During the portentous year of 1517, when a certain young professor and Augustinian friar at Wittenberg was drafting his “Ninety-five Theses,” the same Martin Luther was also engaged in teaching a very popular series of lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews. The timing is more than coincidental. In fact, Luther’s commentary on this epistle, which has among its major themes the priesthood, sacrifice, and atonement of Christ, contains at least in seed form almost all the major theological concerns of the Protestant Reformers. In particular, Luther’s early interpretation of Christ’s priesthood advanced therein anticipates the later Reformers’ reconception of the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant and of Christian worship generally.
Luther’s commentary takes the form of a gloss on the text which closely follows the structure of the epistle. His comments of relevance to Christ’s priesthood begin, then, with Hebrews 5:1, in which the Apostle enumerates the characteristics of Jesus the High Priest: like “every high priest,” Christ was “chosen from among men” and “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”1 These three characteristics likewise form the backbone of Luther’s portrait of the priesthood of Christ. Sharing our human nature, Luther’s Christ stands in stark contradistinction to God the Father, a Mediator standing in the breach between fearful, sinful humanity and a wrathful God. “No other refuge is left,” he writes, “than that one sanctuary which is Christ, our Priest, in whose humanity alone we are protected and saved from judgment.”2 For Luther, the priesthood of Christ is principally to be understood in terms of this mediation, by which God’s wrath toward us due to our sins is satisfied:
As priest, Christ through his mediations between God and us … ‘protects us from all sins and the wrath of God, intercedes for us, and sacrifices himself in order to reconcile us to God.’ Luther expressly adds, ‘Now he makes us so secure in our relationship to God and gives peace to our conscience that God is no longer against us.’ … Everything depends on the fact that God has been reconciled.3
Christ in his humanity thus stands as mediator between mankind and “God the Father as a celestial child abuser … who unleashes violent fury on his Son for sins of which his Son is innocent.”4 This theology of the angry Father-God would be picked up and amplified by the later Reformers, particularly Calvin, and even find its way back into Catholic theology via Jansenism.
With regard to the final characteristic of Christ the high priest identified by the Apostle, that he is appointed “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins,” however, Luther does not choose to emphasize Christ’s bloody sacrifice of his own flesh in atonement for the sins of mankind, as one might expect. Instead, he interprets Hebrews 5:7 f., “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,” as referring to a bloodless, spiritual sacrifice of praise in contradistinction to the bloody sacrifices of the Old Law. “This text elucidates beautifully the mystery of the old sacrifices,” he writes, “for against the gifts and sacrifices which ‘the priests chosen from among men’ offered, Paul here sets the ‘prayers and supplications’ which Christ, who was mystically prefigured among them, offered … For Christ made the justification of the new law so easy that we can accomplish with the mouth what they could scarcely obtain with everything they had.”5
This is not inconsistent with Luther’s overall theology. Though he holds fast to a theology of atonement in which the wrath of the Father against us is expended on the innocent victim of His Son, Luther likewise holds to a dialectic of law and grace, Old and New, works and faith—one might even say flesh and spirit—between which there must be an “absolute distinction.”6 Of greater significance in Luther’s overall theology than the bloody offering of Christ’s body, then, is the spiritual offering of his “godly fear” (Heb 5:7), manifested in his prayers and supplications. One need not strain to detect here the germ of the doctrine of sola fide. Indeed, Luther states elsewhere that “the priesthood of Christ consists in taking on the evils of our own nature” and the punishment which is their due “and sharing with us the good proper to his own nature (his faithfulness).”7
What might be the role of the ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant, given these preliminary conclusions on Christ’s priesthood as our mediator and source of faith? This question hinges in large part on “the question of the mediation of the grace and knowledge of God … whether Christ alone is Mediator or whether Christ mediates along with the Church in its authoritative tradition, priesthood, and sacraments.”8 The Catholic tradition holds the latter, understanding the ministerial priesthood as partaking in the one priesthood of Christ; the Reformation may be seen in broad outline as a violent affirmation of the contrary position. Luther’s close contemporary, John Calvin, for example, who wrote his own commentary on Hebrews some thirty years later, is not shy in concluding that “[Jesus] is the mediator of the new testament” and therefore “there is no further need for another priest … When this office was attached to Christ, all other mediators were repudiated.”9
The Luther of the 1517 lectures was not quite so direct. He writes of “the office of the new priest,” which is certainly not to offer sacrifices, as the priests of the old law did, but to stir up faith by preaching and teaching and “to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.”10 Within three years, however, the implications of Luther’s Christological conclusions on the priesthood have for him reached their logical conclusion: “A priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary.”11 Likewise, Christian worship is to be a “sacrifice of praise,” understood not as a Christian θυσία αἰνέσεως, the fulfillment of the todah offering under the Old Law by our liturgical participation in Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of atonement, but as “prayers and praises … with the mouth.”12 The Christological conclusions reached by Luther in these early Lectures on Hebrews thus foreshadow the major concerns of the Protestant Reformation which would follow: salvation by faith alone, Christ as the sole mediator between God and man, and the absolute superiority of the New Covenant of faith over the Old Law of works, manifested in spiritual, vocal worship rather than vain “repetition of the same liturgical acts,”13 and leading ultimately to the abolition of the ministerial priesthood and the sacraments.
- The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, vol. 29 in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 167.
- Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 222. Emphases mine.
- Margaret M. Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology” (unpublished manuscript, November 21, 2019), 3.
- Luther, Lectures, 175-176.
- Mickey L. Mattox, “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 107.
- Luther, Lectures, 142.
- Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (London: Cambridge UP, 2004), 28.
- John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, vol. 23 in The Library of Christian Classics, trans. and ed. Joseph Haroutunian (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958), 151.
- Luther, Lectures, 194.
- Luther, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate,” trans. C. A. Buchheim, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1998.
- Luther, Lectures, 176.
- R. Michael Allen, “The Perfect Priest: Calvin on the Christ of Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 124.