Priesthood of believers

Here’s something for this weekend – October 31 is this Sunday. Pastor Peter J. Leithart has an excellent reflection on Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door (which he probably didn’t actually do, btw, but never mind) titled “Priesthood of believers.”


“Every Christian is a cleric, Luther proclaimed in one of his earliest treatises, The Freedom of a Christian, and those who ‘are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords’ are in reality ‘ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the word’—servants of the servants of God. Whether he knew it or not, Luther was ringing the changes on a patristic teaching that had never wholly been lost during the medieval period.

“Unfortunately, the priesthood of the faithful in both its Protestant and Catholic forms has been corroded by fusion with modern individualism. …

“Timothy George captures Luther’s viewpoint in one sentence: ‘Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another”'(emphasis added).

“In the hands of some Protestants, ‘priesthood of believers; became an anti-ecclesial slogan, a ‘get out of church free’ card. Understood in its original biblical and Reformation sense, the priesthood of believers is quite the opposite. It is not a solvent of ecclesial Christianity but an affirmation of churchly piety and the foundation of a thoroughly catholic church practice. Five hundred years after the event, this Reformation slogan may be even more relevant than it was when Luther first shouted it out from Wittenberg.”

One comment

  1. Thomas Neill, in his book, Makers of the Modern Mind, asserts that Luther’s idea as expressed above, although surely well-intentioned, was in error. For this reason, it actually brought about this notion of “modern individualism” (in an extreme form, relativism) that the author above speaks of. In fact, Neill makes explicit that, from his perspective, this action by Luther has had the most impact on the Modern Mind. (You can read the whole chapter on “Luther” at Google Books– fascinating read)

    For that reason, I find it ironic that the author blames the misapplication of the principle of “priesthood of believers” on the natural end of the philosophy employed by Luther– namely, “individualistic interpretation,” making oneself the magisterium, becoming the sole arbiter of truth for oneself.

    Though I agree to an extent with the author above, Neill makes the point in his preface with the example of the “seven men” that it is not so much a teaching that is true or false (and, from a Catholic perspective, perhaps this teaching by Luther above is “true, with conditions”?), although the merits of its content should be considered; rather, it depends just as much on how the teaching is received and understood, for good or bad, and how it is applied to the community.

    The natural end for schism is more schism, yes?

    Perhaps we could draw a parallel between this with all of the debate that has gone on here and other places on the “real” interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium?

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