Protestant Reformers and the Priesthood of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1–10)

My paper will focus on the debate among Reformed Protestants of the sixteenth century over the priesthood of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. There was not a uniform position on the passage and considerable differences of interpretation are evident among the leading figures on a range of significant points concerning the symbolic and historical readings of the text. For the reformers, the most significant question concerned how Melchizedek was a type for Christ. Almost uniformly they agreed that he was, but exactly how remained a source of disagreement. There was consensus, however, following Huldrych Zwingli, that the Melchizedek story revealed the superiority of the priesthood of Christ over the old priesthood. Following the medieval tradition, the reformers held to the interpretation that identified two forms of priesthood, Melchizedek and Aaron. The question was what this passage revealed about Christ’s priesthood. For John Calvin the story of Melchizedek spoke to the twofold office of Christ as prophet and priest. Like the early Reformation commentators, Calvin rejected that the bread and wine were Eucharistic symbols. In terms of contemporary questions, the passage was employed in the attack on the Roman church with its misuse of sacrifice in the Mass. The paper will look at the ways in which Reformed interpreters took considerable interest in the historical background to the Melchizedek passage, without, however, impugning its spiritual significance. The scope of this paper ranges from Zwingli and Oecolampadius to Reformed authors of the seventeenth century. In addition to the Swiss writers, I shall examine the notes for the Geneva Bible and the writings of Johannes Crellius, John Owen, and David Dickson.