Friday, February 15, 2013

Review of Garry Wills: Why Priests?

In his latest book, Garry Wills is playing the tired role of what I call a "Catholic but." You've heard these people. "I'm Catholic, but I don't agree with my Church on [Abortion, Contraception, Homosexuality, All-Male Priesthood, ad nauseum]." They claim their authority to bash the Roman Catholic Church, curiously, from the very fact that they are organically members of that body.

In his book Why Priests?, Wills challenges the development of the concept of priests at all in the Church. Now, while I'm not Roman Catholic, what Wills says is equally an attack on the position of the Orthodox Church. I'll be addressing it from a perspective that defends the Historical Church which was united for a millennium and which, sadly, has now spent a millennium not sharing Communion.

The basic points of Wills' argument could be summarized as follows. He wants to assert that Jesus was not a priest and that what we currently call and consider priests should not have developed into that concept. Now, the word priest is derived from the Greek word presbyter (elder), but it is certainly true that the English word means what the Latin sacerdos meant (and in Canon Law, the term sacerdos commonly describes priests). 

Wills is immediately confronted with a problem. The Letter to the Hebrew explicitly discusses the priesthood of Jesus (e.g., see Hebrews 4:14). Wills deals with this potential fatal error to his argument by suggesting that the Letter to the Hebrews is itself "idiosyncratic" on the topic. And he further calls the canonical status of the letter into question. In other words, if a book of the Bible destroys your argument that Jesus wasn't a priest, remove that book and then proceed with your argument that the Bible doesn't call Jesus a priest!

From there Wills essentially argues that the concept of the presbyter as "priest" is a late and unfortunate evolution, not really found in any meaningful way until that villain St. Thomas of Aquinas. 

I'm going to explain now why Wills could not be more wrong.

What he has missed is that the concept of the presbyter as "priest" follows naturally from the teaching of the Eucharist as Sacrifice. If the Eucharist is a Sacrifice, then the man who offers that sacrifice is, of course, a priest.

The Primitive Church viewed the Eucharist as a Sacrifice certainly as early as the composition of the Didache (a late 1st century Church manual). 

The Didache describes the Eucharist in clear sacrificial terms and even quotes Malachi 1:11 as a text which predicted the Eucharist:

14:1 On the Lord's day, gather yourselves together and break bread, give thanks, but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.

14:2 Let no one, however, who has a quarrel with his brother come together with you, until he has reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be profaned.

14:3 For this is what the Lord has said (Malachi 1:11): "For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the of hosts."

Now, you may here admit that while the Didache clearly views the Eucharist as a Sacrifice, that doesn't really matter, since it isn't in the Bible. What we really need is something in the New Testament which indicates that the Eucharist was a Sacrifice.

St. Paul discusses the Eucharist extensively in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

He explains to his flock in 1 Corinthians 10:16-21 that there is an inherent inconsistency between receiving the Eucharist and participation in two other things:

 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a communion in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a communion in the body of Christ?
 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.
 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?...The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

So, St. Paul tells us you cannot partake in the Eucharist and also the sacrifices of the nation Israel or the things the Gentiles sacrifice. Are just two of these three things sacrifices in his mind? Obviously not. Paul is clearly here stating that all three of these things are sacrifices. And Christians need to pick just one.

St. Paul also gave one more indication that he believes that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice. When he called the Eucharist the "Table of the Lord, (τραπεζης κυριου)" he was using a term that occurs in only one other place in the Old and New Testaments. The Altar of the the Lord is called the "Table of the Lord" in Malachi 1:12, immediately after the verse quoted by the Didache as a proof text of the Eucharist as Sacrifice:

But you are profaning it, in that you say the Table of the Lord (שלחן אדני) is defiled.

This is no coincidence. The Didache quotes Malachi 1:11 as proof the Eucharist is a Sacrifice. St. Paul quotes Malachi 1:12 to call the Eucharist the Table of the Lord. The phrase "Table of the Lord" means sacrificial altar in Malachi 1:12. Obviously St. Paul means to call the Eucharist a Sacrifice. And, in so doing,  St. Paul  is also aware that the Early Christian Church viewed that whole passage of Malachi as predictive of the Eucharist. 

The Christian Church, from the time of St. Paul onward, viewed the Eucharist as a bloodless Sacrifice which mystically makes present the timeless Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The men who offered this Sacrifice on behalf of the Church are naturally priests of that altar

Wills has constructed an impassioned argument against a key tenet of the Historical Church. But he did so by intentionally not engaging key information that would have stopped his argument in its tracks.

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