What is a Priest? An Orthodox Statement


by Thomas Hopko

The following remarks are intended as a brief apologia for what I understand to be the theological and spiritual vision of the sacrament of the priesthood in the Christian Church. I believe that this vision is rooted in the Church’s understanding of God as the Holy Trinity, with salvation experienced as communion with God the Father through his incarnate Son Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is Christ’s body and bride.

The Christian faith in its orthodox, catholic expression, has always confessed that the Godhead is a Trinity of persons in perfect unity and community. The one true and living God is God the Father. He is the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ. The one true and living God is not, and even cannot be, alone in his divinity. His divine perfection is such that from all eternity he has with himself, by his very nature, his personal, divine, and uncreated Son who is his personal Logos, his image; and his Holy Spirit who is the personal realization of his divine activity and life. There is by nature and not by will, by essence and not by decision, a divine Trinity of persons who are one, consubstantial, and undivided divinity: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

According to the same orthodox, catholic faith, humanity is created in the image and according to the likeness of divinity. Human nature is the created expression of the uncreated nature of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The multipersonal character of human being and life is the created expression of the fact that humanity cannot be in God’s image and likeness unless there are many persons who bear the exact same nature in a community of being which is reflective of the uncreated Trinity.

Also it must be defended, even if it has not been specifically explicated in the past, that the male and female nature of humanity is essential to its being made in the image and likeness of God. Adam alone cannot be the image and glory of God. There must also be Eve if the human is to reflect the divine as its created expression and epiphany. The tradition of faith is clear about the fact that Adam, the male, reflects God the Father by being made in the image of God’s only begotten Son, his exact image and likeness as the divine person, who is incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, as the man Jesus. Eve exists necessarily and essentially with Adam as reflective on the level of creation of the Most Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son. As the Holy Spirit is the divine person of the Trinity who is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God’s Son, and as God himself and his Son could not exist without the Holy Spirit, so Adam could not exist as the created image of God and his Son without Eve, together with whom he shares and communicates in the being and life of the Most Holy Trinity.

God the Father does not exist without his Son and his Spirit. There is no Son without the Spirit, and no Spirit without the Son. And so, in the order of creation, there is no Adam without Eve, and no Eve without Adam. And as the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Son; so also Adam is not Eve, and Eve is not Adam. And as the Son is not of another nature than the Spirit and is not superior to the Spirit as a person, so also Adam is not of another nature than Eve and is not superior to Eve as a person. For as divinity is a community of essentially equal persons; so humanity, made in the image of God, is a community of essentially equal persons expressing the life of its divine prototype, the interpersonal life whose content is love.

Within this same theological vision, Adam is understood as the high priest of creation. His essential vocation, as made in the image of God’s uncreated Son, is to offer all things to the Father by the grace and power of the Spirit. Essential to Adam’s vocation as high priest is the existence of Eve. Adam is not merely “incomplete” without Eve; he cannot even exist without her fulfilling his priesthood. There is no fulfillment of Adam as a person, reflecting the personhood of God’s Son, if there is no person of Eve. It is Adam with Eve in perfect communion, the communion of being and life in love, whose very existence is a priestly offering to the Father in adoration, thanksgiving, and praise.

But Adam himself is the

“type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

The first Adam is the prefiguration of the final Adam in whom he finds fulfillment and according to whom, as the divine image of the invisible Father, he finds the source of his being. The “man of dust” is made to have life in the “man from heaven,” the second and last Adam, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, the only high priest of the Christian confession, made a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Cf. Hebrews 3:1ff) Jesus Christ offers himself to the eternal Father through the eternal Spirit together with his new Eve which is God’s good creation, deified in and with him by his very own Spirit as his body and his bride. This new creation and new humanity in Christ is now the Church, the new Eve, imaged in the symbol of the temple, the body, and the bride, and personified in the person of the Virgin Mother of Immanuel, Mary the Theotokos, who is filled with God’s Spirit to be the new mother of the living, made divine by grace.

priestJesus of Nazareth is the one great high priest who offers the one perfect sacrifice to God, which is himself and all of creation; or rather, which is all of creation embodied in himself as his deified body and divinized bride. Christ alone is the one and only priest. He is the one who, as St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy puts it, “offers and is offered, receives and is given.” He is the priest and he is the offering. He is the Logos and he is the lamb. He is the teacher and pastor, the healer and reconciler, the king and judge. He is the teacher and pastor because he is the disciple and the sheep. He is the healer and reconciler because he is the wounded and the forsaken. He is the king and judge because he is the slave and the condemned. He is all; and his being as all is the very essence of his priesthood as the last and final Adam who, in offering himself, offers all to his Father, who is the source of all.

The unique priesthood of Christ remains in the Church forever, because Christ himself remains forever in the Church. Christ is not absent from his Church. He is present. His body is not headless. His bride is not widowed. Christ is eternally present in the Church until the end of the ages. As present, he needs no vicar, no representative, no delegate. He needs no substitute to take his place, no alter christus. For he himself is here.

The sacrament of the priesthood in the Church, the ordained ministry, is, according to the catholic tradition, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the Church. It is the mysterion of the presence of the head and bridegroom with his body and his bride in all the fullness of his messianic presence and power, with all the fullness of grace and truth of the eternal life of the kingdom of God which he brings. Jesus Christ is present in the Church as its head and husband, king and lord, priest and pastor, prophet and teacher, reconciler and healer. The realization and manifestation of his presence is the sacrament of the ordained clergy which is an essential element of the one

“great mystery… Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32).

archpriestThere are those who deny this doctrine of the catholic tradition of the Church and this view of the ordained ministry. Some say that the Church is an institution established by God with sacraments, defined as visible signs of invisible grace, instituted by Christ, one of which is the sacrament of the priesthood understood as the vicarious, delegated continuation and representation of the power and authority of Christ in the Church exercised by those individuals possessing this gift. Others say that the Church is indeed an institution established by God with sacraments so defined, but that the ordained ministry is not a sacrament because Christ is invisibly present in the Church which is itself essentially invisible, having human expressions within the life of this world which are necessarily limited, partial, and sinful.

With the Church thus understood, the grace of God is given through faith with baptism and the Lord’s supper generally understood, one way or another, as the only visible sacramental signs of this invisible grace working through faith. In this general view, the ordained ministry is essentially a ministry of preaching and administration, one of the many ministries of the Church, with Christ’s unique priesthood operating within the community through the “priesthood of all believers.” Thus, in a word, there is no sacramental sign and presence of Christ in the Church, and the clergy of the Church are functionaries of the body, possessing the professional qualifications for this service.

Both of these views, according to the orthodox faith, are wrong. They are wrong because they are expressions of a wrong understanding of the Church and a wrong understanding of the sacraments. The Church, to put it simplistically, and perhaps to risk a grave misunderstanding, is not an institution with sacraments understood as particular channels of grace existing within it. The Church is rather itself a sacrament, indeed the sacrament par excellence.

It is the great mystery of new life in the new humanity of the new Adam in the new creation. It is, as it were, the new Eve, the new mother of the living. It is a sacramental reality with sacramental expressions as its essential realization within the time and space of the old creation. It is itself the new creation and the new life in Christ, one with the unity of God; holy with his sanctity; catholic with his divine fullness; apostolic with his eternal mission of salvation through communion with himself. It is Christ’s deified body by grace. It is Christ’s glorious bride by love. It has purely human, historical institutions and organizations, but it is not essentially identified with them or defined by them. Its essential being is the mystery hidden for ages in God but now revealed to men, the mystery of man’s salvation and deification in communion with God through the Son of God in the Holy Spirit. As such, it is the

“church which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

It is the

“church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Abbot Tryphon, All-Savior Monastery

Abbot Tryphon, All-Savior Monastery

The ordained priesthood in the Church and for the Church—not without or apart from or over the Church — is the sacramental presence of Christ himself in and for the Church. It is the sacrament of Christ’s abiding presence in the Church as its husband and head, priest and pastor, prophet and teacher, master and lord, forgiver, reconciler, healer. It is the mystery within the great mystery of Christ and the Church which guarantees the objective presence of salvation in the body, for it guarantees the objective presence of the Savior in all the fullness and power of his theandric, messianic activity. It is the sacrament which guarantees the objective identity and continuity of the Church in space and time — the so-called apostolic succession — because it manifests and realizes in the body the identity and continuity of the saving presence and activity in and for the Church of the

“one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5; cf. Hebrews 8-10).

The ordained priesthood in the Church exists to manifest and realize the priesthood of Christ, and so the priesthood of all Christian believers, in and for the body. For the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of the believers are not two priesthoods; they are one and the same. The ordained, sacramental priesthood is the objective sacramental realization and expression within the Church of this one priesthood. The question whether the ordained priest, bishop or presbyter, represents Christ or represents the people is unanswerable. In the first place the ordained priest does not represent anyone. He presents Christ in the community and actualizes his presence in a sacramental way within the body. The Christ whose presence is manifested sacramentally in the Church is

“the one mediator between God and men”

whose unique, perfect divine, and eternal priesthood — the only priesthood that exists — abides in the Church as its own priesthood in him as his body and his bride:

“… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).

lift up your heartsThe priesthood of the head is the priesthood of the body. The priesthood of the husband becomes the priesthood of the bride. The priesthood of the Savior is the very priesthood of the saved. As Christ himself is the presentation (and not the representative) of God to man; so also is he the presentation of man to God. But he is the latter only because he is first the former. He takes us to the Father as his children only because he first brings his Father to us who were not his children, but the children of darkness and of the “father of lies.” In like manner, the ordained priest in the Church presents the community to God because first and primarily he presents God in the community.

“Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrneans 8:2).

This is the doctrine of the catholic Church from the beginning, and not only from the beginning of the history of the new covenant Church, but from the beginning of creation itself. For the initiative is always God’s. His action is always “first.” And we might even dare to say that this is so not only “from the beginning” but even “in the beginning” when from the Uncreated Arche of the Father, the eternal Son of God, is timelessly generated, together with the eternal procession of God’s Holy Spirit, the only begotten Son of God for whom and by whom all things are made to be his body and his bride by the indwelling of his Spirit in the communion of divine life, whose essence is love. This is the testimony of the Scriptures, the prophets, the apostles, and the saints. This is the witness of the sacramental life of the Church and its canonical tradition.

We find this testimony in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. We find it in Saint Paul. We find it in Ignatius of Antioch, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and John of the Cross. We find it symbolized in the sacramental rites of baptism, the Eucharist, marriage, and ordination. We find it in the canons which insure the proper churchly life. Yahweh is the husband of Israel. Christ is the husband of the Church. The husband and wife reflect the great mystery of Christ and the Church. And the ordained priest is married to his flock as the sacramental expression of Christ whose Church, filled by his Spirit, is his body and his bride.

forgiveThe ordained priesthood is a sacrament of the Church. As such it is not an individual vocation or a personal charism. It is not one of the several ministries of the members of the Church. It is rather the sacramental ministry of the ministry of Christ, in whom all partial and personal ministries are fulfilled and by whom they are judged. In this sense it may be said that the ordained priest in the Church, as Jesus Christ himself, has no particular ministry and no individual vocation. He has none because he is the term of reference and norm of evaluation of all. And so, in the opposite way, it may be said that the ordained priest has all vocations, precisely because, by the very sacramental nature of his being a priest in the Church of Christ, he has none in particular.

The sacramental priest exists in and for the Church, being himself a human member of the Church, as the living term of reference for all personal and individual vocations and ministries of the members of the Church. He is the one whose sacramental vocation it is to be the sign and the presence, and in a sense even the judge, of the value and significance of all human activities and modes of existence. He is the pastor who witnesses to the pastoral dimension of all human vocations. He is the priest who testifies that all human being and life must be offered to God in Christ by the grace of the Spirit. He is the teacher whose presence is the measure and norm for all human teaching. He is the judge whose very presence judges all who execute justice. He is the healer who demonstrates what healing is. He is the servant reminding. all who serve of the purpose of their ministry. He is, in a word, the sign of the presence of Christ and the expression of his presence in the Church as the source and the goal, the content and the judge, of all human life and activity.

With such a sacramental vocation, the qualifications for being a priest in Christ’s Church are not reducible to any purely human talents or skills. The priest must teach, but he need not be a theologian. He must preach, but rhetorical eloquence is not a necessity. He must shepherd the flock, but he need not be a specialist in pastoral counseling. He must administer, but purely executive gifts may belong to another. Of course he must pray, but the particular charism of prayer is not a requirement.

fr_nathaniel_johnsonThe qualifications which a priest must necessarily possess are traditionally external rather than internal. His specific charisms may vary, but his objective image must be vivid and firm. He must be a male member of the Church, physically whole, totally identified with the faith of the Church and professing it soundly and clearly. He must be of spotless reputation to those inside and outside the Church. He must have no record of grave sin after baptism, specifically including the shedding of blood, sexual immorality, or public deceit. He must be the husband of one wife or a celibate virgin. If he is married, the wife and children within his household must be members of the Church with similar qualifications. He must not be involved in political, economic, or military affairs or in any secular business; nor can his wife. His individual talents and gifts must be such that they do not conflict with his sacramental being and life.

Thus, for example, should he feel called to a life of social activity, government service, monastic contemplation, or legal advocacy; or should he feel compelled to take a second wife, to join the military, to pursue an academic career, or to propagate one or another specific form of Christian activity or piety, he must give up his sacramental office.

russianpriestIn a word, the ordained priest is a sacramental image, an animate symbol, a living sign and expression of Christ in whom dwells bodily all the fullness of God. He is not necessarily the bearer of specific gifts, the most gifts, or the best gifts. He is not the holiest member of the Church. He is not the one who takes the faith most seriously. He certainly is not the one who has a “religious vocation.” Every human being has a “religious vocation” simply because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, as an Adam or as an Eve. And there is no doubt that most human beings are more talented and more skilled in one or another specific way than is the priest. Certainly many members of the Church are personally more holy, including repentant sinners, handicapped persons, people twice married, and those who bear the humanity of Eve.

But this is beside the point. There is not some sort of “competition” between the bishops and presbyters in the Church and the rest of the members on the basis of talents, gifts, or personal sanctity. For the priesthood is not a profession, a job, or a way of self-fulfillment in personal holiness. It is a sacrament of the Church, in and for the Church, of him who is the Church’s only pastor and priest, its head and it husband, the Lord Jesus Christ, Of course all will agree that the bearer of this sacrament should be holy and talented. But the holiness and the gifts are included within the sacrament, and the sacrament is not dependent on the sanctity and skills of its bearer. For this reason no person can claim the office of priesthood on the basis of professional qualifications or personal holiness.

The priest is called by God with the consent of the faithful in ways known to himself. Some may force their way into the office for one reason or other, but this is a violation of the sacrament undertaken unto condemnation and judgment. For the priest is called and chosen by God as the sacramental guarantee of the continuity and identity, the purity and integrity, of the body and bride of his Son until he comes again in glory to establish his kingdom in which there will be no sacraments, for then he will be all and in all.


from To be a Priest, pp. 21-28,  edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.

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