Q&A with Dr. J. Lanier Burns: The Priesthood of all Believers and Its Impact on the Church
Sometime between 1517 and 1521, Martin Luther found himself at the center of a growing conflict that led to his excommunication and definitive break with the Church of Rome. During these years, Luther set forth—what later scholars referred to as—the principles of the Reformation. These include the authority and supremacy of Scripture and justification by grace through faith alone in Christ alone.
Another debated principle during the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Luther argued that those who belong to Christ share in his priesthood and belong “truly to the spiritual estate.”
To understand more about Luther’s position, we spoke with research professor of theological studies, senior professor of systematic theology, Dr. J. Lanier Burns about the context in which all of this arose.
What does the “priesthood of all believers” have to do with the Reformation? Why was Luther arguing this principle?
Dr. Burns: The “priesthood of all believers” was a foundational principle of the Reformation. It meant that believers had direct access to God through the Word and prayer, contrary to the sacramental mediations of Roman Catholicism. The sacrament of “Holy Orders” permanently bestowed authority to administer the sacraments, to formulate teaching, and to govern the church.
In other words, “Holy Orders” is for ordained priests [the clergy] only in Romanism. This means laypeople must encounter God through the sacraments as mediated by the clergy. In theory the Catholic Church mediates all grace through the sacraments to believers. People could only be “justified”—made righteous in Catholicism—by the sacrament, which was manipulated by the “ordained” to include ordinances to raise money for projects like St. Peter’s Cathedral.
In Martin Luther’s time, Roman Catholic leadership had become morally corrupted to the point that indulgences were sold for the remission of sins. Using Romans 1, Luther argued that all believers are under the High Priest, so individuals became responsible for their salvation and spiritual life in the community of the church.
In his “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation” (1520), Luther asserted that all believers are priests under Jesus Christ, the High Priest. He cited several passages for support. “You are royal priests, a holy nation; God’s very own possession” [1 Pet 2:9]. “With your blood you have made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” [Rev 5:10]. “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim 2:5].
Protestants generally believe in a “universal” body of Christ (believers), while Catholics hold that the universal church is the physical Catholic Church.
Why was this important for a believer to understand?
Dr. Burns: Luther’s point was that all believers are responsible for their relationship with Christ in the Spirit. The difference between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism on ordination is one “of essence and not only in degree.” Luther argued that as we are saved by faith in Christ, so we are free to serve him in a sort of middle-way of reduced hierarchy. By the same token, he distinguished this “priesthood” from church leadership. The Augsburg Confession (1530) explains this with the following disclaimers:
Article 7: “What the Church Is: The Church is the gathering of all believers, in which the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are properly administered.”
Article 14: “This is what our churches teach about church order. No one should teach publicly in the church or administer sacraments unless he has been called in a proper and normal way.”
In other words, believers were free to practice their spirituality within the guidelines of leadership. Reformed churches—namely, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Brethren, among others—generally agreed with the principle and practiced various forms of representative polity. DTS has been a significant beneficiary of the principle with its emphasis on personal Bible study and spirituality.
How did it impact the rest of society and the church?
Dr. Burns: From church polity the principle expanded into social politics in colonial New England. The Puritans’ “democratic spirituality” was linked with religious freedom by Baptist Roger Williams, Congregationalist Thomas Hooker, and Quaker William Penn. This linkage, in turn, contributed to the separation of church and state, which was traceable as well to Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms, secular and ecclesial.
A significant problem was that “the priesthood” mutated into a highly individualized emphasis in the nineteenth century, a view that easily slipped into private judgments about truth. Martin Luther along with other Reformers, on the contrary, advocated a “priesthood of all believers,” a shared communitarian worship of God and ministry to fellow believers. Their intent was for congregations to mutually celebrate God’s presence in worship, prayer, and fellowship.
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, and Lutheran traditions have maintained allegiance to the sacramental roles of the ordained clergy. The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium accepted “the priesthood of all baptized members” in terms of personal spirituality, but it retained sacramental orders for ministerial responsibilities “in apostolic succession.” The Protestants, on the other hand, generally practice open communion for all believers, which is contrary to Roman Catholicism.
DTS Magazine: Why is this important for us now? How should it change how we live?
Dr. Burns: The Protestant understanding of the “priesthood of all believers” is important for us today for two main reasons: First, the “priesthood of all believers” means we have direct access to God’s grace and mercy, power and presence, through the one Mediator, Jesus Christ. We can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” [Heb 4:16] and “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” [10:19]. We don’t have to go through an obstacle course of rites and rituals or appeal to a priest or prophet to intercede for us. Our God is just a prayer away.
Second, the “priesthood of all believers” means that we are called to be priests for one another, all of us and each of us. Every believer has a calling to minister to his or her fellow believers, praying for them, encouraging them, helping them grow in Christ. Right on the heels of the previous verse, the author of Hebrews adds, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” [Heb 10:24–25]. Understanding of the priesthood of all believers will help us to rightly relate to God, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The “priesthood of all believers” has been a foundational distinctive for Protestant traditions. It was an important outgrowth of salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s accomplishment for atonement for sin. Believers with an open Bible and a prayerful heart can study God’s truth. It frees them for daily servant-leadership in the body of Christ and in our desperately needy world.
About the Contributors
J. Lanier Burns
Dr. Burns is actively involved in administration in Christian and secular organizations. He also devotes time to writing, conferences, and pastoral leadership. He has been involved in post-doctoral research at Harvard and Oxford Universities. For over forty years he has served as president of the Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has participated in numerous neuroscientific activities for about fifteen years. His research interests include Trinitarianism, anthropology, sin, eschatology, the relationship of science and religion, and issues in social justice. He spends his spare time with his family and enjoying sports. He and Kathy have four children and 11 grandchildren.