Why Priests? A Failed Tradition

Wills, Gary
Penguin (2013)
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Ever since I began to study the Bible seriously I have never been able to come to grips with Saint Paul's Letter to the Hebrews: neither from Saint Paul, nor a letter, nor to Hebrews whoever they might be in the 80's CE, probably in Rome. I thought it was me; but one of the many wonderful things which Gary Wills demonstrates in this fascinating book is that this doctrinally anomalous document is frequently illogical and, in three critical places at least, plain daft, with reference to: the requirement that the risen Jesus should cleanse heaven; the parallel of the disposal of unclean elements of sacrificial animals outside the walls of the Mosaic camp and the crucifixion of Jesus outside the city walls; and the endlessly shifting parallels between Melchizedek, the Levitical priesthood and Jesus.

The doctrinal anomaly in Hebrews is that Jesus is both the priest and the sacrificial victim at the Crucifixion and that this once-and-for all sacrifice, replacing all animal sacrifices, buys our redemption with human blood. Wills naturally links this with the doctrine of legalistic ransom developed by Anselm and not, to his regret, seriously challenged by Aquinas.

Another equally fascinating strand of the book is the way in which Saint Augustine's doctrine of the Eucharist as being effective through reception rather than through consecration was side-lined in favour of transubstantiation. Part of that story in our own day is the heroic work of de Lubac who painstakingly unearthed the Augustinian tradition. There is one key passage in his great book Corpus Mysticum (1944) that I cannot resist quoting in full:

"Since the body of the church takes its life from the Spirit, the communal body must literally be the body of Christ, to be celebrated as the body of the church, a church perfected as the body of Christ. But the Eucharist is the mysterious basis of this miracle, at work in a permanent way as its font forever springing up. Fed by the body and blood of the Saviour, his believers are all steeped in one Spirit, so as to be one body. Literally, then, the Eucharist creates the church, creates its inner reality. By its secret working, the body's members achieve their unity with one another, making them even more the members of Christ, since their mutual union seals their union with their sole Head. This union of the Head with the entire body, the unity of Christ with his church - himself the Head, it the body - is more than what is generally referred to as 'the church's body in itself,' or even 'Christ's body in itself.' It makes up a true reality. It is what Alger of Liege (1055-1131) meant by 'the complete body of Christ,' the 'inclusive body of Christ'. Since the sacrifice at the altar, by symbolizing the union of the church with Christ, is the sacrament of the inclusive body of Christ, Christ alone is not celebrated there but the inclusive Christ is celebrated. Therefore the Eucharist does not occur without the grace pervading the whole body of Christ." (de Lubac: Corpus Mysticum p102-3).

Put simply, The Church and not the consecrated Eucharistic elements, is the body of Christ, a doctrine from which Saint Paul never deviated and from which the Church would not have deviated were it not for Hebrews. This document, apparently written to reassure Jewish converts to Christianity who hankered after the good old days of animal sacrifice, was somehow used as a pretext, in spite of its claim that the sacrifice of Jesus was unique, to establish an imperial priesthood based on its sole, miraculous power to change bread and wine into the very body and blood of Jesus. And here is one of the nuggets which freed me from my guilt about the supposed letter, Melchizedek gets a right kicking. Admittedly, I think Wills makes too much of the phrase "A priest forever" which I take to be hyperbole rather than serious theology but he does show convincingly that the Melchizedek theory of an eternal priesthood is a fiction, right down to the groundless tradition that he gave bread and wine to Abraham. How, in any case, can a Canaan priest be seen as the originator of Christian priesthood?

To begin at the beginning: if anything, Jesus was anti-clerical, performed no sacrifice and left no priests. Wills says that up until at least the end of the First Century CE: "... there were no priests and no priestly services; no male presider at the agape meal, no re-enactment of Jesus' last supper, no 'sacrifice of the Mass', no consecrations of bread and wine; nothing that resembled what priests now claim to do." Over time - and the weakness of the book is its thin coverage of the evolution of priesthood until the doctrinal settlement which reached its climax with the acceptance of the doctrine of Eucharistic Transubstantiation at the Third Lateran Council of 1215 - priesthood tightened its grip on the laity through the development of a series of life-event Sacraments, including the immense power of forgiving sins only exceeded by, and based on, the Eucharistic power of acting 'in the person of Christ'. In another fascinating aside Wills tells the story, starting in 6th Century Ireland, of the change from the communal power of the Church to expel and re-admit scandalously infracting members to the power of the priest to dispense absolution in private. Matthew 16.19, Wills says, concerns the major issue of community cohesion for which Peter is given responsibility, later modified by Matthew 18.18 where the power is given to the whole community. Of the initial "Royal priesthood" of the people (1 Peter 2.9) only a vestigial rite of Baptism by the laity remains.

The book takes many other fascinating twists and turns but, ultimately, it disappoints slightly because its structure is designed to be dramatic and, in a way, autobiographical, rather than chronologically coherent. Wills is naturally bound up with his own history as a Roman Catholic and it is with this that the book opens and closes and, in the face of such a magnificent and stimulating piece of scholarship, it is perhaps just a little churlish to wish that he had joined his very fat dots together. Any reader will surely grasp the connection between Hebrews, the emergence of an exclusive caste of priests with their power based on transubstantiation, the Sacramental extension of that power, and the significance of that power's reversal at Vatican II and the inevitable clerical backlash, but I would have liked some more linking material.

Nonetheless, this is such a good and intricate book that I read it twice and Wills' translation of Hebrews in an appendix will be of lasting value.

Such a review would be incomplete, I think, without two questions related to the current controversy in the Church over the way in which we read Scripture: first, Wills almost always interprets the Greek word Pistis which appears in the AV as "faith" inferred to the reader as "fidelity" on the part of Christ, a correction which is critical in Douglas A. Campbell’s re-reading of Romans because it properly attributes our salvation to the faithfulness of Jesus rather than to our faith in him, a severe corrective to fundamentalist Evangelical egotism which locks itself into the paradox of rejecting Pelagianism while making faith into a human "work". Secondly, what are we to do when a piece of Scripture is plain daft? Nicholas King, in his New Testament comments in a number of places that Paul's Greek is so incoherent that it can't be rendered syntactically, so what do we do with a sentence that won't parse? In the case of Hebrews the syntax is as elegant and highly wrought as the argument is, ultimately, flimsy. The question at bottom is whether Hebrews should be in the canon at all and, if not, what should we do about the ordained orders that have, according to Wills, quite wrongly assumed power on a wilful misinterpretation of it? By coincidence, I have been considering the recent pronouncements of the House of Bishops of the Church of England that while lay people can be publicly gay, clergy can't, which naturally leads to the question: so what makes the two classes different, given their shared identity in Baptism?

Finally, two notes about theologians: first, I have always thought that Origen got a really rough deal from his successors and now I know why; he foreshadows Augustine and, much later, de Lubac. Secondly, de Lubac, having lost his teaching position after the publication of his great book, was ultimately reinstated for Vatican II and later offered a red hat which he refused because he would not be made a nominal bishop in order to be qualified to receive it. He respected the pastoral role of the episcopate too much. So priests do have a purpose; to be servants, just as Jesus said his leading followers should be.