Taking Christ’s Priesthood Seriously

Christ and the Catholic Priesthood

Ecclesial Hierarchy and the Pattern of the Trinity

By Matthew Levering.

Hillenbrand. pp 340 + x. $40, cloth

Jesus Our Priest

A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ

By Gerald O’Collins, SJ, and Michael Keenan Jones.

Oxford. pp 311 + viii. $40, cloth.

Review by Leander Harding

The distinguished Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck, when asked several years ago why same sex blessings should so threaten the unity of the Church when it appeared to be a secondary doctrinal issue, responded that it was secondary – and so were indulgences at the time of the Reformation. Lindbeck compared theology to pick-up sticks. There are issues, often secondary, that nevertheless bring all other issues up with them. The thing in itself might be secondary, but it entails the doctrine of revelation and the nature of sin and salvation, the nature of sacraments and the Church.

The doctrine of ordained ministry in the Church has notoriously caused the bitterest theological polemics. Reunion schemes have foundered repeatedly on the questions of episcopacy and the ministerial priesthood. Within Anglicanism the divide between evangelical and Anglo-Catholic sensibilities about the nature of holy orders and the sacraments, despite major gains in ecumenical theology in the 20th century, remains a source of ecclesial angst. Witness the proposals from the Diocese of Sydney.

These two recent books on the ordained priesthood by Roman Catholic theologians begin in the right place by addressing questions about the nature of the Trinity and the person and work of the Savior. From those foundations they argue for a fresh ecumenical consensus on the nature of the Church and its ministry.

Matthew Levering’s book is encyclopedic. He addresses in tum questions about the nature of the Trinity, the historical investigation into how Jesus interpreted his approaching death and its relationship to the Last Supper, the historical evidence for a theology of sacramental mediation in the New Testament and the early Church, Enlightenment challenges to the understanding of religion as mediation of power, and contemporary challenges to hierarchy and primacy from free-church and feminist thinkers. His book includes a deep and sympathetic engagement with Orthodox and Protestant theologians but always returns to a winsome representation of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas as described by Levering is far more biblical and evangelical than many Protestants, especially evangelicals, might suppose and far more attuned to questions of equality, domination, and oppression than feminist critics might think.

Levering’s central conviction is that the ministerial hierarchy and the sacramental mediation of the ordained ministry appropriately symbolize and communicate the hierarchal pattern of gift and receptivity which characterize the life of the Trinity and God’s mediation of his grace to humankind. It is commonplace now to perceive a conflict between hierarchy and individual freedom. Levering acknowledges that this is congruent with our treatment of each other but that it does not reflect the reality of the trinitarian God as revealed in Scripture and taught in the great tradition. Here dependency is the prelude to being built up in love and to achieving dignity and freedom.

The Church’s hierarchy is not to mirror the power politics of the world, but even when compromised by worldliness it still properly orients us to the one upon whom our salvation depends. In spite of the human sinfulness of those ordained to headship in the Church, the structure of the ordained ministry brings all to a consciousness of their utter dependence upon the gifts of God and the life and death of the Savior and the mediation of his presence through the Church’s holy orders and sacraments. When talking about the sacraments Levering is careful to include an emphasis on faith and the preaching of the Word of God that shows a keen ecumenical sensitivity.

There is massive learning on display in this book, and Levering’s command of the great tradition is repeatedly put in service of demonstrating that contemporary critiques of hierarchy in the Church are really coded celebrations of very secular notions of autonomy which in the end cannot deliver authentic human dignity and equality, much less the wholeness and holiness to which the Lord of the Church calls his people. We have become accustomed to understanding hierarchy as a kind of curse word. Levering restores the word’s original sense as the holy order appropriate to God and to his Church.

Levering’s book is so encyclopedic and so wide-ranging, so rich in extensive footnotes and references to classic and contemporary theological literature, that all but the most theologically literate will find it very challenging reading. Gerald O’Collins and Michael Jones have written a more narrowly focused and accessible book, though there is a great deal of overlap between the two both in topics addressed and in conclusions proffered.

O’Collins and Jones focus more exclusively on the priesthood of Christ. Their conviction is that it will be impossible to develop a proper understanding of the relationship between the priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood without a thorough examination of the manner in which the priesthood of Christ is presented in the Scriptures and the way in which that presentation has been interpreted in the tradition. This book therefore has a more detailed examination of the exegesis of the Letter to the Hebrews, the recent history of interpretation of that letter and its subsequent neglect in contemporary theological reflection on Church, ministry and sacraments. They also examine the presentation of Christ as priest in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter and the Book of Revelation. They consult the Fathers and like Levering reprise the theology of Aquinas on the priesthood of Christ. They then follow the discussion in Luther, Calvin, Trent, Newman and others.

Very helpfully O’Collins and Jones end with a set of 12 theses about Christ’s priesthood and 12 theses about how Christ’s priesthood is shared by both the laity and the ordained. In the process they make explicit reference to ecumenical documents including Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry and The Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Anglicans will be delighted to find the writing of Bishop Samuel Seabury given special treatment. The concluding theses are very clear and would provide a wonderful outline for a discussion group among local clergy about the ordained priesthood. There is not room here to list all these theses. Here is one about Christ’s priesthood and one about sharing in his priesthood.

Thesis 10 about Christ’s priesthood:

 The priesthood of Christ continues forever, since he eternally intercedes for the world and blesses the world, offers himself through the Holy Spirit to the Father, continues to pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Church and the world, acts on earth as primary minister in all the Church’s preaching and sacramental life, and in heaven remains forever the Mediator through whom the blessed enjoy the vision of God and the risen life of glory. (p. 265)

Thesis 12 about the priesthood of Christ:

While the priesthood of Christ is unique, it is also participated in, albeit differently, by all the baptized and by ordained ministers. In the celebration of the Eucharist ordained priests are visible signs of the invisible Christ, Priest and Victim or Offerer and Offering, whose unique and sufficient sacrifice, accomplished once and for all in his life, death, and resurrection, continues to be present and operative on behalf of the whole human race. (p. 271)

Both of these volumes are compelling contributions of biblical exegesis, research into the tradition, ecumenical engagement and serious consideration of liberationist challenges to traditional theologies of ministerial priesthood. They argue for a reappraisal of the significance of Christ’s priesthood both for understanding the nature and work of the Savior and for understanding how salvation in Christ is properly witnessed and mediated by the Church and the ordained ministry. Both volumes are a welcome antidote to the reduction of the theology of the Church and its holy orders to sociology and the analysis of power politics.

In the 30 years that I have been ordained in the Episcopal Church there has been a war against the catholic priesthood on a double front. On the one side is a secular rhetoric of liberation that sometimes sounds as if all the troubles of the Church will be fixed by laicizing all of the clergy and clericalizing all of the laity. From the evangelical and renewal side comes a great discomfort with the distinctive sacramental role of the priest, with worries that the role of preaching will be obscured and the priesthood of the faithful diminished.

In my view, where churches have lost the sense of Christ the priest visible in the life of the Church in and through the ordained priesthood, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, the result has been an overemphasis on the personality, even personal charm, of the minister and an increasingly anthropocentric rather than theocentric and Christocentric worship. The reverse of John the Baptist’s “I must decrease so that he may increase” has been at work. The recovery of a robust theology of ministerial priesthood, grounded in the life of the triune God and the priesthood of the Savior, will help (among other things) redirect both our worship and the work of the clergy Godward.

For different reasons coming from both the theological left and right, it has come to be easy to believe that taking the ministerial priesthood seriously in some way diminishes Christ or his people. These two books argue persuasively that taking the priesthood of Christ seriously leads us to a deeper appreciation of the role of the ministerial and sacramental priesthood in building up the priestly people into the fullness of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of church relations and seminary advancement and associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity School for Ministry.


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