“St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote of the Eucharist, “For there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice.”
Has The Church Always Had An Ordained Ministerial Priesthood?
-The purpose of this article is to interact with a number of assertions made by Nicholas Senz about the origin of the Roman Catholic priesthood. His approach is not one that deals with exegetical questions but works backward in history to the first century. Following are quotations from the author followed by a critique of such claims:
“The Didache invites us to “break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one.”
Nothing in this excerpt from the Didache requires us to understand the eucharist as being a sacrifice in a propitiatory sense. In fact, it can be understood in the sense of offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. That theme is not unknown to the New Testament (Hebrews 13:15). The Didache speaks of us consuming Jesus Christ spiritually, not in the cannibalistic manner required in order for it to show belief in transubstantiation.
Ignatius uses that terminology because he echoes the words of Christ spoken during the Last Supper as well as the Old Testament sacrificial system. It is not because he believed in transubstantiation. It is not enough to demonstrate that a particular church father believed in some mystical presence of Christ in the eucharist or that He is identified with the communion elements in a transcendent way. The real presence is not synonymous with transubstantiation.
“St. Justin Martyr wrote that Christians “in every place offer sacrifices to [God], that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist.”
Note how there is no literal transformation process specified in Justin Martyr. Christ is merely identified with bread and wine in a mysterious way. One does not have to physically consume the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ in order to describe the communion elements as being more than common bread and common wine.
Offerings included the giving of things such as alms, bread, and wine. These were spiritual sacrifices rooted in the realities to which the communion elements themselves pointed. The alms were given to support the poor. Participation in the communion meal with a rightful state of heart reflects our inward gratitude for Christ’s atonement sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
“Likewise, the Fathers were clear that it is only priests and bishops who offer the Mass.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica has these excerpts on the origin of the Roman Catholic priesthood:
“A priesthood developed gradually in the early Christian church as first bishops and then elders, or ‘presbyters,’ began to exercise certain priestly functions, mainly in connection with the celebration of the Eucharist. By the end of the 2nd century, the church’s bishops were called priests (Latin: sacerdos)… The development of eucharistic theology resulted in a further emphasis of the priest’s supernatural powers and qualities…” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/priest-Christianity)
“Although the term ‘priest’ (Greek hiereus) refers to the entire Christian people, it is given to no church office in the New Testament. First appearing in the 2nd century, the office is associated with the establishment of the eucharistic sacrifice, over which the priest was called to preside. No doubt the development of the monarchical episcopate also contributed to the emergence of the priesthood…” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism/Structure-of-the-church)
William Perkins maintained that offerings were made by all the faithful, not exclusively priests or bishops:
“…the fathers’ sacrifice was offered by the whole church, being the oblation of all the faithful. “We all,” says Justin, in dialogo cum Triphone, “how many soever we be that are called after the name of Jesus Christ, are made truly the priests of God, as He Himself testifies, saying that everywhere He would have pure and acceptable sacrifices offered Him.” And this is also proveable out of Augustine, Contra Faustum, lib. 20, cap. 18.”
There are certainly statements in regard to the communion elements being connected to or associated with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. However, there is no straightforward, clear-cut explanation of how the symbols of bread and wine and the realities that they represent correlate. There were different degrees of realism present throughout their writings. While it would be incorrect to say that all of the church fathers held to the elements of the Lord’s Supper as being “mere” symbols, it took several hundred years for Roman Catholic eucharistic theology to reach a full stage of development. Paschasius Radberts (785-865) explicitly articulated the doctrine of transubstantiation (without using that specific word) in his book titled On the Body and Blood of the Lord.
“But if the Mass is a sacrifice, then those offering it clearly are priests. And if the Church from its earliest days has understood the Mass to be sacrificial, then likewise it has understood presbyters and bishops to be exercising priesthood.”
Is it not lovely how these people do not have to prove their doctrine from Scripture because if it comes from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it cannot be argued? It can be said that this Roman Catholic author is just whistling past the graveyard because he does not try to offer even a shred of evidence from the New Testament that there was an ordained ministerial priesthood. Further, church “fathers” were capable of superstition and re-imagining what Scripture actually said. At most, patristic statements amount to evidence that men believed certain ideas to be apostolic teaching, not that they actually are.