Martin Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian”

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

The treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian[1] written by Martin Luther is a very profound and, at the time of its publication, a very radical document on what it means to be a Christian. It was penned in roughly twelve days[2] in October of 1520 and published in the same year. This was the third of a group of treatises which Luther wrote in 1520 and which have collectively come to be known as The Reformation Writings.[3] Prior to this Luther had written, The Address to the German Nobility and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. While The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published in Latin and meant primarily for theologians and scholars,[4] On the Freedom of a Christian was published in both Latin and German[5] and meant to be read by the common German people. That Luther was specifically interested in the common German people reading it, is brought out by the fact that the German translation was made free “for the benefit of the people.”[6] This treatise is extremely important for understanding Reformation theology and history and therefore it will be examined in this paper. In doing so, it will explore numerous questions that deal with it primarily as a historical source from the time of the Reformation.

To start with, On the Freedom of a Christian has some interesting contextual history. Part of its history is that it was prefaced with a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X. This letter was the product of Luther meeting up with Cardinal and Saxon nobleman[7] Charles von Miltitz on October 12, 1520.[8] Miltitz urged Luther to write a letter “disclaiming any intent to attack him [i.e. the pope] personally, and presenting temperately the case for reform.”[9] This meeting was probably urged on by the fact that the Pope Leo X had issued the bull of excommunication, the Exurge Domine, against Luther on June 15, 1520. So Luther wrote the letter in Latin for the express purpose of “presentation to the pope.”[10]

It is important to state (in order that one not get the wrong impression regarding the character of this letter) that this was by no means a letter of apology to the pope for any of Luther’s past actions. It was rather almost a letter of “paternal counsel to the forty-five-year-old heir of St. Peter and the Medici.”[11] Luther pities the pope stating that he is “a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and with Ezekiel, you dwell with scorpions.”[12]

Luther states over and over again in this letter, that he is not attacking Leo per se, but rather attacking the doctrine and the corrupt men of Rome. For example, he states, “I am so far from having felt any rage against your person, that I even hoped to gain favor with you, and to aid in your welfare, by striking actively and vigorously at that your prison, nay, your hell.”[13] Continuing with that, he seems almost to describe Leo as a victim of all the corruption of Rome, “For since I know that your Blessedness is driven and tossed by the waves at Rome, while the depths of the sea press on you with infinite perils, and that you are laboring under such a condition of misery that you need even the least help from any the least brother.”[14]

While Luther states all these kind words to the pope, it must be realized that Luther, even in addressing the pope in such gentle and kind terms, was disrespecting the authority of the pope. It would have virtually been unheard of for a lowly monk and Doctor of Theology to address the pope in such terms. As Atkinson writes, “he [i.e. Luther] addressed him as an equal and pitied him as a poor Daniel in a den of lions. He made the devastating remark that the Pope was called the vicar of Christ for a vicar was there because someone else was absent, and it was Christ who was absent from Rome.”[15] That being the case, unfortunately nobody knows what the pope actually thought of the letter or the book as nothing was ever recorded in that regard. Although, quite clearly the “the letter accompanying it destroyed all prospects of reconciliation.”[16]

This brings up the interesting question: why would Luther include On the Freedom of a Christian with such a letter? It would appear that Luther, in doing so, was making a defense of his faith. He was ensuring that nobody would be able to accuse him of wrong doing and heretical ideas.

freedom-of-a-christianSo how does Luther argue his theological position regarding Christianity? WeThe actual treatise On the Freedom of a Christian deals with a seeming paradox. Luther states it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[17] He argues this proposition solely on the basis of Scripture. He makes no reference to church councils or decrees at all. One of the very likely reasons for this is that since this treatise was also written for the common German people, heavy theological language and the arguments of councils are left out. As MacKinnon states “the language is that of religion rather than theology.” Luther is then, most likely realizing the importance of writing a treatise in the terminology of the common people and one that is free from theological councils and disputations. Without all these complications it can be a treatise from which the laity can benefit. However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”

However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”[18] He goes on to state that there is only one thing that is necessary for the Christian life and that is the gospel of Christ:

One thing, and only one thing is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.[19]

That Luther needs to state this and make arguments defending it gives the reader a glimpse into the fact that society at the time did not take justification by faith alone for granted. Rather, the whole of religious and Christian society was steeped in a justification by works. Therefore, that Luther argues for justification by faith demonstrates that he was breaking in a radical way with Roman Catholic theology.

After he makes an argument for the justification of the believer by faith alone through Christ alone, Luther goes on to contend that Christ, as the believer’s highpriest, imparts two things to the Christian. The first thing is that He grants all Christians kingship: He makes lords of all. By this, he does not mean that all Christians are given a corporeal power.[20] Rather, he means that “every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm. . . . The power of which we speak is spiritual . . . . I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty.”[21]

The second thing Christ grants the Christian is that he makes them priests forever. By this he means that “we [i.e. Christians] are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.”[22] In doing this, Luther removes the difference between clergy and laity. As MacKinnon writes, “he . . . rejects the distinction between clergy and laity and insists anew that the only distinction is that of specific function and of the ministry of the Word for the promotion of faith.”[23] In doing this Luther, is removing the hierarchical nature of the church. He is establishing a type of equality between the laity and clergy in this treatise.

Therefore, in conclusion, this treatise on the theology of Martin Luther, is an integral one to the history of the Reformation. It states clearly and logically the key Reformation ideas of justification by faith alone and the priesthood and kingship of all believers. This has had a profound effect on Christianity to this day as the division it created in Christian theology still exists. If one may use the term, it is a revolutionary document.

Bibliography

Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968

MacKinnon, James. Luther and the Reformation. New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985

Luther, Martin. “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp (Accessed February 4, 2016)

Luther, Martin. Christian Liberty. Edited by Harold J. Grimm. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957

Footnotes

[1] Also referred to as Christian Liberty, Concerning Christian Liberty and The Liberty of a Christian Man

[2] James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981), 192

[3] Ibid, 187

[4] Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of M

artin Luther. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968), 88

[5] Ibid, 93

[6] James MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation. (New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962), 263

[7] Atkinson, Martin Luther, 174

[8] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[9] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 355

[10] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[11] Durant, The Reformation, 355

[12] Martin Luther, “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York (http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp) Accessed February 4, 2016

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Atkinson, Martin Luther,  193

[16] Ibid

[17] Martin Luther, Christian Liberty ed. by Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 7

[18] Ibid, 8

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 17

[21] Ibid, 17 – 18

[22] Ibid, 18

[23] MacKinnon, Luther, 266

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