Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Authority (Part 4: Priesthood as an Abstract Idea)

Charles Harrell has pointed out that the LDS Church is unique in the way it regards priesthood. Rather than being tied exclusively to the fact of being a priest (in other words, priesthood denotes the state of being a priest, just as parenthood signifies the state of being a parent), in modern Mormonism priesthood has become an abstract idea. It is a generalized power or authority.1 To illustrate what I mean, let me assert that it is theoretically possible (although institutionally inconceivable in today’s Church) to bestow upon a young man the Aaronic Priesthood without ordaining him to the office of deacon, teacher, or priest.2 In the official (though not rigid) language used when laying hands on the recipient’s head and granting either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, the bestowal and the ordination to office are two distinct elements. In essence, although this never happens, it would be possible to give someone the abstract authority without placing him in a particular institutional category (office or quorum). The authority is seen as separate from the office.3 The authority is certainly separate from any particular calling in the Church, such as bishop, high priests group leader, or deacons quorum secretary. Until recently, for instance, I did not hold a priesthood calling (I was a Primary teacher), but I still held the priesthood and could exercise it by giving health blessings or dedicating graves or performing other acts that were unrelated to a particular institutional position.
Significantly, this view of priesthood as an abstract authority is not present in ancient scripture, which is probably why it also does not exist in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant universes. In the Bible, if you had priesthood, you were a priest. And in ancient Judaism, you became a priest through heredity, not through formal ordination. Indeed, the word ordination does not appear at all in the Bible, and the word ordain(ed) is never used to signify the bestowal of priesthood authority or office.4

The Ancient Meaning of Priesthood
The modern LDS usage of the word priesthood is a linguistic anomaly. A mother, for instance, would never claim to “hold the motherhood” or to “have the parenthood.” Other churches do refer to bodies of priests as “the priesthood,” but this is a collective term, not an ethereal “something” a person can be given, something that can be held (or withheld). Thus, in LDS usage, priesthood is a word that has been wrenched from its historical and linguistic roots and given a meaning not present in any other context, even in ancient LDS scripture.
On the surface, the relationship between priest and priesthood may appear to be some sort of chicken-and-egg enigma. Which came first? In Mormon dogma, the answer is obvious. According to Bruce R. McConkie, “Priesthood is power like none other on earth or in heaven. It is the very power of God himself, the power by which the worlds were made, the power by which all things are regulated, upheld, and preserved.”5 In other words, God held the priesthood and then gave it to men, who were made priests. But simple linguistics gives us a different answer. In terms of word development, priesthood is obviously derived from the root word priest. There couldn’t be priesthood until there were priests, just as the term parenthood could not exist prior to the existence of the word parent. God certainly had authority before the world was framed, but it is doubtful it was called priesthood. Regardless of the language, the term signifying the state of being a priest would have to be dependent on the prior term describing the priest himself. Why would God refer to his authority as priesthood? Wouldn’t he have called it godhood or some other term derived from his nature and station and being? Thus, priesthood (and its equivalent terms in other languages) is likely an earthly term, derived from the word priest, which came into existence at some point in human history to describe those called to represent God. If we accept the biblical account, this office is first mentioned in Genesis 14:18, referring to Melchizedek. In the modern LDS Church, however, it is common for individuals who are not priests to “hold the priesthood” (deacons and teachers, for instance), which is linguistically confusing and only makes sense to us because we have separated the term priesthood from its historical context and given it new meanings.
Most Latter-day Saints would probably be surprised to discover that the word priesthood appears only eight times in the entire Book of Mormon, all of them in the book of Alma—once in Alma 4:20, where Alma2 delivers the judgment seat to Nephihah and confines himself “wholly to the high priesthood” (the office of high priest over the church), and seven times in Alma 13, each instance employing again the term high priesthood, referring to those who “became high priests of God” (Alma 13:10). Melchizedek is specifically mentioned as having “received the office of the high priesthood” (Alma 13:18) but not merely “the priesthood.” I will return to the historical notion of high priesthood later in this series, but for now let me say that although I am a high priest in the LDS Church, Alma certainly would not have considered me a high priest, which to him would have been the religious leader of either the entire church or a regional subdivision of it. He certainly wouldn’t have understood how a person like me could be a high priest without even occupying any sort of “priestly” position (I was recently called to the high council, which is a priesthood calling but not technically a “priestly” position). I am also quite certain that the high priests he was referring to in Alma 13 did not include today’s thousands upon thousands of LDS high priests. Alma would not have recognized the priesthood as Mormons define it today. Indeed, nowhere in the Book of Mormon do we read of just “the priesthood,” meaning a general abstract authority bestowed upon all male members of the church or even a select few. The priesthood in the Book of Mormon meant simply the fact that someone was a priest, which is, of course, how we got the word in the first place.6 By contrast, the word priesthood appears 125 times in the Doctrine and Covenants and there mostly takes on the specialized meaning described above, although some of the early revelations had to be revised in 1835 to reflect this new and evolving meaning.7
Obviously, what we understand as priesthood in twenty-first-century Mormonism was not a familiar concept among the Book of Mormon peoples. Nor was it familiar to descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Old World before Jesus’s birth or to Christians during and shortly after his mortal ministry. Thus, the word priesthood appears only nine times in the Old Testament, all referring to the descendants of Aaron or, more generally, the Levites. Priesthood appears only seven times in the New Testament—five times in Hebrews 7 and twice in 1 Peter 2.8 Not once does this word appear in the Gospels, and if it did, it would probably refer to the religious leader of the Jewish people, the high priest (similar to its usage in the Book of Mormon), or to the priests who served in the temple at Jerusalem, including Zacharias, father of John the Baptist. Sometimes we have a tendency to read into ancient texts our current understanding of terms. This skews our perception of what the Christian church was like in its earliest days or how God’s people practiced their religion in Old Testament times. But clearly, the ancients’ understanding of priesthood was different from our conception today.
In the Book of Mormon, none of the prophets is said to have the priesthood generally. Alma2 confined himself to the high priesthood, meaning he gave up the office of chief judge and devoted all his time to being high priest over the church, but he wouldn’t have claimed to “have” or “hold” the priesthood. His father, Alma1, began baptizing at the waters of Mormon, claiming simply that he had “authority from Almighty God” (Mosiah 18:13), not priesthood. And there is no evidence that he received this authority by the laying on of hands or by ordination. In fact, the circumstantial evidence argues specifically against it. Later, we read that Alma1, “having authority from God, ordained priests” (Mosiah 18:18). Interestingly, because Alma1 had been a priest in King Noah’s court, he could have claimed at that time to “have” priesthood, but only because of his position in the government of Noah, not because of the authority he received from God. A question that comes up now and then in LDS lessons on the Book of Mormon is how Alma1 “received the priesthood.” I’ve heard it hypothesized that he received the priesthood directly from God through the laying on of hands. But the record says no such thing (you’d think it would not omit such a glorious manifestation), nor does it require such an interpretation. This is simply an example of reading our modern concept of priesthood back into the ancient record. The more correct answer would be that Alma did not receive the priesthood from anyone, because priesthood was not something people “received” in the Book of Mormon. Alma received authority from God, just as the record states, and he may have received such authority simply by word of mouth, commissioning him to act as an agent of God.
After Alma’s group of converts arrived in Zarahemla, King Mosiah2 gave Alma “authority over the church” (Mosiah 26:8), but again, this is not identified as priesthood, which had a very restricted meaning among the Nephites. This phrase means simply that he received permission from the king to govern the church within Mosiah’s political realm. Earlier, when Abinadi was preaching to King Noah and his priests, including Alma1, the record states that Abinadi “spake with power and authority from God” (Mosiah 13:6). Nowhere does the Book of Mormon identify this general authority from God with the specific word priesthood, although anachronistically we assign this label to the authority these men did obviously have. That Mormon did not make this connection is probably significant. Authority and priesthood were two distinct concepts in the Book of Mormon; we have conflated them in the modern Church.
Similarly, in the Old Testament, no prophet is directly associated with priesthood, although a few, like Samuel, do offer sacrifices. Descendants of Aaron are the priesthood, and, according to the LDS Bible Dictionary, “the presiding officer of the Aaronic Priesthood was called the high priest. The office was hereditary and came through the firstborn among the family of Aaron.”9 This is the modern LDS explanation, which places the office of high priest under the lesser priesthood. To the ancient Hebrews, however, the priests as a body would have been the priesthood, and the high priest was part of that priesthood, its highest-ranking member. The term Aaronic Priesthood or Priesthood of Aaron never appears in the Old Testament; nor does the term Melchizedek Priesthood. The prophets, as mentioned, were not said to have priesthood, although they obviously had authority. They were messengers of the Lord who spoke his word and recorded it and sometimes performed miracles in his name. Interestingly, the Old Testament identifies five different women as prophetesses. Similar to the prophets, they are not said to have priesthood.
In the New Testament, priesthood is never explicitly mentioned at the calling of the Apostles or the “other seventy” (Luke 10:1) who were sent out, nor is it mentioned in connection with bishops or deacons. These individuals had authority, a commission from the Lord, but it is not identified as priesthood. The more general term authority, however, appears thirty-two times in the New Testament (twenty-two in the Gospels), only twice in the Old Testament, forty-three times in the Book of Mormon, and thirty-six times in the D&C. So authority was as important a concept in ancient scripture as in modern scripture (except apparently the Old Testament), but priesthood was a much more restricted idea, referring specifically to the fact of occupying the office of priest, and particularly of officiating in priestly rituals. And this is how it is still primarily used in the non-LDS Christian world.

Modern Usage
The fact that the modern Mormon understanding of priesthood does not appear in ancient scripture, including ancient LDS scripture, is relevant to the current debate over ordaining women to the priesthood. One of the common defenses offered for retaining the current priesthood prohibition is that women were not ordained to the priesthood in the Bible or Book of Mormon. This may or may not be true,10 but by this same reasoning one might well ask, does the absence of the modern definition of priesthood in these books therefore invalidate it? The Church would certainly answer no. Thus, the absence of an idea or convention in ancient scripture does not necessarily prevent us from accepting it in modern times. Indeed, the practice of banning black men and boys from the priesthood had a stronger scriptural precedent (although murky) than does the practice of denying women this opportunity (see Abr. 1:25–27). Prior to 1978, some took these verses in the book of Abraham as positive proof in the case of the blacks, whereas all we have regarding women is negative proof, the purported absence of a practice being interpreted as incontestable evidence that it should never happen, but this negative proof is by no means as convincing as we often portray it to be.
Regardless, the scriptural/historical meaning of priesthood (as opposed to the modern LDS definition) can be seen clearly in mainstream media descriptions of the pre-1978 priesthood ban. “Blacks could not be priests,” stated a 2012 Atlantic article,11 and this exact wording appears in numerous other articles from various publications. Most non-Mormons would not understand the concept of “holding” the priesthood and therefore do not use this uniquely LDS construction. Stephen Webb, a Catholic scholar who has become fascinated with Mormonism, describes the Mormon priesthood and contrasts it with priesthood in mainstream Christianity:
Mormonism accepts the absolute sufficiency of Jesus’ blood atonement on the cross and rejects the need for a special class of priests set apart for performing sacred rituals.
Nevertheless, they have priests! Yet, as one might expect, their understanding of the priesthood fits no previous categories. Churches typically have a priesthood only if they have sacred rituals to perform, like the transformation of the bread and wine into the real presence of Jesus Christ. The priests who perform the Eucharistic transformation are thus heirs of the priesthood that performed the animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple. Mormons have a priesthood, but they do not treat the Eucharist, which they hold in their churches and not their temples, as a sacrificial ritual. . . . Rather than signifying expertise in performing rituals, the priesthood is a symbol of God’s promise to grant believers an exalted and divine status in the afterlife. Instead of being a specially trained group set apart from other believers, Mormon priests are at the forefront of where the whole church should be heading. Mormonism thus follows Protestantism in democratizing the priesthood but follows Catholicism in associating the priesthood with increasing intimacy with Christ.12
Webb offers an outsider’s view of the Mormon priesthood, perhaps not understanding entirely the sometimes confusing connection between priesthood and ordinances, but he does make a significant point: priesthood in both Judaism and Christianity is generally a specialized and separate order that exists for the sole purpose of performing sacred rituals. This is why most Protestant denominations do not have priests. I’m not sure, however, that Webb completely grasps the unique abstract nature of Mormon priesthood. Still, this difference between the ancient notion of priesthood, which persists in the Catholic Church, and the Mormon conception is significant because, in modern Mormonism, priesthood as the right to preside is as significant as its capacity to officiate in rituals, which we refer to as ordinances. This seems also to be a modern development. Although some ancient prophets, such as Moses and Enoch, did lead the people, most prophets did not preside over any sort of hierarchical organization. They taught, called people to repentance, performed occasional miracles, and spoke for God. Think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Samuel, Amos, Elijah, Jacob (Nephi’s brother), Abinadi, Samuel the Lamanite, and others. None of these prophets could be said to preside in the way we think of it today. They also could not be said to “hold” the priesthood. In modern Mormonism, however, we have combined several disparate notions from ancient scripture in creating a priesthood that is necessary not only for officiating in sacred rituals, but also for being a prophet and for presiding in a hierarchical organization. Because the idea of presiding is so central to modern LDS priesthood practices, I will return to it later in this series. For now, though, let us merely conclude that in Mormonism we appear to have appropriated a word and assigned it meanings that it did not previously have. This affects almost everything we do in the Church.
1. Charles R. Harrell, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), ch. 17. Interestingly, the LDS definition of priesthood as abstract authority does appear in the four-inch-thick Webster’s unabridged dictionary, but it is limited only to Mormon usage: “3: the authority to speak and administer in the name of the Deity given in the Mormon Church by ordination; also : the body of those so ordained including those of the Aaronic as well as the Melchizedek orders.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1993). For a history of how this definition evolved, see Gregory A. Prince, Having Authority: The Origins and Development of Priesthood during the Ministry of Joseph Smith (Independence, Mo.: Herald Publishing House, 1993).
2. While it is theoretically possible to separate these two acts in today’s Church, it wasn’t prior to at least 1900, and perhaps even 1919, when Joseph F. Smith’s Gospel Doctrine officially proposed the distinction. Nor was it possible in the Book of Mormon (see Moro. 3:1–3). See a complete discussion of this change in William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations: Text, Impact, and Evolution,” Dialogue 46, no. 4 (2014): 43–46.
3. Gregory A. Prince, Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 48–50, raises the question of why the nine priesthood offices we currently recognize became offices, when others, such as high council, did not, even though they met all the obvious requirements. “In attempting to define the rationale behind the nine offices now recognized by the Utah church, one is thus constrained by historical irregularities” (49).
4. See Kevin Barney, “Ordained,” By Common Consent, June 1, 2014, http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/06/01/ordained/#more-50553. Some verses can be read with the modern meaning (1 Tim. 2:7; Heb. 8:3), but this is what Barney calls a presentist reading, misapplying current definitions of terms to ancient contexts.
5. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Doctrine of the Priesthood,” April 1982 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1982/04/the-doctrine-of-the-priesthood?lang=eng.
6. The book of Abraham presents an interesting mix of definitions. Usage of priesthood in this book is somewhat vague, but, in my opinion, most instances in the text itself reflect the ancient definition of the term, which lends weight to the argument that it is indeed an ancient text. The captions for the facsimiles, however, most definitely reflect modern usage.
7. See Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations,” 1–84, especially 8–9, 12–13, 39–43, 63 n. 15, and 64 n. 17; Prince, Having Authority, 39–40, 51–57.
8. A Catholic commentary on why the Greek word for priest (hiereus) is not used in the New Testament (with two exceptions), explains that to the early Christians, who were primarily Jews, it would have been absurd to refer to Jesus or his Apostles as priests, because they were not Levites, who were the only ones who could be priests among the Jews. This is why the Greek term presbuteros was used instead. Interestingly, this commentary makes the following statement: “It is okay for Jesus to be a high priest because he was not a priest of the order of Aaron but of the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:20), an order which was older than the Aaronic one (7:1), which did not require a special genealogy (7:3), which was superior to the Aaronic order (7:4–10), which was prophesied to arise again one day (7:11, cf. Ps. 110:4), and which required ‘a change in the law as well. . . . For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests’ (7:12–14).” Catholic Answers Staff, “Why Doesn’t the Greek Word for ‘Priest’ in the Letter to the Romans Appear in the Bible More Often?” Catholic Answers to Explain and Defend the Faith: Quick Questions, http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/why-doesnt-the-greek-word-for-priest-in-the-letter-to-the-romans-appear-in-the-bible-.
9. LDS Bible Dictionary, 702.
10. It has been argued that women served as deacons or deaconesses, a particular type of church official, in the New Testament church and in subsequent years as the church evolved. See, for instance, Ann Nyland, “Women in Bible Ministry—Phoebe the Deacon and Presiding Officer,” http://ezinearticles.com/?Women-in-Bible-Ministry---Phoebe-the-Deacon-and-Presiding-Officer&id=1787659. Of course, as mentioned in an earlier post, deacons may not have been part of the priesthood.
11. Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, “How (George) Romney Championed Civil Rights and Challenged His Church,” Atlantic, August 13, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/08/how-george-romney-championed-civil-rights-and-challenged-his-church/261073/.
12. Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 150. Toward the end of this quotation, Webb is referring to the Protestant notion of a “priesthood of all believers,” where “every individual has direct access to God without ecclesiastical mediation and each individual shares the responsibility of ministering to the other members of the community of believers.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.


  1. You seem to be drawing weak conclusions from weak assumptions on what is written to use as a standard to determine that your understanding of current usage to be wrong.

    I agree that your understanding of current usage may be wrong, and think that the first flaw is the idea of priesthood being an abstract authority.

    Abraham 1:4
    I sought for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed.

    He didn't say "High Priest" or "Deacon", but I can't see that he saw it as abstract in our understanding of the term.

    I think that your claim that "priesthood" was a more restricted idea seems to be based on superficial observations of the terms used by translators; to make a case you need to refer to the cultural understandings, and available terms at the time; instead of reasoning on superficial lexical choices that were possibly made without reference to this issue.

    It is also worth considering that however you may think that Alma would have considered you, he may not have been a normal case. Note that the 12 disciples chosen in America were to be judged by the 12 in Jerusalem who were the legitimate key-holding apostles. There is no reason to suppose that Alma's church was a full implementation of any order, or that it was intended to be exemplary.

    The discussion on the priesthood of Aaron is irrelevant. If the priesthood had been granted to all tribes as planned (and as we now have) you might have something to go on; but we know that it was a deliberately restricted order and not exemplary of the ideal!

    But I wonder why you would want to take that poorly documented situation as an ideal, yet contrary to the current organisation as overseen by key-holding prophets.

    "The fact that the modern Mormon understanding of priesthood does not appear in ancient scripture, including ancient LDS scripture, is relevant" to need to restore all things, including living prophets and priesthood keys.

    The church is not imitating some badly recorded ultimately apostate previous implementation, it is lead by revelation from God.

    1. I'm not sure what you are trying to say in your first two sentences. If you are implying that I'm saying our current usage is "wrong," I would disagree. All I am suggesting is that our modern LDS usage of the word "priesthood" is different from how the word was used in ancient scripture. There should really be little disagreement over this.

      And the rest of your argument makes me think you really didn't understand what I was saying. If so, it is possible I wasn't as clear as I should have been. Of course the Church is not "imitating some badly recorded ultimately apostate previous implementation." We don't view the early prophets or the apostolic church after Christ's death as apostate. But what has been implemented in modern times is very different on a fundamental level than what those people had.