Founders Journal


The Priesthood of All Believers and the Quest for Theological Integrity

Timothy George

This article first appeared in the Criswell Theological Journal (Sp. 1989) and is reprinted by permission

It is ironic that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has displaced biblical inerrancy as the hottest item of dispute in the recent SBC controversy.[1] Perhaps this is related to the fact that the term inerrancy has lost some of its polemical punch as it has become more widely acceptable. Inerrancy, of course, is not a term of recent vintage within the denomination. In a book entitled, Baptist, Why and Why Not, published by the Sunday School Board in 1900, J. M. Frost, then the Corresponding Secretary of the Board, wrote: "We accept the Scriptures as an all-sufficient and infallible rule of faith and practice, and insist upon the absolute inerrancy and sole authority of the Word of God."[2] Many, however, are still reluctant to use the term because of its political connotations, or because of its presumed incompatibility with serious biblical scholarship.

The irony of the ongoing dispute is that no one denies the priesthood of believers! What is at stake is how this principle is to be understood, and how it is related to other, equally valid, doctrinal concerns. The squabble over pastoral authority, an important but separable issue, has obscured what is--or ought to be--the central focus of the debate, namely the quest for a proper balance between individual responsibility and theological integrity. The strategy of the present essay is first to examine the relation between the priesthood of believers and the historic Baptist tenets of soul competency and religious liberty, then to probe the tension between confessional identity and hermeneutical autonomy, the so-called "right of private interpretation," and, finally, to recall the original Reformation meaning of the priesthood of all believers in light of subsequent developments and present applications.

I. Soul Competency and Religious Liberty

Soul competency and religious liberty are important, historic Baptist principles, but they should not be equated with the priesthood of all believers. Soul competency, as stated by E. Y. Mullins, is based on the premise that all persons have an inalienable right of direct access to God. Put otherwise, all persons created in the image of God stand in a unique and inviolable relation to their Creator and, when quickened by divine grace, are fully "competent" or capable of responding to God directly.[3]

W. T. Conner spoke of "man's capacity for God," and earlier theologians related this dimension of the human self to one' ability to reason, make moral judgments, contemplate immortality and be awed by the grandeur and mystery of the universe.[4] Soul competency, in other words, is part of what it means for a human being to be created in the image of God.

In Book One of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives a classic interpretation of the innate knowledge of God which has been implanted in all persons. He refers to it variously as "an awareness of divinity," "the seed of religion" (semen religionis), and "the worm of conscience."[5] This natural capacity of the soul for God is the basis for the incurably religious bent of all human beings. Given the devastating effects of the Fall, however, human religiousness can only issue in idolatry and self-centeredness apart from the interposition of God's grace. From the standpoint of soteriology, then, we should speak more accurately of "soul incompetence." However, as Paul declared in Romans 1 and 2, the awareness of God in every conscience is sufficiently clear to render every human being utterly inexcusable before the bar of divine judgment.

Soul competency means thus that every individual is responsible to God. This principle undergirds our evangelistic appeals for repentance and faith. There are no sponsors or proxies in the relation of the individual to God. As B. H. Carroll put it, "This is the first principle of New Testament law--to bring each naked soul face to face with God . . . O soul, thou art alone before God!"[6]

Soul competency pertains universally to all persons, not merely to Christians. Baptists, however, do not teach the 'priesthood of all human beings." Priesthood applies only to those who, through repentance and faith, have been admitted into the covenant of grace and, consequently, have been made participants in the priestly ministry of their Mediator, Jesus Christ, i.e., to believers only. As we shall see, priesthood of believers is really a part of the doctrine of the church. It cannot be stretched into an anthropological generalization without doing great violence to its biblical and historic Reformation meaning.

Baptists have a splendid history as champions of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Since God alone is Lord of the conscience, the temporal realm has no authority to coerce religious commitments. Seventeenth-century English Baptists were among the first advocates of absolute religious toleration. In his famous treatise, The Mystery of Iniquity, Thomas Helwys addressed King James in 1612: "Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them."[7]

The Baptist commitment to religious liberty, however, has never been a pretext for doctrinal indifference or moral laxity. In 1689 the London Baptists published a Second Confession to show their hearty agreement with "that wholesome protestant doctrine . . . in all the fundamental articles of the Christian religion."[8] When, shortly thereafter, some Baptist abandoned their belief in the deity of Christ and became Unitarians, there was a major split in Baptist ranks. Even earlier, the Standard Confession of the General Baptists, published in 1660, had juxtaposed a clear call for liberty of conscience with the right of each congregation to maintain its doctrinal integrity. Thus Article 24 asserts "that it is the will and mind of God (in these Gospel times) that all men should have the free liberty of their own consciences in matters of Religion, or Worship, without the least oppression, or persecution." This follows the admonition of Article 17 that the true church should "reject all Hereticks" along with any others who teach "contrary to the Doctrine (of Christ) which they have learned."[9]

In America the Baptist plea for freedom of religion was furthered by Roger Williams who lambasted the "soul-murdering" magistrates of Massachusetts for their efforts to coerce religious persecution. Yet there was hardly a more stubborn religious controversialist in all of New England than Roger Williams. He broke fellowship with Separatists of Plymouth because their Separatism was less strict than his, he refused to join the church in Boston because it would not publicly repent of ever having had fellowship with the (false!) Church of England, he excoriated the Quakers because of their doctrine of the "inner light" which, to his mind, undermined the necessity of grace. E. Morgan has said of Williams, "Most of his writings were demonstrations that other people were wrong."[10] The great apostle of religious liberty would be shocked to know that in some circles he is touted today as the progenitor of modern theological liberalism!

Religious liberty guarantees the ability of every congregation to order its own internal life, its doctrine and discipline, in accordance with its own perception of divine truth. It requires that there be no external political monitoring of the internal religious life of voluntary associations. Practically, this means that heresy is always possible and that spiritual vigilance is a constant necessity. Thus, priesthood of believers does not mean, "I am a priest. I can believe anything I want to." It means rather, "As a priest in a covenanted community of believers, I must be alert to keep my congregation from departing from 'the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints' " (Jude 3).

II. Individual Responsibility and Theological Integrity

One of the greatest advances in Christian history was the translation and dissemination of Holy Scripture in the language of the common people. The legacy of an open Bible means that every believer has both the right and the responsibility to search the Scriptures diligently and follow their counsel obediently.

While studying his NT, the young Congregational missionary, Adoniram Judson, became convinced that infant baptism was unscriptural. Forthwith he became a Baptist! We applaud Judson's discovery, but the "right of private interpretation" can also lead in the opposite direction. In the 19th century, not a few Baptists became convinced, through their sincere study of the Bible, of the eventual salvation of all persons. Many of them became in fact Universalists. More recently, a Baptist leader in another country openly questioned the reality of the Incarnation, comparing belief in the deity of Christ to a child's belief in the tooth fairy.[11] In neither of these examples did anyone deny outright the authority of the Bible. In both cases, however, the conclusions arrived at could not be squared with, to quote the preamble to the Baptist Faith and Message, "certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified."[12]

The issue is not the right of every individual believer to worship God and interpret Scripture according to the dictates of his own conscience. No one has spoken more eloquently to this principle than George W. Truett in his 1939 address to the Baptist World Alliance: "For any person or institution to dare to come between the soul and God is a blasphemous impertinence."[13] No true Baptist has ever denied that. What is at stake is the right of a community of believer-priests, whether local congregation, association, state or national convention, to define for itself, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the acceptable doctrinal perimeters of its own fellowship.

Baptists have never been creedalistic in the sense of placing man-made doctrinal constructs above Holy Scripture. To my knowledge, no Baptist body has ever put forth a confession of faith which claimed to be infallible or beyond revision. The preamble to the Baptist Faith and Message states explicitly: "As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time."[14] If we take seriously the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura, we must see our confessional standards as derivative documents. We must be ready always to measure them by Holy Writ as by a touchstone.

Historically, Baptists have often recoiled from the very word "creed" because of its association with the ecclesiastico-political repression of religious dissent. Doubtless this is what W. B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, had in mind when he referred in 1845 to "a Baptist aversion to all creeds but the Bible."[15] In fact, it was unnecessary for the nascent Convention to adopt a specific theological standard because of the overwhelming doctrinal consensus which prevailed among the messengers, most of whom belonged to congregations which adhered to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, an American adaptation of the 1689 Second London Confession.

A few years later, however, James Petigru Boyce, in setting forth the rationale for Southern Baptists' first theological seminary, insisted that each professor subscribe to a set of doctrinal principles. Moreover, Boyce insisted, "His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office."[16] Boyce was well aware that there were those who felt that such a policy of strict subscription was a violation of academic freedom and liberty of conscience, but he urged its adoption nonetheless:

You will infringe the rights of no man, and you will secure the rights of those who have established here an instrumentality for the production of a sound ministry. It is no hardship to those who teach here, to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who cannot conscientiously sign your formulary.[17]

Boyce related the reluctance of some Baptists to adopt a specific doctrinal standard to the influence of Alexander Campbell whose slogan of "no creed but the Bible" had lured many Baptists away from their traditional confessional moorings.[18] Campbell had decried the use of confessions as an infringement upon the rights of conscience. Boyce, however, in a brilliant rebuttal, traced the history of confessional statements from NT times down to his own day. He showed that Baptists in particular had been prolific in promulgating confessions, both as public declarations of their own faith and as a means of testing the true faith in others. He later recalled, "It was with great difficulty, at first, that some of the members of the Convention were led to vote for what they called a Creed. But it was manifest that some such provision ought to exist."[19]

At strategic points in their history, Baptists have not hesitated to identify themselves with the great truths of historic evangelical theology, and to do so explicitly. In the first decades of the 20th century, radical biblical criticism had led to an undermining of the basic truths of the gospel itself. Aware of this encroachment in many of the mainline denominations, E.Y. Mullins, who can hardly be labeled a "fundamentalist," declared before the Southern Baptist Convention in 1923:

We record again our unwavering adherence to the supernatural elements in the Christian religion. The Bible is God's revelation of himself through man moved by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the divine and eternal Son of God. He wrought miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead. He died as the vicarious atoning Savior of the world and was buried. The tomb was emptied of its contents. In his risen body he appeared many times to his disciples. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. He will come again in person, the same Jesus who ascended from the Mount of Olives. We believe that adherence to the above truths and facts is a necessary condition of service for teachers in our Baptist schools.[20]

Mullins' call for conscientious adherence to the "supernatural elements" of the Christian kerygma does not violate the priesthood of believers, any more than the NT's designation of the denial of the Incarnation as anti-Christian (1 John 4:3) nullifies soul competency. Every Christian remains free to interpret the Bible as he believes he is led by the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of religious liberty declares that penal measures must not be used by the civil authorities to enforce belief. But it also implies that the church must be free to define and maintain the boundaries of its own fellowship. A church which is unable to do this or, even worse, no longer thinks it is worth doing, is a church which has lost its soul.

Where and how do we draw the boundaries? Undoubtedly, this is one of the most delicate tasks the church faces. We can err either by drawing the boundaries too tightly, or by refusing to draw them at all. On the one hand, we lapse into legalism, on the other, into relativism. For example, most Southern Baptists would not be willing to make agreement on the details of a particular hermeneutic of eschatology, say, pretribulational premillennialism, a binding test of fellowship. But can--or should--we accept as tolerable the demythologization of the Parousia which reduces the return of Christ to a non-event? Must we allow under the umbrella of acceptable diversity a "process" view of God which denies His very omnipotence, or a radical historicist reading of the Bible which minimizes the miraculous, or a liberationist interpretation of salvation history which levels the Lordship of Jesus Christ? It is the role of a proper and faithful theology, that is to say, a biblical and evangelical theology, to help the church answer these questions. The proclamation of the whole counsel of God involves identifying, and saying "no" to those forms of teaching which if carried out consistently would threaten the truth of divine revelation itself. K. Barth was surely right when he said: "If we do not have the confidence of damnamus, we ought to omit credimus, and go back to doing theology as usual."[21] While pastors and teachers have a special responsibility to guard with care that which has been committed to their trust (1 Tim. 6:20), in the final analysis this is the task of the entire community of faith and not merely one segment of it. Indeed, this is one of the salient features of the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

III. The Priesthood of Believers--The Reformation Model

The priesthood of all believers was a cardinal principle of the Reformation of the 16th century. It was used by the reformers to buttress an evangelical understanding of the church over against the clericalism and sacerdotalism of medieval Catholicism. In modern theology, however, the ecclesial context of this Reformation principle has been almost totally eclipsed. For example, in the current SBC debate on the issue, both sides have referred (uncritically) to the "priesthood of the believer." The reformers talked instead of the "priesthood of all believers" (plural). For them it was never a question of a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum.

The modern reinterpretation of the Reformation goes back to the philosopher Hegel who saw Luther as the great champion of human freedom whose stand against medieval obscurantism signaled the dawn of modern civilization. With F. Schleiermacher and "the turn to the subject" in theology, Luther became more and more the hero of modern rugged individualism. Consequently, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers degenerated into the ideology of "every tub sitting on its own bottom."

In this context the concepts of priesthood of believers and soul competency were conflated, the one becoming virtually interchangeable with the other. W. S. Hudson, one of the most perceptive interpreters of Baptist history, has pointed to the devastating impact of this development on Baptist ecclesiology:

To the extent that Baptists were to develop an apologetic for their church life during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was to be on the basis of this highly individualistic principle. It has become increasingly apparent that this principle was derived from the general cultural and religious climate of the nineteenth century rather than from any serious study of the Bible . . . The practical effect of the stress upon "soul competency" as the cardinal doctrine of Baptists was to make every man's hat his own church.[22]

The appeal to individual experience and private judgment--traditionally both suspect categories in Christian theology!--corresponded to the shift away from biblical authority and the dogmatic consensus of historic Christianity. It also produced a truncated and perverted version of what Luther and the other reformers intended when they formulated the doctrine of the spiritual priesthood of all believers.

P. Althaus, the great interpreter of Luther's theology, explains the original Reformation meaning of this term:

Luther never understands the priesthood of all believers merely in the sense of the Christian's freedom to stand in a direct relationship to God without a human mediator. Rather he constantly emphasizes the Christian's evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world. The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community.[23]

Of course, Luther did believe that all Christians had direct access to God without recourse to "the tin gods and buffoons of this world, the pope with his priests."[24] But for Luther the Priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own Priest." It meant rather: in the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other.[25] We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and celebrate His presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship. Moreover, our priestly ministry does not terminate upon ourselves. It propels us into the world in service and witness. It constrains us to "show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light" (I Pet. 2:9).

Priesthood of believers, then, has more to do with the Christian's service than with his or her status. One function Luther specifies as incumbent upon all believer-priests is that of "a guardian or watchman on the tower" (warttman odder welcher auff der Wart).

This is exactly what one calls someone who lives in a tower to watch and to look out over the town so that fire or foe do not harm it. Therefore, every minister . . . should be . . . an overseer or watchman, so that in his town and among his people the gospel and faith in Christ are built up and win out over foe, devil, and heresy.[26]

According to Luther, then, the priesthood of all believers, far from providing a cover for individual doctrinal error, is a stimulus for defending the church against those forces which would weaken and destroy it.

John Calvin interpreted the priesthood of all believers in terms of the church's threefold participation in Christ's prophetic, kingly and priestly ministry. Specifically, every Christian is mandated to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive outreach to the world.

All believers . . . should seek to bring others [into the church], should strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, should stretch forth a hand to the fallen and should win over the outsiders.[27]

The priesthood of believers is not a prerogative on which we can rest; it is a commission which sends us forth into the world to exercise a priestly ministry not for ourselves, but for others--"the outsiders," not instead of Christ, but for the sake of Christ and at His behest.

For Calvin, the priesthood of all believers was not only a spiritual privilege, it was also a moral obligation and a personal vocation. C. Eastwood, the great Methodist scholar whose book on the priesthood of believers is one of the few comprehensive treatments of the theme, laments the distortion of this tremendous evangelical imperative:

The common error that the phrase "Priesthood of Believers" is synonymous with "private judgment" is most unfortunate and is certainly a misrepresentation . . . . Of course, the Reformers emphasized "private judgment," but it was always "informed" judgment, and it was always controlled, checked, and corroborated by the corporate testimony of the congregation. Indeed Calvin himself fully realized that uncontrolled private judgment means subjectivism, eccentricity, anarchy, and chaos.[28]

Given our commitment to religious liberty, Baptists cannot approve Calvin's method of dealing with the excesses of uncontrolled private judgment, as evidenced by his acquiescence in the execution of Michael Servetus who had repudiated the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, we can and should recognize the danger which such teaching poses to the life of the church. We should not invite Servetus to become the pastor of our church or a professor in our seminary! To do so would violate the integrity of our Christian faith. It would also be an abdication of our responsibility in the priesthood of all believers.

No one should deny the importance of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It is a precious and irreducible part of our Reformation heritage and our Baptist legacy. But let no one trivialize its meaning by equating it with modern individualism or theological minimalism. It is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of our life together in the Body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world for which Christ died.