Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament departments at the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Scriptural teaching concerning the office of all believers was one of the crucial doctrines of the Reformation and was held by every Reformer on the continent of Europe and in Great Britain. It is not too much to say that without this central teaching, the Reformation would never have restored the church to the pure teaching of Scripture.
The truth concerning the office of all believers had been denied by the Romish Church. A number of factors accounted for this. While we cannot trace the gradual development of Rome’s heresies as they stood related to this subject, foremost stood Rome’s evil teaching concerning the priesthood and the consequent elaborate sacerdotal system which Rome set up and which was at the heart of her whole life as church. Rome taught that the clergy of the Romish Church constituted a priesthood which stood between the individual member of the church and God. This priesthood was, according to Rome, established by God through the direct apostolic succession of ordination. Beginning with the apostle Peter, the first pope of Rome, subsequent popes possessed the same position in the church which Peter occupied. Although this apostolic succession of ordination moved primarily through the popes, it filtered down, so to speak, from the pope to the lower levels of the clergy—including the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests. This divine ordination gave to the entire clergy a unique place in the church, for it put them between God and His people was possible except as mediated by the clergy.
From the one side, God did not dispense grace to His people in any other way than through the church. Every grace, every blessing of salvation, every good gift, was mediated by the clergy itself and the sacramental system of the church. To gain such grace, the individual member had to come to the church, obey the church’s laws, rules, and regulations, and submit to the mediation of the clergy. The grace of forgiveness, for example, could come only through the Confessional and the priest’s absolution. The grace of the sacraments could come only through the elements themselves: the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper was in fact the body and blood of Christ, changed by the priest. The grace of escaping the fires of purgatory could come only through masses, payment of funds, purchase of indulgences, all of which had to be paid to the church and all of which was distributed by the church. All grace came only through the institute of the church, which institute was, in fact, the clergy.
God’s people themselves could, therefore, come to God only through this same clergy. There was really no other way. If you wanted to go to God, you had to go to the church, and the church would go to God for you. The church would stand in your place before God’s face and do for you what you could not do yourself.
This was a terrible and brutal doctrine. The office of all believers, as taught in the Scriptures, means that the individual child of God, with the Spirit in his heart, is, in his own right, prophet, priest, and king. This Rome denied. Rome insisted that only those who took part by ordination in apostolic succession, from the pope on down, possessed these offices.
It is not difficult to see how Rome worked this out. The individual member of the church was not a prophet: he could not know the will of God himself. He had to go to the church. The individual member was not a priest: to go into God’s sanctuary he needed the mediation of Rome’s priesthood. The individual was not king: the church ruled over him with an iron rod prescribing for him in every detail of his life.
The error which the Reformers attacked more than any other was the issue of the relation of the believer to the Scriptures. Because Rome denied that the believer is himself a prophet, Rome insisted that the believer could not, of himself, know the Scriptures. Several conclusions followed from this. Rome believed, and from Rome’s position this follows with irrefutable logic, that the individual believer ought not to possess the Scriptures himself. He was in no position to interpret them, and so it was better that he not have them. Rome therefore forbade the Scriptures to be translated into languages which the individual members could understand, and forbade the people even to possess a Bible of their own. We need only remind ourselves of how Rome fought bitterly, even after the Reformation, to keep the Scriptures out of the hands of God’s people, and of how Rome even smeared the blood of Tyndale on her hands because he insisted on providing a Bible for God’s people in their own language.
Only the church could interpret the Scriptures; that is, only the clergy, the only ones who possessed the Spirit of Christ by ordination, could know what the Scriptures meant. And all this implied that the church also subjected the Scriptures to its own authority. Only the church had the right to say which books belonged in the canon of Scripture—even if this meant including the Apocrypha. Only the church could add to the Scriptures doctrines which she wanted to add. And the church need give account to no one. Only the church could say what the Scriptures mean; and everyone was obligated, even on pain of death, to submit without question to what the church had said.
Rome denied that God’s people occupy an office, the office of believers. Rome denied, therefore, that God’s people possess in their hearts the Spirit of Christ, Who anoints them to this holy office. Rome denied that Christ gives His Spirit to every one of those who belong to His church. What a monstrous crime this was. When the institute of the church arrogates to herself powers which Christ has given to all His saints, the church becomes a thief and a spiritual murderer. Such was nevertheless the sad situation in the church prior to the Reformation.
It is not surprising that Luther was the first to attack these terrible doctrines of Rome and restore the office of believers to God’s people. The tremendous insight which God gave Luther to see the Biblical teaching on this subject is staggering. Luther developed the ideas of Scripture on this subject early in the Reformation, particularly in his pamphlet, “Address to the German Nobility.” He insisted that it was a crime of monumental proportions that the Romish Church had denied God’s people the right to hold this office. All God’s people possessed the Spirit of Christ and were, therefore, in their own right, prophets and priests and kings. Yet, while Luther surely was the first of the Reformers to see this, nevertheless, on this point, all the Reformers were in agreement. In fact, in this fundamental doctrine the Reformers owed a debt of considerable size to some who, before the Reformation, had already insisted on this truth. Wycliffe in England had emphasized this idea almost two hundred years before the Reformation; Huss had followed him in this doctrine in Bohemia—and had lost his life at the stake because of it; the Waldensians had clung to this, even when their dead bodies were strewed over the Alps by Rome’s inquisition. But the Reformers were unanimous in their insistence on this great truth.
It is quite obvious that this had important ramifications for the church of Christ as it was restored to her purity by that great work of God. In restoring the office of all believers to the saints, the Reformers, with one fell swoop, smashed the Romish Church’s imposing sacerdotal system into a thousand pieces. The Reformers moved the entire clergy out of the way so that they could no longer stand between the believer and his God. Christ was the only Mediator of God’s people, and the all-sufficiency of Christ’s work was enough.
That God’s people, by the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, were once again restored to their office of priest meant that no longer was the blessed gift of forgiveness of sins to be mediated through an earthly priesthood, but the people of God could go to the throne of grace through their only Mediator Jesus Christ to be assured of pardon and grace to endure. When the office of king was restored to the believer through the great work of the Reformation, the people were freed from the bondage of Rome’s tyranny and liberated from the shackles of her endless laws and prescriptions. Perhaps the greatest result of this was that the great truth of Christian liberty was once again set in its proper place in the life of the people of God.
But especially did the Reformers emphasize the office of prophet. The apostle John had written, “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him” (I John 2:27).
This truth had many implications, especially with respect to the doctrine of Scripture. We cannot go into it all here, but it ought to be clear to any one who has given any thought to this subject that this fundamental truth has brought profound changes to the life of God’s child in the world. His most precious possession, God’s own Word to him, was restored to him. And it was restored to him in his own language so that he could read it and understand it. All the great truths concerning Scripture are directly related to this truth. The Scripture is clear and understandable to any child of God who reads it, so that he can know what God says, regardless of his age. He needs only the Spirit of Christ, the anointing of the Holy One, to teach him. Only the literal meaning of the Scriptures is the correct one. One need not go into the labyrinths of Papal exegesis to understand what Scripture teaches and find, through dark and obscure byways, the hidden meaning. What Scripture says, it means. And that meaning is so clear and so profound that the youngest can understand and the oldest can only marvel. Scripture is infallible in every word and inerrant in all its parts. It is God’s Word, and it is given by an inspiration that is without error of any kind. And from this it follows that Scripture is absolutely authoritative in all of life. The believer, coming to Scripture as a pupil to sit at the feet of Christ, submits to that authoritative. Word and finds in it God’s will for him in the whole of his calling and walk.
We cannot conclude this article without warning God’s people in the most serious way that once again their office is being threatened. Rome’s same old tyranny is reappearing in the church. Only now, instead of a clerical priesthood imposing itself between God and His people, a priesthood of “scholars” is occupying that place. Denying the absolute inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, these scholars tell us today that the authority of Scripture is limited to what it intends to teach, but not to everything; that the literal meaning of Scripture is not its correct one; that one must be able to understand the genre of Scripture, the circumstances under which it was written, the viewpoint of the men who wrote it, the editorial work which was done in preparing it, and the fruits of archaeological discoveries if we are really to know what Scripture teaches. So the child of God, who has none of this learning, cannot possibly understand what Scripture teaches; he is dependent upon scholars. The anointing of the Spirit which makes him a prophet in his own right is insufficient. The Bible is a closed book to him. His office has no meaning. What a terrible evil. Are we to return to Rome and deny, out of hand, what the Reformers stood for? God forbid.
The office of believers is a precious Reformation heritage. It puts Gods people in the throne room of God through Jesus Christ. It gives to him that most precious of all possible gifts, the Scriptures: the Scriptures which teach him the knowledge of God through Christ, Whom to know is everlasting life.