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Ancient Vocabulary of Ordination

by John Wijngaards

When studying ancient texts it is easy to misinterpret the terms that are used for ordination. This is due to the fact that in the course of time those terms have changed dramatically in meaning. For instance, in our own time the word “to bless” does not imply ordination.

In ancient Latin texts we find that three terms are being used almost synonymously for ordination. They are:

1. benedicere – literal transcription: to bless,

2. consecrare – literal transcription: to consecrate, and

3. ordinare – literal transcription: to ordain.


The most fundamental term during the first 1000 years seems to have been “to bless”. The deeper meaning of this is related to what we find within the very heart of ordination, namely that it is the Holy Spirit herself who makes the candidate either a bishop, a priest or a deacon. The Bishop who performs the ordination speaks a formula and this formula calls for the coming down of the Holy Spirit. The Latin for “to bless” literally means “to speak well”. The ancient texts routinely speak of blessing [= ordaining] bishops, priests and deacons.
The term “to consecrate” seems to derive from the fact that the ordinand dedicates a particular person for ordination. This is often expressed in various prayers. “I dedicate this servant of yours to the diaconate.” In general, blessing a candidate or consecrating a candidate both mean the same thing: ordaining that candidate.
The term “to ordain” comes in a little later (perhaps during the fourth century) and expresses possibly the whole process of leading a candidate to full ordination, from his or her election through the various ceremonies to his or her acceptance as a new bishop, priest or deacon. But, here too, ordaining a candidate is synonymous to blessing or consecrating him or her.
Just as we find in the Byzantine part of the church during this time, ordination has three distinguishing features: 1. The imposition of hands by the bishop;
2. The dedication of the person to a specific ministry;
3. The calling down of the Holy Spirit on the candidate.
Later changes in terminology – take note!!
From the 12th century onwards terms become more refined in both theology and liturgy. The three terms we have discussed so far now take on their own very specific meaning which they still retain in present-day professional usage.
Ordaining now stands for the sacramental ordination of a person.
Consecrating is used for the non-sacramental ordination of a person, such as a reader, an acolyte, and also of certain objects such as a church building or an altar.
Blessing, on the other hand is now reduced to the meaning of a celebrant speaking a prayer over a person or an object that require God’s special help. In this way a priest may bless a sick person, a house, or even a motor car.
What we should note is that it would be a great mistake to apply those later more specific interpretations of terminology to the ancient texts we are discussing in this section.