This article was first published as a pamphlet over ninety years ago with the subtitle “A Question for the Day” (London: J. F. Shaw & Co., ca. 1900). Dallas Theological Seminary reprinted the work in the January to March 1979 edition of its journal (Bibliotheca Sacra, 136:65).
W. H. GRIFFITH THOMAS1
In the Bible the fact of a ministry is clearly recorded. In the OT the ministry consists chiefly of two orders or classes of men—the priests and the prophets—each with its own sphere more or less clearly defined, and with a work of great importance and absolute necessity, because of divine appointment.
The essence of the priesthood was the representation of man to God; the essence of the prophetic office was the representation of God to man. Anything else done by a priest or prophet was accidental and additional, and not a necessary part of his office. The essential work of the priest was expressed in sacrifice and intercession, and may be summed up in the word mediator. The essential work of the prophet was expressed in revelation and instruction, and may be summed up in the word ambassador. The priesthood meant propitiation, and the prophetic office meant revelation. The priest was concerned with the way of man to God; the prophet with the will of God to man. The two offices were thus complementary, and together they fulfilled the requirements of the relationship between God and man.
II. New Testament Silence on a Class of
Believers as Priests
The ministry of the NT is equally clear and unequivocal, but with certain great and notable differences. In the NT there is absolutely nothing about a special order or class of men called priests. The only priesthood, apart from the Lord’s priestly work, is the spiritual priesthood of all believers. There is, however, much that answers to the essential ministry of the OT prophet, but with the difference that ministry in the NT is not confined to any one class of believers: it is the privilege and duty of all. There are most assuredly diversities of gifts in that ministry, but ministry generally and of some kind is for all. Indeed, the various gifts are for the express purpose of “equipping the saints for their work of ministering” (Eph 4:12, Greek).
Whether, then, one thinks of the ministry of the priest or of the prophet, it is clear from the NT that there is no class of believers to which spiritual functions belong exclusively as of absolute right and divine appointment. What is required for “decency and order” is quite another question, and though important and essential, is assuredly secondary to the above-named fundamental principle of the NT.
From these differences between the OT and NT, it is easy to notice the silence of the NT as to any special order of priests, and its insistence on the ministry of the Word.
This Silence is a Simple Fact
Not a single reference can be found in the NT to a special human priesthood. In the Lord’s instructions to His disciples and apostles in the four Gospels, not a word is said about a special priesthood. In the first book of general church history, the Acts of the Apostles, not a hint of such a priesthood is given. The epistles to the Corinthians give the first detailed picture of one particular apostolic church but they include no sign of any such priesthood. Hebrews, the great doctrinal epistle for Jewish Christians, has nothing in it about priests except the Lord’s priesthood. The three epistles of pastoral and ecclesiastical instructions, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, say nothing about any special priesthood. Nor do the mature writings of the two great apostles of the circumcision, Peter and John, include any trace whatever of a human priesthood. This evidence taken separately in its parts is striking, but taken as a whole it is completely overwhelming.
This Silence Is a Striking Fact
Here are 27 books, covering a period of at least 40 to 50 years,2 referring to the foundation and early history of the church amid differences of place, country, race, capacity, and conditions of life. Yet there is no provision for a special order of priesthood. It is also striking because all the writers (with the one probable exception of Luke) were Jews, and as such were steeped in sacerdotal ideas, language, and associations from their earliest childhood. The apostles use sacrificial and sacerdotal language on several occasions to describe certain elements and aspects of the gospel. For example, in Rom 15:16 Paul speaks of his preaching as his sacred and sacrificial service, and his Gentile converts as his sacrificial offering. But as the context shows, this is manifestly spiritual and symbolical in meaning, and is at once descriptive and illustrative of his work as a “prophet” or preacher of the gospel. But not one of the apostles ever used the word hiereus, a sacrificing priest, to distinguish a Christian minister from a layman. The avoidance of this term is remarkable.
Westcott is said to have observed in some of his lectures at Cambridge that this avoidance was the nearest approach he knew to verbal inspiration. Some would venture to go a step further and claim it as an unmistakable example of the superintending control of the Holy Spirit in the composition of the Scriptures. Humanly speaking, the chances against avoiding the use of hiereus in this connection are like 10,000 to 1. Indeed, it may be said that to refuse to explain it by the guiding of the Holy Spirit is to require for its explanation what is virtually a miracle of human thought, foresight, and mutual prearrangement among several writers.
If it be said that the question is one not of words but of things, one may note Lightfoot’s reply that “This is undeniable: but words express things, and the silence of the Apostles still requires an explanation.”3 Neither the word nor the thing can be discovered in the NT.
This Silence Is a Significant Fact
This is what Lightfoot calls “the eloquent silence of the apostolic writings.”4 There is no mention of the subject in the NT because there is no place for it and no need of it. In the Jewish economy a mediatorial priesthood was necessary because of man’s alienation from God, because sin was not put away, and because the way to God was not open. But now sin has been put away, the way into the holiest is manifest, and for this Christ the divine high priest is all and in all. This is the burden of the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews: the one and only, inviolable, undelegated (aparabaton, Heb 7:24) priesthood of the Lord. Christ’s priesthood is unique, perfect, and permanent, and as long as He is priest there is no room for and no need of any other mediator.
This silence as to a special human priesthood shows that such a priesthood is irreconcilable with the letter and spirit of apostolic Christianity. In this respect “Christianity stands apart from all the other religions.5 It is the “characteristic distinction of Christianity”6 to have no such provision. Where there is no repeated offering there is no need of an altar; where there is no altar there is no sacrifice; where there is no sacrifice there is no priest. The benefits of the sacrifice once for all offered are now being continually bestowed by Christ and appropriated by the penitent believer without any human mediator because “the kingdom of Christ . . . has no sacerdotal system.”7
However, the argument has been frequently used that ministerial priesthood, or the priesthood of the ministry, is only the universal priesthood of believers expressed through their representatives. It is said that as the human body acts through its members so the church as the body of Christ acts through the ministry as its instruments and that consequently when the “priest” is exercising his ministerial functions it is really the church acting through him.
To this line of argument the following seven answers may be given.
1. The NT is entirely silent as to this special and, as it were, localized priesthood. Surely, if the ministry had been regarded as exercising a priesthood distinguishable from the priesthood of all believers, or regarded as the priesthood of the church in a specialized way, it would have been necessary to show that this ministerial priesthood existed in the early church. Yet there are no priestly functions associated with the Christian ministry as such in the NT. Instead, the priesthood of all believers is inherent in their relation to Christ. This is the divine warrant for it and there is no such warrant for any narrower or modified form of it.
2. Is it not at least unsafe, even if not perilous, to base such a novel and far-reaching claim on a metaphor, the figure of the human body?
3. The scriptural use of this metaphor never differentiates between the spiritual body and its instruments but only between members.
4. The modern use of the metaphor now in question proves too much, for while in the natural body certain members alone can act and “minister” in certain ways, as the hand does in one way and the foot in another, in the scriptural concept of the Body of Christ, each member has real “priestly” functions (“that which every joint supplieth,” Eph 4:16). These differences of function are only of degree, not of kind, and do not constitute the ministry a special and localized priesthood, a position which would involve a difference of kind.
5. This idea of a ministerial priesthood as expressive of the universal priesthood is a novel and significant departure from the older and still generally accepted idea of the sacerdotalism of the Christian ministry. It represents an almost entire shifting of the ground. The prevalent conception of the priesthood of the ministry has been that of an order of men in direct touch with Christ, and acting as such on the body rather than for it. But the new use of the metaphor really implies that the instruments act for the body and through the body, in the sense of not being immediately in contact with the Head. The older sacerdotalism maintains that the priesthood receives and represents “an attribute of grace distinct from” that received by the church, “by virtue of which grace, men are brought into such relationship with God that through this instrumentality they obtain the promised blessings of the covenant under which they live.”8 But this view involves much more than a concentration of the priesthood of the whole of the church in a part of it. It represents another line of grace different from the general one in kind as well as in degree. Yet Scripture knows nothing of two separate lines of grace, one from the Head direct to the church and the other from the Head to the ministry.
The older and newer views of the priestly character of the ministry are therefore incompatible, and sacerdotalists cannot have both. It is impossible on any true analogy to distinguish between the spiritual body and its ministerial organs in such a way as to make the organs the instruments of the body, according to the new view, and yet in authority over it, according to the old view. Upholders of ministerial priesthood must choose between these positions, though for neither of them is there any warrant or authority in the Word of God.
6. The functions of the Christian ministry are those of a personal medium, not of a priestly mediator. They are prophetic, not priestly; they are exercised on behalf of Christ rather than on behalf of the church; and they represent the Head rather than the body. And even so far as they may be said in certain aspects to represent the church, the functions are “representative and not vicarial.”9 In short, the essential idea of the ministry is diakonia, not hieratum, service not sacerdotalism, and it can never be too frequently asserted that the fundamental concept of the Christian ministry is that it represents God to the church rather than the church to God, that it is prophetic and not priestly.
7. There is no function or office of the Christian priesthood which cannot be exercised by any and every individual believer in Christ of either sex, wherever and whatever they may be. Differences of function in the Christian ministry there are, but in the Christian priesthood there are none. Thus it is concluded that the NT has a simple, striking, and significant silence on any new and special order of priests.
Along with this silence as to any new order of priests, the NT insists on the ministry of the Word.
III. NT Emphasis on the Ministry of the Word The Nature of the Ministry
The ministry is twofold, for evangelization and edification; one is to the sinner and the other is to the saint. At least seven series of titles are associated with the ministry, which show the character and necessity of it in the church. The minister is a herald (k@ryx), a messenger of good news (euangelist@s, apostolos), a witness (martys), an ambassador (presbeuw10), a servant (diakonos), a shepherd (poim@n, oikonomos), a teacher (didaskalos, proph@t@s). The variety and fullness of these words plainly show the paramount importance placed on the ministry of the Word.
The Message of the Ministry
There are two phrases that sum up this message, one referring chiefly to its relationship to God and the other to its relationship to man. “The Word” is the message as it expresses the mind of God. “The gospel” is the message as it describes its destination for and acceptableness to man. At least seven titles are associated with “the Word”: the Word of God (and the Word of Christ and the Word of the Lord), the Word of reconciliation, the Word of salvation, the Word of grace, the Word of righteousness, the Word of truth, and the Word of life. There are also seven titles connected with “the gospel”: the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the grace of God, the gospel of salvation, the gospel of peace, the gospel of the kingdom, and the gospel of the glory of God.
These various aspects, so clear, so full, so important, may all be summed up in three well-known passages: “It is I” (the person of Christ); “It is finished” (the work of Christ); and “It is written” (the Word of Christ). They represent salvation provided, salvation wrought, and salvation assured. This is essentially the complete yet remarkably varied message of the ministry of Christianity.
The Purpose of the Ministry
The ministry of the Word is intended to bring God and man face to face—God revealing, man responding. It claims to do for man all that he needs or can need. Regeneration, sanctification, edification, and glorification are all associated with the Word of God, and at every step of the Christian life the ministry of that Word finds its place and power.
This purpose becomes realized in the response of man through faith. The Word of God and faith are correlatives, and faith is emphasized in the NT because it is the only, as it is the adequate, response to the revelation of God. Faith brings the soul into direct contact with God, and the result is “righteousness through faith.” The gospel is the power of God to salvation because in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith, having faith as its correlative and channel from first to last (Rom 1:16-17). Faith responds to God’s Word and appropriates Christ as God’s righteousness “for us” for justification, and God’s righteousness “in us” for sanctification.
This is the NT “ministry of the Word,” and all of it is ministerial and instrumental, not mediatorial and vicarious. Who are believers “but ministers through whom men believe”?
The Permanence of the Ministry
This NT ministry is a permanent one. In Christ’s last days on earth He commanded, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). Among Paul’s concluding exhortations was “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 2:2). Peter’s last teaching emphasizes the Word of God. John’s closing writings exhort believers to “abide in the truth.”
The permanent ministry of the Word is a threefold guarantee to the church. It guarantees the church’s purity, progress, and power. Whenever this ministry has been neglected, the course of the church has been deflected; and whenever, as at the Reformation, this has been predominant, her purity has been prominent. This is the explanation of every backsliding, the secret of every recovery.
Whenever the ministry of the Word has been honored, there has been extension; whenever it has been neglected, there has been stagnation. Missionary work at home and abroad finds its full impetus in the ministry of the Word.
The ministry of the Word is a protection against all foes and is for the good of all friends. Sacerdotalism sees justification by faith as her most powerful enemy, and assails it with the most virulent opposition. Since the Word cuts at the roots of all priestly power, warfare is waged today against justification by faith.11
This truth brings the soul into direct, conscious, blessed, satisfying contact and union with Christ, and thereby dispenses at once and forever with a human mediator. Christ is thereby present and no longer merely represented.
The ministry of the Word, too, is a great power against neo-Anglicanism.12 As the sacerdotal element goes up, the ministry of the Word proportionately goes down. If the priest is exalted, the teacher is deposed, for the inherent tendency of ritualism is directly opposed to that of the preaching and teaching ministry of the Word of God. As people are saturated with the truth of Scripture, they will find in it their power against all ritualistic practices.
The ministry of the Word is also powerful against the worldliness of the church and the local congregation. Let the standard of the Word be uplifted and pressed on heart and conscience, and the worldly devices and elements in church life will fall away and die. The message of the Word for holiness of heart and life will soon settle questionable methods of church finance, church life, and church work. And all this will be so because of its power to “edify” the believer. More and better Bible classes, more expository teaching in sermons, more individual meditation in the Word will soon show its blessed effects in the individual and congregational lives of churches.
The Word of God should therefore be highly honored. Honor it in the soul, in the home, in the study, in the pulpit, in the congregation, in the college, in the university, in the seminary, in the nation. Preach it out of a full heart, a clear mind, a strong conviction, and a consistent life. Receive it by faith, welcome it by love, and prove it by obedience. Then believers need have no fear for present or future, for the Word is still the seed that quickens, the sword that pierces, the light that guides, the hammer that breaks, the meat that strengthens, the milk that nourishes, and the honey that delights, because it is “the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet 1:23).
Even more timely a question for our day, in light of current trends in evangelicalism as a whole, are Dr. Griffith Thomas’s warnings—originally addressed to his own Church of England constituency. Ed.
1 W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924) was born and raised in England. He received his B.A. from King’s College, London and his D.D. from Oxford (in England Doctor of Divinity is an earned, not an honorary degree). He numbered T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and his brothers among his Greek students at Oxford, where he taught till coming to the New World. In Canada he taught at Wycliffe Hall, Toronto. Moving to Philadelphia as his headquarters, he maintained a wide writing and preaching ministry in North America, Britain, and elsewhere. He was a prime mover in the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, the year he died. See JOTGES 4 (Spring, 1991) 41, f.n. 1 for more details. Ed.
2 The period covered may be much less than this if the entire NT was completed before A.D. 70 as some NT scholars suggest. Ed. note.
3J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879), 264.
4 Ibid., 182.
7 Ibid., 181.
8 T. T. Carter, On the Priesthood (n.p., n.d.), 99.
9 Lightfoot, Philippians, 267.
10 To have been perfectly consistent Dr. Thomas could have used the noun presbeut@s here rather than the verb presbeuw. However, only the verb actually occurs in the NT.
11 Italics added by editor to highlight today’s even worse situation in Protestantism.
12 The Anglican Church (“Church of England”) is divided into three branches, though outwardly one: the “broad” (=liberal), the “high” (=priestly, imitative of Roman Catholicism), and the “low” (=evangelical) church. The term low is not meant to be an insult, but describes the church as it came out of the Reformation, with emphasis on the Word of God, not ritual. Of course, by free church standards, even “low” Anglicanism seems rather “high.” Dr. Thomas was a staunch advocate of biblical truth within the Anglican communion. In the U.S.A., he commented that, as his daughter Winifred Griffith Thomas Gillespie confided to this editor, he usually found the Episcopal church “high or dry.” Note: Footnotes 2-8 are part of the original pamphlet, the others are ours. Ed.