Review: Martin Luther on Christian Freedom

Martin Luther, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen/On the Freedom of a Christian, edited by Howard Jones and Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford: Taylor Institution Library, 2020)

In the centre of Oxford, just opposite the Martyrs’ Memorial, stands the neo-classical Taylor Institution, home since the 1840s to the University of Oxford’s library for European languages. Its ionic columns are topped with impressive statues representing France, Italy, Germany and Spain, guarding the treasures within. Among the Taylorian’s glories is a wonderful collection of sixteenth-century pamphlets, including many by Martin Luther, which are being published to mark a series of Reformation quincentenaries. First the Ninety-Five Theses (1517), then Luther’s Sermon on Indulgences (1518), and now his Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (On the Freedom of a Christian), the best-selling book of the sixteenth century, first published in November 1520.

Freedom lies at the heart of Luther’s theology. Indeed, sometimes he signed his surname with a flourish, in affected Grecian style, as Eleutherios – that is, ‘the Liberator’, or perhaps ‘the Liberated’. On the Freedom of a Christian hammers home the radical idea that liberty and salvation come to the Christian believer by God’s grace alone, not by works. It is the world’s most celebrated exposition of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, which lies at the heart of the Reformation project. ‘If you were made of nothing but good works from head to toe, you would still not be righteous’, Luther proclaims. Here he introduces his famous analogy from marriage – extolled by later theologians as ‘The Great Exchange’ – in which the sins of the bride are taken by the bridegroom, and the righteousness of the bridegroom is bestowed upon his beloved, with faith as the wedding ring. The way Luther puts it is typically startling:

“Thus Christ has all goods and salvation: they will be the property of the soul. Thus the soul has all the vices and sins on it: they become the property of Christ. … Is that not a joyous feast, when the mighty, noble, and righteous bridegroom Christ takes the poor, despised, flawed, little whore in marriage and frees her of all bad things, and adorns her with all goods.”

Good works or moral virtue, Luther insists, are never the ground of salvation but spring from relationship with Christ, as a response to grace. Therefore Christian freedom is not a recipe for dissipation but for obligation. As Luther expresses it, in the famed aphorism with which his tract begins:

“A Christian is a free lord over all things and subject to no-one.
A Christian is a bound servant of all things and subject to everyone.”

This teaching flowed into other Reformation movements, like the Church of England (see, for example, Articles 11 and 12 of the Thirty-Nine Articles). But Luther saw the implications of these biblical realities before anyone else.

This new edition comes with an extended introduction on the background and production of Luther’s pamphlet, with a facsimile of one of the early Taylorian copies. Almost singlehandedly, Luther’s prodigious output stimulated the emergent German printing industry. One fifth of all printed works in Germany between 1500 and 1520 were from his pen. In his hometown of Wittenberg, the number of printers increased from one in 1517 to eight by 1525. The instant production of texts – like our modern polemical blog posts – was part of their appeal. Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford University’s professor of medieval German), one of the editors of this volume, explains: “Reformation pamphlets are the fast food of early printing. They were produced in haste and as cheaply as possible, and they were meant to be consumed on the go, passed on, and binned or recycled when the next sensational publication took off.”  Printers cut corners to rush Luther and his Reformation friends into print, seldom proofread and often full of typos. These pamphlets were “designed for maximum impact and intended for curious minds and eager contemporaries, not for bibliophiles”. On the Freedom of a Christian still carries that sense of rushed urgency, not patient or polished reflection.

Luther wrote in German for a popular audience and in Latin when he was aiming at the educated and international elites. But, unusually, On the Freedom of a Christian was published in both languages, and the relationship between the two versions remains contested. The Latin is 8% longer, but taking into account that German has a higher word count than Latin to express the same ideas, the Latin actually contains about 35% more material. It includes extra, fuller argumentation, and twice as many Bible quotations. Probably Luther began with the German, expanded into Latin, but he may have worked on the two versions simultaneously, side by side. Most modern translations are clunky in style and work from the Latin, but the joy of this new volume is that it begins with Luther’s German text, printed alongside a fresh, crisp, English rendering. Luther’s German was deliberately shorter, punchier, more direct, more personal, more down-to-earth. The Taylorian translation captures that vigour and is an excellent resource for those who want to engage with Luther’s ideas at firsthand, in their original context. It is available as a paperback, and also freely online as a digital download.

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