Martin Luther’s Notion of Christian Freedom from an Orthodox Perspective

Martin Luther’s Notion of Christian Freedom from an Orthodox Perspective

Prof. Konstantinos Delikostantis

Helsinki, 13.11.2017



The core of Luther’s theology, the compass of his life and action, was his view of freedom as the “summary of the Gospel”1, as the quintessence of our salvation. His Reformation was “a program of freedom”.2 Freiheit, ἐλευθερία, was indeed “the theme of his life”.3 In a letter dated the 11th of November 1517, Luther signed for the first time as “Martinus Eleutherius”, Martin the free, the liberated, according to I Corinthians 7:22, a habit he later repeated in twenty-seven other letters of his.

It is because of his teaching on freedom that Luther shortly found himself in the frontlines. Freedom was the stimulus and the banner in his struggle against Rome. As a result of his comprehension of the inner freedom and of the difference between Christian and political freedom, Thomas Münze, the rebellious peasants and the simple people, who saw Luther as their natural ally, rejected him as the herald of the “easy Christ” and the “passive interiority”, which detaches the faithful from the real problems of life, as the friend and the servant of the princes. Although Luther was at the beginning the “Apostle” of the revolution, he became the “Judas”.4 When in 1525, through his famous writing De servo arbitrio, Luther turned vehemently against Erasmus, the majority of the “Humanists”, who saw his struggle with sympathy, abandoned him.

If the Reformation changed the Church, it also formed the history and culture of Europe, it influenced the course of world history and it did so as a movement of freedom. Thus, it is not surprising that Luther stands in the center of the contemporary dialogue on freedom, sometimes disputed, others praised. A serious encounter with Luther would not pass over the issue of Christian freedom. It would be like writing a book about Beethoven and not mentioning his Ninth Symphony.5 In this point Martin Luther is an eminent theologian and belongs not only to Protestantism but to the whole Christianity.

It’s already been thirty years since my proposal that the Orthodox-Protestant dialogue has to be concentrated around the notion of Christian freedom, as the crossing of all central theological problems. This proposal is now relevant, as by discussing on freedom we reveal all our divergences and our convergences. The decisive turning point in the encounter of Orthodox and Lutherans, I think, would happen if they put freedom at the center of their theological dialogue.

In a way, the subject of freedom has been regarded as fundamental in the history of the orthodox-protestant encounters and it was a perpetual point of controversy. In the famous correspondence between Tübingen and Constantinople in the years 1573-1581, in this courageous attempt for contact and exchange of theological ideas, Patriarch Jeremy II articulated his objections against the doctrine on the servum arbitrium, defending the αὐτεξούσιον, the freedom of the free will. According to the Patriarch, although it is God’s grace which redeems humans, God saves only the people who desire it (ἐθέλοντας). “All depends on God, but not in such a way, that our free will would be damaged”, notes the Patriarch.6 For Jeremy, who saw the new movement initially not without sympathy, became quickly clear that Luther’s Reformation was not in several points a return to the doctrine and the life of the Ancient Church. The Ecumenical Patriarch underlines “the absence of calmness” of the mind, “the displeasure with tradition”, the “ceaseless questioning and answering and also the desire for the new” as a sickness of the Western spirit.7

Also in the conflict on the openly Calvinistic “Eastern Confession of the Christian faith” (1629) of the Patriarch of Constantinople Cyril Loukaris, was the subject of the negation of the free will from the Protestants a point of controversy. The Encyclical of the Synod of Constantinople at 1836 against the Protestant missionaries, who attacked the piety and the religious practice of the orthodox faithful, indicates the deepest level -theologically and ecclesially- of the relation between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. According to this Encyclical, Luther’s pretended rejection of the free will and his teaching on predestination dispense humans from the responsibility before God and proclaim God as the author of human malice. The result of Luther’s doctrine was the underestimation of good works and the emergence of uncontrolled passions. It is not by chance that protestant missionaries, “similar to their head”, try to undermine the Orthodox identity in the name of the licentious freedom.8

It is one of the benefits of our sincere ecumenical dialogues, that we can discuss central theological issues in a different way. Trully, no other theologian spoke with such enthusiasm on freedom as Luther, but also no one rejected the free will coram Deo as he did. According to him, the freedom of the Christian is understandable only on the background of the doctrine of the servum arbitrium. Luther did not intend a strong contrast through this powerful doctrine, but this approach was for him the genuine expression of the dialectics of freedom.

There is no doubt that Luther has not denied the free will in psychological or moral perspective. According to him, these dimensions of freedom do not belong in the frame in which he poses the problem of freedom. “We are not speaking about nature but about the grace”, notes Luther.9 We must discern what is God’s and what depends on us in our life in this world. Hans-Martin Barth states: “Luther appreciated a lot the natural man, only in relation to the earthen matters. On the opposite, he attached no value to him in his relation to God”.10 Revendication of freedom before God, which means synergy in our salvation, is an expression of man’s tendency to self-justification. “Man does not want, because of his nature, that God is God, but he wants that himself is God and that God is not God”.11

On this ground, I will try to approach some essential dimensions of Luther’s notion of freedom, primarily on the basis of his famous treatise “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen”, “On the Freedom of a Christian”, a “sum of the Christian life”, according to Luther.

Even Paul Hacker, who accused Martin Luther to be “Cartesius of theology”, characterized this writing as a text “where the positive wealth of Luther’s thought and the warmth of its piety prevail”.12 Lyndal Roper speaks of the most beautiful writing of Luther in a decisive period of his movement. Selle states: “There is no polemic or aggression. Deeply musical, one can almost hear Luther’s voice conversing with the reader”.13

Although this text has been written after the publication of the papal bull of excommunication “Exsurge Domine”, it is notable that Luther has antedated this writing, signing “Zu Wittenberg, 6. September 1520”. In fact this text has been written shortly before its publication at the beginning of November. It was Kral von Militz who proposed Luther to address the Pope with a conciliatory letter and to add a concise treatise on his teaching. Von Militz had also proposed to antedate the writing, giving the impression, that Luther wrote the text without knowledge of the full Exsurge Domine, which has been published in September 29. Volker Leppin called this act “the rudest forgery of which Luther made himself guilty”.14

Luther describes the essence of Christian freedom epigrammatically in the famous sentences of his treatise on the Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all”.15 Luther explains his approach of Christian freedom through the Pauline distinction between the inner and the outer man (2. Cor. 4, 16; Gal. 5, 17). The inner man refers to the human being in its relation to God. Freedom is our liberation from the works, aiming the justification. External matters do not have any soteriological value, any impact on our salvation. The faithful is released from the “martyrdom of the works”, which have a salutary purpose.16 The works of love are the spontaneous and authentic expression of faith. Our liberated freedom, constituted coram Deo in faith, is expressed coram hominibus in love and service. It is the essential distinction of faith and love, which founds their inseparable unity.

It is well known that this text has been used as the basis of the reproach of the “inactive interiority” of faith against Luther. The truth is that faith “pushes to a life in freedom” in the world;17 it has enormous social consequences. Lyndal Roper states: “(Luther’s) use of the word freedom, alongside the idea that the Christian is both lord and servant, resembles the impact of dynamite. By addressing all Christians as equals, be they princes or commoners, and by insisting on their freedom, he broke with social deference”.18 That is why this freedom strengthens human activity in the social space.

In this sense, the reproach of the “closed interiority” against Luther’s conception of faith fails and it cannot constitute an important controversial point in the orthodox-protestant encounter. Oswald Bayer stressed on the “ontological significance” of justification. He wrote: “The exegete of the Bible Luther observed the fact of justification in its existential depth, through which certainly this wideness is accessible”.19

Really controversial in Orthodox-Protestant dialogue on Christian freedom is the problem of Luther’s so called “Cartesianism”, a reproach developed, as already stated, especially by Paul Hacker. Luther is presented as the “Descartes of theology, as the theologian, who replaced the truth of faith through the certainty of faith, who put at the place of the church the homeless individual”. Just as Descartes tried to found the truth of being on the certainty of the subject, Luther, the theologian of “reflexive faith”, connected salvation with the certainty of the faithful ego.20

Hacker’s controversial theory has been discussed without conclusive results. You surely know that Karl Barth took seriously Hacker’s objections. He wrote in a letter addressed to Helmuth Gollwitzer: “Do you know the book of Paul Hacker Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther, Verlag Styria 1966? I am anxious for the reaction of the Lutheran theology and research. For me it was the opportunity to thank my Creator once more, for the fact that I wasn’t born as a Lutheran, for fact that He didn’t committed me to fidelity to this Church Father. Luther was for me always a suspect. The book of Hacker stresses exactly why this happened, why in my studying-room the Weimarer Ausgabe is hidden behind an Indonesian carpet!”.21

Here exists a real problem that will persist as a point of controversy in our ecumenical dialogue. Although at the center of Luther’s theology stands divine grace and not a faith that in itself constitutes salvation, the fact of Luther’s accent on the role of the faith of the individual and of the certainty of pro me, especially when evaluated in another theological context, can lead to a suspicion of religious individualism in Luther’s theology.

This problem of the individualistic narrowing of Christian freedom has an eminent importance for the Orthodox approach to Luther. Individualism is unfamiliar to Orthodox personalism, our ecclesiocentric understanding and our living of the faith. Orthodox theology stresses the essential relation between freedom and the church. For Alexander Schmemann, “the church is freedom and only the church is freedom”.22 For this reason, “ecclesiology is the starting point of a theology of freedom”.23 Christianity is “the church” and not “an individualistic religion” as Georges Florovsky underlines.24 According to Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas “the Church is by definition incompatible with individualism”.25 Also Friedrich Heyer states rightly: “Orthodoxy has never posed the individualistic questions of the Occident. Its believer· do not ask: neither whom can I have a merciful God? Nor: May I be certain about my salvation? The universalism of salvation, which is ontologically founded in Christ’s Incarnation, did not allow such question and it did not need them”.26 For Saint John Chrysostom, in the Incarnation Christ “assumed the flesh of the Church”.27

Paul Tillich called Luther’s doctrine of the Church “the weakest point in his teaching”.28 Trying to reason about this view, I ask myself if this pretended “weakness” is mainly connected with Luther’s polemics against Rome or if we must search the theological principles, which block Luther’s way to a “strong” ecclesiology. Although I don’t fully agree with Hacker’s “Cartesianism” reproach against Luther, I see an underestimation of the certainty in the act of individual faith in Luther’s piety and theology as a point of divergence between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism.

Orthodox Theology criticizes Luther’s comprehension of the ecclesial dimension of freedom. He certainly saw his teaching about justification and the sacraments as “teaching about freedom”.29 Hellmut Zschoch emphasizes three dimensions of this freedom: Freedom for the Church, from the Church and in the Church: “Freedom and Church belong for Luther together. The three dimensions of this relation penetrate each other. The idea of freedom for the Church is at the center: the Church is Church through the fact that it is being born and lives always anew from the message of freedom. From this derives the freedom from the Church the structures (Ordnungen) of the Church, even if they are good, meaningful and impressive, they don’t belong in the relation with God. If they are pushed in this relation, their good sense turns into the opposite. Good ecclesia order renders freedom in the Church possible: it realizes itself through the pragmatic accommodation to each time, to each place and to the givens and it strengthens in this way the exclusive authority of the Gospel”.30

What is here missing, from the orthodox point of view, is the reference to the sacramental life as life of freedom in the Church. It is an essential insight of Luther, that to be a Christian means “to be free”, or more precisely “to become free”.31 In Orthodox perspective, the Church is not only the space of that expression, the practice of our liberated freedom that is, but also the place of the genesis, of freedom’s birth. Church precedes freedom. We are “becoming free” in the Church.

It has been said that the treatise On the freedom of a Christian signalizes a change of paradigm, a cut between the Middle Ages and Modern Times, the beginning of the emancipation of the individual from the community of the Church and of the society. Indeed the Reformation “placed the conscience of each individual in the center”, initiating a mental shift32.

It is out of doubt that the emergence of the idea of the autonomous freedom of the individual in Modernity has been influenced by Luther’s notion of theonomous libertas Christiana, even if between the two conceptions a deep chasm exists.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his speech at the Ceremony of the Accordance the Doctor Honoris cause degree of the Evangelical Faculty of Theology in Tubingen, stated rightly: “The Reformation clearly strengthened the position of the individual. Without the contribution of Luther’s actions and teaching, the freedom of the individual would not have become the Magna Carta of Europe. Luther’s theology of freedom is thus a turning point in the “progress in the consciousness of freedom (Hegel)… In this sense Martin Luther is utterly contemporary. His concept of freedom is of central significance for the dialogue of Christianity with the modern world”.

I agree with Gerhard Ebeling, who warned against the evaluation of modernity on the basis of “hamartological criteria”, as the period when theonomy was replaced by autonomy, faith by atheism, solidarity by individualism etc., thus identifying it as a time of total dechristianisation. If we act that way -and the Orthodox are doing so…- we are forgetting, according to Ebeling, that “already long before modern times, humanity did not live in the paradise and that the original sin is attributed to Adam and not to Descartes”.33

On such a ground, the dialogue of our Churches with the modern world can lead to a fruitful mutual enrichment. In this encounter the Christian Churches can discover and develop more consciously and effectively their own tradition of freedom. In this sense I do not agree with my teacher in Tübingen Professor Hans Küng, who used to speak of the Roman Catholic Church as the Church of authority, of the Orthodox Church as the Church of tradition and of Protestantism as the Church of freedom. In my view, all our Churches are Churches of freedom, because that is the essence and the sign of our faith, the differentia specifica of Christianity in comparison with all other religions.




However that may be, the accentuation of freedom as Luther’s legacy remains an eminent challenge for Orthodox theology in spite of the mentioned problems, especially for the encounter of Orthodoxy with modern culture and its autosoteric freedom as autonomy. The future of humanity is connected with the art of the comprehension of the origin (πόθεν) of our freedom and of the final reference of it (πρός).

Our time needs a theology with sensitivity for the adventures of human freedom, a theology with imagination that knows that it acts in a concrete and open historic moment. Its witness in front of the signs of times is an expression of its ecclesiality, not the loss of it.

For Orthodox theology, as already stressed, there is an essential relation of freedom and Church. Our Christian life is eucharist-centred; it is essentially a participation in the sacraments of the Church. This ecclesiocentric understanding of faith does not allow the emerging of individualistic narrowing of freedom. The difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism appears clearly if we compare Luther’s Freedom of a Christian with the Orthodox “summary of the Christian life”, the treatise On the Life in Christ by Nicolas Cabasilas. The description of the faith and of the faithful as the “inner man” in Luther’s essay corresponds to Cabasilas’ presentation of Church’s sacramental life.

Nostra libertas fundamentum habet Christum”.34 In this sentence Luther’s we find the very essence of his faith and piety. Real freedom is our dependence on Jesus Christ. “O eine selige Gefängnis (What a blessed imprisonment!). Haec captivitas est libertas Christiana ipsa”.35

The centrality of this freedom in Christian existence is Luther’s theological legacy. He challenges us all, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, to rethink our Christian witness in the contemporary world, in an immense crisis of freedom. In front of the great challenges of our times, common Christian witness is of cardinal importance. Celebrating in common the anniversary of the Reformation, we renew our commitment to continue our dialogue in faithfulness and openness. This is precious and it opens our future.



Thank you for your attention!

1 G. Ebeling, «Frei aus Glauben. Das Vermächtnis der Reformation», in: Lutherstudien I, Tübingen 1971, 317.

2 V. Leppin, Martin Luther. Vom Mönch zum Feind des Papstes, Darmstadt 2013, 53.

3 G. Ebeling, «Der kontroverse Grund der Freiheit», in: Luther in der Neuzeit, ed. B. Möller, Gütersloh 1983, 30.

4 E. Bloch, Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution, Werke II, Frankfurt a.M. 1969, 109.

5 O.H. Pesch, Hinführung zu Luther, Mainz 1983, 177.

6 I. Karmiris, The Dogmatic and Symbolic Monuments of the Orthodox Catholic Church, I, Graz 1968, 483.

7 I. Karmiris, o.c. II, 556.

8 I. Karmiris, o.c. II, 955-958.

9 De servo arbitrio (1525), WA, 18, 781, 6.

10 H.-M. Barth, “Freiheit die ich meine? Luthers Verständnis der Dialektik von Freiheit und Gebundenheit”, in: Una Sancta 2 (2007), 103-115, here 114.

11 M. Luther, Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam (1517), WA, 1, 225, 1-2.

12 P. Hacker, Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther, Graz/Wien/Köln 1966, 165-166.

13 L. Roper, Martin Luther. Renegade and Prophet, London 2016, 166.

14 V. Leppin, o.c., 55.

15 M. Luther, Von der Freiheir eines Christenmenschen, WA, 7, 21, 1-4.

16 M. Luther, In die Purificacionis Marie, 2. Februar 1521, WA, 9, 568, 10.

17 E. Jüngel, Zur Freiheit des Christenmenschen. Eine Erinnerung an Luthers Schrift, München 1978, 17.

18 L. Roper, o.c., 168.

19 O. Bayer, «Was ist Rechtfertiggung», in: Evangelische Kommentare 23 (1990), 659-662, here 659.

20 P. Hacker, o.c., 12.

21 Karl Barth, Gesamtausgabe, V, J. Fangmeier a.o. (eds.), Karl Barth. Gesamtausgabe, V, Zürich 1979, 361-362.

22 A. Schmemann, Théologie d’ aujourd’ hui et de demain, Paris 1967, 184.

23 A. Schmemann, o.c. 184.

24 G. Florovsky, “The Church, its Nature and Work” in: Holy Scripture, Church, Tradition, Thessaloniki 1976, 97 (in Greek).

25 J. D. Zizioulas, The Church as Communion, Offsprint from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quartely 38, No. 1, 1994, 3-16, here 8.

26 F. Heyer, «Orthodoxe Theologie», in: ders. (Hsrg.), Konfessionskunde, Berlin/New York 1977, 132-201, hier 173-4.

27 PG 52, 429.