I have wanted to read Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs for a good bit of time now. I have been trying to focus on books that have stood the test of time or contemporary stimulating books. I figured that Leithart’s Priesthood fell into the latter category. I was not disappointed. I learned so much from this book. I will be thinking through it for awhile.
In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter writes that “baptism now saves you.” He qualifies his statement, but exegetes and theologians have been busy qualifying it in even more ways. Leithart’s goal was to produce a baptismal theology that would make it natural to speak about baptism being salvific. Baptism is at the beginning of the gospel, as Leithart points out with John’s baptism in the Gospel of Mark. Leithart believes that baptism has been infected by a semi-Marcionite attitude that fails to read baptism against the Old Testament background. This has lead to a severing of baptism’s implications and an impetus for secularization. Taking his cue from Augustine, he wants to see baptism as a conjugation of priestly ordination. Baptism thus fulfills and replaces the ordination rite.
Thus, priestly ordination in the Old Testament must be grasped. He goes through a number of suggestions as to what a priest is, but ultimately argues that priests are attendants of Yahweh’s household. This means that baptism has the same role in the church as ordination had for Israel: consecrating priests for God’s house. This does not mean they are exactly the same because the gospel transforms preexisting forms. What one must do, then, is see how the grammar is changed by the New Testament. One must attend to both the continuities and discontinuities.
But does the New Testament support seeing baptism in light of the ordination rite. Leithart highlights Augustine’s Christological typology. All who are in Christ are anointed like Christ. But being in Christ comes through Christian initiation, baptism. The liturgy of baptism also suggests a connection. Just as baptism is a one time event and done by someone else, so it is with the ordination rite in the Old Testament.
Leithart wants to support this linking along even stronger lines. Thus, he looks at multiple New Testament texts to argue that this linking is made. He turns to Hebrews 10:19-22. Most commentators take this as a baptismal text. Here Leithart notes that in order to draw near, one must come under blood and water, a rare combination in the Levitical law but found in the ordination rite (Ex. 29:4, 21; Lev. 8:6, 30). So, Hebrews describes baptism with imagery borrowed from ordination. Similarly, baptism replaces ordination because the believer enters through the veil, like the high priest. While the High Priest washed before entering the Holy of Holies, he was sprinkled with blood only at his ordination. So, “All those baptized and sprinkled with the blood of Christ have privileges of access beyond those of Israel’s High Priests.” (loc. 1494; I converted a pdf to kindle, so these locations might not match the kindle edition) Since baptism is now the rite that makes priests, baptism is seen against the backdrop of priestly ordination.
Next he turns to Galatians 3:27. Here Leithart picks up the putting on terminology. Where does Paul draw from for this clothing imagery? As he says, “Faced with the crossword puzzle clue, ‘official with special religious vestments,’ the first-century Jew would have immediately answered, ‘the High Priest.'” (loc. 1544) Moreover, since all of them wear the same clothes, this is to say that they all have the same religious status, they all stand in the same place. This is a notion within the orbit of priestly concerns.
Similarly, the language of sonship, inheritance, and the Spirit that is found throughout this section is priestly language. To quote Leithart, “When Paul calls the baptized ‘sons’ who inherit the promised Spirit, he employs language associated with the priestly tribe. As the Levites became ‘heirs of Yahweh’ through a rite that began with an aspersion and included a clothing change (Num. 8:7), so the Galatians become heirs of the Spirit through baptismal investiture. ‘Heir of God the Spirit’ is the Christian conjugation of ‘priest’ and ‘Levite.'” (loc. 1558) So, to be clothed with Christ is to be clothed with garments of glory, like the priests (Ex. 28:2). Galatians 3:27 means that baptism fulfills and replaces ordination.
1 Corinthians 6:11 is also highlighted. The sanctifying wash is soon linked with the temple of the Spirit. Thus, the sanctified priesthood is the temple of the Spirit. Baptism thus accomplishes what ordination once accomplished. Baptism fulfills ordination.
Leithart also makes an intriguing argument based on Luke 3:21-23. Just as Jesus’ baptism inaugurates his priestly ministry, so does Christian baptism. He picks up on this theme through Luke’s priestly Messiah. The focus on the temple, John’s descent from a son and daughter of Aaron, and Gabriel’s commission of John all point in this direction. Jesus is clearly linked to John. John, as a priest of Levi pays homage to Jesus, as Levi did to Melchizedek. The echoes of the early chapters of 1 Samuel also make this priestly link.
Further, you find this link in the baptism itself. Jesus undergoes baptism for the forgiveness of sins because he is identifying with Israel as the sin-bearing substitute. “Aaron wore a crown on his turban to bear the iniquity of Israel (Ex. 28:36-38).” (loc. 1685) Thus, “[l]ike Aaron, Jesus was ‘baptized’ into substitutionary ministry, not only to offer but to be a sacrifice, His baptism at Jordan climaxing in His baptism in blood at Calvary (Luke 12:50).” (loc. 1687) Jesus beginning his ministry at thirty years of age links with the Levites (and perhaps the priests).
Leithart also highlights Luke’s genealogy. Jesus is a priest after the order of Aaron. So, when “Son of God” is applied to both Adam and Jesus in Luke 3, this is a priestly title. What about the presentation scene in Luke 2? Luke speaks of their purification, when only Mary was unclean. Moreover, the law talks about redemption from service, not presentation for service. Perhaps Numbers 8:14-19 is in the background, which would be a priestly link. The transfiguration resonates with the baptismal scene, but this is also an event on the eighth day (cf. Lev. 9:1), Jesus’ clothing is glorious, glory surrounds Jesus, Peter wants to make tabernacles, and a cloud overshadows the mountain (cf. Ex. 40:34-38). “The transfiguration publishes the truth of the baptism: Jesus has been, and will be, glorified as High Priest over the house.” (loc. 1738) So, Christian baptism patterned on Jesus’ baptism means that baptism is an induction into priestly service.
Next, Leithart discusses 2 Corinthians 1:21-22. Whether this is a baptismal passage is debated amongst scholars. Here he interweaves a discussion of chapters 4 and 5. There Paul hopes to wear a permanent temple garment rather than continuing int he earthen, tabernacle existence. This heavenly house is equivalent to the glory into which believers are being transformed. Thus, although Paul now had a tent-like glory as a priest, his suffering ministry will transform it into a house-like glory. So, if 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 is a baptismal text, then the gift of the Spirit in baptism is an investiture of priestly garments that will be transformed through suffering into an eschatological house-glory. If it is not a baptismal text, baptism signifies the anointing of the Spirit, thereby pointing to the priestly tent and future house.
All in all, then, the New Testament does support this linking of baptism and ordination. How are they to be linked and understood? Baptism is understood through ordination, but they are not the exact same. Instead, there are continuities and discontinuities. Priestly ordination should elucidate our theology of baptism, but it should not be the final say if the New Testament speaks in other ways. So, Leithart goes on to expound a theology of baptism.
Ordination in the Old Testament included filling the hands with food. Therefore, for those baptized, their hands must be filled with food by partaking of the Lord’s Table. In this way, if infants are baptized, then they should partake of the Table. Here he even argues for baptism of infants. Since all of the members of the priestly family could eat of the sacred food, then the same should be said of the priestly families in Christ. By combining this with the historic view that only the baptized can partake of the Table, one arrives at infant baptism.
But how are infants priests? Priests were attendants in Yahweh’s household. Can infants perform these tasks? Leithart sees the New Testament conjugation of housekeeping as building up the body. Can infants contribute to the edification of the church? Certainly, argues Leithart, as anyone who has had a newborn in the congregation can recognize.
This brings Leithart to more contentious issues about baptismal efficacy. The ordination texts are certainly objectively efficacious. If this is the case, then by the typology between ordination and baptism, baptism should likewise be construed. Baptism therefore makes priests ex opere operato. Baptism causes what it symbolizes. Baptism therefore makes priests.
Here Leithart stretches further into baptismal regeneration. Through the ordination ceremony, Aaron became a new man. Leithart highlights this by looking at the eighth day and the way the tabernacle symbolizes new creation. The ordination depicts Adam as a new Adam in the tabernacle garden. This pushes us to baptismal regeneration.
This is neither reductionistic nor does it make the waters into magic. Instead, “[o]perative ceremonies, thus, by placing us in new roles, vesting us with new clothes, and imposing new sets of obligations and rules, effect an ‘ontological’ transformation, a change in who we are, who we think we are, and who others think we are.” (loc. 2386) Social and theological levels cannot be pried apart. Baptism is a gift of God’s grace through which He adopts us as sons.
What does this mean about salvation? Here Leithart emphasizes that salvation is adjectival. A saved person is someone who lives as God created him to live. A saved community is a community conformed to the New Covenant. Thus, baptism is salvific. “Living the life of salvation is ministering in God’s house; as baptism authorizes and deputizes to such ministry, it grants a share in the life of salvation.” (loc. 2417) Baptism thus inducts us into ministry in God’s house. The way of salvation is continuing this ministry. Leithart, therefore, sees the importance of works in perseverance and believes that some truly do fall away.
Further, baptism is therefore necessary to salvation in a roundabout way. Since the church only exists where the divinely authorized sacraments are practiced, baptism is necessary to the church’s existence. Since the church is the site where salvation has and is occurring, baptism is necessary for salvation. Baptism is therefore a participation in God’s construction of a new world and His consecration of new men. Through this human act, Christ in the Spirit produces new creations.
Here it is helpful to string together a number of texts from Leithart. “On this theory, the causality of the sacraments is like that of cultural institutions and social customs, which depend on value ascribed by an authority within a contingent semiotic economy…Covenantal causality locates the divine role more at the level of institution than at the moment of administration…Baptism is efficacious because Jesus assigned this rite value as the entry token for the feast, as the induction ceremony into His Spirit-filled house, as ordination into priesthood…Because it was the creative word that was performed, the human performance was also creative, producing a new world and new men. Likewise, baptism is efficacious not only because it is authorized, but because it enacts the word of the Incarnate Word by whom the world was made, through whom the world was renewed.” (loc. 2518ff.; emphasis original)
Baptism therefore forms a priesthood for all. It therefore reconstructs the religious landscape by tearing down various social barriers between the priests and the laypeople. Since the gospel is a social proclamation about eschatological restoration in Christ, baptism effects this global regeneration and is therefore the beginning of the gospel of the new creation. Leithart picks up on Hebrews and Galatians to flesh out this theme of priesthood for all. Baptism breaks through both Hebrew and Gentile orders. It forms a new community, a new social order. “The font is the womb not only of the church but of the world.” (loc. 2954)
I hold to believers’ baptism, so the conjugation of ordination looks different for me than it does for Leithart. I still have to work through how this typology should inform my own views of baptism. Leithart’s text is one I will continue to return to. It is wonderful in so many ways. I am not sure the last time I have read a book that has been this intriguing and stimulating.
I received a complimentary copy from Wipf and Stock. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.