Today is Reformation Day, so called because on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, posted his 95 Theses calling for a public debate on the sale of indulgences. Whether the “posting” was by nail or by mail is still disputed, though recent views have swung back to a real hammer affixing Luther’s document to the door of the Castle Church, a beautiful structure which at the time housed a large collection of relics. What we know for sure is that between 1517 and 1521, Luther was at the center of an escalating conflict that led to his excommunication and definitive break with the Church of Rome. During these same years, Luther set forth what later scholars have referred to as the formal and material principles of the Reformation, namely, the supremacy of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone.

Another cardinal principle of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520), Luther criticized the traditional distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders—the laity and the clergy—arguing that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and belonged “truly to the spiritual estate”: “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody shall exercise such office.” All baptized believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors.

As the 1983 joint Catholic-Lutheran statement, “Martin Luther—Witness to Jesus Christ” noted, a number of Luther’s concerns were reflected in the insights of the Second Vatican Council, including his emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Like Luther, Lumen Gentium affirms the common priesthood of the faithful and grounds it in a shared participation of all believers in the one priesthood of Christ: “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10). However, the key difference between the Catholic and Evangelical understanding is also reiterated: The priesthood in which all believers share differs from the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood “in essence and not only in degree.”

While the priesthood of all believers was used by the reformers to buttress an evangelical understanding of the church over against the clericalism and sacerdotalism of medieval Catholicism, the ecclesial context of this Reformation principle has often been eclipsed within major sectors of the Protestant tradition. In my own Baptist family, for instance, it became common in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to speak of the “priesthood of the believer.” The reformers, however, spoke instead of the “priesthood of all believers” (plural). For them it was never a matter of a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum. The best interpreters of the Baptist tradition have always recognized how devastating the attenuation of this principle has been for Baptist ecclesiology. For example, Winthrop S. Hudson offered this critique:

To the extent that Baptists were to develop an apologetic for their church life during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was to be on the basis of this highly individualistic principle. It has become increasingly apparent that this principle was derived from the general cultural and religious climate of the nineteenth century rather than from any serious study of the Bible. … The practical effect of the stress upon “soul competency” as the cardinal doctrine of Baptists was to make every man’s hat his own church.

Paul Althaus, the great interpreter of Luther’s theology, explains the original Reformation meaning of this term:

Luther never understands the priesthood of all believers merely in the sense of the Christian’s freedom to stand in a direct relationship to God without a human mediator. Rather, he constantly emphasizes the Christian’s evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world. The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community.

Of course, Luther did believe that all Christians had direct access to God without recourse to what he polemically called “the tin gods and buffoons of this world.” But for Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, “I am my own priest.” It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God’s Word to one another and we celebrate his presence among us in worship, praise, and fellowship. Moreover, our priestly ministry does not terminate upon ourselves. It propels us into the world in service and witness.

John Calvin interpreted the priesthood of all believers in terms of the church’s participation in the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, King, and Priest. Specifically, every Christian is mandated to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive outreach to the world: “All believers … should seek to bring others into the church, and should strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, should stretch forth a hand to the fallen and should win over the outsiders.” In other words, the priesthood of believers is not a prerogative on which we can rest; it is a commission which sends us forth into the world to exercise a priestly ministry not for ourselves, but for others—“the outsiders”—not instead of Christ, to be sure, but for the sake of Christ and at his behest.

For Calvin, the priesthood of all believers was not only a spiritual privilege but a moral obligation and a personal vocation. The Methodist scholar Cyril Eastwood rightly lamented the distortion of this evangelical imperative: “The common error that the phrase ‘priesthood of believers’ is synonymous with ‘private judgment’ is most unfortunate and is certainly a misrepresentation. … Of course, the reformers emphasized ‘private judgment,’ but it was always ‘informed’ judgment, and it was always controlled, checked, and corroborated by the testimony of the congregation. Indeed, Calvin himself fully realized that uncontrolled private judgment means subjectivism, eccentricity, anarchy, and chaos.”

To some critics of the Protestant movement, those last four words have seemed to be the inevitable outcome of the Reformation launched by Luther five hundred years ago. Too often, it must be said, that critique has hit its target. Still, there is “a more excellent way.” Carlyle Marney was a liberal Baptist of an earlier generation. Not known for his traditionalism, Marney nonetheless understood correctly the covenantal and communal character of Luther’s emphasis. What he wrote in his book Priests to Each Other (1974) is worth hearing and heeding today:

There, where you and they are—you, all of you, are the ministry of the Word. This does not mean that you are competent to deal with God for yourself. It means rather that you are competent and responsible to deal with God and for the neighbor. It was a great perversion of the Gospel that inserted a bastard individualism here and then taught us that the believers’ priesthood meant that “every tub must sit on its own bottom.”

The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. On this Reformation Day, this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.

Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.

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