Tag Archives: Freedom

Martin “Eleutherius” Luther

I learnt a great deal while preparing my paper for the recent Luther@500 Conference at Vose Seminary. None of it was original, of course, but a harvesting of the fruits of others’ scholarship informing my own engagement with Luther’s writings. The point most significant for me was the dawning recognition that Martin Luther was not always Martin Luther. This is one of those “obvious” facts, that sits on the edge of awareness but then the penny drops.

I had known that young Martin was born to Hans and Margarete Luder. In biographies and other Reformation sources, the family name is always applied to Luther’s parents. Yet, somehow, I had never gone on to ask the question, How and when and why did Martin Luder become Martin Luther?

In my research it became clear that the change had already occurred by the time Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, for the superscription for the Theses uses the name, although spelt Lutther. Whether this was intentional or a printer’s mistake in the facsimile I examined, I do not know. We know, too, that Luther sent a copy of his Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on October 31, 1517, in the name of “Luther” (see Wengert, ed., The Annotated Luther Volume 1:The Roots of Reform, 34, 47-55). Bernard Lohse suggests that this was the first time that Luder adopted and used this name (Martin Luther’s Theology, 101).

Historians note that it was not unusual for humanists to adopt a Greek form of their name to produce a scholarly pseudonym. For example, the brilliant young humanist Philip Schwarzerd, who entered the University of Heidelberg at the tender age of twelve, is better known by his Greek name: Philip Melanchthon (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 273).

Around this time Luther also began using a Greek name when he signed his letters: eleutherius – the free one. Heinz Schilling suggests that as Luder’s work took him out of the academy and into the world of the common folk among whom the Greek name would be meaningless, “he preserved a reminder of the freedom that was at the heart of reformed theology: the central th in the Greek form of his name was carried over into his family name. Martin Luder became Martin Luther” (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, 139).

It is possible that Luther wanted to change his name for other reasons. Marcus Wriedt suggests that “Luder” bore the connotation as such words as ‘dirt’ or ‘garbage’ (“Luther’s Theology,” in Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, 86). Whether in the sixteenth century the word had the colloquial connotations it does in the modern period—i.e. as a reference to a “common” woman considered an immoral “hussy”—I cannot say.

What is significant, I believe, is that Luther used his new name—indicative of a new identity?—in his first foray into the public sphere with the new theology that he had been developing and teaching at the Wittenberg University for several years. In his letter addressed to Albrecht, and in his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was identifying as one freed by Christ and the gospel; freed from scholastic theology, freed from the fear of judgement, freed in order to help others find similar freedom.

Luther’s very name is itself testimony to the heart of his theological and pastoral vision: a theology of freedom issuing from the free grace of the free God who makes his people free. Scott Hendrix concurs: “From this point on [here, 1521], freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 115).

Of course, Luther’s freedom is the paradoxical freedom of the one who has been found and bound in Christ. This is worlds away from libertarian concepts of personal and individual autonomy common today. It is the freedom of one so free they become free even from themselves, even from their own will to be free: they become servants of Christ and of others. This is the genius of Luther’s little tractate The Freedom of a Christian.

Scripture on Sunday – Galatians 5:13-14

LoveYourNeighborasYourselfGalatians 5:13-14
For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The Christian life is a great paradox. On the one hand, Paul has just announced in clarion tones, “For freedom Christ has set us free!” (Galatians 5:1). On the other hand, he also calls us voluntarily to lay down our freedom and become servants of one another. No one, perhaps, has stated this paradox more succinctly than Luther in his great little treatise The Freedom of the Christian (1520):

The Christian is the most free lord of all, subject to none;          
The Christian is most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In the argument of Galatians, the believer is freed from the law, having died to the law in Christ. To be freed from the law, however, does not now mean that one is lawless; the Christian is not free from the righteousness of the law, but from keeping the law as an attempt to obtain that righteousness.

For too many Christians, however, Paul’s call to freedom has been understood in terms of a western concept of libertarian freedom, the freedom of the isolated and autonomous individual, the one who is freed from all other claims and restraints, free to be and do whatsoever one may wish. Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind in this passage. Here, Paul envisages a people who are so free, they are free even from themselves and their own freedom. They are so free, they are free to become servants (slaves!) of another. It is, of course, one thing to become a servant of God, but another and far more drastic thing to become a servant of my brother and sister.

Thus, the freedom of the Christian is not merely freedom from, but also and more importantly, freedom for. It is not so much freedom to do as we would, but freedom to do as we might and as we should. Not freedom that grants total autonomy and self-sufficiency, and thus isolation and the self as the centre of all value, but freedom even from the rule of the self so that we are free to give ourselves to others and to God. Not a freedom, that is, which makes us a prisoner of ourselves and of our own lust for power and control, and thus a false freedom in which we become slaves to the hidden power of the flesh. Instead, the believer is called to be truly free and fully human through self-giving love that pours itself into relationship and community.

Paul’s vision, then, is of a strange and paradoxical freedom. The Christian is freed from the pressure to earn and merit God’s favour and acceptance. Thus she is also freed from the demand for religious performance, as though by her great and costly religious sacrifice she could impress God and find inclusion amongst his people. Already she is a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Already she is accepted. Already God has sent the Spirit of his Son into her heart that she might cry out, “Abba! Father!” Already she is loved and accepted and valued as a precious daughter of the Father. She is freed to follow the way Paul has already set forth earlier in Galatians:

The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (2:20).

Through faith in Jesus Christ the believer is set free from having to establish their own righteousness before God, and so also set free from the need to achieve, succeed and impress in order to establish their own worth and value. No longer need they engage in forms of manipulation that builds on fear of exclusion. No longer need they use people to bolster their own sense of esteem or worth. Being freed from the need to use people, the Christian is freed to love them instead, to give themselves for them, and to serve them as Christ did and does.

But why would and should one love others? The Christian is united to Christ and nourished in his love by the Spirit, so that his love begins to take shape in their lives—by the Spirit. The Spirit shapes them into Christlikeness, bringing forth his fruit in their lives, with the result that they shall love. This is the new creation that religious performance can never produce. This is faith coming to expression in love (Galatians 5:5-6, 22). Being set free from the performance anxiety that makes him a slave to fear and causes him to control and manipulate others, the believer is freed to love.

And who should one love? One’s neighbour, for in loving one’s neighbour the whole law is fulfilled. The believer is called to love neighbours near and distant. In a sense, all who inhabit the global village are in some sense one’s neighbour. But it is particularly the person one encounters in their daily life, and the person who is in close proximity whether one would usually encounter or avoid them—remember Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. And especially, those in the household of faith. All these we are called to love—not just in some theoretical way, but by offering concrete service to them.

Paul’s vision of freedom encapsulates a profound vision of what it means to be truly human, as well as a profound spirituality of faith and love, of faith coming to expression in love.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 2

hercules-at-the-crossroads-4226Last week I posted the first part of this summary/reflection on Barth’s essay here.

Christian freedom—and therefore according to Barth, human freedom—is not simply the human capacity to choose between alternatives, nor a vision of the autonomous person standing aloof from all other circumstances, powers and persons. True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. It is not realised in solitary detachment from others, but only in encounter and communion with them. It is not the power to assert one’s own desire and will, and so to preserve, justify and therefore save oneself. Rather, true freedom and thus true humanity consists in joyful obedience and thankful response to God.

Human freedom is freedom only within the limitations of God’s own freedom. … It awakens the receiver to true selfhood and new life. It is a gift from God, from the source of all goodness … Through this gift man who was irretrievably separated and alienated from God is called into discipleship. This is why freedom is joy! … Freedom is the joy whereby man acknowledges and confesses this divine election by willing, deciding, and determining himself to be the echo and mirror of the divine act.[1]

Freedom, for Barth, is not autonomy, but precisely its opposite: dependence upon God. It consists not in isolation from God but in being bound to God, in relation with God, and in correspondence to the divine way of being revealed in Jesus Christ. In this relation we are set free to be and become truly human: God’s creature, God’s partner, God’s child. These three categories of human being and freedom correspond to God’s relation to humanity as creator, reconciler and redeemer. As God’s creature we are freed to be truly human, living in dependence upon the gracious God, and in right relation with others. As God’s partner we are freed to echo God’s Yes and God’s No in our own decision and act, and so live a life of faith and love as a pilgrim and witness to the reality of God and the freedom God gives. As God’s child we are freed to live in this fallen and darkened world according to hope in the as yet unseen future which will be ours through God’s promise. On the basis of this promise we are freed to live toward this future, to pray, to work and ultimately to die. “A Christian is one who makes use of this freedom to pray and to live in the hope of the end which will be the revelation of the beginning.”[2] Freedom, in Barth’s vision, is the gift from God by which unfree and enslaved humanity is set free for the service of thankful obedience, for participation in the causa Dei, for the joy and hope of being God’s child both here and hereafter.

In the third section of the lecture Barth addresses the nature of “evangelical ethics.” A person does the good when she obeys the divine command implicit in the gift of freedom, and with which she is confronted in every new moment. The divine command is the immediate encounter between God and the human agent. God does not deal with us through the intermediary of a rule, a principle, a natural law, reason, conscience, or even the Bible. Certainly ethical reflection, pastoral exhortation, brotherly admonition, study and doctrine are all appropriate as preliminary words, but none of these in and of themselves constitute the divine command. The final word belongs to God in the moment of encounter with the free human agent. Ethics, therefore, may search for and point toward the will of God as it has been revealed and known in different times, places and circumstances. Its task, however, can never be to mediate the divine command, to take the place of God, of human freedom, of the encounter between the two; that is, it can never become a law.

Ethics according to our assumptions can only be evangelical ethics. The question of good and evil is never answered by man’s pointing to the authoritative Word of God in terms of a set of rules. It is never discovered by man or imposed on the self and others as a code of good and evil actions, a sort of yardstick of what is good and evil. Holy Scripture defies being forced into a set of rules; it is a mistake to use it as such. The ethicist cannot take the place either of the free God or of the free man, even less of both together.[3]

The task of ethics, therefore, is to remind us of and direct us to our responsibility before God. It emphasises the reality and conditioning of human existence. It may offer provisional conclusions and conditional imperatives but will leave the pronouncement of unconditional imperatives to God.[4]

Ethics is reflection upon what man is required to do in and with the gift of freedom. The ethicist should not want to attempt too little either. He must want to realize his calling and his talents. It is not enough to insist that human life is to be lived under the divine imperative. Ethical reflection must go further and ask the question to what extent this is so. Neither the freedom of God’s commandment nor that of man’s obedience is an empty form. Human action takes place at the point of contact between these two spheres of freedom. Each of these is characterised by its own content, tone, and extent. Ethical reflection has to concentrate upon these. It has to begin with the recognition that the free God is the free man’s Lord, Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, and that free man is God’s creature, partner, and child. This insight will be gained at the very source of Christian thinking, in Holy Scripture, where ethical reflection will also renew, sharpen, and correct its findings in continuous searching. In addition, ethical reflection may and must consult the Christian community in its past and present history. It must do this in order to be admonished, nourished, enriched, perhaps also stirred and warned, by the use which the fathers and brethren made and still are making of Christian freedom.

Therefore, ethics is not without signposts in its attempt to point to God’s authoritative word of judgment. If it is based on the knowledge of God and of man, it will receive its contour. It will not point to a vacuum, but to the true God, the real man, and the real encounter between them. The ethical quest is and remains a quest and yet is not totally devoid of fulfilment. Indirect as it may be, the quest is a witness to God’s concrete word. Ethical reflection may and must be genuine search and genuine doctrine, genuine because true ethics does not deprive God, its object, of His due power and glory. It leaves the uttering of the essential and final word to God Himself. But it does not shrink away from the preliminary words which are necessary to focus man’s wandering thoughts on the one center where he, himself free, shall hear the word of the free God, the commandment addressed to him, the judgment falling upon him, and the promise waiting for him.[5]

This long citation is very important in understanding Barth’s view of the divine command. The command is not simply equated with the commands of Scripture. Further, many commentators on Barth’s ethics have worried about the possibility of an immediate command coming to each person in each instance of their lives. They worry that human ethical reason is evacuated of any significance, that Barth’s concept is simply irrational, and that actual people are most unlikely to hear such a command in the to-and-froing of their daily existence. This passage makes it clear, however, that the divine command comes not as a bolt out of the blue, nor is it so alien to us as to be unrecognisable. Christian ethics may prepare for the command through reflection on the particular cases and circumstances confronting us; through reflection on Scripture and history, through pastoral exhortation, study, brotherly admonition, etc. But ultimately, ethical existence is the free response the person makes to God in the moment of encounter.

Barth appends a final section to his essay which functions as a sort of illustration or application of his view of freedom specifically with reference to the work of theology. Nevertheless, the categories of thought used here serve to illustrate how the work of ethics also proceeds. He lays out his thought in five points;

  1. Begin at the beginning, that is, in prayer, liturgy and devotion as a response to God’s prior action, especially his revelation in Christ and culminating in the resurrection;
  2. Begin too with Scripture where this revelation is witnessed and heard;
  3. Be free to draw on other frameworks of understanding, other approaches to the issues at hand;
  4. Reflect in dialogue with the church and for the church, drawing in peers, confessions, the fathers, governing authorities, etc.;
  5. Reflect in joyful, critical and free dialogue with other contemporaries, even and especially those with whom you disagree.

When Barth does ethics, he refuses to tell us what to do. Rather he describes in thoroughly theological terms, the moral field in which our existence takes place, and in which we are called to act. The great and central reality of this field is God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). In every moment of our lives we are confronted by a reality from beyond ourselves, by which we are addressed, and to whom we are responsible. This “whom” has reached out to us in Jesus Christ and called us to himself. This is evangelical ethics.


[1] Ibid., 78-79.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Ibid., 85, original emphasis.

[4] Ibid., 86.

[5] Ibid., 87-88.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 1

Hercules at the Crossroads between Virtue and Vice (Annibale Carracci, 1596)

On September 21, 1953 Karl Barth gave an address at a meeting in Bielefeld of the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (Society for Evangelical Theology). It was published in a little collection of three essays entitled The Humanity of God. I am away from home at the moment and so cannot check Busch to find out what was going on at the time, but there is clear evidence in the lecture that Barth is engaging with some contemporary conversations and issues.

The most important thing to note at the outset is the subtitle of the lecture: “Foundation of Evangelical Ethics.” When Barth uses the term “Evangelical” he is referring to Protestant theology rather than evangelicalism as it is commonly known today. It may be, however, that Barth has in mind evangelical as gospel; what is beyond question, however, is that Barth is arguing for an ecclesial ethics, one specifically for the Christian community, rather than for humanity generally. Indeed, his ethics are possible only as an evangelical ethics and not otherwise.

The lecture progresses in four sections, the final section serving almost as an excursus. Although it seems natural to discuss the seeming reality of human freedom, Barth asks, “Why deny priority to God in the realm of knowing when it is uncontested in the realm of being? If God is the first reality, how can man be the first truth?”[1] Barth insists that beginning with God does not in any way imply the abrogation of human freedom, although some may want to argue the point with him. God’s freedom is not naked sovereignty or bare omnipotence, but relational freedom, the freedom in which God in covenantal grace gave and gives himself to humanity to be humanity’s God. God’s freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. God is free to determine his own being to be God for us in and through Jesus Christ. God’s freedom was and is expressed in the gospel, and although surely God’s vision and purpose includes all his creatures, God’s particular interest concerns his human creature, indicated in his becoming human in his Son.

The well-known definitions of the essence of God and in particular of His freedom, containing such terms as “wholly other,” “transcendence,” or “non-worldly,” stand in need of thorough clarification if fatal misconceptions of human freedom as well are to be avoided. The above definitions might just as well fit a dead idol. Negative as they are, they most certainly miss the very center of the Christian concept of God, the radiant affirmation of free grace, whereby God bound and committed Himself to man, making Himself in His Son a man of Israel and the brother of all men, appropriating human nature into the unity of his own being.[2]

In the second section of the lecture, Barth turns his attention to human freedom and here his exposition runs entirely counter to modern expectations. Human freedom is indeed the gift of God, grounded in God’s own freedom. But God is not simply the source of human freedom; he is also its object and goal. The natural freedom given to humanity in creation has been lost through sin, by which humanity is alienated from God and self. Humanity does not now know its original freedom, nor indeed what it means to be human.[3] Barth therefore implies that we cannot know what freedom is and entails by phenomenological analysis of human existence and action. We can, of course, understand the human capacity of choice, decision, and action, but this in itself is not freedom.

The concept of freedom as man’s rightful claim and due is equally contradictory and impossible. … Man has no real will power. Nor does he get it by himself. His power lies in receiving and in appropriating God’s gift. … God does not put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads. The opposite is true. God frees man from this false situation. He lifts him from appearance to reality. … It would be a strange freedom that would leave man neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly! What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. … Trying to escape from being in accord with God’s own freedom is not human freedom. Rather, it is a compulsion wrought by powers of darkness or by man’s own helplessness. Sin as an alternative is not anticipated or included in the freedom given to man by God.[4]

Apart from the gospel, then, humanity is “unfree.” What freedom is can be known only by understanding Christian freedom, that freedom which is given to humanity in Jesus Christ. Barth, echoing Luther, insists that freedom can be understood only in terms of “the freedom of the Christian.”[5]

To Be Continued …

[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J. N. Thomas & T. Weiser (St. Louis: John Knox, 1960), 70.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 76-77.

[5] Ibid., 75, 82.