Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ordination - quick lexical investigation

As mentioned in the last post, there seems to be little cohesion among different traditions as to the purpose and meaning of ordination [1], and even in the Free Church tradition, different groups historically have understood ordination in different ways. This might be due to the fact that even a lexical investigation of the English word ‘ordain’, as Patterson points out, “provides limited assistance on the subject of ordination.” In the King James Version ‘ordain’ is the “translation of more than twenty Hebrew and Greek terms,”[2] but this wide use of the word was apparently reconsidered in the more modern New King James Version where it is only used to translate seven of those Hebrew and Greek terms. The etymology of the term is also not very helpful in the matter. The term surfaced in the English language in the late thirteenth century with the meaning “to appoint or admit to the ministry of the Church.” It is held to have come from the Latin ordino, ordinare, through the Old French ordener.[3] Following the trail, investigating the verb ordino reveals that it comes from the noun ordo, “order,” and besides its traditional meaning of “to order, set in order, adjust, dispose, regulate,” there are a few secular first century attestations of its use as “to ordain, appoint to office.” Its ecclesiastical meaning of “to ordain as a priest or pastor, to admit to clerical office,” finds attestations as early as the fourth century, as in Lampridius’ history of the third century Roman emperor Alexander Severus, but, surprisingly, its fifth century use in the Vulgate is mostly not ecclesiastical, rather it is used with the plain meaning of “to order, set in order, adjust, dispose, regulate.”[4]

All of this sheds little to no light on the practice of ordination as seen in the New Testament. Therefore in the next post I will start looking at the Biblical data on ordination, starting with the Old Testament.

[1] In the 1993 book Anyone for Ordination?, editor Paul Beasley-Murray presents eight different traditions representing: Anglican, Independent, Methodist, ‘New Church’, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, United Reformed, and Baptist. In these traditions, the range of understanding goes from sacramental to only recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit and from for clergy only to for all believers.

[2] Paige Patterson, “The Meaning of Authority in the Local Church,” 251.

[3] Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “ordain,” [on-line]; accessed 15 November 2009; available from; Internet. Here is a sample of other modern definitions: Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “ordain:” “to invest officially (as by the laying on of hands) with ministerial or priestly authority;” Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “ordain:” “to invest with ministerial or sacerdotal functions; to introduce into the office of the Christian ministry, by the laying on of hands, or other forms; to set apart by the ceremony of ordination; to set apart for an office;” or Concise Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “ordain:” “confer holy orders on.”

[4] Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879), s.v. “ordĭno,” [on-line]; accessed 15 November 2009; available from; Internet. The only possible ecclesiastical use of ordino in the Vulgate might be found in 2 Cor 8:19. This verse is to be discussed below.

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