Freedom From Oneself: Christian Liberty in the Lutheran Reformation

For the past week, I’ve been so engrossed in trying to write an epic narrative of the rise and fall of the doctrine of of adiaphora–“things indifferent”–in the Reformation, that I’ve had no time for blogging, alas.  I haven’t even had time to distill some of the salient bits properly to post here.  So instead, I will just offer you a raw, uncut, uncensored, unedited excerpt from my rough draft.  This is the bit on Luther, who always makes for an exciting read.  

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The three standard components of the doctrine of Christian liberty, stated later most lucidly by Calvin, are as follows:

  1. “that the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness.” (III.19.2)
  2. “that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.” (III.19.4; also particularly well-put by Melanchthon: “freedom does not consist in this, that we do not observe the law, but that we will and desire spontaneously and from the heart what the law demands.”)
  3. “regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.” (III.19.7)

It is critical that we understand the doctrine of adiaphora in this context if we are to understand its inner logic and guard against the misunderstandings that quickly took hold among both opponents and supporters of the Lutheran Reformation and were to plague all the reformations of the sixteenth century. 

Roughly put, we might want to say that the first part of Christian liberty consists in internal freedom, the second part consists in internal freedom in external obedience (voluntary obedience to the moral law of outward conduct), while the third part consists in external freedom.  But this would be a critical mistake (one made by many of Luther’s followers), failing to recognize the way in which all three parts of the doctrine are shot through by Luther’s “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, beautifully and masterfully articulated in his classic The Freedom of a Christian Man

“For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely….Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object–that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour….Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.”  

The freedom of a Christian man is not so much a freedom for oneself, but a freedom from oneself, a liberation from the preoccupation with one’s own salvation and merit, from fear that one is not toeing the line and meeting the standards; instead, he can actually focus on serving his neighbor.  “No longer does he need to use his neighbor as party to some moralistic scheme of proving himself worthy,” explains Bernard Verkamp.  “Now instead, his love of neighbor can be genuinely altruistic.” (57)  Thus confident of his standing before God and animated by love of neighbor, the Christian can let this law of love take the place, to a certain extent, of all other laws–divinely-revealed laws in Scripture will serve merely as rules of thumb about what love will require in particular circumstances, while human laws can only serve as rules of thumb about what love might require in particular circumstances.  Such laws still have their place (both sorts), but it is a place subordinated to the agenda of the law of love.  While the principles of the divine law serve as divinely authorized sign-posts as to the form that love should take, and hence must be carefully, though freely, heeded, in the adiaphora, we are called to a creative response to circumstances, which takes into account, but is not slavishly bound to, existing laws.

Luther cites the example of St. Paul circumcising Timothy, so as not to offend the weak, while later refusing to circumcise Titus, so as not to give in to Judaizers.


Since Christian freedom is an inner freedom that expresses itself in outward servitude, it is not nullified by external bondage, as Luther is careful to explain. 

“Any man possessing this knowledge may easily keep clear of danger among those innumerable commands and precepts of the Pope, of bishops, of monasteries, of churches, of princes, and of magistrates, which some foolish pastors urge on us as being necessary for justification and salvation, calling them precepts of the Church, when they are not so at all. For the Christian freeman will speak thus: I will fast, I will pray, I will do this or that which is commanded me by men, not as having any need of these things for justification or salvation, but that I may thus comply with the will of the Pope, of the bishop, of such a community or such a magistrate, or of my neighbour as an example to him.” 

Calvin puts it even more sharply, asserting that if someone is obliged to abstain from meat for their entire life out of regard for their neighbor’s weakness, they are not on that account any less free. (III.19.10)

An interesting corollary of this (which will become quite important as our narrative goes on) is that the one who insists on an outward expression of liberty thereby reduces the doctrine back to a new legalism.  As Verkamp says, “Those who, like Karlstadt, would insist that certain human traditions must be abolished and rashly proceed to do so, err no less, Luther said, than the papists.  Theirs is simply a new type of tyranny.  The papists destroy freedom by commanding, constraining, and compelling Christians to do things which God has not commanded or required; Karlstadt and his kind do so by forbidding, preventing, and hindering the Christian from doing that which is neither prohibited nor forbidden by God.”  The very indifferency of the adiaphora meant that to assert one’s external liberty in them would be to attribute to them more significance than they actually possessed, to make one’s faith dependent again on externals.  Stephen Gardiner lodged this very charge against the Reformers in his Contemptum humanae legis (1541): “Tell me I pray you how these things agree in constancy and continuity of doctrine: we are by only faith justified and made acceptable to God, according to your doctrine, and yet a large part of our controversy bears upon food and wives.  If those things do not pertain to justification, why do you who are reclaimed from the elements of the world contend about them, as if without them no happiness could find place in a Christian man?”


As the example of Karlstadt, however, and the charge of Gardiner suggest, this dialectic would prove difficult to maintain in practice.   When Karlstadt and many of the radical Reformers sought to put Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty into visible practice, ripping away all of the un-Scriptural trappings that seemed to shackle the Church, it is not hard to see where they got the idea.  It was easy to miss Luther’s own qualifications of the doctrine amidst the forceful rhetoric of liberty and sola Scriptura, and in any case, Luther himself provided precedent of this self-assertive kind of Christian liberty, insisting in On the Freedom of a Christian Man that toward “wolves” who urge ceremonies upon as as necessary, “we must resist, do just the contrary to what they do, and be bold to give them offence, lest by this impious notion of theirs they should deceive many along with themselves. Before the eyes of these men it is expedient to eat flesh, to break fasts, and to do in behalf of the liberty of faith things which they hold to be the greatest sins.”  He himself was soon to provide a particularly shocking example of this behaviour in his marriage to Katerina von Bora.  

Of course, in this same passage, Luther went on to advise precisely the opposite course of action before the weak in faith who needed to be initiated slowly into Gospel liberty, but this was precisely the problem with the doctrine–there were no fixed rules!  The whole point, after all, was to be ready to respond as love demanded in concrete circumstances.  Although he might issue some general guidelines, Luther could not establish a priori which response in the adiaphora would be right or wrong; might even Karlstadt’s actions have been more or less the right ones under slightly different circumstances?  It would be easy to attack Karlstadt and other radical reformers as unprincipled, self-serving libertines, who perverted the doctrine of Christian liberty for their own pleasure, failing to understand that it was not a freedom for oneself but a freedom from oneself, and the magisterial reformers were certainly quick to launch these sorts of attacks.  No doubt this was often enough true, and many Protestants quickly twisted liberty into license.  But this need not be the explanation for every form of radicalism, as becomes clear by the time you get to characters like the Puritans, who, whatever Anglican polemicists might try and say, hardly look like libertines.  

An externalization of Christian liberty that forcefully rejected unbiblical ceremonies could very well be motivated by a desire to love and edify the neighbor.  If one was convinced that the ceremonies were being Pharisaically demanded in a way that hinder the proclamation of evangelical liberty, or were weighed down with superstitions that would turn Christians away into various forms of idolatry and works-righteousness, then one must refuse and reject such ceremonies.  All the magisterial reformers themselves said so.  But they also said that if rejecting the ceremonies would cause the weak to stumble, or if the ceremonies were edifying, not harmful, they should be retained.  Such a dialectic, difficult enough to apply accurately in the best of circumstances, was certain to only become more difficult as Protestant churches increased in size, and whole princedoms and finally kingdoms became Protestant.  For surely, if not in an individual congregation, certainly in a whole region there would be both “Pharisees” and “the weak”–some who needed to be showed the needlessless of the ceremonies, and some for whom the ceremonies were still needful; some whom the ceremonies led astray into superstition, and some whom the ceremonies legitimately edified.  Disagreements over proper practice in the adiaphora were sure to proliferate as the infant Reformation grew and spread.  

(stay tuned for more, hopefully)


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