On the Priesthood of All Believers

I’d seen in my blog’s tracking stats, that a three-year-old post, Open Theism and the Essence-Energy Distinction, has been getting a bit of traffic recently, so I re-read it, and while doing so it occurred to me that definitional divine simplicity impacts the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers creating a distortion that rejects the Church’s traditional understanding of that doctrine, and resulting, in some cases, in a radical egalitarianism which distorts the doctrine it seeks to preserve.

The general Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers seeks to correct a clericalism which divides the Body of Christ into subsets of the empowered and disempowered. Anywhere such a clericalism arises it should be most vigorously resisted. It should go without saying that the Church’s traditional understanding of the sacramental priesthood is not this sort of clericalism, but is, in fact, precisely the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers. But while it should go without saying, unfortunately it cannot, for the reaction to clericalism which is the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers unfortunately starts from and reinforces the very distortion it seeks to correct.

Let me attempt to explain what I mean.

The Protestant critique starts with an understanding that arises from a distortion (clericalism), from a dialectic of opposition: the two subsets, clerical and lay members, of the Body of Christ, are conceptually opposed to one another, one is either a priest (clerical) or one is not (lay). The two cannot be the same thing. Further, the priest (clerical) has the sacramental power (to bind and to loose), to which the lay person is subject. Other binary oppositional modes can be added: a priest can only be male (and in the West unmarried).

But unfortunately, the Protestant critique does not overcome the distortion. Rather than reject the dialectic of opposition, it continues it by then rejecting all distinctions. The priesthood of all believers then becomes the absolute sameness of all believers. Galatians 3:28 is not far behind. In other words, one of the problems with this Protestant view of the priesthood of all believers is something like definitional divine simplicity: there is only one essence (the priesthood of all believers), with no distinctions (office, sex, and so forth).

Unfortunately, rather than resolving the problem of clericalism, it raises new issues. A creeping reductionism begins to take over, which ultimately resorts in minimally a distortion of, and maximally an eradication of, personhood. Being a priest among other same priests funnels into a focus on functionality: who does what. And that distorts vocation into a reflection of qualities rather than a reflection of personhood. What are we to do, rather than who are we to be?

To speak a little more technically: this distorted resolution of a distortion is a failure to distinguish between essence and person, a failure to make distinctions (or, rather, distinctions become merely nominal). To say it in perhaps more familiar terms: just as we distinguish between the Persons of the Trinity (and they are real distinctions, not just modal names) but assert one and the same essence, just as we distinguish between God’s creating and God’s being Creator, so, too, the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers asserts a common “essence” if you will (priesthood), but also asserts real distinctions (laity, deacons, priests, bishops, monastics, married, male and female, and so forth). This is why, in traditional Christianity, a husband and wife are priests in their own home, but do not serve the Eucharist in the gathered assembly. This is why, in traditional Christianity, the sacramental priesthood offers the Eucharist, but does not do so without the prayers of the laity.

This radical egalitarianism, which a distorted emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brings, also demeans and diminishes the priesthood of all believers by failing to account for the Holy Spirit distributed gifts of the Body: it makes the ministry of Christ’s Body all one thing. But such reductionism is pagan, not Christian.

This is also why, in traditional Christianity, some ministries are limited to some members of the Body: only males may be Eucharistic priests. Though from a distorted perspective, this appears to diminish and demean: and if all were of one essence without distinction it would indeed be so. But because we do have distinctions which matter, this limitation becomes not something that diminishes and demeans but something that actually preserves personhood. The reductionism that is radical egalitarianism always ultimately diminishes the person, because it fails to account for or preserve the important distinctions which God has created and which distinctions themselves have been redeemed. One does not perserve the personhood of woman by denying to her the important distinction of gestation and childbirth. Indeed, the radicalism that diminishes this unique and important creational and specifically redeemed distinction ultimately depersonalizes each woman in particular, and womanhood as an aspect of personhood. That only males may serve as priests is not, ultimately, a diminishing of women, but is, rather an elevation of them as persons, just as it is also an elevation of men as persons. The Virgin Mary could not as a woman offer the Eucharist in any of our Liturgies, but one hardly considers the Mother of God diminished by that distinction: from her womb by the Holy Spirit she gave us Him who is our Eucharist. Indeed, her motherhood elevates us all.

The fundamental concept of divine definitional simplicity is more than just a philosopher’s or theologian’s game. It is a radical distortion of the understanding of God, and therefore of all reality. It not only impacts our Trinitarian understandings, it impacts our Christological understandings, our understandings of ministry, and, ultimately our understandings of what it means to be persons. It is perhaps not too bold to say that traditional Christianity starts from Persons and then moves to essences. It starts from the Person, Jesus of Nazareth, and then moves to wills and natures. It starts from believers in particular, saved as persons, and then moves to the priesthood of them all.

The Incarnation puts the exclamation point on the assertion that Christianity is an embodied Faith. Any model of ministry which cannot handle the distinctions inherent in an embodied Faith cannot be, it seems to me, a Christian understanding of the priesthood of all believers.

Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

Continue reading “Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought”


As a Protestant, one of the key mental operators one has is the opposition to Rome. Depending upon the Protestant group, though I have in mind here and throughout this reflection evangelical Protestants, one more or less defines oneself over against Rome. This, of course, results in a distortion of Roman doctrine and practice (again depending on how much more or less one defines oneself over against Rome), a distortion which can reach Jack Chick proportions. So one thing a Protestant converting to Orthodoxy must be careful of is distorting Orthodoxy into an anti-Roman image.

Thankfully, not a few Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have come to Orthodoxy by way of investigations into Rome. The Protestant turn to Rome is completely normal and natural: many Protestants know very little, sometimes even nothing, about Orthodoxy. Once the inherent contradictions of Protestantism weigh in on the Protestant soul, the convert begins a reconsideration of his stance vis a vis Rome. And not a few conclude that they should find their anchorage in that church.

But Orthodoxy is not as much of a well-kept secret anymore. More and more literature is being published in English–one might dare to call it an explosion in the last ten years or so. Orthodoxy is finding its way into the so-called “new media” especially in the online world. So Protestants looking for resolution of the contradictions of Protestantism are now aware that there is more to investigate than the Tiber crossing. And herein lies the potential danger of turning Orthodoxy into a new Protestantism.

Some Protestant converts, in a normal and laudable effort to make sense of their journey find the differences between Orthodoxy and Rome comforting. We have no Pope. We don’t have the problem of indulgences. We’ve never had Limbo. And so on.

The problem is these differences are superficial in many respects and simply reinstantiate the opposition to Rome, which does not get anywhere close to the heart of Orthodoxy. A Protestant convert to Orthodoxy will find, sooner or later, that he has much more in common with Roman Catholics after his conversion than he does with Protestants. His Bible is the same (with a few extras). He has a sacramental foundation to his Christian life. He has bishops and priests. His babies are baptized. He has the Church as the cornerstone of biblical and doctrinal belief and interpretations. And so on.

Only when a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy can come to grips with the deep similarities he has with Rome can he effectively also come to grips with the deeper differences, differences which do not map out on his former dichotomies.

The Pope. Both Orthodoxy and Rome give primacy to the Bishop of Rome. The difference is of what the primacy consists. Orthodoxy teaches that the primacy is synodal, not jurisdictional.

Mary. Both Orthodoxy and Rome claim for Mary the role of the Mother of God, that Mary was assumed into heaven (there are some differences as to when that took place and whether or not she died prior to her assumption), and that she is the Queen of Heaven. The difference, however, relates to whether or not Mary is an exception to original or ancestral sin or not.

The Sacraments. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach a sacramental soteriology. The difference, however, is in the view of grace which underlies the sacramental theology. For Orthodoxy, the Sacraments are a real participation in God and not a participation in a creature of God.

The Trinity. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach the Trinity, of course, but the difference lies in the understanding of God’s Tri-Personality and his essence. The Orthodox teach the distinction between God’s essence and energies and do not accept the teaching of absolute or definitional divine simplicity.

Development of Doctrine. Both Rome and Orthodoxy accept the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers, as well as the defined dogmas of the Church (though with some obvious differences). And both teach that the doctrine of the Church has developed over time. The difference is in the nature of that development. The Orthodox teach a development that preserves apophasis, the utlimate unknowability of God, whereas Rome teaches a development of understanding, that the Church has come to know these theological matters more deeply.

This is only a partial list, and with thumbnail descriptions at that. But it is meant to emphasize that evangelical Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy must not settle for the easy dichotomies between themselves and Rome that were once the mainstay of their intellectual parameters. The truth is more complex. And only when Protestants can be converted from such former dichotomies can they come to a truer understanding and appreciation of their new Faith and the Church.

Reinventing the Wheel, of Sorts

From my friend Tripp, comes this link to an article by The Alban Institute: “Church for the 21st Century”. Tripp cites the paragraphs from the article indicating (though giving no statistics) a similar sort of growth among progressive churches as among the more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches and megachurches. I continue to be amused at the self-congratulatory nature of these sorts of things (“See! See! We’re just as good as the fundegelicals!”), as well as the implicit appeal to numerical increase and/or size to justify one’s doctrines and beliefs as approved by and channeling the spirit. (The lower case “s” is intentional. Note the link above.)

I also continue to fail to find myself or anyone else I know in these stereotypes with which the “progressive” churches paint their counterparts. We “conserva-tradition-evan-funda-gelicals” are apparently low-browed, knuckle-draggin’, and nostril-breathin’ folks, who are missing the movement of the spirit (sic) en masse. Which explains why my wife jabs me with her elbow in the middle of the night to get me to roll over, and why I don’t get the “reinvent the wheel every two decades” mentality that seems to drive “progressives.”

But I digress.

Here’s what I noticed from the article:

The Portland scholar and book author [Marcus Borg] went on to describe a “tale of two Christianities,” examining the conflict between contemporary change and resistance to change—both theological and political. Borg sketched the two sides, one embracing the “belief-centered paradigm” and the other the emerging “transformation-centered paradigm” embracing a human understanding of Jesus’s life and work as “grounding” for ongoing personal and social change.

“The transformation-centered paradigm is not an accommodation or reduction of the Christian tradition to modern thought,” said Borg. “Rather it is neo-traditional…a recovery, a retrieval of what was most central [to the faith] before the collision with modernity.”

The transformation-centered paradigm has profound implications for how progressive leaders are “doing church” today. These leaders are rearranging the sanctuary furniture and installing video screens as they find new ways to empower members of their congregations. They are introducing new welcoming rituals, more tables of discussion, and even alternative ways of structuring session meetings.

What’s so funny is that these “progressives” are still stuck in that three-centuries old modernist paradigm of binary opposites: “belief-centered” versus “transformation-centered.” Haven’t any of them heard of this new thing called “Post-mo-der-nism”? It’s pretty slick. It attempts to deconstruct such binarism. So, I mean, how progressive can one be if one is still stuck in a centuries-old paradigm?

Oh, but wait. The Borg clarifies: it’s neotraditional. It attempts to recover the pre-modern “transformation-centered” paradigm. And how does it do it? By moving the furniture and installing new media equipment: “rearranging the sanctuary furniture and installing video screens.”

Isn’t it convenient how these self-congratulatory types don’t make one mention of, oh, I don’t know, such things as: repentence, confession of sin, fasting, and such? How can anyone have “personal transformation” by sitting at a different spot in a room, or by watching videos, unless they are also confronted with their deep and broken sinfulness, their deep bondage to the passions, the sinful inclinations which we embrace and which turn our face from God and our fellow man?

If the Borg wants “transformational” then he needs to experience as much as God will permit in love for his salvation the deep wretched sinfulness with which we are all infected and which breaks us. If these progressives truly want social change, if they can get out of their bondage to the modernist epistemology and paradigm and stop viewing this as “us vs. them”, then they will own the deep and sickening sin which permeates our persons and realize there, in our wretchedness God infuses his mercy and unites us in solidarity to one another.

It won’t happen just because we sit in a circle and watch a Sara McLachlin video.

More on the Dialectic of Opposition: Some Practical Comments Regarding Scripture and Tradition

First of all, I failed to make clear in my earlier post linking to the dialectic of opposition comments at All Saints Forum, my indebtedness to Perry Robinson and Joseph Farrell’s book, Free Choice in Saint Maximus the Confessor, for highlighting this dynamic for me. It’s definitely not an original thought on my part. And for that matter, our deacon showed me a book he’s reading by Louis Buyer on Protestantism in which Buyer notes a similar dynamic in Luther. So, this critique is everywhere out there.

But perhaps it may be helpful to examine one of these oppositions to demonstrate how they fall apart. The easiest way to do that would likely be to attack all the Protestant solas, but that may not be helpful to other Protestants that reject some of them. That said, one obvious candidate would be the Bible/Tradition split that many Protestants utilize and can be exhibited by one “mrsfalstaff” in yesterday’s orthodox Anglican post.

The notion is that Scripture and Tradition are related, but problematically so. There is apparently an inherent internal dynamic to Tradition that tends to lead it away from Scripture, and therefore, though frequently Tradition and Scripture coincide and are mutually supporting, it is always the case that Tradition must be judged by Scripture, and where it is found wanting, Scripture must always hold supreme authority. Or to say it another way, in this particular view, true Tradition is simply a restating of Scripture in particular contexts.

Of course the essential defeat of this opposition is that we would have no Scripture apart from Tradition. Rather than Scripture giving us the Tradition and judging it, it is Tradition that gives us the Scripture and it is by the Tradition that we properly understand Scripture. Indeed, Scripture is not different from Tradition but is precisely the same in its core essence. There can be no contradiction nor problem between Scripture and Tradition because both are essentially the same thing, and both of them are manifestations of the Life God gives us in Christ.

Continue reading “More on the Dialectic of Opposition: Some Practical Comments Regarding Scripture and Tradition”

The Body of Christ

The Church is Christ’s Body.  Yes, this image is a metaphor, and so we must be careful of literalizing the image beyond what the metaphor carries.

That said, a human body is not just the aggregate sum of its parts.  You don’t just pile a bunch of organs and limbs on a table and say: There’s a human body.  No, that’s a collection of human body parts.  Similarly, you don’t just stitch body parts together in any old way that you want.  For a human body to be human, it’s organs and limbs will be arranged in ways that are, well, human.  There won’t be a foot sticking out of the middle of the forehead and there won’t be an arm sticking out where the leg should go.  A human body is organized, quite literally: it’s organs (and limbs) are arranged in a definite shape, order and extension.

Now, let’s turn to Scripture, and I’ll say a bit more about this metaphor.

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. . . .

But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. . . .

But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. . . . But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.  And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.  (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 18, 20, 24-29, NKJV)

Now, note that what I have described above, on the basis of the human body metaphor–it’s ordered arrangement, it’s greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts, and so on, are precisely the very things St. Paul says about the Church with regard to the metaphor.

Now, here’s the thing: Christ’s Body existed on the Day of Pentecost and looked a certain way, was arranged and ordered a certain way.  That Body continues to exist, because it is Christ’s Body and he promised to keep it, and it continues to look a certain way, is arranged a certain way and is ordered a certain way.  No limbs have been lopped off.  No organs have been cut out.  No parts have been rearranged.  Muscles have developed and gotten stronger.  Ligaments and tendons (cf. Eph 4:16) have grown stronger and more resilient as the Body has grown and increased and developed (just like all human bodies do).  But it is the same essential body.

Now, many today, including the churches in which I was raised, want to claim to be the New Testament Church.  But look around.  The matter of identification isn’t hard.  Do they look the same?  Are they shaped and arranged the same way?  Do they have bishops (Acts 20, 1 Tim 3 and 5)?  Do they observe a Lord’s Supper which is the very real participation in the Body and Blood of the Lord in the bread and the wine (1 Corinthians 10-11)?  Do they hold to the traditions handed down from the Apostles (1 Thessalonians 2)?  If they don’t look like, act like, have the same dimensions and arrangements that the New Testament Body had, how can they be the New Testament Body?

Now, granted, the New Testament Church today looks a little different than it did in the first century: after all, I, as a near-forty-year-old man look different than when I did as a teenager.  But people who haven’t seen me in years still recognize me, because I still look pretty much the same, still act pretty much the same.  So, too, the differences in the New Testament Body of Christ today and that of the New Testament Body in the first century, are differences of growth and development of a body, an organism.

On that basis, it’s pretty easy to figure out where and who is the Body of Christ.