“Why does this website
call Christian ministers Priests? The Bible
teaches the priesthood of all believers."
referring to Christian ministers we use priest and presbyter interchangeably.
This is a bit confusing but there is a good reason why.
In the Greek original of the New
Testament there are two words which are important for this question.
These are hiereus and presbuteros
is used in the New Testament as the equivalent of the Hebrew cohen
– that is an Israelite priest. This is also the word used
in Greek to refer to the priests of pagan temples. When Peter
writes ‘But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood’
the word he uses is hierateuma. (1 Peter ch2 v9) So in
the New Covenant all believers are equivalent to the priests of
the Old Covenant.
Presbuteros is a a general Greek word meaning elder and used in Scripture
in various ways. One particular way is to describe the ministers in the Christian
community (eg. in 1 Peter ch5 v1). The Apostle John also calls himself ‘The
Presbyter’ in his letters.
In the early Church it appears that Christian ministers were sometimes referred
to as hiereus. This was not a formal title but a way of comparing some aspects
of the Christian leader with the work of the cohens in the Old Testament
and the hiereus of the pagan temples. The abuse of this comparison did not
arise until much later so they were not concerned about it in the same way
that we are today.
The point at issue however is how to translate these words into English.
The English word priest actually
derives etymologically from the Greek word presbuteros and not,
as might be imagined from hiereus. Therefore in terms of how our
language developed the English word priest
is the same as the Greek word presbyter - elder. What causes
confusion is that we have no easy equivalent to hiereus and priest has therefore
been used for this too.
It is worth noting that the Latin
Vulgate translation of the Bible uses the Latin word sacredos to
translate the Greek hiereus and seniores for
presbuteros. In 1 Peter 2.9 it uses the word sacredotium.
At the Reformation the English
Reformers do not seem to have seen a problem with the English word priest,
presumably because they understood that properly speaking it means presbuteros
or elder rather than a hiereus. Of course they conducted much of their
discourse in Latin and so the confusion was less apparent.
The first English liturgy was the
1551 Book of Common Prayer, later 1552 and 1662. These services make
free use of the word priest to refer
to the Christian minister. As stated above, this is perfectly correct in
terms of the meaning of the English language.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the doctrinal standard of the Church of England, also help to clarify this matter. Two of the articles (32 and 36) make reference to the office of Priests, in particular Article 36 refers to the ordination of Priests in the Church of England. However, these articles were produced in Latin as well as English and in the Latin the word used is Presbyterorum. One other article makes reference to Priests, Article 31, this time speaking of the error of the Roman church in its view of the mass as a sacrifice. According to this error 'the priest did offer Christ....', here the Latin equivalent is sacredotum.
What the Reformers were adamant
about, was that the Christian ministry
is not a sacrificing priesthood after the model of the Old Testament. With the death of the
Lord Jesus Christ the Old Testament sacrificial system was fufilled. Christ's
death was, to quote Thomas Cranmer 'a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice,
oblation, and satisfaction' (Lords' Supper in the BCP). Christ
Himself is our High Priest, we need no other. The idea that Christ
is resacrificed, or represnted, by a sacrificing priest is abhorrent to Scripture.
So, our use of the word priest,
despite the problems, reflects an unwillingness to give up the proper meaning
of the word simply because people have abused it.
A priest is properly speaking
a presbyter, that is an elder. We are certainly not willing to give
the impression that the English liturgy means something different by the
Therefore, to make the point, we
use the terms presbyter and priest interchangeably.
The use of the term "Priest" in the Prayer Book. Church Association Tract 232.