“Preaching is essentially a priestly function!” Thomas Torrance on the priestly character of the ministry

It has been silent here for quite a long time. There are good reasons for that, as I try to make progress in my studies. But this evening I discovered a sermon of Thomas F. Torrance, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. I was struck by it. Of course, as readers of this blog may know, I’ve a weak spot for TFT. But it was more than that. And yes, in this sermon Torrance follows the lead of Calvin and his exposure of the priestly character of the ministry. Of course, I’m studying Calvin, but once again,torrance-big that’s not the whole story. The point is this: in a few words (it’s not a long sermon) Torrance uncoveres a deep spiritual insight about the nature of the ministry.

Let me explain why this struck me. In the Netherlands, some theologians call for a more prophetic stance in the ministry of the Word. But – as you will see – Torrance strongly disagrees. He offers a very convincing and thought provoking plea for the priestly character of the ministry. In what follows I will briefly summarize this sermon of his. But let me assure you: it’s worth listening!

Torrance opens his sermon about Malachi 2 with a reference to the munus triplex, the threefold office. But – he says – Calvin had become deeply aware that the priesthood is ‘the primary aspect of the holy ministry’. At the end of his life, he is reformulating his thoughts on the subject, as his prayers at the end of his lectures on the minor prophets show.

Calvin is now convinced that there is now a priesthood within the corporate priesthood of the Church, the Body of Christ. This thought determines his view on the ministry. Every young minister – Torrance says – believes he has to behave like a prophet when he gets up into the pulpit. No, he has to behave like a priest. “As a priest he has to be the messenger of God”. Torrance emphasises three aspects of this thought:

  1. The priesthood has to do with a unique and awful function to which some people are separated. The priest has to bear the iniquities of the people of God and to bear God’s judgment on them. As Calvin understood it, there was a intimate bond between the priest, the offerer and the offering. They were inseparable. And the priest can offer only the oblations and prayers of the people in so far as he himself takes their hurt upon himself and penetrates into their needs and himself bear, penitently, the judgments of God. You can’t be a minister of the Gospel unless you are prepared and willing to bear their sins upon yourself and offer yourself with them before God. That is a priestly aspect, says Torrance, which we have forgotten.
  2. Calvin was aware that where ever the Old Testament speaks about memorial it was always, without exception, a memorial before God. That too is something we (Protestants) have forgotten or changed. We think of the Lord’s Supper as remembring Christ’s death, of what He did. That is not ‘memorial’. The priestly cropped-supperlast2.jpgofferings in the OT are memorials before God.  It is in that sense we have to think about the Eucharist. As Calvin explains in his comments on Numbers 19: Christ is our Memorial and we offer Christ daily to the Father. And that’s what we do in the Eucharist. We are participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. The ministry of the Word is a priestly function. The priest is God’s messenger. His prime task is to bring a Word of God to the people, but in such a way that he evokes or provokes or bring their offering toward God. The priestly function is dual. He ministers from God to man and from man to God. I don’t believe, says Torrance, that anyone can do that simply from the pulpit or simply through conducting the liturgy. He can only do that by visiting the people in their homes and bring the Word of God there and open up their whole life before God. So that he can share their hurts and needs, understand their responses. And then he can  proclaim the Word of God and in the worship of the church bring their true responses back to God.

Preaching is essentially a priestly function. It is in this light that Calvin understood the priestly character of the Word. Because it is only as you share in, by your prayer life, your intercession, your sympathy with people, in the priesthood of Jesus, that you can say in His Name: “Be reconciled to God”. As Calvin saw it, you are representing the person and the role of Christ as a minister.

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