“The Priesthood of All Believers”

In the “On the Square” column of the First Things website, Peter Leithard has an article on the Lutheran doctrine of “the Priesthood of All Believers”. It is quite a good read, and I think that even Catholic readers will be edified by it, especially the reflections on the Aaronic priesthood, and how that reflects in the priestly character of the Church today.

The Second Vatican Council embraced its own version of this classic Reformation doctrine. Essentially, it reclaimed the scriptural teaching that the whole assembly of the faithful are a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).

“Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people . . . who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God”…

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men, made the new people “a kingdom and priests to God the Father”. The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as 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. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God,(103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” Lumen Gentium 9,10

However, the Council continued to uphold the distinction between the “ministerial priesthood” and the “common priesthood of the faithful” in the following way:

Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.

The distinction between the “priesthood of all believers” and the “office of the ministry” can also be found in Lutheran doctrine, with a corresponding teaching that the difference is one of “essence” and not only “degree”, yet Lutherans are usually a little less inclined to actually ascribing the categories of “priesthood” to the “office of the ministry”. They see the latter purely in ministerial terms, and not (generally) in priestly terms. This is because (again, generally speaking), they see the Aaronic priesthood to have been replaced soley with “the preisthood of all believers”, leaving no place for a order of priesthood within the priestly people of God.

Catholic doctrine is a little different, as it sees a continuation of the Aaronic priesthood in the “ministerial” (ordained) priesthood. Although many people have things to say against him, I have Raymond Brown to thank for the fact that I realised early on – long before I became Catholic, while I was still a seminarian – that the inauguration of the new covenant in the Highpriesthood of Christ does not exclude the existence of a continuing order of priests within and serving the Priestly People of the Church. His little book “Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections” was most helpful in this regard. The Old Covenant People of God was a true priesthood embracing the whole nation of Israel, and yet Israel herself required a priesthood to serve her, to offer sacrifice and intercession for her, and to do all the things for her that Leithard outlines so well in his article. The New Covenant People of God are no different, and there is no more contradiction in having an order of ministerial priests within the priestly community in the New Covenant than there was in the Old Covenant. We, as with the Lutherans, see the Priesthood of Christ as the final fulfillment of both the Aaronic priesthood and the priesthood of Israel, but we say that both the continuing New Testament office of the ministry AND the continuing New Testament priestly community of all the faithful derive from this one Priesthood of Christ.

Where Leithard has it exactly correct is his criticism of the way in which the rise of Individualism has skewed the teaching of the baptismal ministry, to lead to the notion that the idea of the priesthood of the baptised somehow leads to the detachment of the individual from the liturgical assembly. Perhaps he could have taken this a little further and noted that the true New Testament doctrine about “the priesthood of all believers”/”common baptismal priesthood” teaches a priesthood that each of the baptised possesses only in union with the whole community of the Church. It is only AS “the People of God” that we exercise this priesthood.

This is then not unrelated to the doctrine that we often hear from Protestants in criticism of our Catholic practice of canonising particular individual believers as “saints”. They object that “we are all saints”. Yes, but not individually. Whenever the New Testament refers to “the saints” they are speaking of the whole Church as one body of the sanctified, not of a property that each believer already in this life possesses in and of ourselves in some individual manner.

Catholics can affirm with Lutherans that all the baptised are together “priests” and all the baptised are together “saints”, but we pay especial attention to the danger of individualism of which Leithard’s short article warns us.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to ““The Priesthood of All Believers”

  1. Father John Fleming

    I’ve always wanted to ask the question to one who I am sure knows. I have been led to believe that Luther firstly objected to the Sacrifice of the Mass (for a whole variety of reasons) and then later the priesthood with the theological justification coming afterwards.

    Oh, and R Moberly’s masterful book on The Ministerial Priesthood which was published at the end of the nineteenth century (I think) made the point that you make about the OT being a Royal Priesthood which still, nevertheless, had the Aaronic priesthood by the command of God. Vatican II did no more than reassert the ancient Catholic teaching, I think.

    • Father John Fleming

      So the question is, is it true that Luther’s rejection of the priesthood was the necessary corollary of having first rejected the Sacrifice of the Mass?

      • I’m not so sure. Both emphases were very early Luther. Later he modified them somewhat (Luther studies are divided into “early” and “late” Luther, with the turning point, interestingly enough, usually being placed at the 1525 Peasants War), introducing a renewed note of emphasis on the ordained authority in the Church and on the real presence in the Eucharist.

        As for rejection of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Heirarchical priesthood, the two seem to go hand in hand, don’t they? I mean, it is a “chicken or the egg” situation. Following Luther’s logic, one would argue that because of justification by faith in Christ alone, the mass cannot be a sacrifice for sin, therefore the ministry cannot be a priesthood. Although this follows logically in sequence, I can’t think of any historical evidence for the development in this line. It all seemed to burst in upon the scene between 1517 and 1519 all at once.

      • Peter

        I’m not sure it relates directly to your question about Luther himself, but the second Martin, Martin Chemnitz, listed just over a dozen or so ways in which Lutherans could agree that the Mass is a sacrifice and only a couple of ways they couldn’t agree. He stated (I thought echoing Luther but now I’m not sure) that Lutherans would cease calling the Mass a sacrifice until the laity understood what was wrong with the Catholic understanding.

        I recall a similar argument about eucharistic adoration, so I may have the two mixed up.

        • No, you haven’t mixed the two up. Luther was the one who said that adoration of the host should cease until the laity understood what the Eucharist was (in his Great Confession on the Lord’s Supper).

  2. marcel

    “…the point that you make about the OT being a Royal Priesthood which still, nevertheless, had the Aaronic priesthood by the command of God. Vatican II did no more than reassert the ancient Catholic teaching, I think.”

    ‘Reassert’ or ‘undermine’?

    • No, Marcel, re-assert. When the baptismal priesthood is properly identified and defined, the ministerial priesthood is reasserted and upheld. This is what the Council did.

      • marcel

        Yes, a perfectly defensible position for academically trained Catholics capable recognising nuance without abandoning the truth. However, when the Baptismal Priesthood is exalted and made so prominent in an unprecedented fashion, then the Ministerial Priesthood is obfuscated and minimised for the vast majority of lay folk in the pews. This is what the Council did.

        • No, Marcel, that’s what the self-appointed interprerters of the Council did. The Council did the former, ie. “recognising the nuance without abandoning the truth.”

          • Gareth

            Ahh, the debate between what the Council said and how it was actually interpreted. Enough to send anybody insane, but an important debate never the less.

            For the record, I used to take to the view that people misinterpreted what the Council said, but more and more I am moving towards it was the actual ambiguous Council.

            The reason – if one truly wanted something to be not interpreted to begin with, one is precise to begin with.

  3. William Tighe

    “So the question is, is it true that Luther’s rejection of the priesthood was the necessary corollary of having first rejected the Sacrifice of the Mass?”

    I will defer to David (and others) for a fuller reply, but my answer would be “yes,” but that (contrary to Luther’s initial reluctance on most questions to accept the radical conclusions of his premises, cf. his initial reaction to Dr. Eck’s “got ya” at the Leipzig Disputation when Eck declared that Luther
    s views were identical to those for which Jan Hus had been condemned a century earlier) he drew the conclusion almost immediately, as can be seen, e.g., in his *On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church* (1520).

    • Yes, indeed, that is what I believe to be the case. “Almost immediately”, in that there was not a significant period of reflection between the premise and the conlcusion. In fact, “late Luther” would reflect precisely such a period of reflection which required some backpedalling, without retraction of former statements.

  4. Christine

    Where Leithard has it exactly correct is his criticism of the way in which the rise of Individualism has skewed the teaching of the baptismal ministry, to lead to the notion that the idea of the priesthood of the baptised somehow leads to the detachment of the individual from the liturgical assembly.

    Indeed. I am working my way through “Light and Shadows, Church History amid Faith, Fact and Legend” by (Cardinal) Walter Brandemueller (thanks for the recommendation David, it is a fine read). In the chapter entitled “Martin Luther’s Reformation from a Catholic Perspective” it is stated in part:

    . . . already in his famous polemical writings from the year 1520 Luther had denied central tenets of the Church’s faith. In particular, his No was aimed at the Catholic concept of Church.

    With his famous saying that everyone hatched from the baptismal font was thereby already consecrated pope, bishop or priest as well, Luther proclaimed the universal priesthood of the faithful, the only priesthood that he acknowledged.

    . . .

    He attacked her sacramental structure with similar intent in the [Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church]. This work appeared in Latin in late August of 1520 but was immediately translated into German. . . . The climax of the work is his passionate repudiation of the Sacrifice of the Mass, with which Luther struck at the very heart of the religious life of the old Church. Luther’s old friend and mentor Staupitz now withdrew his support. Erasmus opined that with this treatise the bridges had been burned. . . . Without even wasting a word on the subject, Luther declared in this work that the priesthood founded upon sacramental consecration was abolished; it had become completely irrelevant to him.”

    The Radical Reformation, of course, went even further in denying as well the sacramental nature of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.

    The documents of the Second Vatican Council, in particular Presbyterorum Ordinis gave me another view of the priesthood that I had not examined as a Lutheran.