Absolution and the Universal Priesthood: From Luther to Spener
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This study traces the doctrines of absolution and of the universal priesthood and their interrelationship within the Lutheran tradition from Luther’s writings to the publication of Philip Spener’s Pia Desideria in 1675, setting this trajectory within the context of medieval discussions by such authors as Gratian, Lombard, and Aquinas. Luther’s doctrine of the universal priesthood and its existence has been much debated. This study argues that the doctrine is evident through Luther’s career, albeit with varying relative prominence alongside his discussion of the public ministry. Key to Luther’s distinctive understanding is the responsibility of the universal priesthood to speak God’s Word to the neighbor. This is manifested particularly in the context of Luther’s new theology of absolution as the efficacious proclamation of the Gospel, which Luther consistently affirms can be announced by lay Christians, at least in private or in the case of emergency. Subsequent Lutheran theologians in the period of confessionalization and orthodoxy tend to place less emphasis on the universal priesthood and the possibility of traced through selected writings of Melanchthon, Flacius, Chemnitz, Chytraeus, Hunnius, Gerhard, Arndt and Dannhauer as well as church orders and hymnody. The emergence of Pietism transforms the discussion of these topics. Spener, as part of his claim to be returning the Lutheran church to its roots, gave the universal priesthood a practical emphasis it had rarely received since Luther. Nonetheless, Spener’s radically different theology of penitence and absolution gave the universal priesthood a theologically reduced role. This reappraisal of Spener’s relationship to Luther and the Lutheran theological tradition raises broader questions of Protestant continuity and suggests the recovery of a robust theology of absolution and the Word as a necessary part of the discussion and practice of the universal priesthood in emerging churches and contemporary Christianity worldwide.