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Protestantism reject the idea of a sacerdotal priesthood, embracing instead the idea of priesthood of all believers(cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also claim these ideas are not an invitation but actually represent historical Christianity.

However if one looks at early Church Fathers such as Cyprian of Carthage seem to believe in the sacerdotal priesthood.

Consider Cyprian’a words:

Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ's priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people? He bears arms against the Church,

Treatis 1, 17

How are these two reconciled? Did the apostles see themselves as priests?

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  • It would probably be helpful if you could include a quote from St. Cyprian to further your case. +1, good question
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 19:37
  • @LukeHill done!
    – Dan
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 20:18
  • 1
    You may have accidentally deleted your closing line. I added it back just in case.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 20:20
  • Are you asking how protestants reconcile their view of priesthood with the early church view?
    – jaredad7
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 20:30

3 Answers 3

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It is not altogether clear that the OP quoting Cyprian actually supports his question. After all, Cyprian was writing against Novatian, who was a pope (anti-pope by others). So, when Cyprian says he was arguing against priests, it was a call to unity in the Church, rather than a clear assertion of sacerdotalism. But let us proceed with answering the question.

Sacerdotalism means these things, but is primarily concerned with a priest offering a sacrifice and a sacrifice requiring a priest.

Sacerdotalism is the belief that priests are essential mediators between God and man. The word sacerdotal comes from the Latin word for “priest” and literally means “to make sacred.” Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican forms of worship are sacerdotal.

Sacerdotalism teaches that the priesthood is a special class of churchman and is a necessary part of worship. People cannot approach God on their own, but must come through a priest, whether it is for confessing sin, taking communion, or receiving grace. Any divine blessing conferred upon an individual comes through the Church; that is, through the Church’s ordained priesthood. GotQuestions

Sacerdotalism (from Latin sacerdos, priest, literally one who presents sacred offerings, sacer, sacred, and dare, to give)1 is the belief in some Christian churches that priests are meant to be mediators between God and humankind. Wiki

As regards the person offering, it is not permitted that any and every individual should offer sacrifice on his own account. In the revealed religion, as in nearly all heathen religions, only a qualified person (usually called priest, sacerdos, lereus), who has been given the power by commission or vocation, may offer up sacrifice in the name of the community. NewAdvent

OP: How did the early church understand the priesthood?

As mentioned also, the early church understood the priesthood not as an assigned office, but as an inherited position. Inherited in the sense of being automatically adopted into by virtue of our being born-again into Christ.

Peter, ironically enough, calls believers priests.

Ye [the redemeed] also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:5

John too calls us priests.

And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Rev 1:6

Paul in detailing the Passover instructs believers. There is no sense of a separate class of priests.

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you [brethren, verse 2], That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 1 Cor 11:23

OP: Did the apostles see themselves as priests?

In short, no, they did not see themselves as priests, elders yes, but not priests like the OT Levitical priest. As New Advent clears up, the word presbyter came to mean priest. In other words, it was not how it was first defined.

This word (etymologically "elder", from presbyteros, presbyter) has taken the meaning of "sacerdos", from which no substantive has been formed in various modern languages (English, French, German). The priest is the minister of Divine worship, and especially of the highest act of worship, sacrifice. Priest

Lastly, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ was offered once for He then sat down after offering His own blood and this Priest never offering the blood of others.

But this man [Christ], after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; Heb 10:12

Nor yet that he [Christ] should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; Heb 9:25

So, in conclusion, the early church saw every believer as a king/priest offering bread/wine and sacrifice of praise modeled after Christ Jesus with church elders officiating.

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  • Thanks! I accept the answer, but I want to ask one clarification from you. How do you deduce there is no separate cast of priests when quoting 1 Cor 11:23? Thank you!
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 8:10
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    @Dan if there had been a separate class of priests, why would Paul address the instructions to brethren? It was to all believers. Further, after the instruction about the thanksgiving offering (bread and wine), Paul continues to address believers at verses 27-34. Lastly, as mentioned, there is no sense of any separate class of priests in the NT. It would be very odd for Paul to imply something that he knows is false. Thank you. Hope that helps clarify.
    – SLM
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 17:11
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The earliest church offices were apostles, prophets and teachers. Over a period of the century or so, these evolved into the offices of bishops, elders, and priests.

None of the NT texts indicates that the apostles called themselves "priests," although they certainly prayed, as all Christians did. They did, however, perform sacerdotal functions such as baptisms, presiding over the Lord's Supper [holy communion], etc. But these functions were not reserved to the apostles, for they were performed in churches throughout the Empire where apostles were not present.

One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between Luther's "priesthood of all believers" and the Catholic doctrine of the sacerdotal priesthood is to understand that the "priesthood of all believers" doesn't refer to sacerdotal functions but to the right of every Christian to relate directly to God and read the Bible in their own language, without relying on priests and the Pope as mediators. In fact, even Lutheran churches historically reserved some of their sacraments to Lutheran pastors rather than lay people:

It should be noted that while under normal circumstances it would be the ordained pastor who administers the sacrament, it may not be possible for some congregation because of remote location, the lack of available pastors, or some other valid reason to have such a person available to administer it. Should a Layman Discharge the Duties of the Holy Ministry?

Calvin is more complicated, because his ecclesiology was Presbyterian, not Episcopal and Congregational polities are often also Calvinist in origin. So there is a wide range of church traditions that trace their origins to the Calvinist movement. However most Calvinist churches, like Lutheran ones, do have sacraments that are administered by clergy.

So first, the apostles did not think of themselves as priests per se. Second, the Lutheran priesthood of all believers does not necessarily contradict the idea of the sacerdotal priesthood, because Lutheran and Calvinist pastors perform sacerdotal functions that lay people normally do not. However, Catholicism is less flexible about when non-clergy can administer the sacraments.

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    Very good overview and objective description on how different traditions understand ministerial/sacerdotal priesthood vs priesthood of all believers which Catholics also affirm. But it would be great if more coverage is given to early church father view requested by the OP. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 3:33
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“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out[through their office] the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper(18) Eucharist, which is[administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as where Christ is, there does all the heavenly host stand by, waiting upon Him as the Chief Captain of the Lord's might, and the Governor of every intelligent nature. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast.(1) But that which seems good to him, is also well-pleasing to God, that everything ye do may be secure and valid . . . For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy,(8) who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the[Church's] unity, and throwing its order into confusion? For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonours not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father. Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.” THE EPISTLE OF IGNATIUS TO THE SMYRNAEANS Paragraph Vii and Xi.

From the above quote it is quite clear the late first /early second century church already placed great emphasis on strict church order with a division between clergy and laity. But that does not mean they had even begun to drift into the priesthood in the form we see laying hold even a few hundred years later and certainly beyond.

We must remember at this point not only did the believers face much persecution, they faced much false teaching and at a time when Christians had never even seen much less owned any printed Christian texts. All they had was the teaching of church leaders. Leaders like Ignatius implored with near desperation for these early assemblies to cling to their Bishops and Presbyters no doubt because these men had been “vetted” as it were in believing and teaching the writings of the apostles in as near an unadulterated way as could be hoped for and perhaps in a few cases were even in the possession of precious few copies of some of the original now-canonized New Testament writings.

Unadulterated Christian teachings were held in a very precarious balance during this time.

No doubt, however, this very early necessity of revering and laying close to the feet of other fallible men, made possible the unfortunate, consistent, insidious slide into Roman Catholicism and the priesthood as we see it today.

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