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.