A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Five Hundred Years – Now What? Part V: Universal Priesthood
October 26, 2017
This week we mark the Reformation’s quintennial, pointing back to Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This was just the public beginning of what eventually led Luther and the Reformers away from Rome. Though it was an ordinary way of inviting dialogue on tough questions in that time, in retrospect we see in the content of Luther’s theses the inevitability of the separation that followed. The chief burden of his theses was to unmask and dismantle Rome’s arrogated seizure of unilateral authority in the means of human salvation.
The chief doctrinal claims of the Reformation were not yet established, though their seeds were evident in Luther’s theses. Our Book of Order succinctly summarizes the core of Reformation theology in terms of “Protestant watchwords – grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.” (F-2.04) While our Book of Order does not mention it directly, another key emphasis of the Reformation is the priesthood of all believers, sometimes called the “universal priesthood.”
Luther’s theses repudiated Rome’s capacity to expedite release from purgatory in exchange for financial gifts to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He decried also the many ways the hierarchy sought to control the remittance of guilt by its various means of penance. For Luther, the church’s promotional sale of indulgences was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The whole system was corrupt.
So what did the Reformers set in its place? Unfortunately, one pathway Protestants have taken is little better, namely the assertion that the church is unnecessary for Christian faith. In this view, true Christianity is only and always a direct personal interaction between an individual believer and God.
John Calvin would have none of this. He approved a maxim dating back to early Christianity, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.1, n. 3) The Reformers did not seek to displace the church’s priestly function, but to return it to biblical roots, with all believers constituting a priesthood in the order of the church’s one and only High Priest, Jesus. Calvin notes that 1 Peter 2:9 designates the community of faith as a “royal priesthood” under the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. (Ibid, IV.18.17)
Paul considers all members of the church responsible for the priestly tasks of mutual confession and correction. (Galatians 6:1-2) The Lord’s Prayer links communal forgiveness of sins to divine forgiveness. Jesus places responsibility for addressing sins directly between church members. (Matthew 18:15-20) James teaches that confession of sins to one another is foundational to healing. (James 5:16)
Here’s the point: The power of forgiving sin does not lie in the hands of a clerical hierarchy, nor do individual believers enjoy isolated private salvific access to God apart from Christian community. Rather, the spiritual power to mend our sinfulness is engaged through mutual confession and forgiveness among the people of God. The Reformation is not a departure from the necessity of the church in matters of salvation, but a relocation of authority in matters of salvation from the clergy to the congregation.
A church of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation is necessarily steeped in the story of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus revealed in Holy Scripture. Only in a community soaked in “grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone” can the power of mutual universal priesthood be fully deployed. This is where the story of God’s new humanity is authored. “Authority” is built by “authoring,” by a community writing itself into “the old, old story of Jesus and his love” (a memorable phrase from 19th-century English hymnwriter Katherine Hankey).
It is in this special sense that I believe the Reformation is primarily about recovering authentic authority in the church, rooted in its common life as the Body of Christ. This recovery necessitated exposing false would-be authorities.
Living into the salvation story require us to dwell together as continuing story-tellers of the Gospel. No single congregation is self-sufficient in learning and telling this story; rather, congregations do this together, practicing communally among themselves the mutual admonition and encouragement that individual members engage within their congregations. The Reformation points not back to the era of the Judges when “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25), but forward to the people of God fully becoming “priests of God and Christ, and they will reign with him.” (Revelation 20:6)
Yours in mutual priesthood,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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