A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, E. Y Mullins, And The Priesthood Of All Believers -- By: Mark Rogers

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 072:1 (Spring 2010)
Article: A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, E. Y Mullins, And The Priesthood Of All Believers
Author: Mark Rogers


A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, E. Y Mullins, And The Priesthood Of All Believers

Mark Rogers

Mark Rogers is a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

I. Introduction

Timothy George has written, “[Martin] Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood.”1 What George calls misunderstanding has at times been explicit departure from Luther’s foundational doctrine of the universal priesthood. These misunderstandings and departures were widespread in certain segments of Southern Baptist theology in the twentieth century. For example, Herschel Hobbs, perhaps the most influential Southern Baptist during the last half of the twentieth century, explained two problems with Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The first objection was related to infant baptism, and secondly Hobbs wrote, “[Luther’s] view that ‘every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another’ ignores the idea that every Christian has free access to God. It is my view that this denies the principle of the competency of the soul in religion. In this respect Luther’s thinking was still influenced by his Catholic theology”2

Hobbs’s focus on soul competency and the priesthood of the individual believer is representative of a twentieth-century Baptist theology heavily influenced by E. Y Mullins (1860-1928). Mullins, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-nine years, was the most significant Southern Baptist theologian of the early twentieth century. His theological system, with the doctrines of soul competency and the priesthood of all believers at its core, set the course many Southern Baptists later followed. This article will explain in what manner E. Y Mullins’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was similar to, and different from, Martin Luther’s understanding of the same doctrine.

In his recent book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant RevolutionA History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Alister McGrath describes Luther’s doctrine of the universal priesthood, saying he had a “democratizing agenda” which aimed to give every Christian a right to interpret the Bible for himself in

a church with “no ‘spiritual’ authority, distinct from or superior to ordinary Christians.”3 McGrath builds on this on...

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