Reasons to Believe

The Distinctives of Protestant Christianity Part 4

What are the unique doctrinal features of historic Protestant theology?

Early Protestants held three doctrinal positions that have come to be known as the defining characteristics of Protestant Christianity. Here are those uniting points enumerated:

  1. Justification by faith alone (sola fide)
  2. Scripture as the supreme authority in faith and practice (sola Scriptura)
  3. Priesthood of all believers

In part two of this series I discussed the Reformation cry of “Justification by faith alone.” The third part addressed the topic of Scripture’s unique authority, known as the principle of sola Scriptura. In this final installment of the series I will tackle the third doctrinal trait of historic Protestantism.

The Priesthood of All Believers

The priesthood of all believers is a unique theological feature of Protestantism. As a movement, Protestantism needs to be understood as reflecting a strong reaction to certain theological beliefs of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

The Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic hierarchical distinction between clergy (priests) and laymen. Roman Catholic theology makes the priesthood (or holy orders) one of its seven sacraments of the church. Protestants believe that all men have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, and not through a sacerdotal system that makes priests essential mediators between God and man.

The Reformers viewed all believers as constituting a “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Each Christian is a priest under the Great High Priest Jesus Christ, who is the believer’s one and only mediator before God (1 Timothy 2:5). The priesthood of all believers also makes it possible for each Christian to serve in the role of a priest to other believers.

There was a powerful practical implication to this new Protestant theological perspective. The upshot was that this view of all believers as priests affirmed a common dignity and privilege among all members of the church. It also transformed the Protestant churches’ view of calling and vocation. Believers could carry out their various vocations in life (farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, etc.) and this calling was every bit as acceptable to God as being a preacher or an ordained minister. The priesthood of all believers served to break down the strong sacred-secular distinction that characterized much of medieval Christendom.

The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546), proclaimed:

“Let every man be his own priest.”

The original Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, etc.) transformed the Western world with their distinctive theological beliefs. The Reformation of the sixteenth century also sparked critical changes in European views of culture, economics, politics, and science. In fact, some scholars argue that the founding of the United States of America was an indirect result of the Protestant Reformation.

As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, evangelical Christians today can learn much from studying their theological roots.

To read about the Protestant Reformation, I suggest beginning with two works by the Yale historian Roland H. Bainton Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.

For studies in church history, I also recommend Robert C. Walton’s Chronological and Background Charts of Church History.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Subjects: Historical Theology

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.