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priest is my altar ego

Occasionally one encounters an internet troll. Their aim is merely to pick a fight. Recently I had a person on twitter take issue with my calling myself a priest.

This person claims to be a church leader (not a priest!) in a well-known denomination, claims to be able to read Greek, etc. But he could not and would not answer my simple question posed in different ways: “what is the origin of the English word priest?” Even after I twice sent him links on the etymology of the English word priest. Instead, I got a barrage of responses about Maryolatry, Christ’s unrepeatable sacrificial death, the inefficacy of works, the absence of Christ in the Eucharist, the priesthood of all believers, the evils of tradition, and on and on it went…

The word priest came up in last Sunday’s reading didn’t it:

Hebrews 10:11-14,(15-18),19-25

11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,”
13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”
14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,
20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),
21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,
25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The problem is akin to the issue with the English word “love”. Generally people have become more nuanced with that word, clarifying if they mean love (agape, αγάπη) or love (eros, ἔρως), etc. We need to do the same IMO with the word priest.

The English word priest derives from the Greek presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος), in fact it is a contraction that can still be spotted from the original word PRESbuTeros. [Just as the English word bishop derives from the Greek episcopos (επίσκοπος) and is also a contraction that can still be spotted from the original word: ePISCOPos.]

The word used in the letter to the Hebrews reading above, in the concept of priesthood of all believers, in the Old Testament for Levites, etc. is NOT presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος). It is a completely different word: hiereus (ἱερεύς). Unfortunately the English word priest does double duty. It is rightly used for the ordained elder in a community, the presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος), as it has from the beginning of Christianity. It has also come to be used for hiereus (ἱερεύς).

Unfortunately, because of this simple dual usage of the English word, theological confusion reigns. Many abandon the Christian tradition going back to the New Testament of leadership by a priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος) on some sort of misunderstood assumption that our shared hiereus (ἱερεύς) has overthrown the New Testament and undivided-church tradition of such leadership by a priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος). Unfortunately the prevalence of clericalism in some quarters, where priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος) is treated as some sort of sacred caste, has in fact made the issue worse, not better.

Because of the misunderstanding between the terms, many think and act as if getting the laity to act more like a priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος) is somehow affirming the priesthood of all believers when it does nothing of the sort – it is unfortunately merely clericalising all the baptised rather than affirming and living any real vocation to our shared hiereus (ἱερεύς) with Christ. Getting laity up the front in worship and dressing them priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος)-like, advocating for the abolition of priestly/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος) presiding at the Eucharist, and so forth is not about understanding the hiereus (ἱερεύς) of all Christians whatsoever, it is merely showing an ignorance of the multi-faceted vocations that are offered within the one body of Christ, the church.

No comments from internet trolls please 🙂

I provide wonderful resources for those who genuinely want to work harder at understanding the original biblical texts.

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25 Responses to priest is my altar ego

  1. I am sorry you encountered a troll, but you wrote a great piece in response.

    I always find the history you share interesting and conducive to deepening my knowledge of Christianity and of my faith.

    I thought his attack points curious. As an Episcopalian, I do believe Christ is present in the consecrated Eucharist (although not the Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation), but most of the attacks were more evangelical misinterpretations of Roman Catholic doctrine, and not what really applicable to Anglicanism.

    I’ve found marketing oriented spammers on social networks masquerading as both Christians and as cats, but found the vast majority of folks I encounter on twitter to be wonderful people. Connections with people like you whom I cyber-meet have really enhanced my life. So please ignore those trolls–unless they inspire another good blog posting!

  2. In that case (clearly set out by you, thank you) might it be helpful if we Anglicans (at least) dropped the term ‘priest’ (except for translating hiereus) and used presbyter instead (as, in fact, our NZPB makes provision for)?

  3. Don’t you just love those (sometimes wonderfully meaning evangelicals) who feel the need to point out others “faults” as they/we see them and yet can’t even answer a biblical question that they themselves raise. If you are going to criticize you better be able to answer the tough questions. Very nice post, wish we the church would open our minds up just a bit more beyond our typical bias. Scott

  4. So this is really to do with a philosophy of translation rather than a theological conviction.You seem to value etymological tradition despite the fact that it is confusing to most hearers and actually seems to suggest something that you don’t want to say i.e. that you are a mediator between man and God or in some way offer atonement for sin. I don’t suppose you are advocating presbuteros to be translated as priest in modern Bible translations, so why would you use it as a title when English has words much closer to the meaning of the original Greek and avoids such misunderstandings eg. ‘elder’.

  5. Dear brother, you handled this soul with the grace of God and the love of Christ. You were teacher and brother all at once. Thank you for the lesson; I love words and etymology. Blessings upon you, Bosco+ and may God richly bless the “troll” that he may grow in wisdom and grace and the unending love of Christ…someday.

  6. >>Many abandon the Christian tradition going back to the New Testament of leadership by a priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος) on some sort of misunderstood assumption that our shared hiereus (ἱερεύς) has overthrown the New Testament and undivided-church tradition of such leadership by a priest/presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος).<<

    I had to read this sentence 3 times before I was sure I'd got it right. The problem is 'going back', which could mean 'by going back' or 'which goes back'. I think it means 'which goes back', but it was an effort not to read it as 'by going back'. Admittedly, a comma should come before 'going back' if it means 'by going back', but this is not something one can count on these days.

  7. Thank you all for your eirenic, thoughtful comments.

    I agree with you, Sue, in my experience, by far the majority of those who participate on twitter are positive.

    I’m sorry I cannot agree with you, Peter. If priest directly derives from presbuteros why would we stop translating presbuteros as priest and instead only use priest to translate a word with which it has no etymological connection. Lest overseas readers misunderstand Peter’s point, NZPB uses the word presbyter once as far as I am aware, in the title of an ordination liturgy, “The Ordination of Priests [also called Presbyters]” The word priest has been consistently used in every English ordinal since the Reformation. I see no reason whatsoever to abandon it.

    A parallel example might be δεῖπνον which is generally translated as “Supper.” I don’t know what others think, but in NZ if you are invited around for supper it is probably around 10pm and consists of hot chocolate and maybe a biscuit. δεῖπνον actually means “a meal; the principal meal whenever taken, but generally towards evening; generally an evening banquet or feast in general.” Much, hence, as it might more accurately translate δεῖπνον, I do not see us finding much traction to stop referring to the Lord’s Supper and start referring to “the Lord’s meal” or “the Lord’s banquet”.

    Matt, I would be interested in the source for your claim that priest is “confusing to most hearers.” Or that priest refers to “something that you don’t want to say i.e. that you are a mediator between man and God or in some way offer atonement for sin.” Priest is the word normally used for presbuteros amongst the majority of Christians, including throughout Christianity’s long history. I see no warrant for your interpretation, even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is also comfortable to use presbyter).

    A parallel appears to be the current shift amongst some, because the word Christian is prone to misinterpretation amongst some, to abandon the word “Christian” and use a new term “Christ follower” in its stead. I think the word Christian has a perfectly good pedigree. I will continue to call myself a Christian. I will continue to call myself a priest.

    Thanks again for all your positive contributions.

  8. How would you better translate hiereus (ἱερεύς)?

    I see a distinction between ordained ministry and lay ministry, and value both. And I do think that lay ministry can mean being involved in leading worship and liturgy — ask any church organist!

    While I see a distinction, I don’t have the theological education to understand why the ‘lines’ between priesthood and lay ministry are drawn the way they are. I have a very strong understanding of the world as sacramental whether we notice it or not, and I think that these are human-drawn lines. It may be that some people are called to be presbyters and some are not, but it may also be that not everyone is perfectly aware of such a vocation or that it may not be in the context of what we would consider traditional worship. I don’t think the traditional roles are beyond questioning, even as I would not ask someone to act outside a role they feel comfortable with.

    I know people who feel they have a vocation to priesthood but who have been denied the opportunity to realise this because of their sexuality—would I accept Communion from them, even though they are not ordained? Yes, absolutely (though I can’t think of even one who would presume to offer, unless circumstances were very dire). Humans get these things wrong sometimes. It may be that there are people who are ordained who “shouldn’t” be, but if I’m willing to consider the sacrament valid in that context on the basis of God’s mercy, surely that flexibility should extend the other direction…

  9. I am only learning to use these new technologies such as blogs and twitters, and found this by accident. Interesting discussion as I have struggled to explain to my Presbyterian brought up husband why we have priests and not ministers.
    I hope I can find my way back here again.

  10. The Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church also uses the word presbyter in the catechism.
    Q. What is the ministry of a priest or presbyter?
    A. The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and delcare pardon in the name of God.

    The primary ministers of the church are the laity which also have their duties laid out in the catechism. As a cradle Episcopalian, I have no issue with the word priest and I refer to our rector as Father. He has specific functions and duties in the Kingdom as do I. As far as using other titles, what we use seems to work just fine for the majority of Episcopalians. Maybe people from other faith traditions need to learn more about Anglican traditions before assulting them or suggesting we change to fit their mold.

  11. Would you encourage Protestant Traditions (non-Anglican) to adopt the term priest for their ministers? What would you think of a Methodist, or Lutheran, or Reformed ordained minister calling them self a priest?

    That might get into theological questions beyond the scope of this post though.

  12. Hi Bosco,
    I haven’t done a survey to determine most but lets consider a few points;

    1) You said yourself that because of the word choice “theological confusion reigns.”

    2)You also said that the dual meaning of ‘priest’ requires you to clarify the meaning, something which would not be needed with the word ‘elder’.

    3) No serious English Bible translation that I know of translates presbuteros as priest. For example the ESV, NRSV, NASB, NIV, KJV, YLT and ISV all translate 1 Tim 5:17 as elder.

    3) If the primary source of definition for your title for people is the Bible then the primary imagery you will be recalling in English speaking peoples minds are of the OT priests since all English Bibles use it predominantly for such purpose.

    4)If the primary source of definition is church tradition then the most common association is surely to the Roman Catholic priesthood, which has clear theological differences with the role you seem to aspire to.

    5)For people with no Christian heritage at all they are likely to go with a dictionary definition such as: “a person having the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities” (Wikipedia- usually a good measure of popular thought)

    All of which are very strong reasons to use the title ‘Elder’ rather than priest. Against this you only have the rather weak argument that the etymology in English is nice. This is surely a stronger argument for ‘Presbyter’ which carries a more direct lineage in both English and Latin and would also avoid the negative connotations of OT and Roman Catholic priesthoods.

    • The question, how can we better translate hiereus (ἱερεύς) is a very good one IMO – and I do not know. I suspect we are stuck with priest for both as I’ve explained. Joel, you too pose a thought-provoking question, which, as you wisely suggest, would require much more thought & probably another post.

      Matt, on my version of Wikipedia I see the primary definition of priest as “A priest is a person who holds an office in a religion.” And under the section “In Christianity” it looks as if either I’ve lifted my post from Wikipedia (I promise you I hadn’t even looked there until you suggested 🙂 ) or someone has edited it from my post! I do think a minority of people think of Christian leadership as “elder” currently or historically. You twice mention negative theological understanding of priesthood by Roman Catholics. Please can you quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support your point so I can understand what you are referring to (if you don’t own it, it is online).

  13. Hi Bosco

    Although I personally am comfortable being a priest and using the term ‘priest’ in description of the office I, you and others hold in the Anglican church, if I may be honest and direct, I do not think you are feeling the full force of your own argument!

    In your post you wrote,

    “Unfortunately the English word priest does double duty. It is rightly used for the ordained elder in a community, the presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος), as it has from the beginning of Christianity. It has also come to be used for hiereus (ἱερεύς).

    Unfortunately, because of this simple dual usage of the English word, theological confusion reigns.”

    Twice you acknowledge the unfortunateness of the situation in which the English word ‘priest’ does a double duty. It is unfortunate; there is confusion; the situation could be helped by a willingness to go with the obvious logic of the situation which is to employ two different words to describe our ministry as rooted in the NT and Christ’s priestly ministry as described in Hebrews.

    Given that there is no ready substitute at hand for priest=hiereus but there is a ready substitute at hand for priest =presbyter, that is, presbyter=presbyter,* then now could be the kairos moment for promoting change … as catalysed by your post!

    (*In Anglican/Episcopal contexts I suggest ‘presbyter’ (already having some currency in prayer books, as noted in comments above) rather than ‘elder’).

  14. Fascinating discussion. I am a female priest in the Church of England and when I took up my current part-time post, I used the term Assistant Priest to explain who I was. I was met with so many blank stares and requests to explain that I started to just use the term Curate. Now I have some saying – but you aren’t in training! Ah the complexities of life. Don’t you just love the English language!

  15. To clarify, Peter, I think there are three options from the “full force of my own argument”

    1) educate people about the English word priest and its limitations, etc.

    2) press for using another word for πρεσβύτερος
    2a) presbyter
    2b) elder

    3) press for using another word for ἱερεύς – ummm… anybody?

    I have seen too many failed attempts at putting huge energy into getting our titles correct in New Zealand (If I were a betting man I’d put a wager that not even all of our General Synod members can get the title of our church correct!). We got rid of “Archbishop”, then realised our mistake, & now we have three of them for 100,000 or so Anglicans! “Vicar” as in deputy for the monastery which owns the parish is clearly a nonsense 🙂 Many vicars put up signs at every opportunity “Ministers: all the baptised” – and called themselves the “Ministry Enabler”, correcting anyone who rang asking for the Vicar. Priest is the term used by Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans,… and has been since English (and other languages) began. It is the term used in our foundational formularies. Changing it might be a nice idea – but even attempting that will cause more confusion than benefit. I’ll stick with option 1. I am a priest, and as part of my role as an educator in the faith, I am happy to, and enjoined to, explain what that means. IMO 🙂

  16. I’ve seen the word “hiereus” (and never “presbyter,” as far as I know) used as the title of a particular office at initiation rituals of certain western esoteric societies. They use it in the sense of someone who performs sacrifices or ritual functions in a temple.

    The Rider-Waite Tarot deck also renamed the traditional “Pope” card to “Hierophant,” which according to Wikipedia is
    “a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy” (the Greek means “one who shows the holy”). This may have been a de-Christianization of the traditional Tarot symbolism, but it had the effect of removing the ambiguity between the “presbyter” and “hiereus” senses of the word “priest” (as the Pope is an image of High Priestdom).

    The word “hiereus” thus suggests to me “an operator of the technology of the sacred” — that is, one trained in the proper operations of propitiating higher powers, who executes that role. That is one of the roles of Christian priests. Indeed, monastic priests may perform _only_ that role, whereas secular priests (who serve the laity directly by administering a parish) are both hiereus and presbyter.

  17. Hi Bosco
    I agree that your options are the possible resolutions of the confusion from the double-meaning of ‘priest’. Education is always possible … but has to be done in every generation … so I might just ring up Benedict, the Patriarch of Moscow (KGB HQ will have his extension number, I believe), and co, and see if we could get agreement on ‘presbyter’!!!!

  18. My congregation is well stocked with teachers and doctors. If I was to suggest to them that anybody could do their jobs they would be greatly offended. However, they all think they can do my job and pay me accordingly.

  19. Hi Bosco,
    I was not trying to say that people would look up the Wikipedia when they saw your title, I was using the initial wiki entry as a (poor) alternative to doing a survey of the (wo)man on the street. I don’t have a source but it is my understanding that Roman Catholics view the priest as a mediator (c.f. the rite of confession) and if I’m not mistaken I think the Eucharist is given first as an offering to God as the re-sacrifice of Christ. This could very well be wrong though as I only have a passing knowledge of Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

    I appreciate the difficulty associated with changing the title within an entire denominational arm. Perhaps that should be included in the original article though, since I suspect if such a burden were not present you would be much more inclined to go with elder or presbyter.

    I have enjoyed the discussion and feel I now understand the decision when it is made in the context of your denomination. Educate away!

  20. @Matt Orthodox RCs view the Eucharist not a “re-sacrifice,” but rather as a perpetuation of the One Sacrifice. They also view the priest not as a mediator (in the confessional Rite), but acting in the person of Christ to forgive sins, and also acting as a representative of the Body of Christ to reconcile the sinner with the rest of humanity.

    The differences are subtle, but almost all Christian theological debate is subtle 😉

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