The Rt Revd Colin Buchanan replies to earlier writers and questions their undue enthusiasm for Melchizedek and the use made of his embodiment of the priesthood

I last addressed ND when a woman contributor stated she had finally discovered that her ordination was off-limits when she recalled the phrase ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’. She said it came in an ordination service, though I know no ordination rite containing it (certainly no Anglican one) – and its relevance to whether she was truly ordained or not was unclear.

So I have reckoned ever since to explore Melchizedek in ND’s columns; and last month’s page from John Hunwicke on ‘Melchizedek returns’ now stirs me to write.

John Hunwicke revels in Melchizedek’s presence in historic eucharistic prayers; and even quotes a Roman Catholic, Laurence Hemming, as being ‘unwilling nowadays to attend a Eucharist in which Melchizedek is not mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer’.

But Margaret Barker ‘offers us a Jesus who does see himself as Messiah, does see himself as Priest’ – for this exposition ‘subverts those old Jesuses who had no idea they were Messiah, Priest or God’. Taking Jesus as a ‘priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ apparently sees off the liberalism of Kung and Schillebeeckx.

Sparse biblical record

So why am I reaching for my keyboard? Well, I want (as a self-respecting Evangelical) to engage more closely with the Bible. Melchizedek comes three times only: Genesis 14 says he is a priest and records his meeting Abraham and receiving tithes from him; Psalm 110.4 says ‘The Lord has sworn and will not repent, you are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’; and then, marvellously, the writer to the Hebrews, as Jesus has applied Psalm 110.1 to himself, reads off from verse 4 of that Psalm a great exposition of Jesus as our high priest. Melchizedek occurs by name in nine successive chapters [2-10] of Hebrews -and nowhere else in the New Testament.

Dignifying Jesus as ‘priest’ also occurs in Hebrews alone. All that is involved in that title is found within this one epistle -never clashing with the rest of the Christian revelation (including the atonement), but presenting it in unique terms.

The Hebrews usage echoes into the very early Fathers. The title ‘high priest’ for Jesus Christ is strikingly recurrent, as, e.g. in the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians [1 Clem. 36 and 64]; in Ignatius of Antioch [Philadelphians 9]; in Polycarp [Philippians 12]; and in the quoted direct speech of Polycarp in The Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.

Justin in the mid-second century in his Dialogue with Trypho refers at least a dozen times to Jesus as high priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek’. So the appeal of this mysterious figure appears -Melchizedek foreshadows to the Jewish enquirer a global role for Jesus, totally outstripping the Jewish dispensation.
And, to John Hunwicke’s delight, Melchizedek so impresses patristic thinking as to pass into the western eucharistic prayers. My erstwhile quasi-mentor, Arthur Couratin, said to me Abel, Abraham and Melchizedek are there providing non-Jewish precedents for the Christian sacrifice!

Couratin also asserted that ‘puram hostiam'(do any readers use this phrase in the Eucharist?) sprang from Malachi 1.11, and its widespread patristic use to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian dispensation over the Jewish entrenched it also within Christian liturgy. But was that true to Scripture?
But here I ask the romantics to pause. For what is the thrust of the Melchizedek references in Hebrews? He appears, I submit, for three good purposes.

His appearance in Hebrews

First, as the point of reference in God’s oath making his Son a priest.

Secondly, as the model for Jesus of a priest who enters the scene without reference to tribal origins or growing old (‘without father or mother or end of days’), and thus is ‘priest for ever’, with an inalienable and untransferable priesthood.

Thirdly, to demonstrate that Melchizedek’s priesthood outstrips any Levitical priesthood, for Abraham’s payment of tithes and his blessing of Abraham powerfully symbolize the subordinating of the time-limited Jewish priesthood to Jesus’ timeless one.

Melchizedek then heralds Jesus’ appointment and status as our high priest. So far, so good. But Melchizedek does not specifically herald Jesus’ sacrificial function. For this, Hebrews invokes the Levitical priesthood and the day of atonement ritual [see Hebrews 7-10].

These exemplify the shadow [Heb.10.1], and the substance is Jesus’ single death once-for-all, his passing once ‘within the veil’, and his living there eternally that we may ‘come boldly before the throne of grace’. In Hunwicke’s words, we do have ‘a place for a Jesus who saw himself as offering his death for our sins.’

Without sacrifice?

That said, I am, I fear, next offering some cautions.

First, though Melchizedek was a priest, we learn nothing of his offering any sacrifice. Hebrews (and the early post-apostolic authors) know this and never mention any sacrifice of his.

Secondly – and derivately – it is sheer romanticism (risking error) to relate the Eucharist to any supposed sacrifice by Melchizedek. There is simply no basis for such supposing.

Thirdly, Christ does not delegate, transfer nor extend his priesthood to any ordained Christian priests. He winds up the Jewish priesthood, and fulfils all it portrays, inalienably in his own person. Hebrews gives no place or function to earthly priests. The hiereus stem occurs occasionally elsewhere, presenting the whole people of God as a ‘priesthood’, but it never touches Christian ministers – and Christian ministers, with or without cultic functions, are nowhere in view in Hebrews. The argument neither needs them, nor leads to them.

Fourthly, I must add (and must tiptoe carefully in saying it) that Hebrews not only has no ordained priests – it also never refers to the Eucharist at all. The outcome of Jesus’ role and function as high priest is, in chapters 12 and 13, high moral courage, leading to a specific offering of the ‘sacrifice of praise’ (i.e. the fruit of our lips) and doing good and sharing with others, as such sacrifices’ are pleasing to God [Heb.13.15-16]. But the Eucharist is simply not there, and there is nothing to link priesthood with sacraments.

None of this diminishes my excitement about Jesus’ priesthood, sacrifice and endless life. But it stems from what is in Hebrews, not from what is not. Tolle, lege.