In reading Garry Wills’ new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, I passed through several stages: irritation, amusement, befuddlement, frustration, disbelief. Attesting to his immense talent, I occasionally felt all these things at once.
Wills’ argument is that priests are nowhere found in the New Testament, more or less, and that priestly power is advanced by a bogus understanding of the Eucharist and the inclusion of the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible. And let’s just pause to remember that Wills is a professed Catholic.
This would be a big deal if his argument held any water, but the case fails so badly it’s hard to know where to begin mopping. For the sake of brevity, I’ll restrict myself here to the claim about priests and hierarchal authority.
Wills says that the churches Paul addressed in his letters were “radically egalitarian and charismatic, not authoritarian or hierarchical.” But Paul’s letters speak of some people as leaders, and he sometimes singles them out for special instruction. What else are we to make of his missives to Timothy and Titus?
“Authoritarian” is a loaded word, which is why Wills employs it. But early church leaders unarguably exercised binding authority in their communities. Consider the ruling of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), the excommunication of the immoral man in Corinth (1 Cor 5), and Jesus’ own statements in Matthew 16 and 18 about binding and loosing and adjudicating between believers, even excommunicating them if need be.
This authority was challenged from the start — as humans are prone to challenge — but it was nonetheless assumed legitimate and asserted when necessary.
The Corinthians were, for one example, a famously rowdy and disobedient bunch. Paul failed to straighten them out. A few decades later, Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote to correct the wayward flock. Importantly, Clement knew the Apostles Peter and Paul. He hardly wrote as an outsider.
So should we consider this authority hierarchical, a word that comes from the Greek word for priest, hiereus?
Priests and their office
Wills says the word barely appears in the New Testament. But, of course, the word presbyter does — plenty — and that’s the etymological source for our English word priest. In the Greek Orthodox Church priests are still called presbyters, because that’s the appropriate word in Greek for their office.
When the apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1.15-23), it was clearly to an office, one vested with special responsibility and authority. And as the bishops were considered successors to the apostles, they were filling an office with unique powers and responsibilities.
Ignatius’ letters, written likely in the first decade of second century, testify to this. Over and again he advises the churches in Smyrna, Rome, Tralles, etc., about ecclesial authority. He tells the Christians in Ephesus, for instance, to “obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind” (Ephesians 20) and directs the believers in Smyrna to “follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God” (Smyrnaeans 8).
Oddly, Wills makes only passing reference to Ignatius and then mainly to echo the weary canard about his efforts to impose such an ecclesial system on the primitive church. Rather than seeing Ignatius as evidence of a wider pattern of priestly and episcopal authority, Wills regards him as a radical innovator and outlier.
But this is farfetched.
Imposition? I don’t think so
When Polycarp, the bishop at Smyrna, exhorted the church at Philippi regarding martyrdom he counted Ignatius’ example with that of Paul and the other apostles. He commended Ignatius’ letters as dealing “with faith and endurance and all the edification which belongs to our Lord.” These letters were not pushed upon the Philippians. They requested copies. Accordingly, Polycarp sent them along saying, “You will be able to benefit greatly from them” (9.1, 13).
Worth noting: Polycarp — soon to be martyred himself — was hardly one for novelty. His extant writing is primarily a pastiche of quotes from Christ and the apostles. In one short letter he makes more than fifty such quotes and allusions.
In other words, these were leaders whose ministries were consonant with the men who laid the very foundation of the church. They understood themselves as following their example. Others did as well.
The imposition charge seems especially absurd when you realize that churches separated by both doctrine and geography (the ancient Latin, Coptic, Celtic, Palestinian, North African, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, and Indian churches) all possessed the same basic structure and understanding of church authority. It was and remains universal.
On these and other points, one is left with the impression that Wills’ argument has less to do with history, theology, or hermeneutics and more to do with some sort of personal grudge.