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 Issues | Questions | Why Priests?

“Why does this website call Christian ministers Priests?  The Bible teaches the priesthood of all believers."

When 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

Hiereus 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 term priest.

Therefore, to make the point, we use the terms presbyter and  priest interchangeably.

 

See also:

The use of the term "Priest" in the Prayer Book. Church Association Tract 232.

 

 
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