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This is a long 10 page book review that I did on one of Luther's short treatises (yet exceptionally important) and his writings on the Sermon on the Mount. Both come from Luther's Works.
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“The Freedom of a Christian” and “The Sermon on the Mount”
by Martin Luther
In 1520 Martin Luther composed three brief treatises that would become important to the early period of the Protestant Reformation. Written at times as a reflection or reaction to Luther's debates with John Eck, these Three Treatises are also important due to the papal bull written the same year that gave Luther sixty days to recant or face excommunication. “The Freedom of a Christian” begins with a conciliatory letter by Luther to Pope Leo X which Luther included on the urging of several of Luther's friends to reconcile the rift created by the posting of the 95 Theses (262). In this, the last of the treatises, Luther lays down in a very concise manner his case for sola fide and the relation of faith to “good works.” “The Freedom of a Christian” remains an easily accessible work on this most central of Lutheran beliefs and can be read in just a few casual sittings.
In his collection of lectures on Matthew 5-7, Luther provides a richly detailed insight into his views on the relation of Christianity to society. Written and revised over the course of several years, these lectures were first published in 1532 and serve as an introduction to Luther's doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and how Jesus's commands in the Sermon on the Mount should be interpreted. A much larger work than the treatise, these lectures are a bit less accessible for the “everyday Lutheran” who might benefit from reading “The Freedom of a Christian.”
At the heart of “Freedom” is the admittedly paradoxical two-part assertion by Luther that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (277). The entirety of this treatise could easily be plotted back to these two propositions. Luther's first explanation of this seeming contradiction begins with a return to the body/mind dualism of Greek philosophy. The first proposition is in line with the spiritual nature of Man while the second proposition is in line with the bodily nature of Man. While our post-modern society may not completely discard this Aristotelian view, it certainly perks its ears up at the mention of body/mind dualism and seeks a crack in its logic. Luckily, Luther does not rely solely on this explanation for his defense of Man's being completely free and completely bound.
Immediately tied into this exposition, Luther exposes the reader to the centrality of sola fide in his doctrine. As an attack against the works-based righteousness he was rebelling against, Luther points out that even wicked people can do good works (279). The cause of justification is none other than the Word of God, which Luther identifies solely with faith. In this explanation, Luther does not only pit works and faith against each other, he makes them mutually exclusive with statements such as “faith cannot exist in connection with works” (280). While he softens his approach in the second half of this treatise, his disdain for works-based righteousness is clear. Given the Sitz im Leben of Luther's work, it is not surprising that he would have such reactionary views to the concept of “works” that was popular at the time.
This raises the question of what, exactly, Luther means the various times he uses “works,” “law,” and “commandment” in relation to justification. In laying out the relation of works and law, Luther states “a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no work to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law” (284). It is for statements like this that Luther was long viewed as an antinomian. Yet immediately preceding this statement, Luther points out the importance of divine law as a measuring stick for Christians to judge themselves and their inherent unrighteousness (282). Luther's use of “law,” then, must not be referring to the entirety of the law or a piece of the law, such as the Decalogue. It seems possible that when Luther refers to “works” that he has specifically in mind those works, both in 16th century Catholicism and Biblical Judaism, that serve as ritual performances that render righteousness—such as temple sacrifices, pilgrimages, rosaries, etc. If this is true, it would easily explain Luther's use of “works” in both a positive and negative light. Taking into account the way Luther relates works to the law, it is also possible that when Luther uses “law” or “commandment,” he is referring specifically to the mitzvot that relate to ritual cleanliness/holiness and not those that relate to God or social interaction. Using these demarcations increases the complexity of interpreting Luther, as the reader must decide which definition Luther is most likely using, but it also makes the message much simpler. There is, however, always the danger of deciding against Luther's intent.
So in the above quote where Luther relates faith to freedom, if the concept of works and law refers primarily to ritual works, he is stating that a Christian who has faith is free from any of these ritual actions which are, in fact, mundane and is free to live a life in faith. He lists this as the “first power” of faith—that the Christian is free. The second power of faith is that the Christian places their complete trust in God. Faith “does not doubt that he who is true, just, and wise will do, dispose, and provide all things well” for the Christian (285). The last power of faith is justification. Luther explains this through the unity the Christian gains with Christ, whose sins are “swallowed up by him” so that Christ shares in the sins of the faithful and the faithful share in the righteousness of Christ (287). Through this deft use of theologically sound syllogisms, Luther arrives at the heart of sola fide doctrine. In placing so much emphasis on faith, however, Luther is in danger of living up to his antinomian reputation and producing a church full of libertines. Realizing this, the second half of his treatise discusses the proper place of works and their relation to faith.
When Luther is speaking of works in a negative light, the majority of the time he is commenting on the relation of works to salvation—no one is saved through works. When not speaking in regard to salvation, however, Luther is almost always positive in his attitude towards works. What is important for Luther is the order in which the Christian approaches faith and works. He states that the Christian who has faith will automatically fulfill the first commandment (to worship one God), and “he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest” (288). Again, the question is raised what Luther means by “all the rest.” Does he mean the nine remaining commandments of the Decalogue? The 612 remaining mitzvot? The non-ritual mitzvot? While he never explicitly answers these questions, Luther goes on to say that “the works themselves do not justify [a Christian] before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God” (295). Luther has an obvious love of good works, yet his relegation of works to a spontaneous reaction to faith may not be as simple in practice as it is in theory. It is easy to doubt just how simple it is to fulfill other commandments solely on the worship of God.
Luther later goes on to divide “true” good-works into two categories: those that serve to discipline the bodily nature of Man, and those that serve the neighbor (308). He now provides an easy to follow plan for the discernment of good works. The first category, in many ways, harkens back to philosophers such as Maimonides (if not even Aristotle) who viewed the law as a tool towards achieving a higher contemplative life. The law is not inherently bad if it is used to control the bodily appetites of Man with a goal of greater knowledge of God, in the case of Maimonides, or faith, in the case of Luther. Luther spends a good deal of time talking about the duty of a Christian to work for the neighbor and bear the neighbor’s burdens, but the reader is often left pondering how well Luther followed his own advice. While this treatise is not as polemical as the “Sermon” lectures that I will address now, Luther’s use of less-than-conciliatory language to refer to his detractors raises the question of “practicing what you preach.”
An example of this questionable use of language is present immediately in Luther’s preface to “Sermon” when he states “this fifth chapter has fallen into the hands of the vulgar pigs and asses, the jurists and sophists, the right hand of the jackass of a pope and of his mamelukes” (3). While 16th century German undoubtedly had different traditions than present-day political correctness could imagine, such a direct and polemical word choice could hardly have been interpreted as anything less than doctrinal warfare by Luther’s readers. He is also quick to point out the theological spectrum at this time in the Reformation—the papists were on one end while the “schismatic” Anabaptists were on another. Luther places himself firmly in the middle. This three-way power play is a frequent character in the plot that Luther presents throughout “Sermon.”
Throughout these Lectures, there are several layers to Luther’s commentary. Practical advice, polemic, and foundational doctrine are three of these. Perhaps the strongest and most timeless of these is Luther’s practical advice to Christians. Given the ethical nature of the Sermon on the Mount, Luther finds ample opportunity to provide everyday advice for his followers on everything from dealing with greed and avoiding gossip to being happy with what God has given. If one were simply to follow this worldly advice, surely they would find positive effects in it. And without having read “Freedom” beforehand, reading only “Sermon” one might also miss the sola fide accent of Luther’s teachings entirely. Luther predicts this oversight and devotes an entire postscript to reconciling the works-based nature of “Sermon” with justification through faith.
The most important contribution “Sermon” offers to foundational Lutheran doctrine is his exposition on the Two Kingdoms. While it is hinted at in the body/mind dualism of “Freedom,” here Luther explicitly lays out the importance of discerning between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. We first see this distinction in Luther’s differentiation between a person and their office. Here he points out that he has “often said that we must sharply distinguish between these two, the office and the person. The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher” (23). While this concept is key to Luther’s Two Kingdoms, I believe it also leads to dangerous errors in interpreting the role of a Christian in society. It is Luther’s assertion that the person, while Christian and bound to follow the laws that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount, must follow a different set of rules than the office, which is not Christian but rather secular and is not bound by either Jesus’s commands or the Decalogue.
This concept has resurfaced in contemporary Lutheran ethics in the discussion of homosexuality in the church. Many contend that the primary identity of a Christian should be “Christian” while the secondary identity should be “homo/heterosexual.” One should refer to themselves as a “homosexual Christian” and not a “Christian homosexual” (see Faithful Conversations). This difference in priority seems to make sense and fall in line with Jesus’s teachings—we are “Christians first.” Yet in Luther’s discussion of person vs. office, we do not always see a focus on being a Christian. Luther implies that a “judge who is Christian” is able to rule in such a way that he contradicts the rule of Jesus because he is simply fulfilling his office. We are left to imagine how a “Christian who is a judge” might rule differently. As Luther goes on to state explicitly, “a prince can be Christian, but he must not rule as a Christian; and insofar as he does rule, his name is not ‘Christian’ but ‘prince’” (170). While sola fide is the doctrine upon which Luther built the church, the Two Kingdoms is a lesser but still central doctrine to Luther theology. Luther is not as successful in using scripture to justify his Two Kingdoms concept as he is in establishing sola fide. In fact, he is left most often citing Romans and its pro-government verses in order to defend the secular position of a Christian. At best, this leaves room for debate and at worst is a dangerous interpretation of the Kingdom of God on earth.
In placing himself between the liberal papists and the conservative schismatics, Luther occupies a Goldilocks-type “just right” middle that at times lacks a methodology. He states that the teaching of the Catholic Church in relation to Jesus’s commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is too liberal. The Catholic view that these stronger commandments are supererogatory is dismissed as too light a yoke. He also, however, believes that the Anabaptist view that these new commandments should be interpreted literally and acted upon in their entirety is delusional. It is through the Two Kingdoms doctrine that Luther bridges the gap. Yet central to this middle ground is the issue of discernment. How does Luther decide at what point commandments become supererogatory or delusional? Which commandments apply only to people and not to their position in the secular Kingdom? These answers are easily found when considering the issues present in 16th century Germany as Luther enumerates them specifically, but problems arise when attempting to read Luther’s methodology, or lack thereof, onto 21st century issues. Without a clear-cut process for arriving at these answers, one is forced to guess what Luther may have decided in regards to contemporary issues. Luther did not provide for a proper framework to routinize his discernment process so that modern Lutheran ethics could adequately draw upon his doctrine for contemporary issues. Luther decides on issues often in seeming contradiction to what one would predict and almost seems to include an arbitrary element to his process. The result is a church structure that constantly turns to Luther for discernment as opposed to having a framework for corporate discernment. This, ironically enough, leads to a similar situation to what Luther was fighting against in the pope’s position as “Discerner in Chief.”
Most obvious in these questions of discernment is Luther’s use of exceptions. He often starts an exposition of a verse by saying that this command should be taken literally. Eventually, however, he almost always arrives at a point where there is an exception to this position. For instance, when expounding upon Matthew 6:14-15 Luther praises the importance of forgiving our neighbor’s sin. He spends several pages espousing the importance of this command and calling on Christians to freely forgive those who have wronged them. Before ending, however, he raises the exception: “if someone refuses to acknowledge the sin and to stop it, but persists in it, you cannot forgive him” (153). It is the exceptions to the rules that seem the most arbitrary in Luther’s methodology. While always tied to his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, this concept seems to be used in a manner that is not uniform from case to case.
An underlying implication throughout “Sermon” is that both the papists and schismatics are disillusioned and produce false teachings. Luther, on the other hand, is the only one able to see and teach the will of God accurately. This “I’m right, they’re wrong” mentality appears in the exposition of almost every verse and is not supported with much more than Luther’s appeal to his own authority. While Luther always points to the word of God as the basis of his authority, his arguments are sometimes less than strong. While Jesus did say that the path was narrow and sparsely populated, Luther uses this as proof that those who have many detractors must have some added authenticity to their teachings. When speaking of how he has doubted himself when considering the multitude of those who disagree with him, Luther says:
I myself have choked on it and thought: “We are such a tiny and poor little flock, despised and condemned by everything high and great on earth. Do we have a right to defy the whole world, to boast that our cause is right, and to pronounce the judgment on all of them that the pope and the bishops and all their supporters belong to the devil?” But we must overcome this and conclude: “I know that my cause is right, though the whole world may say otherwise.” (243)
The reader is left with the impression that Luther feels he is the only one not affected by an ideology in much the same way that Niebuhr points out that the Marxists view themselves in the same way.
Two important and lasting contributions to Lutheran theology contained in both “Sermon” and “Freedom” are the ideas of the priesthood of all believers and the unimportance of one’s station in society. In “Freedom,” Luther uses the analogy of the Christian’s marriage to Christ as proof of universal priesthood. In swallowing up our sins, we are justified as well as gain Christ’s priesthood. This accounts for Luther’s anti-monastic vows—monks are no greater Christians than farmers or servants, for all are equally justified in Christ. This is an important concept that has done much to advance an “egalitarianism of righteousness” that was lacking in the 16th century church. Similar to the priesthood of all believers is the pronouncement that regardless of what one’s occupation is, it is how one approaches and performs that occupation that makes it holy. This concept was central to Weber’s connection of the Protestant work ethic to capitalism. In expounding upon the concept of one’s station in life, Luther says:
Every pious husband, servant, maid or faithful worker, therefore, must be said to have a station that is excellent, high, and godly. If we could evaluate all occupations and stations correctly on the basis of the Word, then everyone could teach and live correctly, and everything would go along just fine. The proper stations then would be those which God has created and ordained and with which He is pleased. And if God made it possible for us to get to the point that one city would have many such pious citizens . . . we would have the kingdom of heaven on earth. (257)
In this excerpt not only does Luther provide an elegant justification for the occupation of everyone from the highest to the lowest, but he also alludes to a Third Kingdom—one that is lacking from his doctrine of Two Kingdoms. It is this “kingdom of heaven on earth” that is perhaps the most important kingdom that Jesus preaches but is not given anywhere near the amount of ink due it in “Freedom” or “Sermon.”
This Third Kingdom, luckily, is not forgotten by those who have followed in Luther’s footsteps. With roots in Lutheran theology, the Social Gospel movement as well as Liberation Theology would later pick up what Luther hinted at and look to unify the Two Kingdoms into one by realizing the Kingdom of God here on earth. It would be possible, then, to use the ethics laid out by Luther in these two short works as a building block, but not as a foundation. Using them as a foundation for a “Lutheran ethics” could easily lead to a system that does not bear good fruit—a test on which Luther places much emphasis. If the fruit is bad, the tree must be bad and vice versa. Whether Luther’s doctrine as he provides it produces good fruit or not is likely a hot topic, but in using Luther’s ethics as a building block or stepping stone, many of the proponents of the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology have been able to take many of Luther’s key concepts and put them into practice that produces good fruit.