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Freedom by Faith

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]

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)

If the Reformation is closely linked to the person of Martin Luther, it is also closely linked to the notion of freedom. For Luther, at least, the ideological shift of the Reformation meant, to some extent, a liberation. When a theological insight turned into a political reform movement overnight, Luther changed his name, and ‘Luder’ became ‘Luther’, the short form of the Greek ‘eleutherios’ (see his signature in the header image from a letter to Spalatin written 20 January 1519).[2]

The new name raised the question of the role that Luther assigned to himself within this liberation process – was it only in that of the liberated or was it also that of the liberator? In any case, this new freedom concerned both his relationship with God, his theological thinking and faith, as well as his relationship with secular institutions and, in particular, with ecclesiastical authorities. Luther’s fundamental reform programme, which gradually became more radical, culminating in his 1520 writings, derived from his original understanding of the relationship between divinity and the individual, most effectively summarised in On the Freedom of a Christian.      

The heretic trial – Luther in Augsburg

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 Luther, which had begun in June 1518, 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 problematic 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).[3]  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.[4] 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’.[7] 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 also very powerful in Italy. The Pope also suspected that the alternative candidate, Francis I of France, also had interests in conflict with his own. Since Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and Luther’s patron, had the most important voice in the electoral body, the Pope sought to cultivate him, and for a short time even supported 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.[8]

The Leipzig Disputation

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. Eck[9], originally one of the humanists and theologians who sided with Luther, would become one of the latter’s most vocal opponents. In the spring of 1518, Eck had already written a refutation of Luther’s theses against indulgences – the Obelisci – which motivated the counter-reaction of the latter – the Asterisci.[10] Both texts were intended for academic discussion and not for the general public. On Luther’s side, Karlstadt published 406 theses in response to Eck’s going public with the argument, which paved the way for the Leipzig dispute in June 1519. Eck’s unabating criticism of Luther’s theses contributed to the latter’s insistence on personally engaging in the dispute, travelling to Leipzig with Karlstadt and Melanchthon. The reformers would fail to turn the dispute to their advantage. Eck’s exceptional memory and rhetorical skills made him a superior opponent. He provoked Luther, pushing him to make radical statements. Eck had realised early on that the 95 Theses meant a fundamental challenge of the traditional church and its doctrine, and managed to tease that out in the course of the debate. Consequently, the reformer denied the biblical base of the papal primacy and drew attention to the errors of the Council of Constance, particularly in the light of Jan Hus’ condemnation. [11] Luther allowed himself to be carried away, supporting theological arguments far more radical than his 95 theses.

So the cat was out of the bag. Luther did not direct his criticism at isolated church grievances exclusively, but at the entire ecclesiastical superstructure and its claim to be the sole administer of faith. Eventually, in the absence of a decisive conclusion, both sides claimed victory but that did not really matter.[12] The pamphlet literature flourished thanks to Luther’s growing popularity. The humanists who dominated public opinion stood behind him. Had Luther’s affiliation with humanism before 1517 proved to be superficial, the 95 Theses would have received a very different reception. Their rapid spread can be almost exclusively ascribed to the activity of humanist circles.[13] While Luther’s pastoral writings appealed to the general public, his polemical ones convinced humanists. They were the only closed circle of people who stood behind Luther in the first few years and Luther’s cause would not have been victorious without their approval.[14] The progression of the conflict between Rome and Luther divided the Humanist movement into the faction of supporters and the Catholic faction. The younger generation in particular took Luther’s side, showing the evident correlation between reformed humanist centres and the general success of the Reformation. The struggle against the “old” theology was simultaneously a struggle against the ecclesiastical establishment and an emancipation of the new generation.[15]

Eventually the Leipzig Disputation had spread the “Luther-case” so widely, that by 1520 the whole of Germany was revolving around the matter. 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 guardianship. This process also resulted in a change in his spirituality. Thus he gave up the traditional hour-long prayers, dedicating his time to his writings instead.[16] As his relationship with Staupitz turned distant, Luther drifted away from the contemplative spirituality of the latter, which he deemed less and less reconcilable with his theological as well as ecclesiastical involvement.[17] He would later attribute his reformatory understanding to the aftermath of the Leipzig Dispute.[18]

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 laid the basis for Luther’s theological beliefs as well as proposing far-reaching demands for the Reformation movement. All three revolve around the concept of freedom – Von der Freiheit providing a most thorough and detailed analysis of this notion. The first major treatise of 1520 – An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung[19] (published in August) called on the princes to reform the church, since the clergy proved less reliable than ever before. The fundamental medieval view favouring spiritual over secular authorities was thus called into question. The treatise laid out complaints against the supposed exploitative agency of the Catholic Church, which had been circulating since the middle of the 15th century – with the Gravamina der deutschen Nation gegen den Stuhl zu Rom.[20] The Gravamina represented a collection of complaints exposing the many infringements of papal authority, which had already been addressed at the Imperial Diet in many instances. Above all, such voices reflected German dissatisfaction with the Papal Church. On the one hand this contributed to the reception of Luther’s criticism; but in return it often led to a correspondingly one-sided interpretation and inevitably implied a political narrowing of his writings, including the essay on freedom. For the concept of freedom was primarily introduced by humanist circles as a defense against external political and financial means of oppression. The interface between Luther’s spiritual freedom and the political freedom of the humanists lay in the renunciation of Rome. Ulrich von Hutten called on Luther to join his mission of saving this freedom[21] – which he actually saw as breaking away from Roman political oppression.[22] In fact, in the imperial election freedom had been used as an argument against Francis I of France.[23] It was the combination of this particular social context and the political dimension of Luther’s writings, which led to polarised interpretations of his definition of a free man.[24]

An even more radical essay followed in October – the Latin treatise De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium[25] – where Luther called into question the doctrinal stand of the Catholic Church on the sacraments. He demanded a biblical foundation for the sacraments, thus validating only baptism and Holy Communion (and to a lesser extend 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 unnecessarily burdens, depriving Christians of the freedom acquired through baptism. This piece of writing cost Luther several still quite enthusiastic followers, who were not prepared to follow his criticism of the institution to this extend. [26]

The Freiheitsschrift – Luther’s publication gamble

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 faced with the papal threat of ban and a deadline of 60 days to retract his teaching. Seeing his efforts to reconcile Luther with the Church in jeopardy, Karl von Militz urged him to write a letter of reconciliation and address a treatise to Pope Leo X.[27] Luther was to reassure the pope that he had never intended to attack him personally as well as blaming the controversy on Eck. The letter was backdated to September 6, 1520 in order to prevent its reception as a response to the papal bull. This is what led to the publishing of the Freedom treatise, which Roper describes as the most beautiful writing of that time[28].

Its positive reception could be linked to the radically different content of this treatise, as Tomlin argues: 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.[29]

Luther took the opportunity to write and elaborate his theological findings of recent years in a single treatise. The bull aroused the public interest preparing the ground for the its wide reception. Having severe doubts regarding the envisaged reconciliation, Luther probably wrote the letter mainly to please the Elector.[30]

The essay on freedom stands out in a number of ways from the two previous texts. It was his first work written in both Latin and German.[31] For a full discussion of the relationship between the Latin and the German cf. the chapter by Howard Jones in the new edition comparing the two versions. Basically, the German version is shorter, meant to appeal to the general public, while the Latin is aimed at an academic audience. Luther did not respond to a theological controversy, but rather wrote on his own initiative on a chosen topic. He thus shared what he cared about most while he still could, writing for his own physical survival as much as for the spiritual survival of Christians.[32] He had never before used a publishing strategy in that way.

Luther had the Latin text published with the papal letter. In their German versions, however, the letter and the text on freedom were published separately,[33] the latter with an added dedicatory letter to the Zwickau mayor Hermann von Mühlpfordt.[34] The separate German version of the letter only made it into two print runs while the Latin was included in 13 printed editions.35] It was in this combined Latin version which came out after the German basic text (with Luther honouring his agreement with Miltitz) that the text spread across German borders.

The first edition of the German version already comprised 3000-4000 copies, an even more astonishing achievement as the first reprints appeared as soon as 1520.[36] Printers from all German-speaking areas were distributing Luther’s writings: Between 1518 and 1525 Luther’s writings in the vernacular surpassed the collected total of the 17 most prolific writers of the time. In fact, Luther accounts for 20 percent of all German works printed between 1500 and 1520.[37]

The essay on Freedom played a vital role in the development of the printing industry, representing Luther’s most successful writing: No other book found greater circulation in the 16th century.[38]

The Reception of the Freiheitschrift

The significance of the text on freedom was striking, not only in its rapid distribution, but also in its reception. It was clear that Luther’s notion of freedom was mostly misunderstood by his contemporaries. 13 treatises were published in the third largest printing centre of Straßburg between 1520 and 1533, but only three of these authors directly follow Luther’s notion of freedom.[39] Most of them rather embraced freedom as rejection of secular authorities, favouring the supremacy of the divine over man-made law. Luther’s rejection of human works, derived from his strong emphasis on faith was on the whole ignored.[40] Their reception of Luther was rather similar to that of Erasmus von Rotterdam, the most famous humanist at the time.

One of Luther’s critics, Thomas Murner (a “foolish cat”[41] according to Luther) pictured his notion of Freedom as a call for chaos and upheaval. He caricatures in his 1522 piece Von dem grossen lutherischen Narren 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. / Wie sein im tauff al frei geboren, / Ee keiser / kunig / fursten woren.[42]

“Das reissig fenlin” – Mercenary waving the banner with the slogan “Fryheit” (Slenczka 2017, no. 21)

With the satirical poem belongs an image of a mercenary waving the banner of freedom.

Luther as liberator, broadsheet, Speyer: Jakob Schmidt 1524, from: Slenczka 2017, p. 53.

Other Catholic opponents also accused Luther of jeopardising the social order, spreading chaos with his new theology.[43]

A much 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 echoes Luther’s intertwining of freedom and servitude.[44] Although peasant alliances were repeatedly organized as early as the 15th century, the groups still lacked an ideological connection. The amalgamation of peasant demands with the ideas of the Reformation movement, spreading all over Germany in combination with the national audience created by the printing press, and pamphlet literature, and the self-confidence of the nation strengthened by Luther’s appearance seem to have shifted the movement into the mainstream.[45] Thus, it is far from surprising that Luther would be accused of inciting the peasants to revolt. In April 1525, Luther even tried to mitigate accusations of that sort through his Ermahnung zum Frieden auf die zwölf Artikel der Bauernschaft – an attempt to clear up the misunderstanding on Christian Freedom, refuting the reading of Christian freedom as a physical matter.[46] In his later writing, Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern, Luther’s criticism of the peasants becomes sharp and cruel. He could have hardly distanced himself more clearly from their movement and their understanding of freedom.

The ultimate break with Rome

The attempt at reconciliation would fail and result in Luther being excommunicated through an imperial ban at the Council in Worms on the 3rd of January 1521. Nevertheless, the precious time gained since the beginning of the heresy trial would leave its mark: Luther had secured himself not only a significant number of followers, but the support of the general public and the increasing popularity of his writings.

This was already evident in Eck’s attempt to spread the threat of a ban, which faced resistance in many cities. In addition, Luther had been consistently further developing his theology and the theses which had originally been banned, had long since been replaced by more radical ones. Thus it was possible for Luther’s reformation movement to survive even after his excommunication. Luther himself burned the bull together with his students at the end of the 60-day period, showing once again that he never really believed in a reconciliation with the Pope.[47]

Theological introduction

By 1520 Luther had brought his personal struggle for liberation against both theology and church, which he regarded as misled, to a provisional conclusion. He was now a freed man. The document which confirmed his emancipation like no other was Luther’s pamphlet “On the Freedom of a Christian”. He described it as the sum of what constitutes a Christian life.[48] In it, Luther summarises his theology of justification, according to which the righteousness of the Christian flows only from faith, and he describes its liberating implications and its moral consequences.

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.[49] Luther immediately offered the means by which to resolve this contradiction. He characterised every person as someone who consists of a holy, spiritual nature on the one hand, and a physical nature on the other hand.[50] Thus freedom can be understood to characterise the spiritual nature, and servitude to characterise the physical nature.[51]
The theme of the first part of the text is the spiritual nature of humanity and an examination of the questions 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.

Luther’s Understanding of Freedom as a Consequence of his Doctrine of Justification

When one takes a look at Luther’s occupation with the theme of freedom beyond the treatise, Luther’s affirmative position on freedom cannot be taken for granted. 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, the answer can be found plain and clear. Freedom consists of the unconditional determination of the human condition through the 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.”[52]

Being directed by God and trusting in Christ are states of the psychological part of the human condition. As such, they are independent from physical existence and are not determined by anything that is oriented to human bodily nature. Any influence on the soul can only come via words and thus change thoughts and will; there is no other way to reach the soul.[53]

For Luther, “nothing external can make [people] either free or righteous.” (§3 but qualified in §21 which states the body needs to be “chastened” since otherwise it hinders the soul being governed by God).[54] The significance of a freedom which proceeds only from the individual relationship of faith in Christ can be seen most clearly 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 trinity of oral confession (confessio oris), correctional work (satisfactio operis) and honest, heartfelt remorse (contritio cordis).[55] The need to balance out the sins burdening one’s own shoulders with the help of good deeds took many colourful forms in the late Middle Ages.[56] Luther’s understanding of freedom, which connects the human soul’s intact relationship with God to faith alone and through this makes it independent from all outward things, teaches the clear rejection of issuing penance in the form inherited from the Middle Ages.[57] However, the treatise does not limit itself to discrediting works which are carried out for the purpose of becoming justified before God. Rather, it 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 kings and priests.[58]

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 the favour of a judging God.

Luther and Augustine

Luther starts 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 an alternative for reaching justification before God. However, he remains trapped by the prerequisite necessitated by the theology of justification which originally set in motion this very problem: humanity’s enslavement to sin. Luther regards the individual relationship with God as dependent on justification, because it is the result of the “evil and spoiled composition” of human nature.[59] Humans, by their very nature, can therefore do nothing good. This “anthropology of the bad nature” also appears in the pamphlet “On the Freedom of a Christian”. Here, Luther portrays humans’ inability to do good in connection with the role of the Old Testament laws.[60] This ultimately leads the individual to despair over the law and forms the foundation of a problematic relationship with God.[61]

Here, the influence of Augustine on Luther’s conception of freedom becomes visible. With Augustine’s help, Luther was able to reach the same insight as Paul, so important for the Reformation, that God’s justice, rather than judge sinners, clothes them in justice.[62] 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.[63] 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.”[64]

Here, the same process of purification of the soul is sketched in brief, as in the text on freedom, ranging from the insight into humanity’s damnable nature concerning the law 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 of faith. 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 reaches deep into the inability to aspire to anything that is good, justice must above all consist of a fundamental new orientation 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 from God’s law voluntarily.[65]

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.[66]

With the help of a metaphor, Luther illustrates the notion of faith liberating believers from all sins. After describing liberation from sin and the attainment of justification as resulting from a unification of the soul with Christ,[67] he symbolises this unification by using the metaphor of the relationship of bride and bridegroom.[68] Just as married couples make their property communal, so also Christian and Christ make a community 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 only characterised 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 is transformed in the act of consummation of marriage. In the same way, the moral status and identity of the soul is transformed through the community in faith.

Moreover, the use of the metaphor demonstrates Luther’s high esteem for the blossoming mystical theology, aside from the main paths of medieval Scholasticism.[69] In mystical theology, at the latest since Bernhard of Clairvaux and his reading of the Song of Songs, the image of the bride is used to portray the intimacy of the relationship between the soul and God.[70] Luther valued not only Bernhard’s message of mercy and love of God, strongly oriented towards Christ, but also the fact that his theology was developed in constant reference to the Word of God.[71]

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 remorse, oriented towards Christ’s suffering.[72] 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.[73] Only through the inner-empathetic appropriation of Christ’s suffering does the sinful soul become capable of true remorse.[74] In his accompanying writings to the Resolutiones, the explanation of his 95 Theses against indulgences which Luther dedicated to his mentor and friend, Luther recalls conversations with Staupitz 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.[75] From these conversations, Luther gains the insight that the individual’s direct, inner bond with Christ, founded on love and remorse, is more important for the forgiveness of sins than the outward practices of confession and the accomplishment of good works. The change in Luther’s understanding of penance is a landmark on the way towards sola fide and, if only reminiscently, makes one of its appearances in this treatise on freedom in the image of the marital bond.

As clear as the metaphor of the bridal couple may be, it seems difficult to understand the theological theory behind it. For Luther a transformation of the believer connects itself with faith in Christ, in which it appropriates Christ’s justification. It is possible that he may here be more or less consciously processing thomistic theories of knowledge and spirit. For Thomas Aquinas, true to his Aristotelianism, all natural creatures consist of forms, which constitute the creature’s features, and matter, which constitutes the creature’s individuality. In this view, every perception or recognition of an object is linked to a change of the form of that which perceives it.[76] As such, the cognitive form of the perceiver changes in order to align itself with the perceived object. For Thomas, to relate to something with faith or awareness means to become spiritually similar to it.[77] Likewise, Luther says that the believer becomes like Christ in the sense that the believer receives righteousness and salvation through faith.[78]

Aside from all this, the metaphor of Christ as bridegroom in characterising the relation of the soul to Christ is usefully chosen, as it hinges 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.[79] Alongside the mystical associations of intimacy and unity, the parallel of the soul and the bride with regards to the question of a Christian’s freedom also evokes the notion of a lack of autonomy and the soul’s dependence on Christ.

Luther’s rejection of free will

This brings us to a deciding qualification of Christian freedom: the freedom of a Christian is not a freedom of 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.[80]

Luther makes unambiguously clear in 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. Already in 1517 in his Theses against Scholastic theology[81], he lays down the arguments which he goes on to develop in the controversy with Erasmus in 1525, underpinned by the authority of Holy Scripture.

Luther draws his rejection of every human self-initiative in attaining salvation from at least three considerations. Firstly, he derives the impossibility of human free will from the classical attributes of God: omniscience and omnipotence.[82] Secondly, he defends an argument on the grounds of the existence of divine grace. If God turning towards humans depicts an act of grace, then humans can only take on a passive role, since every act on their part would be a form of self-appropriating salvation and would shatter grace.[83]

In addition, Luther puts forward a third objection to free will. According to Luther, will is constituted in such a way that it is either directed towards good or towards evil, no third option is possible (tertium non datur). In this way, will is always destined through that towards which it is directed. If will was not predestined, it would be empty in content, and a will without content is not a will, as the premise postulates.

In a famous passage, Luther depicts these facts in a vivid picture: human will is like an animal used for riding, 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.[84]

This rejection of human free will is wholly in line with Luther’s theological programme of justification. People are not only in no position to guard against their existence as sinners before God through the performance of good works; they cannot even manage to attain faith of their own accord. The rejection of free will thus carries the recipient of salvation’s passivity to the extreme.

The freedom of a Christian is not grounded in the individual’s self-determination in which, by their own efforts, they can choose the object of their desire and their faith. Instead, this freedom exists for Luther in the specific way thoughts and wishes are determined, which is through Christ alone. Freedom is not achieved by accomplishing an act of faith or an act of volition, but by the object which faith and will relates to.[85]

Servitude as a consequence of freedom – Luther’s ethics

The freedom which we have talked about so far pertains to the soul. Servitude, which is assigned to humankind in 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.[86] If Luther applies servitude only to the outward person (§19),[87] then it cannot be understood that the body alone is at the mercy of the demands of servitude. Instead it means that even the liberated soul is placed together with a body in the world, and is therefore 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, in order to “govern their own bodies and deal with people” (§20).[88] The freedom of a Christian is therefore in no respects freedom from morality.

Luther preached in detail about morality in his interpretation of the Decalogue (“Sermon on good works”), which he wrote shortly before this text. Here sola fide takes on the character of a commandment, in which faith in Christ is depicted as the ultimate and most noble work.[89] In this definition it is interesting that the ultimate work is not identified as a work to be performed, but as a state of mind. All performed works are made morally subordinate to this state of mind. Accordingly, no work, in spite of its positive consequences, can be good if it does not stem from confidence in God: Something as minor as picking up a straw if done in confidence while raising the dead done doubting makes the work invalid.[90]

In this way, Luther’s moral code focuses not only on what the doer causes to happen in the world, but also on the “attitude” with which the action is done.[91] The only condition, conditio sine qua non, for every good deed is its origin in faith in Christ. For some deeds, like lifting a straw, faith is not simply a necessary prerequisite, but in fact a sufficient one for it being good. But is faith fundamentally the only prerequisite 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 specifying the concept of faith. For him, certain guiding principles such as anger, revenge and jealousy exclude true faith.[92] 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 confidence in Christ, Luther refers to the state of gentleness which excludes all bad intentions. Gentleness for him is fundamentally good, since it does not damage anything or anybody even if robbed of one’s possessions, honour, life and friends.[93]

Consequently, faith is the only prerequisite and is sufficient for the realisation of good works. Indeed, faith in its adequate form leads the believer to a way of thinking which is free from anger, revenge and jealousy. For Luther, actions which are produced from such a way of thinking cannot be reprehensible or evil. An upright faith is therefore incompatible with bad deeds.

Faith doesn’t just exclude bad behaviour, though: it can even lead to a life of charity. In the treatise Luther speaks not of gentleness, but instead characterises the state in which correct behaviour is possible as a state 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)[94]

Only then, 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 twinning of freedom and ethics, Luther’s theology is an early blueprint of modern theories which pursue the notion that freedom only thrives in a soil of responsibility and morality. This thought becomes prominent in Kant’s critical philosophy[95]: “Freedom and absolute practical law point reciprocally to one another.”[96] 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, the field of vision becomes clear, and is reoriented to the needs of one’s neighbour.[97]


So, was Luther liberated or a liberator? He saw himself as liberated, as is shown in the emphasis on passivity of the believer in attaining justification. His gradual separation from the papal church was something he similarly perceived as a liberation of himself. Nevertheless, his productive writerly activity indicates that he was eager to impart his liberating insights to all Christian people. As a result of his own liberation, Luther believed it to be his duty to free his neighbours from the chains that had weighed upon 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 like no other.


[1] Gerhard Ebeling, Luther. An introduction to his thought, Minneapolis 1980, p. 211.

[2] Martin Luther, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen – kommentiert und herausgegeben von Jan Kingreen (= Uni-Taschenbücher, Vol. 4884), Tübingen 2017, VII. It was a common practice among Humanists to adopt a Latin or Greek form of their family name, cf. Philipp Melanchthon (from Schwartzerdt), and Johannes Cochläus.

[3] WA 2, p. 16: 11-12, 19. (In the following chapters, quotations from Martin Luther’s texts are referenced following the Weimarer Ausgabe (WA); cf. Bibliography.)

[4] WA 1, No. 98, 11. Oct. 1518, p. 213: 11-14

[5] In the context of the Reichstag of Worms the comparison is taken to extremes, the Humanist Hermann Busche published the pamphlet Passion Doctor Martins Luthers, oder seyn lydung durch Marcellum beschriben. In this Luther’s journey and stay in Worms is recounted echoing the Passion of Christ. See Rebecca Sammel, The Passio Lutheri, in: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95. 1996, pp. 157–174.

[6] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther. Renegate and Prophet (2016), p. 163.

[7] Papst Leo X., Exsurge Domine.

[8] Johannes Wallmann, Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands seit der Reformation, Tübingen 2012, p. 25.

[9] More on Johannes Eck, vgl. Erwin Iserloh, Johannes Eck (1486-1543). Scholastiker, Humanist, Kontroverstheologe (= Katholisches Leben und Kirchenreform im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, Bd. 41), Münster 1981.

[10] Obelisci were printer’s marks for errors, Asterisci indicated where to add something. See Roper, p. 145.

[11] More on the debate in WS 2 und WS 59, pp. 427-605.

[12] Cf. Wallmann, p. 27.

[13] For example, the Nuremberg Humanist Christolpher Scheurl appears to have worked as an agent and to have forwarded the Theses on to various Humanist circles/groups. Vgl. Bernd Moeller, Die deutschen Humanisten und die Anfänge der Reformation, in: Bernd Moeller and Johannes Schilling (eds.), Die Reformation und das Mittelalter. Kirchenhistorische Aufsätze, Göttingen 1991, pp. 98–110, here p. 102.

[14] Moeller, 102.

[15] This also shows that Luther is very different than the Humanists, in that he himself was rather reluctant, to tackle practical changes. The broad approval of these can also be explained in that they did not completely understand Luther and only saw what they had in common. For the split in the humanist movement see. Moeller, 105f.

[16] “Our Lord had forcibly torn me from the canonical prayer hours in 1520, when I already was writing much and often saved my hours for eight days; on a Saturday I repaid one after another, in that I neither ate nor drank all day and weakened myself in such a way, that I could not sleep anymore, so that someone had to give me Dr Ecks’ sleeping draft, which I can still feel in my head.” WT 2, No. 1253, p. 11 (Roper, 191)

[17] Roper, p. 193.

[18] WA 54, p. 185f.

[19] WA 6, 404-469.

[20] Heinz Scheible, Die Gravamina, Luther und der Wormser Reichstag 1521, in: Heinz Scheible and Gerhard May (eds.), Melanchthon und die Reformation. Forschungsbeiträge (= Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte Mainz Beiheft Abteilung abendländische Religionsgeschichte, Bd. 41), Mainz 1996, pp. 393–409.

[21] Böcking (ed.), Epistolae Ulrich Hutteni (= Bd. 1), Leipzig 1854, p. 356.

[22] In a pamphlet dated 1521 he had discussed the freedom of Germany in the papal Bull and accused them of wanting to trap them in slavery. See: Georg Schmidt, Luthers Freiheitsvorstellungen in ihrem sozialen und rhetorischen Kontext (1517-1521), in: Dietrich Korsch and Volker Leppin (eds.), Martin Luther – Biographie und Theologie (= Spätmittelalter, Humanismus, Reformation, Bd. 53), Tübingen 2010, pp. 9–29, here p. 21.

[23] Schmidt, 14f.

[24] Schmidt, 22f.

[25] Wallmann, p. 31.

[26] Wallmann, S. 31.

[27] Reinhold Rieger, Martin Luther, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen. De libertate christiana (= Kommentare zu Schriften Luthers, Bd. 1), Tübingen 2007, p. 2.

[28] Roper, p. 216.

[29] Graham Tomlin, Luther then and now, New York 2017, p. 147.

[30] There are different positions on the question of whether Luther actually tried to achieve reconciliation or whether the letter was meant ironically. Kaufmann argues that Luther still had hope of reconciliation. See Thomas Kaufmann in: Ruth Slenczka (ed.), Reformation und Freiheit, pp. 43–59, here p. 45.

[31] Apart from that at least three others have translated his writings. Which version was the original and whether one is a translation of another, is another controversial topic. The various opinions are discussed extensively by Rieger. See Rieger, pp. 5–12.

[32] Kaufmann, p. 44.

[33] This even led some to believing that the writing mentioned in the Sendbrief could be De capitivitate Babylonicae, cf. Rieger, p. 46.

[34] This served to get the mayor to support the local Reformation movement, which was led by Thomas Müntzer. See Ibid., P. 47.

[35] Mainly thanks to Luther’s but also to other Reformation writings, printing boomed in Wittenberg. In 1517 there was only one printer in Wittenberger, while in 1525 there were already eight. See ibid., p. 59.

[36] On the further distribution of the Freiheitsschrift, cf. Ibid., 56f

[37] Roper, p. 187.

[38] Slenczka, VIII.

[39] Mark U. Edwards, The Reception of Luthers’s Understanding of Freedom in the early modern period, in: Lutherjahrbuch 62. 1995, pp. 104–120, here p. 105.

[40] An example is the text “New Karsthans’, allegedly written by Martin Bucer, the humanist. “. See. Martin Bucer, Deutsche Schriften. Band 1: Flugschriften 1520-1524, hg. v. Robert Stupperich 1960, p. 406–444.

[41] Roper, p. 202. Murner, “Murr”, the word for a male cat and “ner” sounds similar to Narr, the word for a fool.

[42] Thomas Murner, Von dem großen lutherischen Narren (= Thomas Murners Deutsche Schriften, Bd. 9), hg. v. Paul Merker, 242, 3787-3790. Other Catholic opponents also accused Luther of jeopardising the social order, spreading chaos with his new theology.[43]

[43] Many examples are to be found in the analysis of Edwards, see Edwards, p. 112-118.

[44] […] 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, recognize him as our Lord in our neighbor, and willingly do all the things God commanded us at his Last Supper. See. Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525. The German Peasants War from a new perspective, Baltimore 1981, 197f.

[45] Wallmann, p. 57.

[46] WA 18, 326, 32-327,23

[47] Cf. Roper, pp. 219–223.

[48] WA 7, pp. 11:9-10. Text and English translation are quoted in the version of the new online edition

[49] WA 7, S. 21:1-4 (Freiheit, Zum ersten).

[50] WA 7, pp. 21:11-17 (Freiheit, Zum zweiten).

[51] 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

[52] WA 7, pp. 22:34-23:3 (Freiheit, Zum sechsten).

[53] Notger Slenczka, Luthers Freiheitsverständnis, in: Ruth Slenczka (ed.), Reformation und Freiheit. Luther und die Folgen für Preußen und Brandenburg, Petersberg 2017, pp. 26–31, p. 27.

[54] WA 7, pp. 20-21. (Freiheit, Zum dritten), (Freiheit, Zum einundzwanzigsten).

[55] Volker Leppin, Luther’s Roots in Monastic-Mystical Piety, in: Robert Kolb et al. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s theology, Oxford 20141, here p. 56.

[56] These include for example: holding private requiems, pilgrimages, the veneration of the Saints and Holy relics as well as the monetary trade-off of the burden of sins through the purchase of indulgences. See Wolf-Dieter Hauschild, Lehrbuch der Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte. Band 2 Reformation und Neuzeit 20012, 22f.

[57] Irene Dingel, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (1520) – Historische und theologische Aspekte, in: Irene Dingel u. Henning P. Jürgens (Hg.), Meilensteine der Reformation. Schlüsseldokumente der frühen Wirksamkeit Martin Luthers, Gütersloh 20141, pp. 122–131, here 127f.

[58] WA 7, p. 29:19. (Freiheit, Zum Fünfzehnten)

[59] WA 1, p. 224: No. 9

[60] 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.

[61] WA 7, pp. 23:33-35. (Freiheit, Zum Achten)

[62] WA 54, pp.186:16-18.

[63] 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 und Contra Iulianum. siehe Philip Anderas, Augustine and Augustinianism, in: Derek R. Nelson u. Paul R. Hinlicky (Hg.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, Oxford, New York, NY 2017, here p. 4.

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

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

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

[67] WA 7, p. 24:22-25. (Freiheit, Zum Zehnten)

[68] WA 7, pp. 25:26-26:4. (Freiheit, Zum Zwölften)

[69] For more on the argument between the via antiqua and via moderna see: Theodor Dieter, Luther as Late Medieval Theologian: His Positive and Negative Use of Nominalism and Realism, in: Robert Kolb u.a. (Hg.), The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s theology, Oxford 20141, here p. 32.

[70] Gillis Gerleman, Ruth Das Hohelied. Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament 2011.

[71] Peter Zimmerling, Martin Luther: Vater der evangelischen Mystik? 2017; Leppin, 52f.

[72] Luther had possibly read the Bride metaphor in Staupitz’s Libellus de Executione Aeternae Praedestinationis, C.9.

[73] Wolfram Schneider-Lastin (Hg.), Staupitz, Salzburger Predigten 1512 1990, p. 129.

[74] The importance difference for Luther is, that the soul, through the union with Christ, does not give the suffering and the repentance that flows from it, but justification and freedom. That Luther has outgrown the theology of Staupitz by 1520 is shown in a remark in the Freiheitsschrift on repentance. There are certainly still preachers, who preach repentance over sin and grace, but they don’t interpret the commandments and the word of God, so that one learns, where and how repentance and mercy/grace comes from. For repentance stems from the commandments, the faith from the promise of God. WA 7, pp. 34:16-20. (Freiheit, Zum Fünfundzwanzigsten)

[75] WA 1, 525, 4-23.

[76] By seeing a red object the observer picks up on/receives the shape of the redness of the object and thereby the cognitive shape of the red becomes manifest in some way.

[77] Jeffrey E. Brower and Susan Brower-Toland, Aquinas on Mental Representation: Concepts and Intentionality, in: The Philosophical Review. 2008, pp. 193–243.

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

[79] Sara McDougall, Women and Gender in Canon Law, in: Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras (Hg.), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe 2013, here p. 171.

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

[81] WA 1, pp. 224-228. Cf. the full translation of the 95 Theses by Howard Jones as part of the Taylor Edition: Reformation Pamphlets publication of the Sermon von Ablass und Gnade.

[82] Theodor Dieter, 41f.

[83] WA 18, p. 668: 2-3.

[84] WA 18, p. 635: 17–22.

[85] Luther was neither the first nor the last to link freedom and responsibility to the condition of complete self-determination but considered it compatible with the determinism of humans. An overview of Compatibilism can be found in: McKenna and D. Justin Coates, Compatibilism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[86] Even Reinhold Rieger thinks that there is a certain incongruity between the two dichotomies, as the opposite [between freedom and servitude] is already in the area of the clergy. See: Rieger u. Luther, p. 74.

[87] WA 7, pp. 29:31-30:10 (Freiheit, Zum neunzehnten).

[88] WA 7, p. 30:15 (Freiheit, Zum zwanzigsten).

[89] WA 6, p. 204:25-26

[90] WA 6, p. 206:9-13.

[91] Volker Gerhardt, Freiheit in der Reformation. Erasmus und Luther im paradigmatischen Streit, in: Jörg Noller and Georg Sans (eds.), Luther und Erasmus über Freiheit. Rezeption und Relevanz eines gelehrten Streits (= Geist und Geisteswissenschaft, Bd. 4), Freiburg im Breisgau 20181, here p. 21.

[92] WA 6, pp. 266:32-33.

[93] WA 6, pp. 266:14-17.

[94] WA 7, pp. 36:3-4. (Freiheit, Zum siebenundzwanzigsten)

[95] The source from which both freedom and moral obligation flow is not faith in Kant, but practical reason,

[96] Immanuel Kant: KpV, AA 05: 29.24-25.

[97] Of particular interest is Susan Wolf’s philosophy on the question of the relevance of Luther’s understanding of freedom. For Wolf, a too challenging concept of freedom, which awards people with absolute autonomy over themselves, is irreconcilable with the fact, that people always make their decisions with 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 were aimed at ‘the true and the good’. As with 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 the context. See Susan Wolf, Freedom within Reason 1990.

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