From priesthood to pastorate: the Reformation’s restoration and renewal of the image of God

The Reformation ushered in seismic changes to how the image of God was understood to reside in church elders and, in turn, how the image of God was presented to a congregation. Prior to the sixteenth century, a priest bore the image of God in his person as a result of the sacrament of Holy Orders. This ontological transformation meant that a priest acted in persona Christi capitis, making their image-bearing work in ministry primarily sacramental, exemplified in the Eucharist. The Protestant reformers strongly objected to this sacramental priesthood and sought to recover biblical perceptions of both the priesthood and the image of God. Drawing on Calvin’s concept of the restoration of the image of God in sanctification, and Luther’s understanding of the image of God as the restoration of intellect and will, this paper will examine the implications for the pastorate. It will argue that the reformers encouraged a shift from a sacramental understanding of the image of God in the priesthood, to an emphasis on the role of God’s Word and Spirit in the restoration of image-bearers—both leaders and laity—in the faith community. This conceptual shift helped close the spiritual chasm between clergy and laity as unequal image-bearers that had existed for a millennium. This paper will draw on evangelical understandings of Roman Catholic theology and practice, sacramental theology, and historical theology, such as those explored by Leonardo De Chirico and Gregg Allison. By utilizing the methodologies of historical studies, historical theology and biblical studies, this paper will explore the image of God in the nature and work of the priesthood in Roman Catholic theology and practice, before contrasting this with Protestant understandings of the image of God in the pastorate. In doing so, it will argue that the Reformation restored a biblical framework for bearing God’s image in ecclesiastical eldership—by submitting to God’s voice and rule and encouraging the congregation to do likewise. This research will hopefully encourage further exploration and assessment of evangelical understandings of Roman Catholic theology and practice, especially regarding conceptions of the priesthood.

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