Featured Reviews, Uncategorized, VOLUME 6

Garry Wills – Why Priests? [Feature Review]

Page 2: Garry Wills – Why Priests?


In his analysis, Wills is surprising literal, as well as unsympathetic to the characteristic allegories of Hebrews: it “is as capricious in its use of Melchizedek as . . . rabbinical and heretical sources” (113). Wills lists multiple instances of “strained parallels” (148), mocking in particular the idea of Levi tithing through Abraham’s loins, and concludes that “the jointures of this Letter will not bear close scrutiny” (156). Wills dismisses those who argue for the Letter’s theological worth by its canonical status: “This kind of learned fundamentalism is embarrassing” (114).


Wills now cuts to the heart of the book. The case Hebrews makes for Jesus’ priesthood is “something novel” (142); furthermore, “putting sacrifice at the center of his thinking led the author of Hebrews to various forms of primitive thinking” (167), particularly in seeing Christ as a sacrificial atonement for sins. Again, Wills makes a contrast, between Anselm, for whom “Jesus paid the price, the Father accepted, and the bargain was concluded” (203), and then Augustine, for whom “Jesus came to heal mankind, to make humans attuned to God” (203). Wills can now state the problem at length:


Why has [Augustine’s] view of the atonement not prevailed through most of Christian history? Why did the legalistic and punitive theory of Anselm hold sway for so long? This is not so surprising when we consider that the Letter to Hebrews brought back into Christianity the centrality of animal sacrifice in the worship of God. Indeed, the Letter made things worse by revalidating human sacrifice as pleasing to God. Anselm’s theory was just a spelling out of the consequences of the Letter to Hebrews. In combination they turned a religion that was originally priestless into one that requires priests at every stage of one’s life (at least in the Catholic and Orthodox branches of that religion), from birth to death, from baptism to last rites, with penance and Eucharist dispensed along the way. It was this concatenation of concepts that condemned as merely subjective the view that the Eucharist is a celebration of the people of God and that atonement is achieved through faith and love, and not by buying off God’s wrath. (210-211)


Having laid bare the fundamental problem, Wills goes back to the “superstructure built upon the idea of a sacrificing priest at the center of the Christian religion” (212). In the book’s final chapters, Wills breaks down the scriptural and theological justifications for the Catholic sacraments.


At the book’s outset, Wills says he will examine “dispassionately, thoroughly, historically” the claim upon which “the priesthood stands or falls,” the claim to a “unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ” (3). But as noted before, the scope of Wills’s argument is surprisingly wide, and ends with rejecting much more than vestments and transubstantiation.


Yet in a sense, Wills’s argument is also surprisingly narrow. “Why did the priesthood come into a religion that began without it and, indeed, opposed it?” Wills asks on page one. Yet Wills shows little interest in the historical process of where Christian priesthood came from. Instead, Wills gives us his evisceration (sacrifice?) of Hebrews, first locating within the letter the origin of Christian priesthood, and then reading the letter out of the canon. However, as Wills notes, Hebrews “had to be written before the nineties of the Common Era, since it is quoted and paraphrased in Clement of Rome’s letter of that date” (122). That statement contains a whole history which Wills, in his exegetical prowess, ignores.


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