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: www.nltimes.nl (for the 1526 portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder; edited by the blogger), saintbedestudio.blogspot.com/ (for the image of Pope Benedict XVI), and beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/ (for the anonymous painting of the Mother and Child)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

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: www.fortresspress.com for the image of the book, commons.wikimedia.org for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther, and www.redhenlab.org for the mosaic of Jesus and the church in the S. Maria in Trastevere church

Suggested next click: Freedom of a Christian, Part 2

Noll, Ch. 8: The English Act of Supremacy (1534 CE)

This chapter’s topic is the English Act of Supremacy in 1534, that Parliamentary action by which the English church and Henry VIII “officially” broke away from the Roman patriarchy of the Catholic Church.  As Noll effectively shows at the beginning of the chapter, this action was not in isolation from other things happening during this time. Rather, there was quite a bit of continuity from the “pre-Reformation times” with those that came during and after.

Also, Noll does a good job describing the different ways that Protestantism developed in the 16th century. It is easy for us to think of the Protestant movement as one “thing,” flowing directly from Martin Luther. But as Noll explains and shows, it really did vary quite a bit, depending on where one lived. Those differences are not the direct cause of our modern denominational situation, but they did play a part in it, and the various doctrinal and practical particularities do often still exist in our various churches today.

One other note, specifically for American readers: on p. 170, Noll says that the “general effect on Christendom” came through its effect on England, namely, the emergence of “self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity.” I would argue that there might be a second effect, one that came through England’s effect on the future United States. As many of you know, part of (but not all of) what drove some settlers to what became the English colonies in the “New World” was the promise of religious freedom. It’s hard to miss in that desire for freedom from overbearing superiors an echo of Henry’s push to be free from Rome. Is it possible that some of the seeds for the American Revolution were sown by an English king’s actions nearly 250 years before?

If you’d like to see more of what emerged from the Reformation in England, see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Queen Elizabeth I: http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/39articles.html.  (Note: this text illustrates well the variety within Protestantism that Noll describes at the end of the chapter. For example:

  • articles 1-5 represent classic Christian orthodoxy
  • article 6 sounds quite Protestant, generally speaking
  • articles 11 and 17 take up issues dear to the hearts of Luther and Calvin, respectively
  • article 28 seems to reflect the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in Communion [although transubstantiation is repudiated]
  • article 39 seems to interact with Anabaptist teaching on oaths)

Here are some questions for everyone to discuss (international readers: feel free to adapt these to your native situation):

  1. Imagine the possibility of our President serving as the “Supreme Head of the Church of the United States.”  Aside from political concerns — where you may agree or disagree with the current President about this or that issue — how might that affect church life in America?  What are the possibilities?
  2. Noll notes that “worldly preoccupations” often entangled church leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries; further, the English Act of Supremacy was clearly as much about political as religious freedom.  Where do you see “worldly preoccupations” besetting modern American Christians?  Are we too involved in politics, or not enough?  Why?
  3. The English Act of Supremacy and its effects demonstrate how, when a specific church is “established” by the state, minority religions (and even expressions of the same faith) can be persecuted. Does knowing this history affect the way you think about the idea of a “separation between church and state”? How? Does it matter if one is a part of the dominant religious tradition, or one of those on the fringe?
  4. Late in the chapter, Noll describes conflicts that took place between the various state churches and the Christians called “Anabaptists.” As you read these sections, where did you find your sympathies? Were they with the radical, persecuted Anabaptists? Or with the more traditional, more prominent state churches? How do you think your religious background or present faith commitments shape your viewpoint?
  5. A recurring theme of the chapter is how Reformation Christianity preserved much from the late medieval period, while also striking out in new ways.  Imagine what Christianity in America will be like in 50 years — toward the end of your lifetime.  What will still be in place, in terms of church and spiritual life?  What do you think will/must change?
  6. Optional: Noll’s chapter describes two different types of humor being employed by Christians in this era: first, religious satire by Desiderius Erasmus, and then second, the sadistic “black humor” of those who drowned Anabaptists as a response to their desire for adult baptism. This intersection of religion and humor continues today on websites like theonion.com (non-Christians poking fun at everyone, including religious people) and larknews.com (Christians poking fun at themselves). When and how is humor appropriate in discussions of religious matters? When is it not?  (Side note: if you want some reactions to the larknews.com site, see these two Christianity Today stories from years past:)
    1. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/mayweb-only/31.0a.html
    2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/january/21.38.html

Image credits for Joos van Cleve’s portrait of Henry VIII and Henry A. Bacon’s The Landing of the Pilgrimshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Colony

Suggested next click: Chapter 9