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Freedom by Faith

By Dennis and Hannah Clemens

This historical and theological introduction to “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” accompanies the launch of the new edition in the Taylorian series of Reformation pamphlets on 30 October 2020, 500 years after it was first published. The article was written by Hannah Clemens, Theology Student at the HU Berlin and Erasmus Intern at Exeter College Chapel (Oxford) in 2019, and Dennis Clemens, Philosophy Student at the HU Berlin, and translated by Raluca Vasiu and Florence Butterfield, two Oxford Modern Languages graduates who took the early modern German period option for their finals. For further information on the four Taylorian copies cf. the blogpost about the publishing history of the pamphlet by Maximilian Krümpelmann.

Gerhard Ebeling: No theologian – we may even go further and say no other thinker – has spoken in such compelling terms of the freedom of man on the one hand, and with such terrifying force of the bondage of man on the other.[1]

If the Reformation is closely linked to the person of Martin Luther, it is also closely linked to the notion of freedom. For Luther the ideological shift of the Reformation was a liberation. When a theological insight turned into a movement of political reform, Luther changed his name, and ‘Luder’ became ‘Luther’, the short form of the Greek ‘eleutherios’, a name derived from the Greek for ‘free’.[2]

Luther's signature
Martin Luther’s letter to Georg Spalatin with his signature Mártinos eleuthérios in Greek, 20 January 1519 (Landesarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt [Z 8, Nr. 36], edited in WA.B, No. 138, p. 310)

But what role did Luther assign himself by this new name – liberated or liberator? In any case, this new-found freedom concerned his relationship with God and his faith as well as his relationship with authority, both secular and ecclesiastical. After gradually becoming more radical, Luther’s reform programme culminated in his three major writings of 1520. These were derived from his original under­standing of the relationship between the divinity and the individual, a concept most effectively summarised in the Freiheitsschrift, which Roper describes as the most beautiful writing of that time.[3]

The Historical Background

In 1520, when Luther issued this key text, he found himself in a precarious situation. All attempts to resolve the conflict with Rome had failed and the trial for heresy against him, which had begun in June 1518 but then paused, was being pursued again. Luther was aware of the threat to his own life if he were to fall into the hands of the papal authorities. But in the two intervening years much had happened that would shape Luther personally and theologically.

Shortly after the commencement of the trial (as a result of the publication of the ‘95 Theses’), Luther was interrogated by the Thomist cardinal Cajetan following the Diet of Augsburg in 1518. As was to be expected given Luther’s tendency to radicalise his stance when facing opponents, the debates with Cajetan soon went beyond the issue of indulgences. Among other things, they discussed the traditional concept of the thesaurus ecclesiae (treasure of grace) – a theoretical prerequisite of indulgences. The treasure of grace, which comprised the merits of Christ, provided clerics with the means to reduce punishments for repentant sinners.

During the discussion Luther made his famous statement that he had to obey God more than men and do nothing against his conscience (WA 2, 16: 11–12, 19).[4]  He refused to revoke his Theses and hence effectively completed the break with Rome. The significance of this break is highlighted by Luther’s long-time confessor Staupitz’s decision to relieve Luther of his monastic vows in order to prevent the General Vicar of the Augustinian hermits from forcing Luther to resign. In the aftermath, Luther reckoned with imminent martyrdom. Thus, on October 11, the day before his interrogation, Luther wrote to Melanchthon from Augsburg that he would rather die than revoke what was right (WA 1, No. 98, 11. Oct. 1518, 213: 11–14). But the possibility of martyrdom did not hold Luther back: rather, it brought him closer to Christ. In the recounting of the Reichstag of Worms, the link to Christ’s passion is taken to extremes by the humanist Hermann Busche who published a pamphlet Passion Doctor Martins Luthers, oder seyn lydung durch Marcellum be­schriben. In this, Luther’s journey and stay in Worms are retold as a parallel to Christ’s suffering.[5] Luther’s quandary as to how to proceed also spurred his theo­logical thinking: Each new argument left him at once more isolated and more elated. Every new step he took theologically was freighted with intense feeling, for it genuinely was a matter of life and death as he followed Christ’s progress to martyrdom.[6]

The promises of his Reformation theology, which freed him from his old theological ideas, had a stronger effect on Luther than the threats from the papal curia. For him, it meant preferring to die as a just man than to live as an unjust one. Given Luther’s ability to draw theo­lo­gical inspiration from a life-threatening situation, it is not sur­prising that he wrote the Freiheitsschrift immediately after receiving the papal bull ‘Exsurge Domine’. After the interrogation at Augs­burg, Luther’s situation would turn out to be less dramatic than feared. Rome suddenly changed course and Luther’s heresy trial lost momentum.

The reason for this sudden change was political. Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, wanted to have his grandson Charles of Burgundy elected as his successor, which would have confronted the Pope with a German emperor who was powerful in Italy. The Pope also suspected that the alternative candidate, Francis I of France, had interests in conflict with his own. He wanted Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and Luther’s patron, to help him at least block Charles’s election, and sought to cultivate Frederick, even for a brief period supporting his nomination as Emperor. Thus, in the autumn of 1518, the Pope despatched Karl von Miltitz to try and win Frederick over, and at the same time put the trial against Luther on hold. The Pope even honoured Frederick with the golden papal rose.[7]

Militz, however, did not limit his efforts to pleasing the Elector, but he tried to reach an agreement with Luther as well. In January 1519, they came to a standstill agreement, the so-called Altenburg Pact. Luther promised to refrain from speaking out publicly, having been assured that this would be reciprocated by the papal side. The proposal to leave the matter in the hands of an erudite bishop offered new hope for a peaceful settlement in the dispute with Rome. Luther honoured the agreement for a few months, although his opponents continued to publish. He resorted to a cautious position until the famous confrontation that would open the literary floodgates – the dispute with the Ingolstadt theology professor Johannes Eck (1486–1543) in Leipzig.[8]

Eck, one of the humanists and theologians who had originally sided with Luther, became one of the latter’s most vocal opponents. In the spring of 1518 Eck had written a refutation of Luther’s ‘95 Theses’, the Obelisci (printers’ marks for errors), which prompted Luther to respond with the Asterisci (marks for additions). Both texts were intended for academic discussion and not for the general public. On Luther’s side, the Wittenberg theologian Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541) published 406 theses when Eck went public with his arguments, paving the way for the Leipzig dispute in June 1519.[9] Eck’s unabating criticism of the ‘95 Theses’ made Luther insist on taking part in the dispute himself, travelling to Leipzig with Karlstadt and Melanchthon. The reformers failed to turn the dispute to their advantage. Eck’s exceptional memory and rhetorical skills made him a formidable opponent, and he provoked Luther into making radical statements. Eck had realised early on that the ‘95 Theses’ meant a fundamental challenge to the traditional church and its doctrine and managed to tease this out in the course of the debate. Luther denied the biblical basis for papal primacy and drew attention to what he saw as the errors of the Council of Constance, particularly the condemnation of Jan Hus.[10] Luther got carried away, supporting theological arguments far more radical than his ‘95 Theses’.

So the cat was out of the bag. Luther directed his criticism not just at isolated church failings, but at the entire ecclesiastical superstructure and its claim to be the sole administerer of faith. Eventually, without a clear conclusion, both sides claimed victory, but that did not really matter. [11]

The pamphlet literature flourished thanks to Luther’s growing popularity, and the humanists who dominated public opinion stood behind him. Luther’s humanist credentials dated back before 1517, and the rapid spread of ‘95 Theses’ can be ascribed almost exclusively to the activity of his humanist supporters. For example, the Nuremberg humanist Christopher Scheurl appears to have worked as an agent and to have passed the Theses on to various humanist circles.[12] While Luther’s pastoral writings appealed to the general public, his polemical ones convinced the humanists. They were the only discrete group who stood behind Luther in the first few years, and Luther’s cause would not have prevailed without them. As the conflict between Luther and Rome progressed, the humanist movement was divided into the faction supporting Luther and the Catholic faction. And it was particularly the younger generation which took Luther’s side: the struggle against the ‘old’ theology was at once a struggle against the ecclesiastical establish­ment and an emancipation of the new generation.

Eventually the Leipzig Disputation spread the ‘Luther-case’ so widely that by 1520 the whole of Germany was caught up in it. In the aftermath of the dispute, Luther entered his most creative intellectual phase. It was the feeling of empowerment and responsibility, of having a nation behind him, that motivated him. The theological argument with Eck represented an important step in Luther’s process of liberation from ecclesiastical control. This process also resulted in a change in his spirituality. He gave up the traditional hour-long prayers, dedicating his time to his writings instead (WA.TR 2, No. 1253: 11). As his relationship with Staupitz became more distant, Luther drifted away from Staupitz’s spirituality, which Luther deemed less and less reconcilable with his own theology and relationship to the church. He would later attribute his reformatory breakthrough to the aftermath of the Leipzig Dispute (WA 54: 185–86).

Copy of Karlstadt’s pamphlet on the Leipzig Dispute in the Taylor Institution Library
ARCH. 8°.G.1519(1)
Copy of Karlstadt’s pamphlet on the Leipzig Dispute in the Taylor Institution Library
ARCH. 8°.G.1519(1)

The Three Treatises of 1520

Of the many texts that Luther wrote after the dispute, the three Reformation manifestos from the second half of 1520 are the most significant. They set out Luther’s theological beliefs as well as proposing the far-reaching demands of the Reformation movement. All three revolve around the concept of freedom – the Freiheitsschrift providing the most thoroughgoing analysis.

The first major treatise of 1520 – An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung ‘To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate’ (WA 6: 404–469, published in August) called on the German princes to reform the church, since the clergy was proving less reliable than ever. The fundamental medieval view favouring spiritual over secular authorities was thus called into question. The treatise complained about alleged exploitation by the Catholic Church. Such complaints had been circulating since the middle of the 15th century – since the publication of the Gravamina der deutschen Nation gegen den Stuhl zu Rom ‘Grievances of the German nation against the Holy See at Rome’.[13] The Gravamina represented a collection of complaints exposing abuses of papal authority, many of which had already been addressed at the Imperial Diet. Above all, such voices reflected German dissatisfaction with the papal church. There was thus a ready audience for Luther’s criticism, but it was an audience which tended to interpret his writings in a one-sided, political way, notably on the subject of freedom. For the concept of freedom was primarily introduced in humanist circles as a defence against external political and financial means of oppression. The overlap between Luther’s spiritual freedom and the political freedom of the humanists lay in the repudiation of Rome. Ulrich von Hutten, humanist and leader of the Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire (1488–1523) called on Luther to join his mission of rescuing this freedom, which he saw as breaking away from Roman political oppression.[14] In the imperial election, the desire for political freedom had been used as an argument against Francis I of France.[15] It was in this context that interpretations of Luther’s definition of a free man became polarised, with a number of readers seeing his work as a statement on political liberty.[16]

An even more radical essay followed in October – the Latin treatise De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium ‘Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ – in which Luther called into question the doctrinal stance of the Catholic Church on the sacraments. He demanded a biblical foundation for the sacraments, which he argued existed only for baptism and Holy Communion (and to a lesser extent penitence). In addition, Luther tied the power of the sacraments to the act of faith. He opposed religious and priestly vows, which he regarded as unnecessary burdens that deprived Christians of the freedom acquired through baptism. This piece of writing cost Luther several followers who were not prepared to join in his criticism of church institutions.[17] The election of Emperor Charles V left the Pope without any further reasons to defer to the Elector of Saxony or to spare Luther. As his heresy trial resumed, Luther felt that he had less and less to lose. In October 1520 he was threatened with the papal ban and excommunication and a deadline of 60 days to retract his teaching. Seeing that his efforts to reconcile Luther with the church were in jeopardy, Karl von Miltitz persuaded him to write a letter of re­con­ciliation and address a treatise to Pope Leo X.[18] In it, Luther reassured the Pope that he had never intended to attack him personally and blamed the controversy on Eck. The letter was backdated to 6 September 1520 so that it would not be interpreted as a response to the papal bull. This is what led to the publishing of the Freiheitsschrift.

The positive recpetion of this treatise can be linked to its radically different content: At the time Luther was in the eye of the storm. His other writings of this period are full of furious accusation, defence and argumentation. Strangely, at this moment of gathering clouds and impending doom, this piece is a pool of tranquillity, an eirenic piece of writing that breathes peace, delight and security.[19]

In the Freiheitsschrift, Luther elaborates his recent theological thinking in a single treatise. The bull aroused public interest, preparing the ground for the wide reception of the treatise. Having severe doubts regarding the envisaged reconciliation, Luther probably wrote the letter mainly to please the Elector.[20] As Hamm argues, the letter ‘is practically a short sermon’ in which he explains his attitude towards the papacy.[21]

The Freiheitsschrift stands out in a number of ways from the two other major texts of 1520. It was his first work written in both German and Latin (cf. chapter 4 for a comparison). Luther was not responding to a theological controversy, but writing on his own initiative on a chosen topic. He was thus sharing what he cared about most while he still could, writing for his own physical survival as well as for the spiritual survival of Christians.[22]

Luther had the Latin text published together with the papal letter. In their German versions, however, the letter and treatise were published separate­ly, the latter with an added dedicatory letter to the Zwickau mayor Hermann von Mühlpfordt. This was intended to get the mayor to support the local Reformation movement led by Thomas Müntzer. The separate German version of the letter only made it to two print runs while the Latin was included in 13 printed editions. Mainly thanks to Luther, printing was booming in Wittenberg. In 1517 there was only one printer there, while by 1525 there were eight. With Luther honouring his agreement with Miltitz, the Latin version came out after the German text, but it was in the Latin form that the text spread beyond the German-speaking lands. The first edition of the German version ran to 3,000–4,000 copies, and there had already been reprints before the year was out.[23] Printers from all German-speaking areas were distributing Luther’s works: between 1518 and 1525 Luther’s vernacular writings outnumbered the combined total of the 17 next most prolific writers of the time. In fact, Luther accounts for 20 percent of all German works printed between 1500 and 1520.[24]

The Freiheitsschrift played a vital role in the development of the printing industry, representing Luther’s most successful piece of writing: no other book enjoyed greater circulation in the 16th century.[25] But the reception of the work was also striking. It was clear that Luther’s notion of freedom was largely misunderstood by his contemporaries. Thirteen treatises with ‘Freiheit’ in the title were published in the third largest printing centre of Straßburg between 1520 and 1533, but only three of these authors even vaguely follow Luther’s notion of freedom.[26] Most of them rather embraced freedom as rejection of secular authorities, favouring the supremacy of divine over man-made law. Luther’s rejection of human works, de­rived from his strong emphasis on faith, was on the whole ignored. An example is the text ‘New Karsthans’, allegedly written by Bucer.[27]

One of Luther’s critics, Thomas Murner (a ‘foolish cat’[28] according to Luther) characterised Luther’s notion of freedom as a call for chaos and upheaval. In his 1522 piece Von dem grossen lutherischen Narren ‘On the Great Lutheran Fool’ he caricatures Luther’s position as basically liberating Christians from any form of loyalty, since baptism precedes any secular author­ity: Der cristlich glaub gibt vnß freiheit, / zu erkennen hie kein oberkeit. / Wir sein im tauff al frei geboren, / Ee keiser / kunig / fursten woren (‘Christian faith gives us freedom to recognise no earthly authority. We were all born free in baptism before there were emperors, kings, or princes’).[29] The satirical poem can be found alongside an image of a mercenary flying the banner of ‘Fryheit’ (cf. the illustration on the next page).

Catholic opponents also accused Luther of jeopardising social order and spreading chaos with his new theology.[30] A more positive image of Luther as a liberator is to be found in the pamphlets preceding the Peasant War. The third of the 12 articles of the Swabian peasantry in 1525 in particular echo Luther’s intertwining of freedom and servitude:

‘[…] it has until now been the custom for the lords to own us as their property. This is deplorable for Christ redeemed and bought us all with his precious blood, the lowliest shepherd as well as the greatest lord, with no exceptions. Thus the Bible proves that we are free and want to be free. Not that we want to be utterly free and subject to no authority at all; God does not teach us that. We ought to live according to the commandments, not according to the lusts of the flesh. But we should love God, recognise him as our Lord in our neighbor, and willingly do all the things God commanded us at his Last Supper.’[31]

Thomas Murner, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren wie in doctor Murner beschworen hat, Straßburg: Johann Grüninger 1522, VD16 M 7088, fol. P1v.
BSB Munich, Rar. 870, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00033099-0
Thomas Murner, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren wie in doctor Murner beschworen hat, Straßburg: Johann Grüninger 1522, VD16 M 7088, fol. P1v.
BSB Munich, Rar. 870, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00033099-0

Although peasant alliances had been organised as early as the 15th century, these groups were still lacking in ideological coherence. Several factors led to the alignment of peasant demands with the ideas of the Reformation movement. The national audience created by the printing press, pamphlet literature, and the self-confidence of a nation strengthened by Luther’s appearance seems to have shifted the movement into the mainstream and helped it to spread across Germany.[32] Thus it is unsurprising that Luther was accused of inciting the peasants to revolt. In April 1525, Luther even tried to mitigate such accusations through his Ermahnung zum Frieden auf die zwölf Artikel der Bauernschaft ‘Admonition to Peace, concerning the Twelve Articles of the Peasantry’ an attempt to clear up the misunderstanding on Christian freedom, refuting the reading of Christian freedom as a political matter (WA 18: 326, 32–327,23). In his later writing, Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants’, Luther’s criticism of the peasants became barbed and acerbic. He could have hardly distanced himself more clearly from their movement and their understanding of freedom.

The aftermath of the Freiheitsschrift

Miltitz’s attempt at reconciliation failed and Luther was ex­com­municated by an imperial ban at the Council in Worms on the 3rd of January 1521. Nevertheless, Luther had gained precious time since the beginning of the heresy trial and had secured for himself not only a significant number of active followers but the support of the general public through the growing popularity of his writings.

This became evident when Eck’s attempt to use the threat of a ban to deter people from following Luther was resisted in many cities. In addition, Luther had been further developing his theology thinking, and the ‘95 Theses’, which had originally been banned, had long since been superseded by more radical writings. Thus, Luther’s Reformation movement survived his excommunication. Luther himself burned the bull together with his students at the end of the 60-day period he had been given to recant by the bull Exsurge Domine, showing once again that he had never really believed in a reconciliation with the Pope.[33]

The Philosophical Argument

The text starts with an apparent paradox, which Luther expresses in the two central theses: A Christian is a free lord over all things and subject to no-one. A Christian is a bound servant of all things and subject to everyone (§1).[34] Luther immediately offered the means to resolve this contradiction. He characterised every person as consisting of a holy, spiritual nature on the one hand and a physical nature on the other (§2). Thus freedom can be understood as characterising the spiritual nature, and servitude the physical nature.[35]

The theme of the first part of the text is the spiritual nature of humanity – an examination of what the freedom of a Christian entails and how it comes into being. In the discussion of the physical nature which follows, Luther elaborates the thesis of the servitude of human nature. When one examines Luther’s handling of the theme of freedom beyond the treatise, it is not clear whether he affirms freedom or not, for his rejection of human free will, as discussed below, raises the question of what kind of freedom he actually ascribes to a Christian.

In the treatise however, the answer is clear. Freedom consists in the unconditional determination of the human condition through belief in God and trust in Jesus Christ: ‘You should give yourself over to him with firm faith and trust in him directly. Then for the sake of this faith all your sins shall be forgiven …, and you will be … freed from all things.’ (§6)

Being directed by God and trusting in Christ are psychological states of the human condition. As such, they are independent from bodily existence and are not determined by anything physical. Only through words can the soul be influenced in a way which brings about change in one’s thoughts and one’s will.[36]

For Luther, ‘nothing external can make [people] either free or righteous.’ (§3 but qualified in §21 which states that the body needs to be ‘chastened’, since otherwise it inhibits the soul from being governed by God). The significance of a freedom which proceeds only from the individual relationship of faith in Christ can be viewed against the backdrop of late medieval devotional piety. According to this view, those who are corrupted by sin can only stand before a God who seeks justice through the sacrament of penance.

True penance consists of the threefold acts of oral confession (confessio oris), correctional work (satisfactio operis), and honest, heart­felt repentance (contritio cordis).[37] The need to balance out the sins on one’s own shoulders with good deeds took many colourful forms in the late Middle Ages, for example holding private requiems, pilgrimages, the veneration of the saints and holy relics, and relief of the burden of sin by the purchase of indulgences.[38] Luther’s understanding of freedom defines the soul’s relationship with God as faith alone and thereby makes it independent of all outward things, leading to a rejection of penance in the form inherited from the Middle Ages, namely as a financial transaction rather than an inward act of repentance.[39] How­ever, the treatise does not limit itself to discrediting works carried out for the purpose of becoming justified before God. It also questions the theological legitimacy of all church institutions which are supposed to mediate between God and the faithful Christian, in that it pronounces all Christians to be kings and priests (§15).

Luther’s depiction of Christian freedom is therefore a consequence of his theology of justification of the sinner. By faith alone, justification frees us from all our efforts to gain favour with God.

Luther and Augustine

Luther starts out from the medieval theology of penance (Thesis 1 of the ‘95 Theses’: When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said, ‘Do penance, etc.’, he meant the whole life of the faithful to be penance) but then proposes the alternative of justification by faith. However, he remains trapped by humanity’s enslavement to sin, which necessitated the theology of justification in the first place. Luther regards the individual’s relationship with God as dependent on justification, because of the individual’s ‘bad and corrupted nature’ (WA 1, 224: No. 9). Humans, by their very nature, can therefore do nothing good. This anthropology of the bad nature also appears in the Freiheitsschrift. Here, Luther portrays humans’ inability to do good in connection with the role of Old Testament laws. For Luther the Bible consisted of two parts: the law, which illustrates one’s own sinfulness and leads to despair, and the promise, which proclaims grace and redemption through faith alone. This ultimately leads the individual to despair about the law and forms the foundation of a relationship with God (§8).

Here, the influence of Augustine on Luther’s conception of freedom becomes clear. With Augustine’s help, Luther was, like St Paul, able to reach the insight, crucial for the Reformation, that God’s justice does not judge sinners, but clothes them in justice (WA 54, 186: 16–18). In the writings of Augustine which influenced Luther, freedom is described, much as in Luther’s text, as a result of justice, which itself is a consequence of faith.[40] As Augustine states, ‘Whereas through the law we come to a recognition of sin, through faith we attain grace against sin; through grace, the healing of the soul from sin’s disease; through the recovery of the soul, freedom; through freedom, a love of justice; and through justice, the fulfilment of the law’.[41]

In Augustine, as in the Freiheitsschrift, the same purification of the soul is sketched out, from humanity’s damnable nature in the sight of the law through to the attainment of justification. In Augustine’s writings liberation from sin is depicted as healing the soul from an illness from which it is suffering. The sick soul finds its remedy in the gift of grace. Both in Augustine and in Luther, liberation from sin has two dimensions. The first is characterised by the fact that it erases the sins which burden every human being. But since human sinfulness is also an inability to aspire to good, justice must above all consist in the reorientation of the sinner from evil to good.

Elsewhere, Augustine describes this notion in the context of lust (concupiscentia): the law is something good to which humans cannot aspire without God because evil lives in the form of lust in their will. Humans can only be ‘genuinely free’ through the grace of God, through which it becomes possible to feel joy in God’s law voluntarily.[42]

The law (or the ‘good’) which without faith remains out of reach can, through faith, be fulfilled. This insight is the central point of the treatise. The freedom of a Christian is not only freedom from sin, but also and above all, freedom to attain goodness.[43]

With the help of a metaphor, Luther illustrates the notion of the faith that frees believers from all sins. After describing liberation from sin and the attainment of justification from a unification of the soul with Christ (§10), he symbolises this unification by the metaphor of the relationship of bride and bridegroom (§12). Just as married couples make their property communal, so also Christian and Christ form a union in which the characteristics of the soul, its ‘bad habits and sins’, are transferred to Christ, and the characteristics of Christ, ‘all goodness and salvation’, are transferred to the soul.

The image of the matrimonium christi et christiani is interesting in many respects. Since a marriage is characterised only by the two partners that constitute it, Luther could use this image to underline the exclusivity of the relationship between the individual soul and Christ. In addition, the legal status as well as the identity of the partner are transformed in marriage. In the same way, the moral status and identity of the soul are transformed through the community in faith.

Moreover, the metaphor demonstrates the influence on Luther of the mystical theology which flourished alongside medieval Scholasticism.[44] In mystical theology, from the time of Bernard of Clairvaux and his reading of the Song of Songs, the image of the bride was used to portray the intimacy of the relationship between the soul and God.[45] Luther valued not only Bernard’s message of the mercy and love of God, which was oriented towards Christ, but also the fact that Bernard developed his theology by constantly referring to the word of God.[46]

Luther probably also encountered the image of bride and bridegroom in the theology of his former father confessor and mentor Johann von Staupitz, who used it frequently. The role of the metaphor for his ‘Frömmigkeitstheologie’ (theology inspired by devotion) can be seen, for example, in Staupitz’s Passion sermons from the year 1512 in which he draws up a theology of repentance, oriented towards Christ’s suffering.[47] In the third sermon, he illustrates this by using the image of the marital bond between soul and Christ. Here, the ‘poor, common, suffering, helpless bride’ has nothing to bring but her sins and is only able to acquire high standing through the rich possessions of the bridegroom.[48] Only through the inner-empathetic appropriation of Christ’s suffering does the sinful soul become capable of true repentance.[49] In his accompanying writings to the Resolutiones, the explanation of his ‘95 Theses’ against indulgences which Luther dedicated to Staupitz, Luther recalls conversations with him about penance. Luther describes his teacher’s insight that true repentance begins with a love of justice and love of God hitting him like an arrow, transforming that hated word ‘penance’ into the sweetest of words (WA 1, 525, 4–23). From these conversations, Luther gained the insight that the individual’s direct, inner bond with Christ, founded on love and repentance, is more important for the forgiveness of sins than the outward practices of confessing and the performance of good works. The change in Luther’s understanding of penance was a landmark on the way towards sola fide and, in a reminiscence, makes an appearance in the Freiheitsschrift in the image of the marital bond.

As clear as the metaphor of the bridal couple may be, it is difficult to understand the theological theory behind it. For Luther, the transformation of those who believe is connected with their faith in Christ, in which they appropriate Christ’s justification. It is at least possible that he is processing Thomistic theories of knowledge and mind. In the Aristotelian­ism of Thomas Aquinas, all natural creatures consist of forms, which constitute the creature’s features, and matter, which constitutes the creature’s in­dividuality. According to this view, every perception or recognition of an object is linked to a change of the form of that which perceives it.[50] As such, the cognitive form of the perceiver changes in order to align itself with the perceived object. For Thomas, to relate to something though faith or awareness means to become spiritually similar to it.[51] Like­wise, Luther says that the believer becomes like Christ in the sense that the believer receives righteousness and salvation through faith.[52]

Aside from all this, the metaphor of Christ as bridegroom in characterising the relation of the soul to Christ is useful, as it draws on medieval and early modern expectations about the natural and proper relation between wife and husband. At that time, the marital relationship between husband and wife was to a large extent a hierarchical one, in which the wife, according to canon law, was subordinate to the husband and was obliged to be obedient to him.[53] Alongside the mystical associations of intimacy and unity, the parallel of the soul and the bride on the question of a Christian’s freedom also evokes the soul’s dependence on Christ.

Luther’s Rejection of Free Will

This brings us to a key qualification of Christian freedom: freedom of a Christian is not freedom of the will. In accordance with tradition, Luther tackles the notion of human free will in the context of the question of the individual’s role in attaining faith and grace.[54]

Luther makes unambiguously clear at many stages of his career that the freedom of a Christian cannot be free will, that is, it cannot be freedom in the sense of total self-determination and independence to choose between good and evil, salvation and damnation. As early as 1517, in his ‘Theses against Scholastic Theology’ (WA 1, 224–28), he sets out the arguments which he goes on to develop in the controversy with Erasmus in 1525.

Luther rejects human initiative in attaining salvation for three reasons. First, he derives the impossibility of human free will from the classical attributes of God: omniscience and omnipotence.[55] Secondly, he argues on the grounds of divine grace. If God’s turning towards humans is an act of grace, then humans can take on only a passive role, since any active role on their part would be an appropriation of salvation and a usurpation of grace.[56]

Luther’s third argument against free will is that the will is constituted in such a way that it is either directed towards good or towards evil, and that no third option is possible (tertium non datur). In this way, will is predestined by that towards which it is directed. If will were not predestined, it would be empty in content, and a will without content is not a will. In a famous passage, Luther depicts this graphically: human will is like a riding animal, with either God or Satan holding the reins. Without one or the other, the animal never gets very far in any direction of its own accord (WA 18, 635: 17–22).

This rejection of human free will is wholly in line with Luther’s theological programme of justification. Not only are people incapable of altering their status as sinners through the performance of good works: they cannot even attain faith of their own accord. Luther’s rejection of free will thus carries the idea of human passivity in salvation to an extreme.

The freedom of Christians is thus not grounded in some self-determination through which, by their own efforts, they can choose the object of their faith and their will. Instead, freedom exists for Luther in the specific way thoughts and wishes are determined, that is, through Christ alone. Freedom is not achieved by an act of faith or an act of will, but by the object to which faith and the will relate. Luther was neither the first nor the last not to link freedom and responsibility to the condition of complete self-determination but considered it compatible with the determinism of humans.[57]

Luther’s Ethics

The freedom which we have discussed so far pertains to the soul. Servitude, which is the subject of the second opening proposition, pertains to the body. There is, however, a crucial difference. While it is possible for the soul to become justified in­dependently from the body, it is not possible for the body to act without receiving instructions from the soul. There is a certain incongruity between the two dichotomies, as the opposition [between freedom and servitude] is already there with the clergy.[58] If servitude applies only to the outward person (§19), then the body cannot be in servitude on its own, and the liberated soul is placed in the world together with the body and is also required to act. The servitude caused by the body’s dependence on the world is an obligation to good behaviour and to the performance of good works, so that Christians can ‘govern their own bodies and deal with people’ (§20).The freedom of a Christian is therefore not freedom from morality.

Luther wrote about morality in the Sermon von den guten Werken ‘Sermon on Good Works’ shortly before the Freiheitsschrift. In this work, sola fide takes on the character of a commandment, in which faith in Christ is the ultimate and most noble work (WA 6, 204: 25–26). In this definition the ultimate work is not identified as a work to be performed, but as a state of mind, to which all performed works are morally subordinate. Accordingly, no work, whatever its positive consequences, can be good if it does not stem from belief in God: something as minor as picking up a straw can be called good if done in belief, while raising the dead would not be good if done in unbelief (WA 6, 206: 9–13).

In this way, Luther’s moral code in the Sermon von den guten Werken focuses not on what the doer brings about in the world, but on the attitude with which it is done.[59] The condition for any deed to be good is that it originates in faith in Christ. For some deeds, like picking up a straw, faith is not simply a necessary condition, but a sufficient one for it to be good. But is faith the only precondition for a good deed? In other words, can faith sanctify every reprehensible and evil deed? Luther would answer the first question with a ‘yes’, the second with a ‘no’. The solution lies in the definition of faith. For him, certain guiding principles such as anger, revenge, and jealousy exclude true faith (WA 6, 266: 32–33). Actions which stem from such motives are thus not actions that are practised in good faith, and are therefore not good. In order to classify every motive that is incompatible with genuine belief in Christ, Luther refers to the state of meekness (Sanftmut, as exemplified in II Corinthians 10,1) which excludes all bad intentions. Meekness for him is fundamentally good, since it does not damage anything or anybody even if one is robbed of one’s possessions, honour, life, and friends (WA 6, 266: 14–17).

Consequently, faith is the only condition and it is sufficient to make works good. Indeed, faith in its ideal form leads the believer to a way of thinking which is free from anger, revenge, and jealousy. For Luther, actions prompted by this way of thinking cannot be reprehensible or evil. Faith, properly understood, is there­fore incompatible with bad deeds.

Faith does not just exclude bad behaviour, though: it can even lead to a life of charity. In the Freiheitsschrift Luther does not speak of meekness, but characterises the state in which correct behaviour is possible as a one of love: ‘Behold, in this way love and longing for God flow out of faith, and from this love flows a free, willing, joyful life serving one’s neighbour without reward’. (§27) Only when individuals put themselves fully in the service of others are they truly secure through faith and through their trust in Christ. Since only those who are in every way turned towards Christ through faith are also free, freedom is only possible through service to one’s neighbour, that is, in servitude.

The freedom of a Christian is thus ultimately characterised by the individual’s moral responsibility with respect to the interests, needs, and demands of one’s neighbour. With the pairing of freedom and ethics, Luther’s theology is an early blueprint of modern theories in which freedom only thrives in responsibility and morality. This thought becomes prominent in Kant’s critical philosophy: ‘Freedom and absolute practical law point reciprocally to one another’.[60] Even more important, however, are the implications of Reformation theology for ethical discourse in general. In overcoming the self-interest inherent in the pursuit of justification before God, one’s field of vision becomes clear, and is reoriented to the needs of one’s neighbour.[61]


So, was Luther liberated or liberator? He saw himself as liberated, as is shown in the emphasis he places on the passivity of the believer in attaining justification. His gradual separation from the papal church was something he similarly perceived as his own liberation. Nevertheless, his activity as a writer indicates that he was eager to impart his liberating insights to all Christians. As a result of his own liberation, Luther believed it to be his duty to free his neighbours from the chains that had shackled him for half his life.

It is important, however, to remember that Luther exclusively addresses spiritual freedom. To regard him as a pioneer of our modern political conception of freedom, which encompasses an equality of all people in the physical world, would be false. Ultimately, Luther connected freedom with Christian faith and service to one’s neighbour.


[1] Ebeling (1980: 211).

[2] Kingreen (2017: VII). It was common practice among humanists to adopt a Latin or Greek form of their family name, cf. Philipp Melanchthon (from Schwartzerdt), and Johannes Cochläus (from Dobeneck).

[3] Roper (2016: 216).

[4] In the following chapters, quotations from Martin Luther’s texts are referenced following the Weimarer Ausgabe (WA); cf. Bibliography.

[5] Sammel (1996: 157–74).

[6] Roper (2016: 163).

[7] Wallmann (2012: 25).

[8] Iserloh (1981).


[10] More on the debate in WA 2 und WA 59: 427–605.

[11] Wallmann (2012: 27).

[12] Moeller (1991: 102).

[13] Scheible (1996: 393–409).

[14] Böcking (1854: 356).

[15] Schmidt (2010: 14–15).

[16] Schmidt (2010: 22–23).

[17] Wallmann (2012: 31).

[18] Rieger (2007: 2).

[19] Tomlin (2017: 147).

[20] Kaufmann argues that Luther still had hope of reconciliation and that the letter was not meant ironically, cf. Kaufmann (2017: 45).

[21] Hamm (2014: 173).

[22] Kaufmann (2017: 44).

[23] On the further distribution of the work, cf. Kaufmann (2017: 56–57).

[24] Roper (2016: 187).

[25] Slenczka (2017: VIII).

[26] Edwards (1995: 105).

[27] Cf. Stupperich (1960: 406–44).

[28] Roper (2016: 202). ‘Murr’ sounds like the noise a tom cat is supposed to make and ‘ner’ sounds like ‘narr’ (‘fool’).

[29] Merker (1918: 242, 3787–90).

[30] Numerous examples in the analysis by Edwards (1995: 112–18).

[31] Blickle (1981: 197–98).

[32] Wallmann (2012: 57).

[33] Cf. Roper (2016: 219–23).

[34] Paragraph references are to the text and English translation in this edition.

[35] By comparison in Plato, Socrates asks: ‘Yet once more consider the matter in another light: When the soul and the body are united, then nature orders the soul to rule and govern, and the body to obey and serve. Now which of these two functions is akin to the divine? and which to the mortal? Does not the divine appear to you to be that which naturally orders and rules, and the mortal to be that which is subject and servant?’ Plato, Phaidon 79e-80a.

[36] Slenczka (2017: 27).

[37] Leppin (2014: 56).

[38] Hauschild (2001: 22).

[39] Dingel (2014: 127–28).

[40] It was primarily Augustine’s later writings to/against the Pelagians which helped Luther to achieve a ‘Breakthrough’: De spiritu et littera, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, and Contra Iulianum, cf. Anderas (2017: 4).

[41] Augustinus, De spiritu et littera, in: CSEL 60, 30: 52.

[42] Augustinus, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, in: CSEL 42, 30: 33.

[43] Freedom is not freedom of choice for Augustine. In one of his later writings Augustine allows an opponent to ask why God would reward those who have the will to believe, and punishes others, if it is God’s grace alone which creates the will to believe. Augustine states that he cannot solve this puzzle. Augustinus, De dono perseverantiae, in: CSEL 105, 8: 18.

[44] For more on the argument between the via antiqua and via moderna, cf. Dieter (2014: 32).

[45] Gerleman (2011).

[46] Zimmerling (2017); Leppin (2014: 52–53).

[47] Luther had possibly read the bride metaphor in Staupitz’s Libellus de Executione Aeternae Praedestinationis, C.9, cf. Zu Dohna (2012: 142–49).

[48] Schneider-Lastin (1990: 129).

[49] The important difference for Luther is that the soul, through the union with Christ, does not receive Christ’s suffering and the repentance flowing from it, but justification and freedom. That Luther had outgrown the theology of Staupitz by 1520 is shown in a remark in the Freiheitsschrift on repentance, §25: ‘There are indeed still preachers who preach repentance for sin, and also grace, but they do not emphasise God’s commandments and promises so that one might learn whence and why repentance and grace come. For repentance flows from the commandments, and faith from the promises of God’.

[50] By seeing a red object the observer receives the shape of the redness of the object and thereby the cognitive shape of the red becomes manifest in some way.

[51] Brower and Brower-Toland (2008: 193–243).

[52] It would not have pleased Luther that the theological core of his justification doctrine, which describes the mechanisms of justification by faith, are reduced to Thomas’s theory of mental reference. As Luther said in 1532: There is not one word in Thomas that inspires reliance on Christ. (WA.TR 2, 192: 5–6). But the similarity is still striking.

[53] McDougall (2013: 171).

[54] In the reply to Erasmus, Luther said that it is necessary to be clear about the existence of free human will, for otherwise nothing would be known about Christians and their role in the attainment of salvation or about God. WA 18, 614: 1–12.

[55] Dieter (2014: 41–42).

[56] WA 18, 668: 2–3.

[57] For an overview of Compatibilism cf. McKenna and Coates (2020).

[58] Rieger (2007: 74).

[59] Gerhardt (2018: 21).

[60] The source from which both freedom and moral obligation flow is not faith in Kant, but practical reason. Immanuel Kant: KpV, AA 05: 29.24–25.

[61] Of particular interest is Susan Wolf’s philosophy on the question of the relevance of Luther’s understanding of freedom. For her, a concept of freedom which grants people absolute autonomy over themselves is irreconcilable with the fact that people always make their decisions against a background of numerous connections and influences. Taking these circumstances into consideration, Wolf defines freedom as the ability to do the correct thing for the right reasons. Free decisions are aimed at the true and the good. As for Luther, freedom in Wolf consists of allowing oneself to be guided to act in the right way. Unlike for Luther, truth and good are not universal for Wolf, but dependent on context. Cf. Wolf (1990).

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