I decided I had had enough fun taking on the toothless lions of modern atheism. So I found new opponents to spar with (not enemies, but people to have a bit of fun with) in the Roman Catholics, and on this matter probably also the Anglo-Catholics.
No, I am not getting involved in the row about the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Britain, and about what he said about British equal rights laws, not least because I agree with him on this matter.
However, I have expressed by disagreement with Brant Pitre, a Roman Catholic professor of theology in New Orleans. Brant asks a question at The Sacred Page: Does Hebrews Envision a New Ministerial Priesthood? That was how that epistle was interpreted at the Council of Trent in the 16th century – very likely in reaction against Reformation scholars who argued that there was no support in the New Testament for a specific class of Christian priests.
The Council of Trent found its support for a new priesthood in Hebrews 7:12. But it could only do so by wrenching that verse entirely out of context. For it is clear from that context that the “changed” priesthood of that verse is that of Jesus Christ – and that one of the main changes is from having many priests to having just one (7:23-24).
Brant finds a positive answer to his question not so much in 7:12 as in 13:10, where he sees the new altar and the mention of eating as a reference to the Eucharist, which to him, as a Roman Catholic, is a sacrifice and implies a priesthood.
This verse again needs to be seen in context:
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by the eating of ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who observe such rituals. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.
11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Hebrews 13:9-13 (TNIV)
Here is my first comment in reply to Brant:
Surely (at least it seems sure from my Protestant perspective) the altar in Hebrews 13:10 is the one in the new holy place described earlier in the book. Chapters 8-10 spell out how the Jerusalem temple has been replaced not by church buildings with altars but by a heavenly sanctuary of which the temple was just a copy (8:1-6), a “greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands” (9:11). It is in this sanctuary, and so presumably on its altar, that Christ was sacrificed once (9:24-28). So the author proclaims the end of the old system by which priests offer daily sacrifices in a man-made building (10:11-14). Thus there is no way that in this author’s thinking the altar of 13:10 is one for daily sacrifices like the mass. He or she may have been thinking of the cross as the “altar” on which Christ died, but more likely of the altar in the heavenly tabernacle, from which flows the grace, contrasted with ceremonial foods (13:9), by which Christians alone are fed and strengthened.
If there is a reference to the Eucharist at all in this letter, I would suggest that it is in the “strange teachings” about the benefits of “ceremonial foods” mentioned in 13:9.
In reply to a further comment from Brant, I wrote:
Brant, I will grant that the “ceremonial foods” of 13:9 are “the earthly food eaten in the earthly Temple from the earthly altar”. But they are contrasted not with the Eucharist but with “grace”. So surely the same contrast is continued in 13:10, and on into verse 12: what the old priests could not eat but we can is this same grace. Of course we eat this only metaphorically. I can grant that the elements of the Eucharist are a sign or sacrament of this grace, but not that they are the literal referent here.
This chapter goes on to explain that there are sacrifices which Christians should offer: praise (v.15) and good works (v.16). But it is not through these sacrifices, but only through the blood of Christ (v.12), that we are made holy and worthy to come into God’s presence.
Yes, I can accept some kind of allusion to the Eucharist at 13:10. But I see it as a complete misunderstanding of Hebrews to see it as arguing for replacement of the Aaronic priesthood and sacrifices with a class of Christian priests offering the sacrifice of the Mass. Such a thought could not have been further from this author’s mind. He or she makes the main point very clearly: in the New Covenant there is just one priest, Jesus Christ, who offered one sacrifice, his own death on the cross.
And yes, there are the sacrifices of praise and of good works mentioned in 13:15,16. But these do not make us acceptable to God; rather they are the response to him of people who are already holy in his sight. And they are not to be offered by a special caste of priests but by all Christians, who are in that sense a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) of all believers.