Martin Luther's treatise The Freedom of the Christian is a wonderful starting point for reading the reformer's works. (1) It was written in 1520, three years after the posting of the "95 Theses," and at a time when the differences between Luther's new theology and Roman dogma had clearly become fundamental. Yet while many of Luther's writings at the time were polemical to refute Roman error, this treatise was unique in being the first real positive exposition of the new evangelical theology. It was also unusual for its irenic tone. In it we can see what Luther was for and not merely what he was against. The position about Christian liberty proves to be robust, coherent, and grounded in the Scriptures.
It is helpful to look at this treatise to see the nature of early Protestantism. By comparing it to Roman writings of the period, we can see how the treatise taught a new way of reading Scripture. Both sides in the debates of the day knew how to marshal proof texts. It might surprise a modern reader to see how many texts the Roman doctrine could produce to support its positions. While these are not the half-verse quotations of today's cultists, cited out of context, they are still the product of a more cursory reading of the texts than that practiced by Luther. The Roman readings would in many cases be quite plausible were it not for the existence of a broader context of Scriptures that put these texts in a different light. Luther's genius was not that he could find texts here or there to support his new theology but that his new theology was the product of a different way of reading Scripture.
Some Texts Are More Equal than Others
One of the chief charges against the Reformation was that the doctrine of private interpretation did not lead to uniform belief. How could the Scriptures be a sufficient rule of faith if people could not agree upon what it taught? I do not intend to offer an exhaustive answer to this question but wish to point out how some of Luther's often overlooked insights can be used to explain some of the causes of misunderstanding. It will help to use an example from another area of life. When I was in the fourth grade, I was exposed to some innovative curriculum to teach critical thinking. One of the lessons contained the following directions. The page listed something similar to the following:
Read all instructions before you begin.
1. Draw a box.
2. Inside the box, draw a picture of a pig.
3. Next to the pig, write "This is me."
4. Ignore the first three directions, and write "Ha Ha" on the paper.
At the end of this exercise, not everybody's paper looked the same. Some kids had pigs with "This is me" written next to them. Many crossed this out afterward when they saw that they had been tricked. Others had "Ha Ha" written on their papers, and were saying the same to their less fortunate classmates. I was usually pretty bad at following directions but had looked at the exercise as a puzzle and had solved it correctly. And yes, I gloated.
Now this classroom set of directions is a lot shorter than the Bible, yet even in this exercise we had differences in results. What was the problem? The problem was that some of the "texts" determined the meaning of other "texts." Directions one through three were overridden by direction four; students would realize this only if they followed the unnumbered instruction at the top, which said to "Read all instructions before you begin."
I contend that Luther's evangelical breakthrough was the result of discovering something like direction number four in the book of Romans. There were texts in Romans that ruled the reading of other texts. In a recent work on sanctification, one writer accuses the reformers of a Pauline imperialism that makes Paul more important than Jesus. (2) Perhaps this sounds plausible on the surface. After all, Jesus is God, and Paul is not. Yet this will not do. Paul's writings are Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16), and it is the teaching of Scripture that the word of Scripture is the Word of God. (3) So if Paul's writings are Scripture, then Paul's writing is the Word of God, and since Jesus is God, it is to be assumed that this means that Paul's writing could be said to be the Word of Jesus. So we cannot drive a wedge between the words of Jesus and Paul, because they ultimately have the same source. In addition, if some of Paul's writings contain hermeneutical rules, then these texts rule our readings of other texts. It is not that we practice a Pauline imperialism because Paul is "more our type" than Jesus. It is that certain Pauline passages describe Christian doctrine in a way that naturally serves to alter our reading of all kinds of texts. The same thing applies to the Gospels. When the Sermon on the Mount is preached, our understanding of the Old Testament law is altered, for now we have the author's own interpretation. The source of each passage is the same, but some texts will rule our readings of other texts because they were given by God to do so.
As we compare Luther's readings of Scripture against that of his Roman opponents, I would challenge you to look at the clash of readings like the one that occurred in my fourth grade classroom. I do not deny that the Roman side had texts to cite. Yet their citations were similar to what would have happened if one of the children who had messed up the exercise had turned to another and said, "Where's your pig? Direction two said to draw a pig, and you disobeyed!" If all we look at is direction two, the child is right. Yet a deeper reading shows the clear error. When we are dealing with Scripture, it is easier to see how even educated adults would be open to misreading. Perhaps they never read Romans. If they never saw the rules for reading, their misreadings might be very plausible.
While the Reformers insisted on the right of private interpretation, they nevertheless saw the value of tradition. Tradition is something handed down. They believed the Scriptures to be clear but saw multiple layers to them. When they found rules for reading Scripture within Scripture, they saw it as their responsibility to teach these rules to others. The key problem with interpreting the Bible for yourself is the time required. Finding these "rules for reading" takes time. Yet if someone else can point them out to you early on, you are saved from many misreadings. The church should be the wise tutor who helps you find your way around an unfamiliar book. The advantage the tutor has is that she has been reading the book longer. Familiarity, not a secret decoder ring, is what she has to offer us. The church has a responsibility to teach people to read and to show people where to find the heart of the matter, so that they will not make pigs of themselves by starting in the wrong place.
Scripture Is Not the Book of Virtues
Luther's presentation of the nature of Christianity is unusual for his time. I have read the introductory material, or prolegomena, to several works of medieval theology. They softened my view to medieval theologians who were often accused of an "unbiblical scholasticism." The charges I had heard gave the impression that you would not find Scripture spoken of, or if it were spoken, it would be twisted to answer obscure questions it had no intention of answering. The works I read, however, were saturated in Scripture. The method was scholastic; that is, schools of thought would develop an approach to explicating theology and explain that approach at the beginning of their work. "Is theology a science?" they would ask, and then attempt to resolve the question by lining up the Scriptures on both sides of the question and explaining the apparent tensions. Somewhere down the line, faith would be spoken of, and Scriptures concerning faith would be cited.
Luther breaks this tradition and starts at the center. He begins with the subjective center of things, namely, what is faith?-since he had discovered that that is what makes the difference between being condemned and being justified. "Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing," Luther begins "and not a few have given it a place among the virtues." (4) With these words, Luther states the problem his new theology constantly faced. The Roman church taught a doctrine of salvation by merit. The individual would judge the acts he was to perform by how much merit was in them. For most, the idea was to spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. If it would mean less time in flames, who would not judge all actions as to their effect on time in purgatory?
Now this focus on the bottom line was infamous for its small-mindedness. The indulgence salesmen have been rightly seen for their guilt in making people worse than they were before. Everyday selfishness becomes worsened when we are always asking, "What's in it for me?" which was the question the medievals asked of every good work. Your neighbor thereby becomes an instrument you use to try to get yourself into heaven.
Yet it was not only abuses that fostered this attitude. While the worst applications of this teaching sprung from the minds of crafty indulgence hawkers, sober theologians had done their part in bringing about these misconceptions. The verse "if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2) and the verse "Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness" (Col. 3:14) were cited to prove that love is a greater virtue than faith. (5) If love were a greater virtue, how could it be that faith saved? Further, James spoke about how "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). The Roman theologians thought that these passages dealt the deathblow to Luther's new theology.
But Luther saw that some key distinctions were not being made. First, when the word "faith" is used in the Scriptures, it is not always used in the same sense. A faith that moves mountains is not necessarily one that trusts in Christ alone for salvation. The demons who believe that God is one in James 2:19 do not trust in Christ for salvation. Second, faith does not save as a virtue. These distinctions both need to be made, and when they are not, the passages that speak of saving faith are lost. What is ironic is that the scholastic method is usually good at resolving differences like this. Passages that speak of faith saving without works (e.g., Rom. 4:5) would be placed alongside passages like James 2:24, and the apparent contradictions worked out by showing how terms are being used in different senses. Yet method alone is not enough when a preconceived system is blinding a reader to unexpected meanings in the text.
The problem was that Luther's opponents did not allow Luther's arguments to be understood in its own terms. They taught a meritorious method of salvation and would plug this or that teaching of Luther's theology into their existing doctrine and show how it did not fit. It would be like arguing over two pieces of music, say "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Those who preferred "The Battle Hymn" might plug individual notes or measures from Beethoven into their piece to show just how badly they fit. Yet this is not a fair test; you must take the piece of music as a whole and see how it plays.
When you start with the assumption that the Gospel is a system of meritorious works whereby we win a place in heaven, then of course Luther's theology will not work. Luther says, following Paul, that we are not saved by works but by faith. Luther's opponents counter that this will not do, since faith is not the most virtuous of works. Yet faith is not being offered as a virtue but as an instrument that unites the soul to Christ. (6) So its status as a lesser virtue is no point against it. When Luther says that not a few people have granted faith a status among the virtues, he is accusing them of damning it through faint praise.
Some Dichotomies Cut Deeper than Others
Luther urges faith against works righteousness first by making a distinction between outer and inner man, or between body and spirit. (7) No outward work will save a man if he is still evil in his heart. (8) Yet Luther does not say this in order to preach salvation through internal change. No, that will not do since we are in spiritual bondage. But the Word of God can release a man from that bondage. That Word of God divides into commands and promises (what was later termed law and Gospel). The commands let us know what we have failed to do so that we might despair of our own efforts and look for rescue. Then the promises declare that Jesus has filled the commands in our place and borne our punishment.
Luther presses the matter in a way that few before him did. Many in the early church would have made the distinction between the outer man and the inner man. Yet most would stop there and urge an internal change. If they did go further and bring the Word of God in as a remedy, they would typically declare the commands and ignore the promises. Or they might hold out the promises on the condition of fulfilling the commands. But Luther sees this as a misuse of Scripture. He quotes Romans 11:32, where it says, "God has consigned all men to disobedience that he might have mercy on all" to show what God has really intended through the law. He intended to make men disobedient so that salvation would be on account of mercy. (9) If he had wanted to create a meritorious system of salvation, then why consign all men to disobedience? And why this talk of mercy to the disobedient? If faith is an instrument whereby we receive salvation freely, then it makes sense that it doesn't matter how much or little virtue faith possesses. For God is having mercy on the disobedient. He made them disobedient, or shall we say unvirtuous, so that his mercy would be true mercy. If we sneak virtue into faith as a cause of salvation, we end up saying that God consigned all men to unvirtuousness so that he might make them virtuous again. Why not leave well enough alone if that were his goal?
Faith Produces Virtues
Luther goes on to describe the life of the justified Christian. Salvation is by divine mercy, which saves us through the instrument of faith despite our lack of virtue, or even the lack of virtue in our faith. But there are virtues that spring from that faith. Luther emphasizes the spontaneity of the new life. He even says of the inner man, "He needs neither laws nor good works but, on the contrary, is injured by them if he believes that he is justified by them." (10) This is close to that famous statement by one of Luther's colleagues that "Good works are injurious to salvation!" No, they are not injurious in themselves. On the one hand, they spontaneously flow from faith. But on the other hand, they can be the objects of idolatry. We can begin to trust them and not God for salvation. Then they really are injurious. They are much like the Scriptures which unstable men twist to their own destruction. The Scriptures are holy and written for the sake of giving life. But destructive use can be made of them. The same is true of good works. Luther says, "We do not, therefore, reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible. We do not condemn them for their own sake, but on account of this godless addition to them and the perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them; for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good." (11)
There is a relational truth here, which is taught in the very chapter of Scripture the opponents use to prove the lesser virtuousness of faith. First Corinthians 13 teaches that many of the most magnificent outward works are worthless apart from love. Well, without faith they are equally worthless (Heb. 11:6). It is not just the work that must be questioned but the heart behind the work. A heart filled with faith will give its money to the poor in trust that God will continue to provide for it. A faithless heart may give its money to the poor, but it will be a statement that God does not care for the poor, so somebody else had better do so. Same action but signifying very different states.
Luther says that proper teaching on these matters cuts through the snares that had been set for people's consciences. (12) The church had added law upon law which the faithful thought they must follow at the risk of damnation. Luther sees this as a bad reason to follow church laws, since it conflicts with the truth that our salvation is provided freely through Christ. But if the laws instruct us in serving our neighbor, we can freely engage in what they enjoin for the sake of the neighbor, so long as we do not think we thereby are saving ourselves.
Finally, Luther says that men are naturally inclined to be superstitious and to believe that when they follow laws, their obedience saves them. He finds this to be not just a Roman error but an inborn human error. Only God can take it out of the heart. He says it is necessary that we pray for God to make us thodactici, or taught by God himself, that we might be delivered from this opinion. He says that if God "himself does not teach our hearts this wisdom hidden in a mystery, nature can only condemn it and judge it to be heretical because nature is offended by it and regards it as foolishness. So we see that it happened in the old days in the case of the apostles and prophets, and so godless and blind popes and their flatterers do to me and those who are like me." (13)
This is the opposite of Rousseau, who says that man is born free and yet everywhere is in chains. Luther sees men as being born bound but free to live when they believe the gospel. Others might wrongly believe that their chains are necessary to life. But the Christian can dispense with them: "God has consigned all men to disobedience that he might have mercy on all." (14) When the mercy has come, the bondage ceases. Bondage to law and bondage to disobedience are linked. When one ceases, so ought the other.
2 [ Back ] E. Glenn Hinson, in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. by Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 44.
3 [ Back ] B. B. Warfield argues this point well in the seventh chapter of The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948). For example, he cites Romans 9:17 where it says, "The Scripture saith to Pharoah" when God spoke to Pharaoh through Moses.
4 [ Back ] Luther, 343.
5 [ Back ] Luther, 343.
6 [ Back ] "Confutatio Pontifica" [Papal Confutation of the Augsburg Confession] in The Augsburg Confession: A Collection of Sources, ed. by J. M. Reu (Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press), 352.
7 [ Back ] Luther, 351.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 344.
9 [ Back ] Ibid., 345.
10 [ Back ] Ibid., 349.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 358.
12 [ Back ] Ibid., 363.
13 [ Back ] Ibid., 370.
14 [ Back ] Ibid., 377.