Psa. 110:4; Heb. 5:6; Joh. 7:11) art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek,” and not according to the order of Aaron. We say accordingly that men can be high-priests according to the order of Aaron, but according to the order of Melchisedek only the Christ of God.

The main drawback to even using priesthood in an analogical sense–and in referring to the Eucharist as a sacrifice, albeit an integral extension of the original–is that people, especially those of the Roman world, will in time convert the analogical and the re-enactment into the formal.  The idea that we need to periodically propitiate the gods with sacrifices runs through paganism.  The confusion is understandable, but the theological drift that confusion created–a confusion complicated by the example of the Jewish system–has practical consequences that have dogged Roman Catholicism ever since.

Let me touch on a few of Fr. Greg’s other points.

Concerning his Old Testament citations: those in the Old Testament largely refer to the sacrificial system in effect at the time.  How one applies these to our own time depends upon the considerations above.  One thing that needs to be emphasised is the concept of the Eucharist as our sacrifice.  One must consider that there is nothing we can offer to God that can, in and of himself, please him, as whatever finite and defective we might bring cannot have real comparison to the infinite and perfect God.  Ultimately the objective sacrificial value of what we bring–which, in the Eucharist, is admittedly de minimis from our end–is the presence of God in it, which is another good reason to recognise the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The fact that any sacrifice we make is not acceptable per se to God shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Jesus Christ calls us to a complete sacrifice of ourselves to him.  That, I think, is the most important thing we can bring to God.  And, as is the case with the Eucharist, only the presence of Christ in our lives (now that’s good Roman Catholic thinking) is acceptable to him.  One thing that bothers me about Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology is that it leads the casual recipients of the Body and Blood of Christ into the idea that all they need to attain eternal life is to receive the sacraments, when in fact the inward transformation by Jesus Christ is necessary, especially so in the case of the Eucharist.

Also: I was surprised to see the word “orthodoxy” interpreted as “right worship.”  A more common interpretation of that would be “right opinion” or “right teaching.”  It’s true that the word doxa appears in the Septuagint as a translation for the Hebrew kabod, or “glory,” so we perhaps have a double meaning.  The Russians refer to their Orthodox faith as “pravoslavie,” “right glory,” which leaves no doubt what they mean.

PS re the Russians: the testimony of the widow of Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, gunned down in Moscow by Islamic terrorists, is here.


2 Replies to “Priesthood, Analogical and Formal: A Reply to Fr. Greg on the Sacrifice of the Mass”

  1. Okay, Don, I’ve been chewing on this thing since you wrote it, and if I wait any longer, I’ll write a book in reply – in my head anyway – so time to get down and dirty.

    First, I’m confused, how is my account of the Eucharist as sacrifice any different from what you seem to approve of in this post, or, for that matter, different from the standard RC (and yes, Orthodox: see K. Ware) account of the Eucharist as sacrifice? The Christ-event, including His death, is once for all; however, the Eucharist is the way in which the offering of ourselves and our world becomes acceptable in, with, and through the offering of Christ. Each celebration of the Eucharist is thus a manifestation, a making present, of the Christ-event, at a specific time and in a specific space, “until He comes” so that we can participate in it with our whole being, including those aspects of us which are physical and which are social, not simply those which are psychological, mental, and/or emotional.

    Re: Christian priesthood: analogical or real? Christ is THE priest. His priesthood is primordial, archetypal, eternal, and precedes both creation and the incarnation. The priesthood of the Church IS the priesthood of Christ. The priesthood of Aaron foreshadows the priesthood of Christ but does not participate in it as does the Christian priesthood. Therefore, which priesthood is real and which is “analogical”? The answer is obvious: the Christian priesthood is real and true priesthood and, precisely because it is the priesthood Christ, not only replaces, but supersedes the now-obsolete priesthood of Aaron for Christ and the Church, the “whole Christ”, is the “True Israel”.

    Re: Mediation: Speaking of analogies: I find your use of I Timothy 2: 5 (“…there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”) analogous with the way in which Jehovah’s Witnesses use John 17: 3 (“…that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”) Taken in isolation, the latter would seem to state that the Father is “the only true God,” thereby excluding the Son and the Holy Spirit. Of course, as you have documented so well, such an interpretation flies in the face of all the rest of the New Testament, not to mention the rest of the Tradition, and is therefore excluded.

    The same is true for I Timothy 2:5. Even the context suggests something else is going on here. In 2:1-4, St. Paul is calling for intercession by the Christian community on behalf of basically everyone, to the end that the Church may live in peace, being undisturbed in the pursuit of holiness and to the end that “all be saved”. The implication, then, is that the Church, in making these intercessions, is PARTICIPATING in the one mediation of Christ, and this is reinforced by the fact that the request for these prayers continues in verse 8. (BTW, a rule of thumb concerning interpretation of the Bible: if a given interpretation is at odds with what the universal Church as a whole has done and/or believed and continues to do and/or believe, that interpretation is wrong.)

    This concept, that of participation, is crucial. Another word is sharing or communion, or fellowship. The underlying Greek word is koinonia. God the Son shares our humanity so that we can share/partake of/be in communion with his Deity, as in II Peter 1:4. The Church, either as a whole, or through individual members, shares in everything that Christ is and that Christ does, including His mediation between God and humanity.

    However, relating to the exercise of Church discipline, I’m not sure that “mediation” is the proper concept here. In any event, the authority being exercised is that given to the Apostles (and through them, to their successors, the bishops, as Clement of Rome, c. AD 96, documents) in Matthew 16:18-19, 18:18, and John 20:22-23. St. Paul uses this same authority in I Corinthians 5, especially 3-5.
    And the rules you mention: they have been under development since virtually Day One of the Church. Much of the Church’s conciliar activity has been devoted to the development of these rules. Such discipline is not a “withholding of grace”. Since its purpose is the ultimate salvation of the one who is disciplined, it is actually an administration of grace even if it involves withholding of one or more of the sacraments.

    Further (to answer what seems to be your underlying issue), there is of course a relationship between the individual believer and Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. However, if such a relationship is completely what it is supposed to be, it will entail being in full communion with one branch or another of the Church, which is the social, visible, historically continuous Community which Christ himself founded and which, according to the NT, is the “body of Christ,” “the fullness of him who fills all in all” and “the pillar and ground of the truth”. This Church, although divided, is in fact one, and has matured, and remains alive, because the Holy Spirit is its very soul. As Bishop Zizioulas puts it, the Church, instituted by Christ, is constituted by the Holy Spirit. Again, to be fully reconciled with God is to be in full communion with the Church. One cannot love God and “hate” his brother.

    If one has accepted Christ apart from this Church, he has learned of Christ, in the final analysis, only by way of the Church, even if that knowledge of Christ came only by way of reading Scripture, for Scripture would not have come down to any of us except through the Church. If that person has been validly baptized, he is, in fact, a member of that Church and by that very fact is called to full communion with the Church through one of its branches. (If he is not baptized, his acceptance of Christ is not yet complete.) If there are Christian communities in existence which are apart from this Church, these communities are called to re-organize themselves such that they become manifestations (“hypostates”) of the one Church.

    At the same time, it is true that sometimes, the Holy Spirit speaks prophetically through an individual Christian, in opposition to what some portion of the hierarchy is saying, or more often, doing. When this happens, as with many RC Saints, such as John of the Cross for example, or Sister Faustina, the Saints are eventually vindicated, the hierarchy learns something, and the Church as a whole is enriched. It is interesting that this drama plays out much less frequently in the Eastern Churches; these Churches are clearly not bereft of the Spirit of Prophecy, but the manifestations of such prophecy usually do not run afoul of the hierarchy as it sometimes does in the West (and of course there are false prophets in both East and West).

    Regarding the OT citations: they are predictions of ongoing sacrifice in the Messianic era. They must either refer to the Eucharist or, as Dispensationalism claims, to some resumption of animal sacrifice in Jerusalem during some millenial reign. The latter is simply impossible since Christ has done away with these sacrifices one and for all, and return to them is a rejection of Christ. Also, the Church has read at least Malachi 1:11 as a prediction of the Eucharist going back as far as the Didache.

    Regarding casual participation in the Eucharist: St. Paul, of course, warns against this in I Corinthians 10 and many, many, many others down through the ages have as well. However, there is also a warning found in Matthew 7:21-23, one that is worth quoting here. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”

    “Orthodox” indeed has a double meaning.” “Right glory” in fact refers, first and foremost, to “right worship”.


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