Protestant Orders and the Priesthood of Phinehas

Jul 27th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The question of Apostolic authorization of Protestant ministers has been raised in an ongoing discussion beginning (more or less) here. The “authorization” question typically involves the issue of valid ministerial ordination whereby to perpetuate the apostolic mission of the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Some passages of Scripture came to mind as I was thinking about this matter, and I want to find out if these are generally considered noteworthy in the same regard.

St. Francis de Sales, in the course of his mission among the Calvinists of the Chablais, argued that their Protestant ministers have neither a mediate nor an immediate commission from Christ, by which to validly carry out the work of the ministry. In keeping with the entire tradition of the Church, this missionary saint taught that a mediate mission as ordained ministers of Christ (bishops, presbyters, deacons) requires sacramental continuity of office by way of episcopal ordination in Apostolic Succession. On the other hand, de Sales recognized that there is such a thing as an immediate ordination to the apostolic ministry (as in the case of St. Paul). An immediate apostolic mission comes directly from God and is always confirmed by miracles. [1]

Francis de Sales contended that by his time (c. 1600) episcopal ordination had lapsed among the Protestant ministers, and that the orders which they presumed to carry had not been accompanied by authenticating miracles. Therefore, he concluded that Protestant ministers possess no genuine ministry of word and sacrament, and had no rightful ecclesial jurisdiction.

I suppose that a Reformed Christian, accepting de Sales’ dilemma, might invoke the (supposed) non-distinction between presbyters and bishops in order to establish a mediate mission of ordained ministry coming through the Roman bishops/presbyters to the ex-Roman presbyters who left that church and became the founding presbyters of the Reformed ecclesial communities of the sixteenth century and thereafter. However, I do not think that this conception of a mediate Protestant mission is sustainable. It is a matter of fact that not all Protestant ministers were ordained by way of ex-Catholic presbyters. Francis Turretin, for example, appeals to the Roman line of (presbyteral) succession in his argument for the validity of the Reformed ministry, but he ultimately bases his argument on other grounds for precisely the reason that not all Protestant ministers were ordained in this line of succession. [2] Nor does it seem to be the case that many people, at least, not many among the Reformed, seek to base Protestant orders upon attestation of miracles.

Therefore it seems that de Sales has made his case. But only on his own grounds. Why, we might ask, would not a Protestant simply reject de Sales’ dilemma? What if there is a third way in which a man might validly receive orders, with the powers, duties and privileges pertaining thereto (publicly preaching the word, validly administering the sacraments, and lawfully governing the church)? In fact, this is almost always (in my experience) what Protestants do–they reject the necessity of either mediate or immediate mission as construed by de Sales. Typically, appeal is made to true doctrine as the basis of the existence of the church and the validity of her ministers.

This is a big claim, and it is something that the authors of Called to Communion are committed to evaluating in a thorough way. Many of our previous posts, together with the ensuing discussions, are either directly or indirectly concerned with this conception of the existence of the church. In sum, the Protestant principle of true church by way of true doctrine seems to imply that valid ministerial ordination can be concocted from scratch–just select some “scriptures,” get a few people to agree with your interpretation of those writings, and have them appoint you as their pastor. Of course, a Catholic will want to argue that this sort of thing leads to all kinds of problems, perpetual schism  and conflicting “orthodoxies” not the least, but abusus non tollit usum.

Now we come to the verses that I took to be possibly illustrative of a Protestant-friendly conception of ordination. These passages suggest something significantly (though not entirely) distinct from the model just described. I have in mind the ordinations of Phinehas in Numbers 25:6-13 and the Levites in Exodus 32:25-29. In both cases, the righteous actions of zealous men resulted in their ordinations to priestly ministry. In fact, Moses says to the Levites who opposed the idolatrous people and their golden calf: “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD…” (Exodus 32:29; emphasis added).

The argument proceeding from these instances of ordination would be that, in addition to an immediate call from God (accompanied by miracles), or a mediate call from the Church (by way of Apostolic Succession), there is a third way to obtain the office of minister among the people of God: zealous action in the face of apostasy. This would be an immediate mission sans miracles, and it would seem to fit nicely with the events of the Protestant Reformation (as construed by the Protestant Reformers). These passages, if they are genuinely illustrative of the Protestant situation, might provide some kind of biblical ballast to the argument from the criterion of true doctrine.

How might a Catholic respond to the assertion that these passages favor a Protestant-friendly conception of ordination? I also want to know if this way of avoiding de Sales’ dilemma appeals to our Protestant readers. Did God established a “covenant of peace” and a “perpetual priesthood” with the Protestant Reformers, as he did with Phinehas?


[1] St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publications, 1989), “General Introduction,” Chapter III.

[2] See Francis Turretin, “The Call of the First Reformers”, in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 3, trans. James G. Frazer, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1997), 235-45.


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  1. The story of Phinehas has always fascinated me. Here’s the reason why it can’t work for Protestants: he was a Levite, the grandson of Aaron in fact. He had mediate priestly rights by lineage. Not all Catholic men are ordained priests but all are potentially priests when born.

    As for the Levites, this is an establishment of a priestly order where there wasn’t one, not an establishment of a new priestly order where one already existed or an abolishment of one. It is a foreshadowing of the initial calling of the apostles and the general gathering of the disciples around Christ and the new covenant.

    Moses tells the new priests to get swords just before they are proclaimed the new lineage of priests; Christ does the same thing (Lk 22:36). But whereas those swords were used to kill three thousand; the swords of the disciples were figurative. The sword of the apostles is the sword of the Word of God – and whereas in the old covenant, the priests were established and three thousand lost their lives; at the new covenant – the priestly order was established and 3,000 gained eternal life. (Acts 2:41)

  2. I deal with this subject here:

    This argument of de Sales’ is what converted me from Calvinism to Catholicism.

  3. Andrew,

    Great topic! I am pondering a response…


    Is there any way that you can increase the font size of you website? For those of us hurdling past the threshold of middle age, it is almost impossible to read!

    God bless!

  4. Fr. Deacon Daniel,

    I look forward to your considered thoughts on the matter.

    As one approaching that very threshold (and in admiration that you can hurdle past it), I could not agree more about small font.


    Thanks for the link, but your website suffers an aggravated case of the malady that afflicts this site: too small print for mortal eyes. Elven-kind doubtless take no pause, but I am not sure that they have the Internet over there.


    I enjoyed the observation about the two three thousands and the various and sundry swords. I take it that our people have not always believed that the swords of the disciples were figurative?

  5. Andrew,

    Yes. When I was in my teens and was shaken up by Tolstoy, this passage kept me from being swept away. Its immediate context demands for a literal interpretation because they say “we have two” and He said, “that’s enough.” (Luke 22:38)

    At the same time, His true meaning seems to be symbolic. He obviously didn’t want them going out and killing people with the swords or even arming themselves for defense> 1. Two swords are hardly adequate defense for 11 men against the temple guard, etc… 2. Far from barricading themselves up in armed defense, their real mission was revealed explicitly to be going into the streets openly and unarmed to proclaim the gospel. The Holy Spirit told Agabus to take Paul’s belt and bind his hand with it (Acts 21:10-11) and He meant it literally. But it was to be a sign. The ultimate meaning of the (literal) belt was a sign of what was to come; likewise, the (literal) swords were signs of the sword of the Word.

  6. TIm, you took the words right out of my mouth. Phinehas had it coming, so to speak: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest”.

  7. Phinehas had it coming, so to speak….

    Maybe. It is significant that Phinehas is thus introduced (25:10). We certainly cannot assume that had a non-Aaronite so acted he too would have been granted a covenant of perpetual priesthood. But listen to how the text speaks when the covenant of a perpetual priesthood is given to him:

    And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.'”

    (Numbers 25:10-13, RSV, emphasis added)

    Note the reasons cited for the blessings given. We might be able to argue that the deeds of Phinehas merit (de congruo) the covenant of the priesthood, much as a certain quality of character merits the new covenant priesthood (i.e. the episcopate). Christ merited (strictly speaking) the priesthood of the new covenant. Only those men who sufficiently imitate Christ so as to merit (de congruo) a share of his office are to be grafted into the episcopal line.

    I do not say that impaling covenant-breakers with a javelin or living an otherwise exemplary life ipso facto makes one a priest, clearly it does not; that is a matter of royal grant: the sacrament of holy orders is, as this text makes clear, an unconditional and gracious covenant.

    This is, in part, why we argue that, in the new covenant in Christ’s blood, the priestly line holds regardless of the faithfulness of the very fallible and extremely peccable priests, regardless of when they begin to go bad; before or after ordination. The integrity of the Catholic priesthood is a matter of the faithfulness of Christ.

    Futhermore, there is simply no question of a further covenant, or addition to the new and eternal covenant, in which the Catholic (Melchizedekian) priesthood might be either taken up and fulfilled or just set aside, involving a change in or of the priesthood. This is where Tim’s point about the Levites (Exodus 32) kicks in.

    The most that a Protestant can get from these passages, and perhaps all they need, is the idea that meritorious deeds can call down holy orders, sans miracles and unbroken line of succession. I believe that Tim, and Jeff, have begun to address that as well.

    I would love to hear more from you guys on this. I couldn’t find a mention of Phinehas in the Institutes of either Calvin or Turretin. Maybe this episode is simply not appealed to in support of Protestant orders, regardless of how it struck me.

  8. As I see it Phinehas already was a priest. Because he remained faithful and did his job, the rest were demoted for turning a blind eye. He was a remnant so to speak.

  9. John,

    It could be that Phinehas was already ordained priest, although I could find no reference to that effect. Compare Numbers 25:7 and Joshua 22:30. In the latter passage he is simply “Phinehas the priest,” in the former he is Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest….”

    What I am still trying to figure out is, do these passages give us a principle of self-ordination, or immediate mission (including holy orders) by way of something other than unbroken succession to a once established office, and would this principle apply in the new covenant?

    The larger question, with respect to Protestant and Reformed ecclesiology, has to do with the significance of the episcopal college as regards true doctrine.

    How one addresses this matter will be determined by his convictions about a host of issues. It seems to me that the pressing questions with respect to the relationship of the college of bishops (i.e. considered as a unified whole and not a mere collection) and true doctrine are:

    (1) What is it about the episcopal college, considered as a visible and historical and Apostolic ministry, that renders its judgments binding upon all who would be faithful to Christ Jesus?

    (2) Why is it that Catholics cannot admit the possibility of appealing directly to “true doctrine” as adduced by private judgment over and against the solemn teachings of the college of bishops?

    Finally, when it comes to the identification of those ordained ministers whose God-given duty it is to teach the pure doctrine of the revealed word:

    (3) Why can’t any group of people who name the name of Jesus (in all sincerity and with the best of intentions) just choose and ordain for themselves bishops/presbyters who teach what the group believes to be the truth? Why is sacramental Apostolic Succession the indispensable criterion of valid orders?

    Such questions go to the root of the European Schism.

  10. The thing is you had the “pope” of the time declaring these ordinations as such. You had Moses, the “Christ” of the Old Covenant, declaring this. Protestants cannot claim that, nor would they, so the similarity vanishes. It might be more appropriate to say that Moses does not “declare” so much as “confirm” what God has done in adn through these men.

  11. Jeremy,

    I agree, there was no question of Phinehas and the Levites being set in orders over and against the existing priesthood. So there is no analogy to the Protestant situation in that respect.

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