Sacrifice of the Mass and Hebrews 8 (vs. James White)

Sacrifice of the Mass and Hebrews 8 (vs. James White) February 11, 2016

Cover (555 x 831)

(31 March 2004)

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Reply to a post from James White’s website.

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“A Comparison of Exegesis”

Bishop James White quoted from my bookA Biblical Defense of Catholicism (first edition, published by 1stBooks Library, 2001, from Chapter Five: “The Sacrifice of the Mass: ‘A Lamb . . . Slain'”), pp. 69-70 (pp. 97-98 in Sophia Institute Press edition, 2003):

The theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is Christ as our High Priest. As such, the “priestly” verses are very numerous (for example, 2:17, 3:1, 4:14-16, 5:1-10, 6:20, 7:1-28, 8:1-6, 9:11-15, 24-28, 10:19-22). The teaching here acquires much more meaning within Catholic Eucharistic theology, whereas, in evangelical, non-sacramental Protestant interpretation, it is necessarily “spiritualized” away. For nearly all Protestants, Jesus Christ is a Priest only insofar as He dies sacrificially as the “Lamb” and does away with the Old Testament notion of animal sacrifice. This is not false but it is a partial truth. Generally speaking, for the Catholic, there is much more of a sense of the ever-present Sacrifice of Calvary, due to the nature of the Mass, rather than considering the Cross a past event alone.

In light of the repeated references in Hebrews to Melchizedek as the prototype of Christ’s priesthood (5:6,10, 6:20, 7:1-3,17,20), it follows that this priesthood is perpetual (for ever), not one time only. For no one would say, for example, that Christ is King (present tense) if in fact He were only King for a short while in the past. This (Catholic) interpretation is borne out by explicit evidence in Hebrews 7:24-25:

He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

If Jesus perpetually intercedes for us, why should He not also permanently present Himself as Sacrifice to His Father? The connecting word, consequently, appears to affirm this scenario. The very notion, fundamental to all strains of Christian theology, that the Cross and the Blood are efficacious here and now for the redemption of sinners, presupposes a dimension of “presentness” to the Atonement.

Granting that premise, it only remains to deny that God could, would, or should truly and actually re-present this one Sacrifice in the Mass. God certainly can do this, since He is omnipotent. He wills to do this because Jesus commanded the observance of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). Lastly, one can convincingly contend that He should do this in order to graphically “bring home” to Christians His Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and to impart grace in a real and profound way in Communion. The One Propitiatory Atonement of Calvary is a past event, but the appropriation of its spiritual benefits to Christians is an ongoing process, in which the Mass plays a central role.

The Sacrifice of the Mass, like the Real Presence in the Eucharist, is an extension of the Incarnation. Accordingly, there is no rational a priori objection (under monotheistic premises) to the concept of God transcending time and space in order to present Himself to His disciples. Nor is there any denying that the Sacrifice of Calvary is always present to God the Father and to Jesus Christ, God the Son. How then, can anyone deny that God could make the Cross sacramentally present to us as well?

Now let’s examine Mr. White’s reading of Hebrews 8 (his words will be in blue; to read his statement by itself, follow the above link; I have moved the footnotes to where they occur in the text).

James White, introductory exegetical comments prior to deeper exegesis of Hebrews 8:6ff.

The immediately preceding argument, leading to the key presentation of the new covenant in Heb. 8:6-13, flows from the identification of Christ with the superior priesthood of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4, cited in Heb. 7:17, 21), leading to the description of Christ as the e;gguoj (guarantee/guarantor)[1]

[1] e;gguoj is a hapax legomena in the NT, appearing only in the Apocryphal books of Sirach and 2 Maccabees prior to this. It has semantic connections to avrrabw.n (down payment) in Eph. 1:14, for in common secular usage it refers to providing security or a guarantee, normally in a financial or business transaction. The guarantee then of the better covenant is introduced here within the context of Christ’s superior priesthood, His indestructible life, and divine ability to save to the uttermost (7:24-35).

Nothing to quibble with here . . .

of the new covenant, and also bringing the first use of krei,ttonoj diaqh,khj, better covenant, in 7:22, “so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” Heb. 7:23-8:5 comprises a demonstration of the basis for the apologetic assertion that the new covenant is, in fact, a better covenant (part and parcel of the purpose of the letter), one that flows from the priestly nature of Christ’s work. 7:23-25 proves this by the contrast of the mortal priests with the one priest, Jesus Christ; and 7:26-28 does so in light of the sinfulness of the many priests and hence their repeated sacrifices versus the singular sacrifice of the innocent, undefiled Christ.

This is uncontroversial as well (as far as it goes). But of course White does not here deal with my own particular argument, that Jesus holds a perpetual priesthood (“He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” — 7:24; not just a one-time priestly sacrifice of Himself that has no application to His priesthood beyond the time it occurred in history).

Yes, we agree that Jesus sacrificed Himself once on the Cross (7:27). But that is a one-time act, in history. Why, then, does 7:26 continue to refer to Jesus as a “high priest” in the present tense, “exalted above the heavens”? It is this paradoxical interplay between the one act and the “present-ness” of Jesus’ priesthood that suggests a timeless nature of the sacrifice: precisely what Catholics claim is occurring at the Mass: the one-time sacrifice is being made present to us, because Jesus is a priest “forever.”

8:1-6, then, provides first a summary statement of the preceding arguments (i.e., our one high priest has entered into the heavenlies) and then provides the thesis statement for the description of the superiority of the new covenant from Jeremiah 31 with the assertion that Christ has obtained “a more excellent ministry” than that of the old priests, that He is the mediator (in contrast, in context, to Moses, v. 5, Gal. 3:19, John 1:17) of a “better covenant” enacted on “better promises.” Some brief comments should be offered exegetically on these texts.

Again, no significant disagreement, if at all. Of course the new covenant is better, and Jesus surpasses Moses, etc.

First, Christ’s role as singular and never dying high priest, and the resulting assurance of the perfection of His work, is seen by the writer as part of the demonstration of why the covenant of which He is the guarantee is “better” (7:23-25). While our English translations normally say something like, “The former priests existed in greater numbers” at 7:23, the literal reading is simply, “the priests,” contrasting[2]

[2] Using the common me.n/de. form translated “on the one hand/on the other hand.”

the plural with the singular “he” (oi` vs. o`) in v. 24. The work of the many priests is, of necessity, imperfect, for they are “prevented by death” from “continuing” or “abiding.” But, in contrast, He “abides forever,” He is no longer subject to death. Hence, He, unlike the old priests under the old covenant, holds His priesthood (which has been shown to be superior in the preceding arguments) avpara,baton, permanently, or, in some sources, without successor. Both translations fit the context, for He never lays aside this priesthood, hence, it is “permanent” in contrast to the former priests. But likewise He has no successor in His office. The entire concept is meant to be in contrast to the old priests and their inherently temporary nature. As a result of the permanence of His priestly position,[3]

[3] o[qen, “for which reason.”

Sure, but this doesn’t rule out the Catholic claim with regard to Jesus’ priesthood. It makes little sense to me to keep referring to Jesus as a “priest” in the present tense when He is (according to most Protestants) no longer doing at all what a priest does (sacrifice). Jesus sacrificed Himself as the Lamb of God. That was His priestly act (this is stated explicitly in 7:27, so it cannot be doubted).

But if that was strictly a past tense and not perpetual, why keep calling Him a priest after He is glorified in heaven? It would seem much more sensible to refer to His one-time priestly act, rather than continuing to call Him something denoting a characteristic activity that He is no longer performing.

Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save. The profundity of the words may deflect proper attention. The permanence of His life and position as high priest grants to Him the ability to save. He is active in saving, and He is capable of so doing.

If He is actively saving men — present and future tense — (as is undoubtedly true), but is doing so as a priest then He is presently saving by the sacrifice of Himself (i.e., the priestly act) which is an act made eternally “now”. Thus we are right to the heart of the Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the same concept. Jesus saves us as a priest. The sacrifice is of both an ongoing and salvific nature. This is the Mass! It’s heartening to see that James White can present it so clearly from the Bible despite his own lack of belief in it.

As noted above, the soteriological content of the superiority of Christ’s work as high priest and of the new covenant cannot be dismissed or overlooked.

I agree 100% That’s why I go to Mass every Sunday and partake of the body and blood of the once-for-all-sacrificed Lamb of God, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, made sacramentally present by the sublime miracle of transubstantiation, because this sacrifice is my salvation. It’s not often that I get excited about the Mass based on the arguments of an anti-Catholic Baptist who detests the very concept. :-)

The extent of His salvific work is noted by the phrase eivj to. pantele.j, which can be translated “forever” in the sense of permanence, or “to the uttermost” in the sense of completely, similar, in fact, to avpara,baton above. Owen noted the propriety of seeing both senses in the text:

[John Owen] “Take the word in the first sense, and the meaning is, that he will not effect or work out this or that part of our salvation, do one thing or another that belongs unto it, and leave what remains unto ourselves or others; but ‘he is our Rock, and his work is perfect.’ Whatever belongs unto our entire, complete salvation, he is able to effect it. The general notion of the most that are called Christians lies directly against this truth….That this salvation is durable, perpetual, eternal… and there is nothing hinders but that we may take the words in such a comprehensive sense as to include the meaning of both these interpretations. He is able to save completely as to all parts, fully as to all causes, and for ever in duration.”[4]

[4] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Hebrews 6:1-7:28, in The Works of John Owen, William Goold, ed. (Ages Digital Library, 2000), pp. 646-647.

Of course Jesus is “able to save completely.” We Catholics adhere to sola gratia just as much as Protestants do. But that doesn’t mean that the Eucharist is irrelevant as a sacramental means to receive this salvation that was accomplished at the cross. Jesus showed this when He gave His exposition recorded in John 6. He makes it clear that what He means by “bread” is His body:

. . . the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

In this verse, even White has to concede that bread = flesh. Otherwise, it would mean that what won our salvation on the cross was literally a chunk of bread, rather than the precious body of our Savior and Redeemer. So He means this quite literally: the bread is His body. That’s why He states two verses later:

. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . . (John 6:53-54)

And four verse later, He reverts back to speaking of “bread” as His body:

This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died [i.e., not merely natural bread]; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (John 8:58)

It’s very clear (it could not be any clearer than it is):

1. Bread = Jesus’ flesh (Jn 6:51)
2. Eating Jesus’ flesh and blood gives eternal life (Jn 6:53-54)
3. Bread = Jesus’ body; which, partaken, causes one to live forever (Jn 8:58)

So the equation of Jesus’ body and the bread is stated outright (Jn 6:51) and then by inexorable simple deduction:

A. Jesus’ Flesh and Blood give eternal life.
B. Bread gives eternal life.
C. Therefore, Bread = Jesus’ Flesh and Blood (for how can mere bread cause one to attain eternal life?).

Just as the Father’s will for the Son revealed in John 6:38-39 demands perfection in His role as Savior, so too here the very same soteriological perfection and completion is central to the work of the eternal high priest. This is brought out with strong force in the rest of the verse, for the author indicates both the object of the salvific work and the basis thereof, and both are intensely “priestly” statements. The singular priest saves “those who draw near to God through Him.” This clearly harkens back to the people who drew near in worship to God in the temple, and their representative, the high priest on the day of atonement. There is specificity to the salvific work of the priest. He does not make a general plan of salvation available, He saves a specific people (cf. Matt. 1:21). And secondly, “He always lives to make intercession for them” points to the same perfection of the high priest. His indestructible life means He never lays aside His priestly role, hence, since the high priest interceded (evntugca,nein, Rom 8:34) for those for whom He offered sacrifice, Christ ever lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through Him, resulting in the perfection of their salvation. The work of intercession guarantees the salvation of a specific people in this passage. This is vital to remember as we look at the key text in Hebrews 8.

No quibble here; Jesus saves utterly as a result of His sacrifice on the cross.

Similar themes appear in 7:26-28, including the perfect character of the high priest (v. 26), which establishes another element of His supremacy over the old priests, for He does not have to offer sacrifice for His own sins, and then the sins of the people. But here also appears a concept that will be expanded upon greatly at a later point, for the author says, “because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Self-offering is yet another aspect of what sets the priesthood of Christ apart, for obvious reasons, from the priesthood of old. The high priest presents the offering in His own body, a concept expanded upon in chapter nine. But He did so “once for all.” The sacrifice is a singularity in time, for the author uses the temporal adverb, evfa,pax, to strongly emphasize this concept. The old priests sacrificed often for themselves, while Christ offered one sacrifice (Himself) for the people.

No disagreement to speak of here. The sacrifice was once and for all, historically-speaking. But for God, it is still “now” and there is a sense expressed in the Bible that it is constantly made “present” to us. It was intended to be a perpetual rite and remembrance, because Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper. Paul, too, recounts a eucharistic tradition that he “received” and “delivered” (1 Cor 11:23). He noted that Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:24; cf. Lk 22:20, Mk 14:24, Matthew 26:28). Martin Luther made an excellent exegetical argument pertaining to these verses:

[T]his spirit will not believe what the Word of God says, but only what he sees and feels. What a fine faith . . . The text is too clear and too powerful . . . For this word more forcefully and powerfully than any before requires that the blood is in the sacrament . . . this word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; Luther’s Works [LW], 40, 216-217)

In the same work, Luther makes a fascinating argument that a symbolic Eucharist turns the sacrament into a futile work of man rather than a grace and blessing from God:

He thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, while we receive nothing else than bread and wine.

(Ibid., LW, 40, 206)

Jesus’ sacrifice is not only present to us on earth, but also in heaven. In the next section of the same chapter in my book, I noted that an “altar” is mentioned as in heaven, in the book of Revelation many times (6:9, 8:3,5, 9:13, 11:1, 14:18, 16:7). Why is this, if altars and priesthood ceased with the one sacrifice of Jesus? This is after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Nor is it just Jesus at this altar in heaven. We are told that the “prayers of the saints” are being offered there (5:8-9, 8:3-4). Altars are also mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, in an explicitly eucharistic passage, uses language suggesting that he sees the Eucharist as a sacrifice involving an altar (hence priesthood, hence the Sacrifice of the Mass): He mentions the “altar” of the Old Covenant in 10:18 and makes a direct analogy with the altar of the new covenant in 10:21:

You cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

Even Baptists like James White (and many other Protestants) have not completely avoided the language of priestly sacrifice, since they still speak of the “Lord’s table” and even an “altar call.” What altar? That is the language of priesthood and sacrifice. So even non-sacramental Protestants can’t help retaining a remnant of New Testament eucharistic and sacrificial, priestly talk. Hebrews 13:10 states that “we have an altar.” Again, why, if the old system of priesthood is gone and the only priesthood of the New Covenant is that of Christ at Calvary? This is the New Covenant!

Lastly, I will close with the final words of the chapter here considered, from my first book, showing, I think, that the Sacrifice of the Mass is in perfect accord with the New Testament indications, and that James White has a lot of explaining to do.

He is welcome to do so. I have agreed with much of his presentation because it does not conflict with Catholic teaching (it is simply incomplete; purged of all clear-as-day New Testament sacramentalism). But he would disagree with much of my exposition above. We don’t know why he would unless he tells us.

[T]he climactic scene of this entire glorious portrayal of heaven occurs in Rev 5:1-7. Verse 6 describes a Lamb standing as though it had been slain. Since the Lamb (Jesus, of course) is revealed as sitting in the midst of God’s throne (5:6, 7:17, 22:1,3; cf. Matthew 19:28, 25:31, Hebrews 1:8), which is in front of the golden altar (8:3), then it appears that the presentation of Christ to the Father as a Sacrifice is an ongoing (from God’s perspective, timeless) occurrence, precisely as in Catholic teaching. Thus the Mass is no more than what occurs in heaven, according to the clear revealed word of Scripture. When Hebrews speaks of a sacrifice made once (7:27), this is from a purely human, historical perspective (which Catholicism acknowledges in holding that the Mass is a “re-presentation” of the one sacrifice at Calvary). However, there is a transcendent aspect of the Sacrifice as well.

Jesus is referred to as the Lamb 28 times throughout Revelation (compared to four times in the rest of the New Testament: John 1:29,36, Acts 8:32, 1 Peter 1:19). Why, in Revelation (of all places), if the Crucifixion is a past event, and the Christian’s emphasis ought to be on the resurrected, glorious, kingly Jesus, as is stressed in Protestantism (as evidenced by a widespread disdain for, crucifixes)? Obviously, the heavenly emphasis is on Jesus’ Sacrifice, which is communicated by God to John as present and “now” (Revelation 5:6; cf. Hebrews 7:24). The very notion of lamb possesses inherent sacrificial and priestly connotations in the Bible.

If this aspect is of such paramount importance even in the afterlife, then certainly it should be just as real and significant to us. The Sacrifice of the Mass bridges all the gaps of space and time between our Crucified Savior on the Cross and ourselves. Therefore, nothing at all in the Mass is improper, implausible, or unscriptural, which is why this doctrine was virtually unanimously accepted until the 16th century.

In conclusion, then, it is, I think, evident that the Book of Hebrews and the scenes in heaven in the Book of Revelation are suffused with a worldview and “atmosphere” which is very “Catholic.” The Mass, rightly understood, fulfills every aspect of the above passages, most particularly in the sense of Christ as the ultimate Priest for whom the earthly priest “stands in,” and in the timeless and transcendent character of the Sacrifice “made present” at Mass, but never deemed to be an addition to, or duplication of, the one bloody Sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary.

(p. 71 in 1stBooks edition; pp. 99-100 in Sophia edition)

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