Garry Wills’s Assault on Christian Faith

December 2013By Lawrence B. Porter

The Rev. Lawrence B. Porter is Professor of Systematic Theology in the Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and author of The Assault on Priesthood: A Biblical and Theological Rejoinder (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition.  By Garry Wills. Viking. 302 pages. $27.95.



Garry Wills is not a professional theologian; he is a journalist. He has published more than forty books over the past fifty years on such diverse topics as the poems of Roman satirist Martial, Richard Nixon’s presidency, Verdi’s operas, the career of Hollywood actor John Wayne, the papacy, American nuclear power, the history of Venice, and now the Epistle to the Hebrews. When Wills writes about rhetorical style, as he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he is at his strongest. Also, he is a passable historian: His biography of St. Augustine is a decent work. But when it comes to writing theology or analyzing the history of Christian doctrine, he shows himself to be a rank amateur, totally out of his element.

The thesis of his new book Why Priests? is that the early Christian movement was thoroughly egalitarian. Indeed, Wills asserts, “The egalitarian spirit of the early communities came from Jesus himself.” Also, from the beginning, the Lord’s Supper Service was “simply a celebration of the people’s oneness” and, Wills maintains, this “meaning for the ‘body of Christ’ would persist as late as the fourth and fifth centuries, in Augustine’s denial of the real presence of Jesus in the elements of the meal.” Wills indicts three principal villains for having later distorted both the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper Service, thus contributing to the creation of “priestly imperialism.” The first villain is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (traditionally said to be St. Paul), who chose to present Jesus as a priest “in the line of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20), identifying Jesus with an Old Testament figure and Canaanite priest (Gen. 14:18). The second villain is St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) with his understanding of Christ’s death as atonement for the sins of mankind. The third villain is St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) with his “theory” of transubstantiation. Against these three figures and their ideas, Wills champions what he regards as the “more traditional” sacramental theology of St. Augustine (354-430), and that of a modern theologian, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), to whose memory Wills dedicates this book.

The flaws in Wills’s argument are numerous. Consider his claim that the earliest Christian communities were thoroughly egalitarian. Certainly there is an equal dignity in baptism, but that does not mean that there is no hierarchical authority in the Church. Matthew 16:19 presents Jesus as conferring awesome authority upon Peter and, by extension, to the Apostles, to “bind and loose” consciences. The earliest work of the Christian movement, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Thessalonica, written some twenty years earlier than Matthew’s Gospel, makes clear that hierarchical authority was prominent in Christian communities from the beginning: “I urge you to respect those who are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12).

Wills’s indictment of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews for having created and propagated the myth of Jesus as a priest completely ignores the work of many recent Gospel scholars who argue that Jesus’ words and deeds indicate not the abolishment of all cult but the establishment of a new cult replacing the old Temple cult (Mk. 14:58; Jn. 2:19). Moreover, evidence suggests that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, far from being a gratuitous theological innovator, was simply elaborating upon Jesus’ own teaching: All three Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 22:42-44; Mk. 12:35-37; Lk. 20:41-44) make clear that Jesus knew well the Melchizedek psalm (Ps. 110), used it in scribal debate, and even referred to it in His response to the high priest (Mt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69). Its description of the long-promised Messiah is not that of a prophet but a priest-king “like Melchizedek.”

Poor exegesis is not Wills’s only fault. There is also his highly questionable, dubious use of non-biblical, historical, and theological sources. He invokes Augustine of Hippo often but selectively and quite arbitrarily. Augustine frequently refers to the assembly of the Christian faithful as “the Body of Christ”; nevertheless, there are several passages in Augustine’s writings where he uses the language of sacramental realism when referring to the Lord’s Supper. In his commentary on Psalm 33 Augustine says, “We approach Him to receive His body and blood…. We are enlightened by eating and drinking the Crucified.” Out of deep respect for our Jewish brethren, one hesitates to quote the following example of Augustine’s sacramental realism, but we cannot pass it up on account of its boldness. In Sermon LXXVI Augustine says of the Jews who converted to Christian faith early in the Church’s history: “They came to the Lord’s table, and in faith, drank that Blood, which in their fury they had shed.”

Wills ignores other passages wherein Augustine endorses not only Jesus’ priesthood but also the sacrificial character of the Lord’s Supper and the priestly character of certain Christian clergy. In The City of God Augustine summarizes the work of Jesus as the action “where the priesthood and kingdom are changed by one who is a priest, and at the same time a king, now and forever, Christ Jesus.” Then in Letter 98 he writes, “Was not Christ once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? And yet, is he not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations?” In On Christian Doctrine Augustine endorses the thesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews when he says, “We see the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper prefigured in the case of Melchizedek the priest.” Finally, in his other letters, Augustine often addresses other prelates by invoking their priestly character. In Letter 74 Augustine begins with the words, “To my lord Prasidius, most blessed, my brother and partner in the priestly office.” Letter 245 begins, “To Possidius, my most beloved lord, and venerable brother, and partner in the sacerdotal office.”

To see how arbitrary Wills can be with his modern sources, let us look at his use of the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Wills likes de Lubac because he considers him a modern-day Augustinian. Indeed, de Lubac was a major figure in the twentieth-century theological movement called the Nouvelle Theologie, “the new theology,” which self-consciously departed from the reigning Neo-Thomism of its day by basing itself more on the early Church Fathers than on the great medieval scholastics. Nevertheless, de Lubac was thoroughly orthodox in his theology and respected Aquinas. Let’s compare Wills’s assertion, “I do not believe in popes and priests and sacraments,” with the following passage from de Lubac’s Meditations sur l’Eglise, quoted here in its English translation as The Splendour of the Church (1956): “The very bread of the word of God, which is broken and distributed without pause by those who are its witnesses and ministers, is not enough on its own, to vitalize the soul; we have to drink from the wellspring of the sacraments, which has been handed into the keeping of the sanctifying Church…. The hierarchy’s ‘most priestly action’ and the supreme exercise of its power lies in consecrating Christ’s body and thus perpetuating the work of Redemption — in offering the ‘sacrifice of praise’ which is the only one pleasing to God.”

Wills’s bowdlerization of his sources brings to mind Alexander Pope’s line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” No doubt Wills is an industrious researcher (quoting Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and many modern exegetes), and he writes with an easy, genial style. But in Why Priests? he is cavalier in the use of his sources to the point of abuse, even betrayal. He marshals them in support of his personal religious prejudices — more precisely, his own very idiosyncratic reinterpretation of Catholicism. His research is slanted and extremely misleading, bent toward undermining Christian faith in general.

The classical doctrine of the priesthood, which was developed in the first thousand years of Christian history, is a complex one that tries to do justice to three components, or complementary elements. First is the doctrine of the unique priesthood of Jesus Christ, who, in accepting death on a cross (He could have eluded arrest and execution), saw it as a submission to the will of God and the necessary act to open a new religious era. The second component is what is called the common priesthood of all the baptized, who, in imitation of Christ, make of their lives a spiritual sacrifice to God. The third element has been called the ministerial priesthood of bishops and presbyters, who, in presiding over the Lord’s Supper Service sacramentally, re-present the unique sacrifice of Christ, making it a living presence to believers today. Each of these three elements has a biblical basis. The doctrine of the unique priesthood of Christ is based on the major thesis of the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus is “a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (6:20), who has “offered sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God” (10:12). The common priesthood of all the baptized is based upon the teaching in the First Letter of Peter, which urges Christians to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (2:5). The traditional doctrine of Christian priesthood is based on the words of Jesus as quoted in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, wherein He not only employs cultic language to describe His self-sacrifice, saying over the cup of blessing that this is the “new covenant in my blood,” but also goes on to say, “Do this in memory of me.”

No doubt the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers protested the idea that, when bishops and presbyters preside at a Lord’s Supper Service, they indeed act in priestly character by sacramentally representing that once and for all, unique sacrifice of Christ. But the Protestant reformers did not deny that Christ was a priest or that baptism imparts a priestly character to all of Christ’s disciples. Witness Martin Luther, who, in The Freedom of a Christian, says that Christ “offers himself as a sacrifice and does all things a priest should do,” and who cites Hebrews 6-7, noting how it “describes him under the type of Melchizedek.”

One mustn’t underestimate the importance of the Christian claim that Christ was a priest and that all His disciples, by the lives they lead, imitate His self-sacrifice. This doctrine positions the Christian faith in a pointed and challenging relationship to the Old Testament doctrine of animal sacrifice and the many world religions that have practiced animal and even human sacrifice, and constitutes a challenge to the all-too-common moral principle of utilitarian sacrifice. Not only did Caiaphas say, “It is better that one man die for the sake of the people” (Jn. 11:50), but such logic drives moral expediencies to this day. Modern, secular man’s oft-made decision to sacrifice everything but himself has taken innovative and historic form in civil laws that provide for abortion and euthanasia, among other perversities.

Wills’s worst transgression is weakening the moral character of Jesus. Wills insists that Jesus was in no sense a priest but instead “a radical Jewish prophet.” Wills concludes his book with a reductionist, hardly Christian, creedal assertion: “There is one God and Jesus is one of his prophets.” (We’ll put aside that this is a variation of the Islamic Shahada.) The Gospels witness to the fact that Jesus was given many titles during and after His lifetime: Rabbi, physician, Teacher, prophet, Messiah, King, Son of God, Lord, and priest. Each of these titles conveys a truth, but titles such as Son of God, Lord, and priest make clear the truly unique character and the fullest meaning of Christ’s life and death. Both His sonship and His priesthood are singular and unique. For Christians, Jesus is more than just another of God’s prophets.

Garry Wills’s latest foray into theology is teeming with flaws. Why Priests? might seem by its title to be a very precise attack on one aspect of institutional Catholicism, what Wills calls its “priestly imperialism.” But his total, uncompromising rejection of the concept of the priesthood, even as applied to Jesus of Nazareth, should alarm and concern all Christians, not just those within the institutional structure of the Catholic Church.



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