Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christian Freedom

"Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St. Ambrose to Enter Milan Cathedral"
Anthony Van Dyck
National Gallery London

Martin Luther’s confession of “Christian Freedon” with his belief in need for rigid social order is reconciled by his writing on what he consider the “two kingdoms.” Luther’s understanding of these separate realms comes from a treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian (1520), in which he sets forth two propositions: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Although these statements appear to contradict one another, Luther notes that he is simply quoting the Apostle Paul who writes, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all” (1 Cor. 9:19). These seemingly contradictory ideas of freedom and obedience lay the foundation for how Luther goes on to distinguish heaven from earth, state and church, and law from Gospel.

Luther’s treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian” strikes at the very heart of Reformation theology which confesses salvation as free gift through faith alone. Luther scours both old and new testaments finding one confession and one testament in Christ and Christ alone. Herein can he see Scripture in two parts consisting of God’s encounter with his creature which expresses both command and promise – crushing encounter with law – and gracious address through promise in Christ. The commands take place most concretely through the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai. These commandments for Luther do not hold any value as pertaining to salvation but provide a different purpose, “They (commandments) are intended to teach man to know himself, in through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability,” (57). This desperation and helplessness are not detrimental to acquiring righteousness, but rather absolutely necessary for the reception of the Gospel. The Holy Gospel supersedes and eradicates the condemnation of the law for God himself bears it and executes judgment and justice in and of himself.

Receiving this promise, Luther notes from the Gospel of John is a matter of faith alone, which of itself is not of human design but passively received gift, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” This immersion into the Gospel by God’s work is how Luther begins his explanation of the nature of “Christian liberty.” His understanding of freedom spring from an exchange of faith coupled with the promise of the crucifixion of the old man whose nature had thus clung to the law rather than promise, “Faith, which is a small and perfect fulfillment of the law, will fill believers with so great a righteousness that they will need nothing more to become righteous.” This magnificent exchange for Luther means that the righteousness and glory of Jesus Christ is imputed to the faithful as attributes which can rightfully be called ones very own. In the same way, the failed commandments and curse of sin extending to the whole of humanity throughout time is placed upon Jesus and drowned in his death on the cross. Luther writes of this freedom is much lovelier terms, using holy marriage to describe this exchange:

Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he take the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers. (p. 60).

The grand way in which Luther speaks of this union reveals the depth of passion he holds for such an exchange and his certainty of such as event. This certainty is grasped by faith and the exchange Luther paints is not metaphorical but God’s act in Christ in which he weds himself to the church through the Son. The freedom he speaks of is secure in the gift of faith, which overrides the damnation of the law, while acquiring the bridegroom of Jesus Christ and his gifts of salvation and eternal life.

As the freedom of a Christian deals with receiving faith, life, and salvation from God, Luther views vocation as a position where the Christian freely serves his or her neighbor in fervent love and kindness. Although this love is created and fed by faith, vocation does not exact a governing role over faith. In the way that salvation is claimed by God in Christ in the spiritual realm, love takes root by and through faith in daily vocation. The works that take place in vocation do not merit any divine or redemptive favor. In Luther’s Large Catechism he further distinguishes the two kingdoms: “In God’s sight it is actually faith that makes a person holy, it alone serves God, while our works serve people,” (LC 406). In other words we might say, “God does not need your help but desires faith” – a faith which is ultimately claimed in Christ’s reordering of the cosmos in the crucifixion and resurrection. Visually, vocation and the temporal realm can be seen as existing on a horizontal plane in which a Christian does not escape from the world but is rather organically reincorporated into it for the purpose God’s love toward his creation. The spiritual realm is accessed vertically by Christ’s descent into the flesh of the virgin – who encounters man and remakes him at the event of the cross. Although distinguished realms (temporal and spiritual) they are not wholly separated for the Christian but rather reconciled and brought into a divine ordered harmony.

It is Luther’s understanding that coerced social order by temporal governance is not necessary for the baptized Christian who is faithfully nurtured in the spiritual milk of Christ’s cross but remains divine in its origin serving the common good, suppressing evil and preserving peace. The ‘realist’ might be critical of this assessment, yet Luther is ever focused on the wholly new creation who finds true freedom in the new slavery of God’s justifying act in and through Christ, “This I that Christian liberty, our faith, which does not induce us to live in idleness of wickedness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation.” Therefore, this freedom is otherworldly – marked by God’s reestablished communion with his creation – in which God is creator, man is creature – and the alienation from the law is consumed and buried – forever forgotten. This relationship in Christ has a “vertical” quality, which contrasts the earthly realm of family, neighbors, rules, and various social roles. This is to say that the established relationship between Creator and creature is unassailable by all that which exists throughout the bitter despairs, challenges and temptations of daily life. Luther notes however, that God is ruler of both kingdom, “First we must provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God’s will and ordinance,” (Temporal 85). However, later on in Luther’s treatise on temporal government he also writes that redeemed Christians suffer and persist in daily life apart from coercive civil law:

"…among themselves (Christians) and by and for themselves, need no law or sword, since it is neither necessary nor useful for them. Since a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor, he does by the very nature of his spirit even what he himself has no need of, but is needful and useful to his neighbor. Because the sword is most beneficial and necessary for the whole world inorder to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked, the Christian submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays his taxes, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority, that it may continue to function and be held in honor and fear." (temporal 94).

For an ex-communicated heretic his reverence for authority may be surprising. Luther is careful to continue with precise distinction between his understanding of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms. His theology never borders on Christians utopias as remotely possible. Although he retains a belief that the new creature in Christ fulfils and exceeds temporal law obediently and joyfully, such theocratic or Christian governance is impossible, “…for the world and masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name” (Temporal 91). From Luther’s own personal experience with “anfechtungens,” his awareness of the enormity of sin and the human condition without external restraints he describes as, “…loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone…” This worldly government he sees as necessary to subdue disorder and evil passions while administering earthly justice. In Luther’s lecture on Genesis he historically pieces together how the fallen man made the care-free social order of paradise into a coercive order through which civil law must function:

“Moreover, there was no government of the state before sin, for there was no need of it. Civil government is remedy required by our corrupted nature. It is necessary that lust be held in check by the bonds of the laws and by penalties. For this reason you may correctly call civil government the rule of sin, just as Paul calls Moses also the minister of death and sin.”

This post-sin justice from the law is universal and cross-cultural and maintains social order in a way to protect people in body and property. The earthly life of a free Christian is bound to secular authorities and its social, financial, and physical demands. The spiritual life of a free Christian is not jeopardized by the various offices of vocation expressed in the horizontal plane with all the possible elements of diversity assumed by a given post.

It is common for many to confuse the kingdoms of heaven and earth, to merge them, contort them, or alternatively to complete separate them as did the Gnostic heresies. For example, some protest the act of war and killing as intrinsically evil and contradictory to the faith of Christian. Although Luther is well aware of the misery of war and injustice, he also clearly sees the other side of war, “But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honors and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish,” (Whether Soldiers Too Can be Saved p. 96).

Retributive killing in response to murder, Luther sees as divine in its origin, rooted in Cain’s fear of the sword after killing Abel, as well as God’s extremely definitive laws after the flood, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Luther sees capital punishment as a basic precept of earthly justice which remains constant regardless of the winds of political or moral persuasion, “The credit or blame belong to men if this law instituted by God is not carried out; just as other commandments of God, too, are broken” (Temporal Authority 88).

It is important to understand vocations defined by war and punishment, to highlight the visualization of the volatility of various earthly offices, to grasp Luther’s conviction that the free and faithful Christian is undisturbed in matter of faith. We have seen the necessity of the offices of the civil judge, the soldier, and the executioner. These offices, in which violence and killing can be commonplace, can be maintained by the free Christian fulfilling his or her civil duties commanded by God. Luther insists that while the soul is bound up in the body of Christ, the body remaining in this earthly life remains bound to worldly rulers. Therefore the duties that go along with these offices pertain to earthly justice and matters of civic duty, which can neither jeopardize or nullify standing with God. Earthly justice therefore must be carefully distinguished from spiritual justice which is only defined through means of grace and Christ’s encounter with his dearly beloved.

In Luther’s treatise, “Whether Soldiers Too, Can Be Saved,” he writes, “For the very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish evil, protect the good, and preserve peace is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing along with all the things that accompany wartime and martial law and have been instituted by God” (p. 95). The violence and “all things accompany” wartime having no impact on salvation for the free Christian seems very much a liberating concept for the consciences of those holding offices dealing in such works of violence and turmoil. Luther makes certain to even reach out to the executioner, the most feared villain in medieval society – to extend mercy and calm his conscience, “There must be those who arrest, prosecute, execute, and destroy the wicked…” (p. 103). One can imagine a masked executioner holding a blood sword after severing the head of a criminal, yet if Christian, remains faithful and righteous before God in both spiritual and civic realms.

Luther’s reverence for social order as directed by civil government is absolute, yet for the free Christian does have its’ limits. Where temporal government has dominion over the citizenry and property, its’ authority comes to a screeching halt where it encroaches on spiritual matter, “Therefore where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them” (p. 105). This type of infringement would be for a government to coerce a soul to believe that which is contradictory to Scripture, or to inhibit the hearing of the gospel and the reception of the sacraments of the church. The teaching and treasures of the church are handed over to Bishops and Pastors to be servants of Christ and freely give to all. As for heresy, government is also incapable of serving the church – for the sword is of no use, “Here God’s Word must do the fighting (p. 114).

In response to a government which coerces unbelief in matter of faith or hinders Christ gifts, Luther instructs the free Christian to rebuke the corrupt authority by saying, “It is not fitting that Lucifer should sit at the side of God. Gracious Sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey” (p. 112). Therefore, government has no divinely ordained right to sit with God and intrude upon matter of the soul. This passage also highlights the confusion of the two kingdoms that such a government would seek.

Luther never entices a Christian reader to raise up against such an authority but to only deny its’ power in the territory of the spiritual realm, which carries faith. The matter of faith for the free Christian is not to react with hostility or anger to temporal rule. Luther’s every thought and argument is focused squarely on new life in Christ, which leaves no room for violent or hostile resistance to authority, “Christians do every good thing of their own accord and without constraint, and find God’s word alone sufficient for them” (p. 118).

Christian freedom is a new state of affairs where liberty is marked by release from the law and condemnation where a submissive and peaceful heart operate joyfully in the social order under temporal authorities. Luther asserts that God has dominion over both spiritual and earthly kingdoms, where only the Christian can find harmony between the two - mediated by God’s act on the cross. The Christian who receives citizenship in heaven is not spiritually deterred or jeopardized by faithful execution of one’s God-given vocation. God divinely rules through civil government and works all things for his creation through his established social order. As for the intricacies of social justice as relates to temporal matters, Luther is not excessively entrenched, for his meditations are focused wholly on the condition of the soul for the free Christian, where temporal rule cannot tread.

For a Christological Interpretation of Temporal Authority I have written here.

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