Martin Luther’s Trinitarian Hermeneutic of Freedom

by Piotr J. Małysz

Martin Luther’s interest in the problematic of freedom belongs to a larger thread—or, more propDe servo arbitrio.jpegerly perhaps, a twine of issues—that runs through Western culture. It stretches as far back as Homer and then, beyond Luther, into the Enlightenment, only to find itself woven into today’s concerns, such as globalization and technology. Though Luther views himself primarily as a critical heir of Augustine, and considers freedom from an unapologetically theological perspective, it is as part of this longer intellectual trajectory that the continued currency of his views must eventually be decided. Even when Luther speaks theologically, he aims to address nothing short of the human condition.

The argument to be advanced here is that Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom—perhaps not as clearly or systematically as he could, though more clearly than he is customarily credited with. In fact, for Luther, nothing less than a Trinitarian framework will do to account for both divine freedom and, relevant to our topic, the integrity of human agency as free. The divine-human relationship remains decisive for anthropology—but, it must be clarified, it remains essential precisely as the work of the Triune God.

Luther’s emphasis on divine triunity, where freedom is at stake, comes more fully into view when one considers the tensions that Augustine bequeathed to the medieval West and, in their light, medieval accounts of freedom as attempts to appropriate this Augustinian heritage. Seen from this angle, Luther’s thought is both a continuation of the medieval project of engaging Augustine’s legacy and a radical critique of it from the standpoint of the doctrine of God. To demonstrate this, this article begins with an outline of Augustine’s understanding of freedom, attending in particular to the anthropologically central notion of free choice. This is followed by an overview, necessarily brief, of medieval construals of freedom. We then highlight the central emphases of Luther’s account, as well as the manner they have been received by recent interpreters. This sets the stage for the constructive portion of this article, Luther’s own Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom, which we articulate against the backdrop of the reformer’s critical interrogation of his medieval predecessors.

This article has appeared in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Martin LutherContinue Reading

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Theological Fragments: Bultmann on God

God is what limits mankind, who makes a comedy of his care, who allows his longing to miscarry, who casts him into solitude, who sets a limit to his knowing and doing, who calls him to duty, and who gives the guilty over to torment.  And yet at the same time it is God who forces one into life and drives him into care; who puts longing and the desire for love in his heart; who gives him thought and strength for his work and who places him in the eternal struggle between willfulness and duty.  God is the enigmatic power beyond time, yet master of the temporal; beyond existence, yet at work in it.

Rudolf Bultmann, “The Crisis of Faith [1931],” Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era, ed. Roger Johnson (London: Collins, 1987), 243.

Theological Fragments: God’s Identity

“The proposition that God’s self-identity lies in dramatic coherence is in any case mandatory for those who wish to worship the biblical God. For if we cannot construe the biblical God’s self-identity in this way, then we cannot construe it at all; then we do not know any one such reality as the biblical God. Otherwise than dramatically, the Bible’s theological descriptions, accounts of divine action, and worshipful invocations are too mutually conflicted to suggest referral to a same someone.”

–Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, 64.

Divine Immutability (An Exchange)

Several months ago, a colleague from my seminary days drew my attention to Johann Gerhard’s discussion of divine immutability in Volume Two of his Loci theologici (Exegesis), freshly released in English (On the Nature of God and on the Trinity, trans. R.J. Dinda [St. Louis: CPH, 2007]).  The context was the question of how we can speak of God’s immutability in a Biblically responsible and theologically faithful way.  While I appreciated what my colleague had to say, I also found it deeply problematic and decided to write a response.

Your responses to our exchange are also more than welcome!

Continue reading “Divine Immutability (An Exchange)”