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: Christ alone

“Luther’s…underlying argument [in The Bondage of the Will] works like this: If Christ’s death and resurrection are the sole sufficient cause for justification, there can be no capacity in the human heart or will which could accomplish this. To put it in Jesus’ own words, ‘whoever commits sins is a slave of sin,’ John 8.34. This first premise and the required conclusion then became the basis for a closely observed description of how appetite functions to bind the desirer to the object of its desires.”

–James A Nestingen, “Introduction: Luther and Erasmus on the Bondage of the Will,” in Gerhard Forde’s The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage, 17

Luther: Contrition

“Whether our contrition is genuine or not is a question which cannot be left to our own discretion, but must be left to the judgment of God. Therefore, no one can say without presumption that he is truly contrite.

“…If a man were required to say that he was truly contrite, he would be driven to presumption and to the impossible task of knowing all sin and evil in his heart. And since all the saints still have sin and evil within them, it is impossible for anyone to have such contrition as will be adequate in God’s judgment… …If no one will be found justified, how will anyone be found contrite, since contrition is the beginning of justification?

“… God’s promise in the sacrament is sure; our contrition is never sure. For this reason God would have us build not on our uncertain contrition, but on his certain promise, so that we may be able to persevere in every time of trouble” (“Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, LW 32, 55).

Scholarship: Melanchthon & the Work of the Holy Spirit

“[Melanchthon] affirmed his conviction that apart from the Holy Spirit the human will can exercise a measure of freedom in the performance of works that maintain public order and virtue. The Holy Spirit also restores this freedom to those who are reborn.

“…The action of the Holy Spirit in and through his Word, functioning as law and gospel, stood at the heart of Melanchthon’s discussion of conversion. This assertion of God’s working through the Word was the Preceptor’s way of affirming that God does not work magically (his reaction against medieval superstitious use of the sacraments ex opere operato), and that he does work with human creatures as the human reflections of his own image that he created (Melanchthon’s confession of the biblical understanding of human responsibility and of  human trust in the God who speaks in his Word)” (Kolb, Bound Choice, 112).

Scholarship: The Hidden God

“Luther took the hidden God seriously for a number of reasons. Without the admission that there is more to God than meets either eye or ear, God could be tamed, measured, managed within the realm of the human ability and possibility to judge. From the human perspective God remains God because human creatures are creatures as well as sinners, and it is not possible for the product of God’s creative words to master knowledge of the Creator.

“…In the Heidelberg Disputation Luther had focused first on the blank wall created by the impossibility of the human creature’s, to say nothing of sinner’s, conceptualizing of God, just to prove that with fallen eyes no one can see God. With fallen human ears no one can return to the Edenic hearing of his Word. Then Luther focused very sharply on God in his revelation of himself (John 1:18): no one has seen God, but Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, has made him known: a God with holes in his hands, feet, and side; the God who has come near to humankind, into the midst of its twisted and ruined existence” (Kolb, Bound Choice, pg 36).

Luther: The Origin of Evil

“It is the fault, therefore, of the instruments, which God does not allow to be idle, that evil things are done, with God himself setting them in motion. It is just as if a carpenter were cutting badly with a chipped and jagged ax. Hence it comes about that the ungodly man cannot but continually err and sin, because he is caught up in the movement of divine power and not allowed to be idle, but wills, desires, and acts according to the kind of person he himself is.

“All this is settled and certain if we believe that God is omnipotent and also that the ungodly is a creature of God, although as one averse from God and left to himself without the Spirit of God, he cannot will or do good. The omnipotence of God makes it impossible for the ungodly to evade the motion and action of God, for he is necessarily subject to it and obeys it. But his corruption or aversion from God makes it impossible for him to be moved and carried along with good effect. God cannot lay aside his omnipotence on account of man’s aversion, and ungodly man cannot alter his aversion. It thus comes about that man perpetually and necessarily sins and errs until he is put right by the Spirit of God” (“The Bondage of the Will”, LW 33, pgs 176-177).

Scholarship: Luther’s Experience & Exegesis

“…under the discipline of his own academic training [Luther] placed Scripture in the context of what his own experience had shown him regarding these definitive questions of life. Experience and exegesis together led him to formulate this paradoxical placing of total divine responsibility and total human responsibility alongside each other. Both God’s Word and his own spiritual struggles provided him with an understanding of humanity that met the biblical parameters for defining God’s relationship to sinners and to believers. Not a synthesis or harmonization of divine and human activity, this paradox did not assign grace and works respective parts within a process of salvation. It instead held in perpetual tension what the biblical writers said about God and what they said about human creatures” (Kolb, Bound Choice, pg 30).