"radical laicism" and "the priesthood of all believers"
in the writings of James Luther Adams,
Unitarian Universalist theologian

laity (1535-45)
n. pl. the people who are not members of the clergy or of a professional class
laic (1555-65)
adj. of the laity; lay; secular n. layman
laicize (1790-1800)
v.t. secularize
laicism (1930-35)
n. power of influence of the laity
[laity: latin laicus < greek laikoV < laoV people]
[democracy: demos- greek dhmoV < district, people; ]
James Luther Adams, in his essay entitled "Our responsibility in society" (1953) [contained in The prophethood of all believers, edited by George K. Beach (Beacon: Boston 1987) p 157], writes about "radical laicism" as a synonym for "the priesthood of all believers." He states
"The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. ... They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism -- that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers."
Later, in his essay entitled "Radical laicism" (1984) [ibid; p 93], he writes
"In the present discussion I want to stress the vocation of the laity, assuming according to tradition that everyone is a layperson, an idea expressed in the phrase "the priesthood of all believers."

comments by tpkunesh:
Let us not mince words: the priesthood is superior to the laity: one is born a common lay person, while one is "called" and "ordained" to become a priest/minister. There is a certain malapropism here in equating laicism with priesthood. In hierarchical terms, priesthood has always been of a higher degree/quality/status than being a lay person. Priests ruled the religious life; lay people obeyed them. Priests had daily contact with God and Jesus through what seemed to be more direct prayer, the power of the confessional, the consecration of the host and wine into the actual Body and Blood of the Lord; lay people watched, confessed, and ate the host that the priest gave to them. It is still a singular achievement to become a priest in any culture. Attaining the priesthood of all believers by laicizing all members of a religious persuasion is to abolish all that is special to the priesthood, including the superior title.

Unless "laicism" refers not to its current connotation of secularization but to its etymological synonym "democratization" [laicism: latin laicus < greek laikos < laos people; democratization: greek demos < district, people], "radical laicism" would mean a step backwards: demoting all priests and ministers to lay status, where the lay people have always been, adding really nothing new to their religious status. Another way of demonstrating the inappropriateness of using "radical laicism" as a synonym for "the priesthood of all believers" is to replace the lay::priest dichotomy with another to test whether adding "radical" in front of an inferior class title is able to lift it to equality of a higher class. Try "peasant"::"aristocrat," ie, "radical peasantism"::"the aristocracy of all citizens." What is lost in Adams' translation is the elevation of the believer to a class that was previously unattainable, a class to which all citizens aspired. Adams' "radical laicism" offers no hope of improvement for those already in the lay class, and suggests a demotion to all those in the higher priestly castes. [In racial terms, try substituting "Blackness" for "laicism" and "Whiteness" for "priesthood." No self-respecting racist would ever say that "radical Blackness" is the same or better than "the Whiteness of all races."] Still, the word "radical" may hold its appeal for a time for those lay people eager to claim the name of change for themselves, in contradistinction to "reactionary laicism." "Radical laicism" could even be embraced by the clergy who, while "empowering" the laity with a new avant garde title, nonetheless maintain the class distinction between the "radical" laity and the continued elitist priesthood of the few.

To claim that "the priesthood of all believers" means that "everyone is a lay person" is a most grievous theological error. Luther's intent in promulgating the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was not to demote the clergy to lay status but to promote the laity to a position heretofore reserved to the religious aristocracy. "Radical laicism" is the opposite intent of Luther's reforms.

Re-defining "the priesthood of all believers" as "radical laicism" is also the worst of all possible translations when comparing it with the teachings of the most radical christian reformer yet produced, George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. To him, "priesthood" could never be equated with any type of "laity," radical or reactionary.

religious/secular world vs. intra-religious class

So the question is, Why did James Luther Adams qualify it as radical "laicism" instead of using the original term "priesthood" or Luther's own linguistic turnover "ministry"? And why did Martin Luther qualify his own beliefs about it being the "spiritual" priesthood of all believers?

(what is "lay" and who is a "minister" in comparison to who is "priest"?)

Luther :: Fox

-- Both Luther and JLA maintain the distinction between the "real" professional ministry and the lay non-ministry. There is an obvious class distinction between professional ministry (white collar) and lay ministry (blue collar), paid and unpaid, educated and non-educated. -- Fox categorically changed the particular (priesthood) into a universal by taking literally Luther's concept of the priesthood of all believers.

TN ULC Ministerial Union | TN Attorney General's '97 Opinion on ULC ministers
James Luther Adams on "radical laicization" & the Priesthood of all Believers
on Luther & Calvin and the Priesthood of all Believers