Rogers, Mark. “A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, E. Y. Mullins, and the Priesthood of All Believers,” Westminster Theological Journal 72, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 119-134.
The title of this article is a play off the title of Alistair McGrath’s book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution. McGrath argues that Luther’s teaching of the priesthood of the believer “had a ‘democratizing agenda'” that fostered democracy among Protestants. Rogers notes that “McGrath’s argument draws entirely on Luther’s pre-1522 writings” and that a fuller view of Luther’s view of the priesthood of all believers requires attention to his later writings as well.
In the first part of the article Rogers looks at Luther’s writings about the priesthood of the believer. He notes that Luther always held to this doctrine, “but after 1524, as he began to see the danger of uneducated and spiritually immature Christians making up their own theology, he emphasized accountability among official teachers, both to the orthodox fathers of the church and to spiritually nature lay people.” Also interesting in this section of the article was Rogers observation that Luther saw the priesthood of the believer as a communal ministry to one another rather than in an entirely individualized sense.
In the latter part of the article Rogers compares Luther’s teaching with that of E. Y. Mullins, an early twentieth-century theologian whose view of the priesthood of the believer is probably the most widely held today. Rogers notes that with Luther Mullins rejected the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, maintained that the “Christian could have direct access to God without any human mediator,” and a affirmed a role for the Christian ministry. Rogers points out three differences as well, “Mullins emphasized competent individualism whereas Luther focused on the interdependent priesthood of all Christians,” Mullins held to “the right private judgment” where Luther did not, and they differed in their view of church government.
Roger’s conclusion: “The Enlightenment, American democracy, modern subjectivism: these factors, rather than Luther’s doctrine of the universal priesthood, moved much of American evangelical theology in a radically democratic, egalitarian, and individualistic direction. The result is that the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine that should build Christ-centered, Bible-saturated, interdependent community in the church, has, in many pockets of evangelicalism, morphed into a teaching that encourages radical individualism and undermines the significance of the church’s life together. Luther’s doctrine was not perfect. Few evangelicals will want to return to a reliance on a state church system or limitations on religious liberty. But a proper understanding of Luther’s teaching and this doctrine’s development in history could help churches recover a more biblical, Christ-centered view of the priesthood of all believers, and thereby a more biblical community life within the church.”