Sacerdotalism is the belief that propitiatory sacrifices for sin require the intervention of a priest. That is, it is the belief that a special, segregated order of men, called the priesthood, are the only ones who can commune directly with God or the gods. This system of priesthood is exemplified by the priests in the Old Testament.
The term sacerdotalism comes from the Latin sacerdos, priest, literally one who presents sacred offerings (from sacer, 'the sacred', and dare, 'to give'). The related Latin term sacerdotium refers to the earthly hierarchy (of priests, bishops, etc.) whose primary goal is the salvation of the soul.
According to the Roman Catholic documents of the Second Vatican Council, sacerdotalism is the teaching that "through the ministry of priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the sole Mediator. Through the hands of the priests and in the name of the whole Church, the Lord's sacrifice is offered in the Eucharist in an unbloody and sacramental manner until He Himself returns." Thus, priests "exercise within the Church a function of the apostles. They are empowered to perform the ministry of the Word, by which men are formed into the People of God. They catch up and draw into the Eucharistic Sacrifice the spiritual sacrifice of the common priesthood of the faithful". As such, only validly ordained Catholic priests with an apostolic lineage are able to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.
St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: "Although Christ's passion and death are not to be repeated, yet the power of that Victim Jesus endures forever, is eternal, for, as it is written, (Hebrews 10:14), 'by one oblation He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.'" Then he notes that the priest participates in that one eternal "redemptive act" (ongoing offering) sacramentally. His thinking runs like this: Jesus is both human/temporal and God/eternal. His offering on the cross was both eternal and human. In virtue of Jesus and his actions being eternal, his act of giving/offering on the cross has no beginning and no end. (There is no beginning or end in the eternal.) It is an ongoing offering and advocacy in eternity or heaven. In virtue of being part of the body of Christ (through baptism) the people of God, through a designated minister (priest), participate in this ongoing offering, advocacy, or sacrifice of Jesus sacramentally.
Protestant denominations reject sacerdotalism. They hold that the New Testament presents only one atoning sacrifice, the Body of Christ offered once for all on the cross by Christ himself, who is both the sinless offering and the sinless priest. The Eucharistic sacrifices of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving are offered by all believers as spiritual priests. The Body of Christ in the Holy Supper is not offered by the ministry to God as a means of sheltering the communicants from the divine wrath, but it is offered by God through the ministry as representatives of the congregation, to individuals, as an assurance of his gracious will to forgive them their sins.
According to Lutherans, the office of the ministry in Christianity is not part of the priestly system of the Old Testament. It is not a self-perpetuating group that can be passed on to successors through ordination. Instead, Lutherans hold that the divinely instituted ministry continues the work of Christ by exercising on behalf of the laity the means of grace, which Christ gave to all Christian believers.
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- Augsburg Confession, Article XXIII: Of the Marriage of Priests.
- The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV Of the Mass.
- Sckmalkald Articles, Article II: Of the Mass.
- Henry Eyster Jacobs, Lutheran Cyclopedia p. 417, "Sarcodotalism"
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- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947), 2143–2146, 2503–06, 2507–2525.
- To embrace this reasoning, one has to accept Aquinas' understanding of the two natures of Jesus operating in the one person. He puts it this way: "The operation of Christ's human nature, as the instrument of the Godhead, is not distinct from the operation of the Godhead; for the salvation wherewith the manhood of Christ saves us and that wherewith His Godhead saves us are not distinct; nevertheless, the human nature in Christ, inasmuch as it is a certain nature, has a proper operation distinct from the Divine as stated earlier." Then he notes: "The proper work of the Divine operation [or action in Christ] is different from the proper work of the human operation. Thus to heal a leper is a proper work of the Divine Operation, but to touch him is the proper work of the human operation. Now both these operations concur in one work (or action), inasmuch as one nature acts in union with the other." Analogically put, to redeem humanity is a proper work of Divine action, but to hang on a Cross is a proper work of a human action. Now both of these actions in Scripture occur in the one endeavor of Jesus in as much as one nature acted in union with the other. However, only the redemptive action, which is Divine and eternal, continues in heaven, not the bloodletting of Calvary. Thus at Mass, Catholics are put in contact with the first, the eternal redemptive and intercessory action of Jesus, not with the second, bloodletting on the Cross. But in virtue of being in touch with the Divine action of the person of Jesus (sacramentally at Mass), they are likewise in touch with the same Jesus who underwent woundedness and redemption on the Cross. Ibid., 2132–2133.
- Augsburg Confession, Article 21, "Of the Worship of the Saints". trans. Kolb, R., Wengert, T., and Arand, C. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.
- Erwin L. Lueker, et al.,Christian Cyclopedia. Concordia Publishing House, 2000.