Do all Christians have access to God? (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #4)

Sandro Botticelli, 'The Last Communion of St. Jerome' (detail), circa 1495. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_The_Last_Communion_of_St_Jerome_(detail)_-_WGA2834.jpg)
Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Last Communion of St. Jerome’ (detail), circa 1495. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_The_Last_Communion_of_St_Jerome_(detail)_-_WGA2834.jpg)

In the first of our reflections on Gregory of Nyssa’s third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, we ask whether Gregory believed that all Christians truly have access to God.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians’ who made such a significant contribution to orthodox Trinitarian belief.

You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.

In our series of reflections on Gregory of Nyssa we have been working through his recorded sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.

Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come”

It takes Gregory some time in this sermon, to address the meaning of the words, “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9-10; Luke 11:2). He starts the sermon with a long discussion on the difference between the Old Covenant and the New, and between the Old Covenant’s High Priest and the believer under the New Covenant:—

“The Law having a shadow of the good things to come prefigures the truth in types and allegories. When it introduces the priest into the Holy of Holies in order to pray to God, it purges him before entering by purifying aspersions. It then puts on him the priestly robe beautifully decked with gold, purple, and other brilliant colours… and thus brings him into the Holy of Holies to perform the sacred rites.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer

The Law having a shadow of the good things to come[1] prefigures the truth in types and allegories. When it introduces the priest into the Holy of Holies in order to pray to God, it purges him before entering by purifying aspersions. It then puts on him the priestly robe beautifully decked with gold, purple, and other brilliant colours… and thus brings him into the Holy of Holies to perform the sacred rites.
But the spiritual Lawgiver, Our Lord Jesus Christ, strips the Law of its material veils and lays bare the types and allegories.[2]

The ‘Law’ here is of course the Law of Moses, the code of laws given to the people of Israel in the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah. Within the law books, Gregory’s specific reference is to the Day of Atonement, prescribed in Leviticus chapter 16.

This chapter describes how, once a year only, on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Israelite/Jewish year, the high priest was to enter the most sacred part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. This was to be done with great care, with much ceremony, with offerings of atonement, and with the “goat for Azazel” which was to be driven away into the wilderness.

And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
Leviticus 16:9-10[3]

“Gregory makes a point which is well made in the New Testament itself: that the access to a holy God which was only permitted to one person (the high priest), on one day of the year, is now under the New Covenant available to everybody who believes in Jesus.”

Gregory makes a point which is well made in the New Testament itself: that the access to a holy God which was only permitted to one person (the high priest), on one day of the year, is now under the New Covenant available to everybody who believes in Jesus. Here are just three examples where the New Testament teaches this:—

And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Mark 15:37-38[4]

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Romans 5:1-2[5]

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews 10:19-22[6]

The anonymous Letter to the Hebrews is the New Testament’s explanation par excellence of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. It’s a letter whose argumentation is fairly complicated and at times quite difficult to follow, but that richly rewards careful study. Its name, the ‘Letter to the Hebrews,’ comes from the fact that it is quite obviously written to Jewish believers, who would have had a thorough grasp of the Old Testament writings and ceremonial procedures.

“Gregory in his sermon quite rightly picks up on the fact that access to God is now granted to all believers through Jesus — ordinary men, women and even children who trust in him.”

The English Standard Version Anglicized translation of Hebrews, quoted above, quite rightly has a footnote at verse 19[7] explaining that the Greek word ‘brothers’ (ἀδελφοί, adelphoi) is addressing both male and female believers in Jesus.

Thus, in New Testament theology, the high priest of Leviticus 16 who could enter the Holy of Holies once a year, was a prefiguration of Jesus, our Great High Priest who has offered himself as a sacrifice once for the sins of the whole world, and now stands forever in the heavenly Tabernacle mediating on behalf of God’s people.

So Gregory in his sermon quite rightly picks up on the fact that access to God is now granted to all believers through Jesus — ordinary men, women and even children who trust in him.

“[Our Lord Jesus Christ] does not give communion with God only to one whom He separates from everyone else, but He bestows this honour equally on all, offering the grace of the priesthood as common to those who desire it.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer

And yet, in a curious passage he vacillates about this. Following immediately on from the previous passage, he says:—

But the spiritual Lawgiver, Our Lord Jesus Christ, strips the Law of its material veils and lays bare the types and allegories. First of all, He does not give communion with God only to one whom He separates from everyone else, but He bestows this honour equally on all, offering the grace of the priesthood as common to those who desire it.[8]

That he is speaking literally of ‘the priesthood,’ and not using the term figuratively, is clear from a passage later on:—

But by briefly examining this, the sermon has sufficiently shown how a man ordained to the priesthood should be prepared; now there remains to consider the petition itself which the person within the sanctuary has been ordered to offer to God.[9]

Is the spiritual ‘Holy of Holies’ — by which I mean access to God — there for all true believers, or only for those amongst them who choose to be ordained? Gregory in these statements seems to imply the latter.

“Gregory’s statements here are reflective of the somewhat muddled position of the orthodox Church in the late fourth century.”

His statements here are reflective of the somewhat muddled position of the orthodox Church in the late fourth century.

From slightly before this period — that is, from around the first half of the third century[10] — the Christian Church developed the particular office of ‘priest’, echoing the Old Testament institution of a priesthood of the descendants of Aaron as prescribed in Exodus 28, etc.

This carving-out of the Christian office of ‘priest’ from the third century onwards is a development which has persisted in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and in sections of the Anglican Church, down to this day.

“Search around in the New Testament and you will not find a single text which speaks of a special, Christian office of ‘priest.’”

And yet, search around in the New Testament and you will not find a single text which speaks of a special, Christian office of ‘priest.’

The principal function of a priest is to offer sacrifices by way of mediation between one party and God.

In the New Testament, the necessary and sufficient sacrifice for all sins was offered by Jesus when he shed his own blood on the cross. Therefore no sacrificial offering remains for Christians to perform, except the “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15) and the offering of our own lives as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) to the Lord.

Thus, in the New Testament the word ‘priest’ is only ever used in the following three senses:—

  1. Of Jesus himself, our “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14).
  1. Of the Jewish priests, that is, the priests of the Old Covenant (e.g., Matthew 16:21; Acts 6:7).
  1. Of all Christian believers, great and small (e.g., Revelation 1:5b-6).

It is never used in the New Testament of a special, Christian office.

“In the apostolic organization of the Church in the first century, as it is recorded for us in the New Testament writings, the leadership of the local church consisted of bishops, elders and deacons.”

Rather in the apostolic organization of the Church in the first century, as it is recorded for us in the New Testament writings, the leadership of the local church consisted of bishops (or overseers), elders and deacons.[11]

The word for ‘elder’ — πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros, from which we get the word ‘presbyter’ — has historically often been confused with ‘priest’, but really it is a completely different word. The Greek word ‘priest,’ in all three senses in which the New Testament uses it above, is ἱερεύς, hiereus (in, e.g., Acts 6:7; Revelation 1:5b-6; and in Hebrews 4:14 as ἀρχιερεύς, archiereus, ‘high priest’).

The Reformers in the sixteenth century recognized this glaring absence of the Christian ‘priest’ in the New Testament. This is the Reformation doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers — that all true believers are priests, not just a special caste of ‘ordained’ Christians.

Thus, in the evangelical Church of England church which I attend in Sussex, our minister would hate for you to refer to him as ‘priest’ or ‘Father’ — and would probably gently correct you if you did so.[12]

In Gregory’s third sermon we see this idea of the Christian ‘priest’ at a point in time. It may not have taken on the full, sacramental significance of the Catholic ‘priest’ from the high Middle Ages onward, but already we see a very clear demarcation between the Christian who desires “the grace of the priesthood”[13] and those who are ‘mere’, unordained believers.

“[Y]ou are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

1 Peter 2:9-10

Let me leave you with a passage from the New Testament, the classic text for the doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers. It comes from the pen of the Apostle Peter, and is addressed to all Christians scattered throughout the world[14]:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9-10[15]

As Christians, let us be thankful that God’s grace — and access to him — are available, not just to a select group of Christians, but to all true believers: men, women and children, rich and poor, slave and free, at all places and for all time. Amen.

 

 

The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Third Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily3%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

 

 

Note
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Hebrews 10:1

[2] Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ (henceforth referred to as ‘ACW 18’): p.45

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+16%3A9-10&version=ESVUK

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+15%3A37-38&version=ESVUK. The curtain to which Mark the Gospel writer refers was the curtain which separated the inner part of the Tabernacle from the most sacred part, the Holy of Holies — separated, in effect, the people from God. The Tabernacle in the wilderness had by this time been replaced by the Temple, but the idea was the same.

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+5%3A1-2&version=ESVUK. The Apostle Paul is writing here to the Christians who were at Rome.

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+10%3A19-22&version=ESVUK

[7] n.b., To see this on BibleGateway you need to ensure the ‘footnotes’ option is checked.

[8] ACW 18, p.45

[9] Ibid., p.47

[10] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2017/11/christian-clergy-became-priests/. This blog post is well worth reading to understand how the idea of the Christian ‘priest’ gradually developed during the second and third centuries.

[11] e.g., Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5

[12] This is not universally true throughout the Church of England: in many C-of-E churches the minister is referred to as a ‘priest’ and addressed as ‘Father —’ (as in the Roman Catholic Church).

[13] ACW 18, p.45

[14] 1 Peter 1:1

[15] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+2%3A9-10&version=ESVUK

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