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Book Review: Martin Luther, On the Freedom of a Christian by Tryntje Helfferich

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Book Review with Translation Issuesby Peter D. S. Krey

Tryntje Helfferich, On the Freedom of a Christian with Related Texts, edited, translated, and with Introductions by the author. (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2013), 132 pages with a 21 page introduction and important introductions before each translated text, a two page bibliography for further reading, and an index slightly longer than seven pages. The footnotes are well researched, informative, filled with background and biographical notes, and very helpful for the reader as an introduction to this material.


It is always welcome to see Luther texts presented for readers today, especially with the coming Luther Decade and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation October 31, 2017. I was surprised that not the Latin, but the popular German version of Luther’s most popular pamphlet was translated by Tryntje Helfferich, because I had just translated it for Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), in an anthology for The Classics of Western Spirituality edited by my brother Philip D.W. Krey and me. Translation is such a challenging art, so I read Tryntje’s work avidly to compare her translation decisions with mine.

First to the contents of this short book and then to translation issues with what I hope is constructive criticism and a help for future translations.

Perhaps the title of the book should not read “with Related Texts,” but “with Opposing Texts,” because along with one of Luther’s most famous non-polemical pamphlets, Freedom of a Christian, containing the whole sum of the Christian life,Tryntje included Johannes Eck’s Handbook of Commonplaces against Luther and the Enemies of the Church, John Fisher’s Sermon against the Pernicious Doctrine of Martin Luther, Thomas Műntzer’s Highly Provoked Defense against the Spiritless, Soft-living Flesh at Wittenberg, (He’s referring to Luther of course.) and finally, Luther’s most notorious pamphlet, Against the Rioting Peasants, which registers down there with Luther’s most inexcusable outbursts full of rage, like his Anti-Semitic writings at the end of his life. During most of Luther’s life, he was able to keep opposite extremes in a tension that brought deep theological insights, but it seems at the end of his life he fell apart and produced scurrilous writings on the one hand and the wonderfully rich and rewarding Genesis Lectures on the other. How can one fathom that?

Again, what drew me to this book was Tryntje’s translation of the popular German version of Luther’s Freedom of a Christian. I thought that I had been the first to translate it until I discovered Bertram Lee Woolf’s translation for London’s Philosophical Library in 1956 in a two volume work named, Reformation Writings of Martin Luther (reissued in 2001). All the common translations of this very important writing that were available until now are from the intellectual Latin version and not this more spiritual one.

Tryntje’s translation is very strong and may well be “smoother and more faithful to Luther’s tone and meaning” (p. xxvi) than Woolf’s and mine, but the following criticisms are meant for a future translation that can provide the basis for one very much more improved. This pamphlet is worth it and even the foremost Luther scholar today, Oswald Bayer, asserts that it deserves more study.[1]

I believe that Bertram Woolf and I agreed on the significance of a passage of Freedom of a Christian of Luther’sin point 6: “What is the word that gives such great grace, and how shall I use it? Answer: It is nothing other than the preaching of Christ contained in the Gospel, which should be, and indeed is, presented so that you hear your God speak to you, explaining how all life, etc.” In my translation which, if I remember correctly, Woolf also affirmed when I discovered his translation, we made a full stop after “you,” namely, “so that you hear your God speaking to you! It shows how your whole life and work, etc.” There’s a vergula or slash in the pamphlet and in Otto Clemen’s Luthers Werke,[2] left out by the Weimar Edition. The vergula used by the printers can be interpreted as a comma or period. Placing a period there brings out the point that in, with, and under the words proclaimed by the preacher, God is speaking to you. As a preacher, one often marvels at what a listener in the congregation heard, something you realize that you did not say.

As opposed to Tryntje, I avoided using the word “doctrine” and always translated “teaching” because of how the doctrinal emphasis has distorted and dampened the creativity in Luther’s thought.[3] Then in Luther’s St. Paul’s citations, Tryntje uses the word “predestined” (p. 28) and “reprobate.” (p. 32) From Lutheran sensibilities, these are Calvinist words that do not belong in this quintessential Luther writing.

I respectfully disagree that gender inclusive language transforms the text, because in Luther’s day the masculine, patriarchal language did not offend women, but it does in our day, and that offense is the real transformation of the text, from my point of view.

Luther’s theology is misrepresented in the Introduction (p. xx), with Tryntje perhaps taking the cue from Johannes Eck, Luther’s life-long adversary, who “strongly criticizes Luther’s claim in Freedom [of a Christian] that the believer is his own priest.” (p. 50) Along the same line, in the Introduction, Tryntje writes, “Furthermore, Luther argued, Christians did not need a priesthood to mediate for them with God. Each man was his own priest and the overseer of his own soul.” (p. xx) Perhaps like Pope Leo X, Eck never read Freedom of a Christian, because in Tryntje’s own translation of the pamphlet, Luther writes, “Therefore in all his works his thoughts should be free and directed only so that he thereby serves and benefits other people. He should conceive of nothing else than what is necessary for the other.” (p. 37) (As an aside, Tryntje entitles this section “Man’s Relationship to Man,” which today is no longer inclusive of women.) Again just before the concluding paragraph of his pamphlet, Luther’s writes that we are not to seek our own benefit and intend thereby to expiate our sins and be saved, but “God’s goodness [must] flow from one to the other and become common to all, so that each one accepts his neighbor as if he were himself…the holy apostle said of love that it does not seek its own interests, but those of the neighbor.” (1 Cor. 13:5)(p. 41). Because each person is his or her neighbor’s priest,[4] Lutherans do not even sing hymns where the “I” is pronounced, as in “I Walk in the Garden Alone,” but only hymns using the pronoun “we.” That may also be why Scandinavian countries that are Lutheran are very socially advanced and Lutheran Social Services in this country makes a strong witness.

Tryntje’s decision to allow masculine language to dominate allows the structure of language to reinforce patriarchy. Language does not, of course, have absolute control and is not the only reinforcement of sexism, but it has a measure of influence. For example, when translating point 12, I wanted to soften the word “whore” and replace it with “harlot” in the marvelous exchange. The passage in question goes, when “the rich, noble, pious bridegroom Christ takes the poor, despised, evil whore in marriage, absorbs all of her wickedness, and adorns her with all goodness,” (p. 26) my decision was overturned and the word “whore” was replaced into the text. A woman that I know was really offended by this passage. The masculine gets to identify with the innocent Christ, while the soul, referred to in the grammatical feminine somehow sticks women with the very worst epithet: a whore.

Now God did not become a man as opposed to a woman in Christ, but God became a human being in Christ. So the passage could also be turned around: “the rich, noble, pious bride Christ takes the poor, despised, evil schmuck in marriage, absorbs all of his wickedness, and adorns him with all goodness.” That puts the man into the pejorative for a change. At least now there is a growing awareness that the woman in the streets should not be arrested, but all the Johns and pimps should be, because of their victimization of women and the rampant violence perpetrated against women. Linguistics has a way of forming social realities and shaping social policies, sometimes against women.

Tryntje uses the words “pious” and “piety” to translate the German word “fromm,” to use the modern spelling. I first translated the word as “religious.” A decision in my case was made to translate each occurrence of the word with “upright,” a word that I believe does not capture the whole meaning. “Spiritual” does not have the traditional churchly sense of the word. Today I would use the word “devout” which can be a noun or modifier. Very seldom are the words “pious” and “piety” used today.

The following assertion by Tryntje in the introduction to Eck’s Handbook left me skeptical. “Indeed, sixteenth-century Catholics were just as prolific as Protestants in publishing pamphlets, essays, sermons, and books to defend their own ideas and attack the ideas and character of their enemies.” (p. 43) David Bagchi estimates that there was a ratio of about five Reformation to one Catholic publication, especially when Luther’s non-polemical publications and his polemics against other Protestants are included.[5] Between 1521 and 1525 Luther himself published 192 titles while all his Catholic opponents between them published only 128. Many pamphlets in that day developed from sermons and while Luther preached two or three times a week, Cochleus, a staunch opponent of the Reformation at age 62 had never preached a sermon in his life.[6] Other evidence to the contrary of Tryntje’s assertion is the consideration that Catholic authorities frowned upon disputations that included the laity and thus Catholics wrote in heavy scholastic styles and mostly in Latin. Bagchi reports that publishers refused to publish Catholic works because they would not sell. Murner and Emser had to bear their own publication costs.[7] Meanwhile Luther became a best-selling author in his life-time with over a million copies of his pamphlets in the homes of the people.

That made me question Tryntje’s assertion that John Eck’s Handbook of Commonplaces appeared in almost a hundred printings in its various editions before 1600. (p. 49) But in reading the introduction of what seems a magisterial work of reconstructing Eck’s Latin text by Pierre Fraenkel – to translate the Latin title, “The Handbook of Commonplaces against Luther and the Enemies of the Church,”[8] it turned out that there could have been a hundred printings of Eck and his many revisions, some with the help of others. To explain the difference: Eck’s Handbook is probably an exception, because Bagchi does not follow printings until 1600, focuses more on Germany, rather than Italy, France, Spain, and pre-Elizabethan England, where the Reformation did not take hold; and most interestingly, Eck took Melanchthon’s popular Commonplaces as a model; and finally also translated his work into German. For those reasons, Eck’s Commonplaces was probably an exception.

Let me end with these comments: If Eck and Fisher are to be taken seriously asserting that good works are required and demanded for salvation, then those among us with wealth and power will be saved. Who can equal the works possible by a very powerful president or wealthy philanthropist? Exactly how many good works will save us? Sorry, a poor woman with MS in a wheelchair, who can do nothing, will be condemned. Such a woman said to me, “Will you please tell people that although I have MS and cannot be productive, that I still have value?” Good works leave us with the limitations of the law. We have to go to the source of good works, into the grace of the Gospel.

And Tryntje should have also included Eck’s chapter 27, his justification for burning heretics at the stake to balance Luther’s notorious pamphlet against the Thuringian Peasants, who in his area under Thomas Műntzer were plundering monasteries and burning down castles. That Luther supported going into battle against the peasants in those frightening times remains a blemish on his career and an inexcusable injustice on his part.

But while there is plenty of ammunition for an ad hominem argument demolishing the man, Luther, that will not refute the Christian truth of the Gospel of grace that he proclaimed. God’s Word and Luther’s teaching will remain for eternity. In German: Gottes Wort und Luthers Lehr vergehet niemals and nimmer mehr. His is a version of the authentic subjective truth of Christianity that the unreformed, objective Church of that day wrongly rejected. Reconciliation, however, is on the horizon, because the times are changing.


[1] Oswald Bayer, Schöpfung als Anrede, (Tübingen: J C B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1990), p. 61: “Freedom of a Chrisitan [has] not received from Lutheran scholars the attention it deserves.“ (my translation) But see my dissertation, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron, (PhD diss. Graduate Theological Union, 2001) where I have a seventy-five page analysis of the Freedom of a Christian and have posited the structure in terms of “Existential Rapture.” For the latter see Peter Krey’s Website.

[2] Otto Clemen, Luthers Werke in Auswahl, Zweiter Band, (Berlin: Verlag von Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1929).

[3] In a conversation with Hartmut Lehmann about Thomas Kaufmann’s biography of Martin Luther that I am translating for Eerdmans Publishing, I asked why Kaufmann called Luther a heretic throughout his book. Lehmann explained to me that he was calling him a heretic not from a Catholic point of view, but in order to honor Luther as an independent thinker! That is somewhat analogous with the Hamburg publishers in Luther’s day calling themselves Die Ketzerpresse, the Heretic-press, feeling honored to be so-called.

[4] In Freedom of a Christian, Luther even maintained that much more than a mere priest, believers should become Christs to their neighbors.

[5] David V. N. Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents (1518-1525), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 198-200.

[6] Ibid., p. 197.

[7] Ibid., pp. 199-200.

[8] Pierre Fraenkel, Johannes Eck: Enchiridion locorum communism adversus Lutherum et alios hostes ecclesiae, Published by Irwin Iserloh in Corpus Catholicorum: Werke Katholischer Schriftsteller im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, (Aschendorff, Műnster Westfalen, 1979).


Written by peterkrey

April 4, 2014 at 5:07 pm

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