Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 2)

Martin Luther 1526Welcome back to the CHEF and to Martin Luther!  Today’s post is the second one dedicated to his important treatise The Freedom of a Christian, which we’re pairing with his Bondage of the Will.  In the first post, I said a few words about Luther, late medieval Christianity, and the first portion of the text.  These comments include the dedicatory letter to Pope Leo X, the (perhaps) surprising importance that Luther finds for faith in leading to freedom, and his thought-provoking metaphor of marriage.  In this second post, I’ll discuss the latter part of the text, as well as give you a few resources that may help you understand and go deeper on the treatise.  Let’s dig in!

More on Faith and the “Inner Person”

We left off in the first post with the description of Luther’s “bridegroom” metaphor, which he uses to describe the union that Christians have with Christ.  He goes on, discussing the benefits of faith and moving on to another biblical image — that we are priests of God in Christ (see, e.g., 1 Peter 2).  Christ, of course, is our high priest (see Hebrews 4), but we are also priests and kings in Christ.  Our kingdom and area of authority is not over worldly matters, as Luther makes clear; rather, we are possessors of a spiritual power.  That royal power gives us the freedom that kings enjoy, and our priestly status allows us to stand directly before God.  It is not that we may puff ourselves up, but rather that we can join the apostles in being “servants” and “ministers” of God’s people.

Two items bear some reflection here.  First, this idea is closely related to one of Luther’s most famous gifts to the church: the principle of the “priesthood of all believers.”  That idea is sometimes misunderstood, as though Luther thought all people should be able to interpret Scripture for themselves without the community, or that each person can be his/her own priest.  Rather, it means that all Christians are able to exercise priestly functions for one another — especially things like hearing confessions from other believers, praying for them, and assuring them of their forgiveness.  This is a good reminder, in our day of increasing professionalization of the clergy: we ALL have the ability and authority to intercede for one another before God’s throne.

The second item of interest is that Luther says that the “visible and corporeal office of priests” prefigures for us the spiritual priesthood that we enjoy.  The idea of something being a “type” or “precursor” is familiar in Christian theology; for centuries, we have said that various Old Testament people/events/objects are prefigurations of Christ — like the snake lifted up in the desert (Numbers 21), or the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).  But here, it sounds as though he’s saying that the present priests are a pointer to our own priesthood.  I’ve not read any discussion on this matter (my own problem), but it’s pretty interesting to me.  Imagine Luther telling the Pope that the papal office is really for the instruction of the Christian cobbler or milkmaid — not just for instruction in doctrine, but also so that the cobbler and milkmaid know that they share the Pope’s spiritual power!

The Outer Person — Loving One’s Neighbor

There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in the second half of the treatise, but the overarching theme that connects it all is how Luther thinks our freedom should work itself out in our lives.  And yes, I did use the word “work,” because it’s a big part of this section — the place of “works” in a Christian life led by faith.  Luther notes right at the beginning of this section that we are not purely spiritual beings, and while we are in our earthly bodies, it is necessary that we teach those bodies to “obey and be conformed to the inner person and faith, “so that they may not “rebel against or impede the inner person.”  In other words, as he says, the function of works is for the discipline of the body — not in order that one may be justified by them before God.  Rather, our souls have “been cleansed through faith,” and so we do our works “in compliance to God out of spontaneous love.”

Most of this is what you’d expect, even if you know only a little about Luther and/or Protestantism.  But you may have been surprised to see that Luther does have a place for works.  Many evangelicals nowadays put such emphasis on our salvation by grace, that they can’t articulate a place for good actions in our lives.  But Luther does, and as he goes on to say, we should remember Adam in the Garden: he was “righteous, upright, and without sin,” and yet God still gave him the job of caring for the Garden!  His work wasn’t there to “obtain righteousness,”  but rather to be done out of pure freedom.  Good works don’t make us good; rather, they show that God has made us good, as he says a bit later.  As he will also say, we are not good by our own merits, but God has showered us with such overwhelming love, that we can not help but live in his ways freely and joyfully.

Later, he takes up the importance of works done for the sake of the neighbor — not just good things done for oneself.  Luther touches on the topics you’d expect — service, imitating Christ, and treating others according to their needs and not our own.  Given these topics, it’s also not surprising that Luther quotes Paul a lot — he uses passages from Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians.  Here’s a good quote for you: “Since each and every person thus thrives through their own faith — so that all other works and the sum total of life flows out from that very faith — by these works each may serve and benefit the neighbor with willing benevolence.”

But here Luther introduces another example of faith and works — but may not one that you’d expect — the Virgin Mary!  Luther doesn’t invoke the common (and compelling) Catholic description of Mary as the disciple par excellence.  Rather, he talks about the narrative in Luke 2 about her “purification according to the Law of Moses.”  Luther says that she wasn’t bound by that law and didn’t need purification (presumably, he’s thinking of her conceiving Christ apart from sexual activity), but “nevertheless, she subjected herself to the law out of free and voluntary love, doing just as other women did, so that she did not offend or disdain them.”  As he notes, of course, she wasn’t “justified by this work” but rather “did it freely and spontaneously.”  I did not expect this analogy (but I probably should have), but it certainly makes sense to me and is thought-provoking.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this text, but I need to sign off here.  I’ll be back next week with Luther’s Bondage of the Will!  But first…

Appendix: Other Tools

As you have read The Freedom of a Christian, you may have found yourself wanting some more information about this or that element of the text.  There are a number of commentators online that you can find, but I’ve collected a couple of resources for you.  First, if you want a brief (and humorous!) summary of the text, with contemporary reflection, you can check out this blogger’s post.  If you want something a little “meatier” — a more extended summary and outline — then you can consult this resource.  Finally, if you just want a simple outline of the text, especially since the Fortress edition I’m using and also the online texts I’ve found tend to not give chapter or section numbers, I’ve included one below.  I’ve built it from the study notes in the translation I’ve got, and you can look in the margins there if you want more detail:

1. The Letter to Pope Leo X (including an introduction, Luther’s defense of his own actions, the cause and progression of his case, and some closing advice for the Pope)

2. Introduction to the Treatise (including his main themes)

3. Part I: The Spiritual, New, and Inner Person (including the challenge of the law and righteousness, the importance of faith, and the spiritual priesthood)

4. Part II: The Outer Person (especially concerning works and the love of one’s neighbor)

5. An Appendix on Libertines and Legalists — people who espouse too much freedom and not enough freedom, respectively

Image credits for this post: (for the 1526 portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder; edited by the blogger), (for the image of Pope Benedict XVI), and (for the anonymous painting of the Mother and Child)

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In the News: Christians in the 16th-Century Caribbean

Church history has made the news again!  Yesterday this piece appeared in FoxNews, describing the discovery by British and Puerto Rican archaeologists of Christian cave art on the small Caribbean island of Mona.  Given the long history of Amerindian settlement in the Caribbean, it is not surprising that these archaeologists found native wall paintings in the cave.  But what is interesting for us is that they also found Christian wall art, including crosses and Christian inscriptions, as you can see in the FoxNews story.

caribbean wall artNow, as the story says, this discovery does tell us some things about the history of Christianity in the Caribbean… but it doesn’t really say what it tells us.  However, this piece at goes deeper, also providing some really great pictures and reconstructions, not least the signature of a 1530s leader who seems to have “tagged” the cave with his name.  If you want to learn more, I can’t call upon my own expertise, as I’m not an expert in any particular aspect of this story.  But, in terms of online resources, I’d probably start with issue 35 of Christian History magazine.  If I were shopping on Amazon, I’d probably get a hold of something like this book to help me out.

Image credit:

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Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 1)

Today we come to one of the most famous figures in all of church history: Martin Luther, sometimes called the “Father of the Protestant Reformation.”  For this month’s reading group, in addition to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, we are looking at his 1520 work The Freedom of a Christian, from which comes Luther’s famous line “The Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  You can read the text online at this link; I am reading this recent publication from Fortress Press.  After a brief introduction to Luther, let’s get into the text!

A Few Words about Luther

There’s no way to adequately introduce Martin Luther in just a few sentences, but let me link to his Wikipedia page and offer a few comments of my own.  He was born in Germany in 1483 and was, therefore, what we would call “Roman Catholic,” in many of the stereotypical senses of that phrase.  The Catholicism he grew up in was very complex with LOTS of different elements that contributed to his later Reformation.  By his time there were a number of monastic orders, including the Augustinians of which he would become a part, and these had important roles at the various universities of Europe; in other words, monks and professors were important parts of late medieval European society.  There was an increasingly rigorous, official teaching office in the Catholic church (including the famous “Inquisition”), but there were also individuals and groups who were “doing their own thing” in terms of teaching Scripture and spirituality.  Finally, there were individuals committed to the great traditions of the church, but there were also folks who were comfortable critiquing those medieval traditions, including the Pope himself.  Some of the people who laid the foundations for Luther’s reforms include folks like Peter Waldo, Girolamo Savonarola, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus.

But, of course, he is best known for his seeking to reform the Catholic church of his day, which ultimately led to what we now call the “Protestant Reformation.”  Overall, in terms of his influence, Luther is my own top 5 “Most Famous Theologians of Church History” along with Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Wesley.  Among the many things that Luther bequeathed to the broader church are the emphasis on justification by grace (following Paul in Romans and Galatians), the importance of worship and Bibles in the vernacular (the everyday languages people speak), a sense of Christianity as BOTH a communal AND an individual operation, and a reminder of the importance of congregational participation in all aspects of church life.  If you’re interested in learning more, you might check out the psychologist Erik Erikson’s famous study Young Man Luther, or Roland Bainton’s brief and accessible biography Here I Stand.

The Freedom of a Christian

The primary text starts with a letter to the pope of that time, Leo X, in which we learn that Luther essentially dedicated the treatise to Pope Leo.  This is not a terribly surprising move, in that writers have been writing little prefaces for centuries!  For example, the biblical books of Luke and Acts both indicate that the author is intending to write to someone named Theophilus; this was a normal practice in the Greco-Roman world when someone wanted to thank the benefactor of a literary project.  In this case, though, Leo was not the one bankrolling Luther’s writing; rather, he was an important part of Luther’s audience.  As the German says toward the beginning of his letter, he has been specifically accused of attacking Pope Leo’s person, and Luther wants to defend himself from the accusations.  Given the conflicts that Luther and the Pope did encounter, it’s a little surprising that Luther would take such a conciliatory tone; however, the kind of politeness and courtesy that we see in the letter was pretty common at that time — plus it would have been REALLY foolish for Luther to “poke the bear,” so to speak.  (That said, he sure isn’t afraid of saying some extremely harsh things against other members of the Church’s leadership.)

Once he gets into the treatise as a whole, it is a bit surprising to me that he spends so much time talking about faith.  I thought this text was about freedom?!?  But early on, Luther gives us the answer: “In looking at the inner person first, we grasp how someone may become righteous, free, and truly Christian” — and the answer is the Word of God, the good news about Jesus.  And, of course, this message is one that requires trust and belief.  Put another way, Luther seems to think that faith is the key to freedom.  The reason that’s important is because the church of his day and/or its leaders had increasingly taught the importance of various rituals and ceremonies as a part of one’s salvation — the most odious of these, in Luther’s mind, were indulgences — and Luther goes on to say that these things “do not help the soul.”  It’s not the outward actions of these kinds that give freedom — it’s an inward faith in God and in Christ’s redemption!

Luther goes on to discuss some themes that have become fairly familiar to those of us who are Protestants: that faith alone justifies (following Paul), that “works” do not make us righteous before God (quoting John 6:29), that the law makes demands and yet we are inherently unable to fulfill it, and that God alone is able to fulfill God’s own command.  Next comes a discussion of the benefits and powers of faith, and Luther gives us a concise recap of the point made in the previous paragraph:

“[T]his is the Christian freedom referred to above, namely, our faith, which does not cause us to be lazy and lead evil lives but instead makes the law and works unnecessary for the righteousness and salvation of the Christian.”

Luther continues, noting that faith brings honor to the one in whom people trust — that is, God — because it holds that being to be worthy of trust.  A third benefit of faith is the union with Christ that it effects, much like that of a bride and bridegroom.  As a non-Luther-specialist, I was a little surprised to read this mystical-sounding language — I tend to think of Luther as a great debater and logician and theologian (in the modern sense of the word) more than as a mystic.  But, just as no one can know the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11 — a text Luther quotes multiple times in the Bondage of the Will), so he says that no one can fully comprehend the riches of the glorious gift of our marriage to Christ!

That said, the wedding metaphor is appropriate for Luther, it seems to me, for multiple reasons (and those don’t include his own marriage to Katharina von Bora, which had not yet happened!).  First, even if the image is most famously found in Revelation, it is also Pauline (see 2 Corinthians and Ephesians), and we know Luther’s fondness for Paul.  Second, and more importantly, it actually does fit into Luther’s thinking about salvation because of the exchange of goods that spouses make with one another.  One of Luther’s fundamental tenets is that we are righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness that we are freely given — not because of our own.  And that free gift is just like the gifts that spouses give to one another.  Christ is like a bridegroom, giving all that is his to his beloved bride.  Good news, right?

Let’s stop here.  I’ll come back next week with the second post on The Freedom of a Christian, before we turn to Bondage of the Will for a couple of posts.  Join in the conversation, if you like, and I’ll do my best to answer your comments and questions.  And in the meantime, let me give you a pair of questions for reflection: What is the biggest obstacle for you in trusting God these days?  And what do you think you could do about that?

Image credits: for the image of the book, for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther, and for the mosaic of Jesus and the church in the S. Maria in Trastevere church

Suggested next click: Freedom of a Christian, Part 2

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 3)

As we get to the middle of the (college) summer, it’s time for our last post on the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, before we move on in July to two important works from Martin Luther — The Freedom of a Christian and The Bondage of the Will.  So far I have made some introductory comments and discussed Book I, and then I’ve dedicated a second post to Books II and III.  The focus for this post will be Bede’s Books IV and V, with some comments related to the work as a whole.  You’ll hopefully learn more about how and why Bede has been such an important figure in English church history!

Important Elements in Books IV and V

  1. Caedmon and Cuthbert.  These last two books contain virtually all the information we have on two important British figures: the English poet Caedmon (whose “call” gave the famous Christian music group their name) and the monk and bishop St. Cuthbert.  Caedmon’s story is told in IV.24, and it includes the only extant poem that we have from Caedmon — a song in praise of God the Creator.  Interestingly, Bede notes that Caedmon’s singular gift seems to have been his ability to “translate” passages of Scripture into English verse, once they were explained to him; note that he did not sing in Latin, and that he did not have his own education.  But he seems to have written LOTS of songs, even if only our one survives.  Cuthbert’s story is related in IV.27-29, with stories of miracles occurring via his relics in IV.30-32.  He is another of Bede’s model bishops, as Wright notes, joining the ranks of Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan, and Chad.  Like these others, Cuthbert leads not only by word but also by deed, and he is deeply humble.  Toward the end of his life, Cuthbert foresees his own death and tells others of its imminent occurrence; this gift of foresight recurs in Bede’s narrative, typically as an indication of the holiness or innocence of its recipient.  All in all, Cuthbert is a model of Christian virtue, as Bede also makes clear in a separate text — his poetic Life of Cuthbert (which you can read at this link).
  2. lindisfarne gospelsThe Importance of Scripture.  Something that has been true of Books I-III, but that I’ve mostly saved until now, is the immense importance of Scripture to Bede.  Something that modern readers are sometimes surprised by in reading ancient authors is their intense interest in and command of Scripture.  That’s true of Bede as well.  In some places, it’s quite simple, in that his characters quote Scripture (e.g., Bishop Chad’s quoting of Psalm 18 in IV.3).  Then, there are places where Bede uses Scripture to help his readers understand what is happening in the narrative, like Ecclesiastes 3 to explain Chad’s impending death in IV.3, or 2 Corinthians 12 to explain Ethelburga’s sickness in IV.9.  There are places in his text where he sees what’s happening in England as a continuation of biblical history (for example, IV.25, where the sinful members of a monastery do not follow the contrite example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, and thus are destroyed by fire, or the very end of the text in V.23, where Britain is one of the islands that give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, from Psalm 97).  At other times, he places words of Scripture into the mouths of his characters, as in his narrative of Cuthbert in IV.28, where Cuthbert remembers the commands of Jesus.  At still other places, he compares his subjects to biblical characters, as in his comparison at V.8 of Archbishop Theodore to the godly men of the past, following Sirach 44.  The big point is this: when one steps back and looks at the work as a whole, one sees that it is suffused with Scripture.
  3. Bede the Historian.  We have seen throughout the text that Bede is a careful historian, and that care manifests itself in a variety of ways.  That feature continues in this last part of the text, with Bede’s general intention to tell the story of the English church in chronological order, while also illuminating some important personalities.  He shares first-hand (e.g., IV.32) and second-hand accounts (e.g., IV.3) of various events, almost always naming his sources (like Abbot Berthun, who is the source of miracles described in V.2-4).  He also notes written records that he has consulted, as in IV.7 about various miracles.  In IV.5, he preserves the decisions of the Council of Hertford (AD/CE 673), and he preserves a conciliar letter from the Synod of Hatfield (AD/CE 680) in IV.17.  While Bede often focuses on “great men,” he also reveals a certain sense of obligation regarding other good stories, as in the case of of IV.16, where he tells of two young princes who convert to Christianity just before being executed.  Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to reprint material from still other sources, like gravestone epitaphs in V.8 and V.19, or books about the Holy Land in V.16-17.  Finally, he ends his text with a “how are things with Christianity in England now?” in V.23 and a chronological summary of the whole book in V.24.  He’s careful and helpful!
  4. Christian Controversies.  As we saw in the second post on Bede, he is very interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman traditions, especially on the date of Easter and the proper monastic haircut.  And there continue to be places where Bede shows interest in various differences between Christian groups.  For example, when Theodore (of Greek heritage) comes to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope sends along an abbot to support him, but also to make sure that “he did not introduce into the Church which he was to rule any Greek customs which conflicted with the teachings of the true Faith” (IV.1).  Then, toward the end of the text, in V.19, Bede tells the story of bishop Wilfrid, who apparently represented the English churches at a synod in Rome that was part of the Monothelite controversy.  Finally, in V.21, Bede reproduces a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid to the king of the Picts in what is now Scotland; that letter contains lengthy reflections on the Celtic-Roman questions about Easter and the tonsure — a nice recap of Bede’s own position on those matters!  As we see throughout the text, Bede is a historian, but he is a historian with commitments about how things should be done, and he is not afraid to make those clear.
  5. Platonic View of Death.  A feature of the text that caught me off-guard — in that I had noticed it in the first three books — was Bede’s repeated descriptions of death as a type of liberation from the body.  In IV.3, a plague means that “death freed many members of the reverend bishop’s church from the burden of the flesh.”  Later in that section, the bishop himself dies, which Bede describes as that “his holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body.”  In IV.9, we hear of one nun who is “set free from the body” and of another named Tortgyth who is “delivered from the burden of the body.”  Then, in IV.14, an epidemic strikes the island of Britain, and while many people are saved from it, one young boy is “set free by death.”  By the time of Bede, traditional Christian teaching had connected Neoplatonic ideas about the body and soul (let me know if you have a better link) with some of the things that Paul says in his letters, such that the body was viewed as a hindrance to the proper spiritual activity of the soul; this view is perhaps most famously expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III), where the lead character speaks of death as shuffling off “this mortal coil.”  Certainly, Bede’s views are also influenced by his monastic background, since we know that medieval monks often saw the body as the soul’s opponent, one which must be purified (or even punished) by penance.

Well, it’s time to wrap up Bede.  We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and hopefully you’ve come to understand him and his text more fully.  The shame of it all is that we haven’t even been able to touch of everything of interest: we’ve totally left aside the story of Willibrord (the great missionary to the Frisians, described in V.10-11) and Bede’s comments here and there about church music in England.  I haven’t said much about Bede’s many comments (some subtle, some overt) about monastic life at the time, or the many miracle stories he includes throughout the text.  Further, I haven’t even discussed how Bede TOTALLY OMITS ST. PATRICK!  (You can read more about that at this link.)  For these and other omissions, I can only apologize for the brevity of this format, point you to Wright’s book, and encourage you to keep researching on your own!  In the meantime, a set of questions to conclude:

If you were to tell the story of Christianity in your denomination and part of the world, how would you do so?  What would you emphasize?  What would you leave out?  What parts of Scripture would you connect with?

Image credits: (the illumination of Bede), (the detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels), and (for the image from Vesalius of death contemplating death)

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