A few weeks ago, when celebrating Reformation Day, I wrote about the impact Martin Luther has had on restoring the doctrine of vocation to the church.
In addition to the doctrine of vocation, key emphases in Luther’s theology were the authority of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers.
These ideas coalesced into an understanding that Scripture is sufficiently clear for all people to understand the basic meaning of the text, given literacy and normal rational abilities.
Given the connection between the clarity of Scripture and a return of the doctrine of vocation, it should come as no surprise that the development of the sacred/secular divide in vocation began with a drift in the understanding of the ability for all people to interpret Scripture.
Clement of Alexandria, Scripture, and Vocation
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) was key figure in promoting the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. This means that the stories and events of Scripture have a special meaning, deeper than the plain-sense meaning, which requires special qualifications to interpret.
The upshot of Clement’s theory, which is tinged with elements of gnostic dualism, is that it presented the understanding that the clergy should be considered a special class of Christian, who alone were qualified to interpret Scripture.
This contributed significantly to the divide between sacred and secular vocations and opened the door for the role of priest to be exalted over other, merely earthly vocations.
Luther on the Clarity of Scripture and Vocation
In contrast to Clement of Alexandria, Luther promoted a vision for all Christians to interpret Scripture.
In fact, he specifically pushed against allegorical interpretations and seeking secret meanings in Scripture. For Luther, there was no secret or overly complex meaning in the text. Rather, he noted in his essay “Concerning the Letter and the Spirit” that,
The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and advisor in heaven and on earth.
In contrast to the idea that the ecclesial vocations are somehow spiritually unique, Luther specifically affirmed the responsibility of all believers to interpret and preach the Word of God.
This had the simultaneous effect of returning the cultural mandate to the clergy and restoring the Great Commission to the laity.
In their book, Seeking the City, Chad Brand and Tom Pratt note:
All Christians are priests, and therefore all Christians have equal access to God and have equal responsibility to help others find the Lord in their own lives.
In other words there are no professional Christians, only Christian professionals.
When discussing the impact of Luther on the doctrine of vocation it is easy to see only one half of the change. Luther’s impact in an elevated clergy class back down to earth is readily apparent.
However, often lost in the discussion is the re-emphasis of the function of all believers to demonstrate the gospel in their lives, including their work, and also to study and proclaim the Word.
After Luther, the work of the church could no longer be assigned solely to a special class of Christians; it became the responsibility of all.
Because Luther believed all people could, to a reasonable degree, study and interpret Scripture, he was able to restore a more holistic vision of vocation.
Still Room for Vocational Ministry
Luther helped remove the distance between vocations inside and outside the church, but he did not eliminate a unique role for certain Christians within the church. This is evidenced by Luther’s continued recognition of the office of pastor as a legitimate vocation.
Just as societies need people who specialize in medicine, the role of pastor is still an essential one according to Luther. In his “Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” Luther wrote,
A true pastor thus contributes to the well-being of men in body and soul, in property and honor. But beyond that see how he also serves God and what glorious worship and sacrifice he renders. . . . In a word, if we would praise God to the uttermost, we must praise his word and preaching; for the office and the word are his.
Hence, in Luther’s theology, as in Scripture, there is a place for the church to set apart certain individuals to focus on Bible study and preaching in the same way society sets apart certain individuals to focus on plumbing or designing computer chips. The pastor serves the common good by exercising a calling in the same manner that other professionals do.
Based on Luther’s example, we should recognize the responsibility of every Christian to be equipped for life through the study of Scripture. We should also recognize that our ability to interpret Scripture does not eliminate the importance of having people with appropriate gifts dedicated to study, preaching, and ministry of the Word.
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