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A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s “The Judgment of Adam” and the Symbolism of the Snake

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A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s “The Judgment of Adam.”

By Dr. Peter D.S. Krey

A Preface addressed to Prof. Martin:

Thank you for leading me to your article, “The Judgment of Adam[1] after I responded to your study of “Hegel’s Bad Infinity.” Your thorough analysis of Lucas Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” painting in this study helped me see that there is a whole literacy involved in “reading” a painting that I did not know about. Lucas Cranach seemed to be presenting Luther’s theology through the medium of paint. The painting you analyzed was his Courtault picture of Adam and Eve of 1526.[2] In it all the layers of the interpretation of the snake 1) as the bronze serpent lifted onto a pole by Moses and 2) here painted on the tree with Adam and Eve and 3) as the snake that Cranach used for his signature can be reflected upon. Using the snake in his signature, Cranach following Martin Luther’s lead, probably wanted to imply that his painting like images and art per se were not evil, but just good or evil depending on their use or abuse, – the latter case if worshiped.[3] Islam strictly avoids all images. More relevantly for this study, at the time of the Reformation iconoclasm was in full swing, where Zwingli and Calvin white-washed the walls of their churches and proscribed not only art, but even music, both of which Luther championed.

When I first read the Genesis Lectures about how Luther called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil a church, it seemed bazaar to me. Now I realize that it was under trees that the ancients worshiped and they even sometimes worshiped the trees themselves – was it Boniface (or Winfrid?) who chopped down the sacred Oak tree of Thor? He did it to destroy a false ultimate. And in the book of Genesis, God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.[4] That these trees are mentioned with the theophany seems significant. They may also have been a place of worship.

According to Cranach’s painting and of course the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, shame and consciousness were awakened in humanity there so like a lion, we could no longer cruelly eat the warm meat of an animal that had not yet even died. While nature is red in tooth and claw, we received a conscience and we could feel shame. We could do right and wrong. We became aware that there was such a thing as good and evil. The Garden of Eden story can be related to evolution in the sense that we became human by dint of God, the consciousness of the universe, raising us up.

I also thank you for getting to the basis of Luther’s anthropology by declaring that we are in a helpless estate – Luther calls it being passive before God. Finding ourselves quite a way “east of Eden” and then when we are completely honest, we have to admit that we face evil choices whichever way we turn unless the Holy Spirit helps us live out of a new birth and a new strength from God’s consciousness on high. Perhaps the latter could be opposed to what you call our ontological self-consciousness: Adam knowing himself just enough to recognize Eve as his mate, but not yet really having human consciousness and conscience?

To admit that we face evil choices whichever way we turn, I’m thinking about our negative legacy here in the USA: the genocide of the Native Americans that continues in the reservations; the hangover from slavery and colonialism, where so much of our high standard of living has been at the expense of the oppressed. We never gave the slaves forty acres and a mule and have attempted to short change them at every turn for the unfair advantage of us Whites ever since, now as we realize we are in a new version of a Jim Crow era. Where is our protest against these injustices?

Thank you so much for writing that study and getting me to read it.

Part II: Now I am taking one more step in thinking about the symbolism that Wayne Martin discovers in Cranach’s painting:

Through his painting Lucas Cranach is superimposing the later story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness[5] upon the snake in the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Paradise of the Garden of Eden. The former serpent, perhaps like a scapegoat absorbed all the evil venom of the people bitten by snakes, allowing them to be saved; the latter snake beguiles Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, making her become conscious and ashamed of being naked.

The symbolism of the snake or serpent has so many phenomenological layers, because one can take the next step into the New Testament as well: because Jesus also refers to his crucifixion with the same symbol: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[6] And thus the Lenten prayer:

Who by the tree of the cross gave salvation to all humankind, so that where death arose, life might rise up again, and that he (the snake) that once overcame by a tree, might also by a tree (the cross) be overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Now we will not go even further and relate the serpent, Tiamat, the nature god of the sea, the personified ocean, representing chaos or Tohu va Bohu in Hebrew. Nor will we delve into the ubiquitous medical symbol, where two snakes are depicted climbing up a pole. Nor will we relate how a stick can be used to render a snake more harmless or the strange fact that poisonous snakes are milked of their venom to be used in vaccinations against snake bite.)

Lucas Cranach himself additionally, uses a winged snake with a crown, also looking like the primordial dragon, for his painting signatures. In this 1526 Courtault painting of Adam and Eve, he places his signature right onto the trunk of the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[7]

As already mentioned, Luther believed that that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the place of worship in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit brought about the Fall of creation. Perhaps we could identify the cross of Jesus Christ as the Tree of Life, which brings about our human ascent and that of all creation, so that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. We may not be able to experience the feature presentation here on earth, but we can get the previews of coming attractions. We can go in reverse as well and say the same about hell.

Painting as an art deals with pictures and images and can be enhanced into sculpture so that churches are filled with statues and paintings. In Cranach and Luther’s time an iconoclastic movement was in full swing. Image makers had become image breakers. Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva emptied their churches of all the images and paintings, white-washing the walls of their churches. They did not even permit music, except perhaps, for intoning a psalm. On the other hand, Luther argued that Moses lifted up that bronze serpent in the wilderness, so an image was not good or evil per se, it all depended on its use or abuse. Thus to worship an image makes a person guilty of having a false ultimate and being idolatrous, but when someone like Cranach expresses Luther’s theology in paint, so that people can “read” his painting, then it represents no abuse, but a perfectly appropriate use of art. Wayne Martin asserts the latter conviction to be the most likely reason Cranach, Luther’s close friend, used the winged snake as his signature.

From the cross of Christ, absorbing all the sin of the world and becoming the scapegoat for the forgiveness of all our sin and evil, Christ was like that serpent raised up on the pole by Moses in the desert; and like that serpent in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, people trying to be like God, made all things ambiguous, now vulnerable and at the mercy of their use or abuse, able to be used for good or evil. But in the eating of the forbidden fruit consciousness was won as conscience, so that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and became ashamed; but they became aware as well that they would one day die. After Eve eats the apple, the animals on her side of the painting also awake and the lion gets ready to pounce on the doe and take that poor creature out of Paradise. Thus consciousness was won, but Paradise was lost. They experienced how the earth also could be cursed and not yield its fruit, even with hard labor and the sweat of their brows. But Christ transformed that curse into a blessing on the tree of the cross, when he was lifted up like that serpent in the wilderness, drawing all of humankind heavenward too God:

“For when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”[8]

These are some of the symbolic layers of interpretation:

  1. Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness to save the snake-bitten people
  2. Christ describing his crucifixion by means of the Moses story
  3. Luther seeing Moses’ action as an affirmation of painting, sculpture, music and all the arts, because images are not evil per se, but good or evil in their use or abuse. Images cannot be done without in thought, language, and culture.
  4. Cranach superimposing the Moses story upon the story of the Fall. He depicts the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden as a snake on a pole once more, where consciousness and conscience are gained but paradise is lost.
  5. Cranach uses the image of a snake in his own painting signatures, even placing that signature on the trunk of the sacred tree affirming his vocation as an artist. But, of course, when culture represents the worship of elite secular people, it is an abuse of art. When art expresses the human condition before God, places a mirror before people, in which they can see themselves in, (like the deer in the painting seeing its reflection in the pond from which it drinks) generating consciousness and conscience for good and evil, right and wrong. Art can even be the painting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified showing the way of salvation.


[1] Should you want to read Wayne M. Martin’s Study of Cranach’s painting, click on “Judgment of Adam”

[2] To view and study Cranach’s painting of Adam and Eve with a detail feature tool for the purposes of comparison, click on “Adam and Eve”: by Lucas Cranach

[3] Pope Gregory I (590-604) noted that “the illiterate could contemplate in the lines of a picture what they could not learn by means of the written word.” In a sense, Wayne Martin contemplates Cranach’s painting and in its lines reads Luther’s theology.

[4] Gen 18:1.

[5] Numbers 21:4-9.

[6] John 3:15.

[7] See a detail of his signature with the tool provided: Cranach’s signature

[8] John 12:32.

A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s In Defense of a Bad Infinity (2007)

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Wayne M. Martin’s essay, In Defense of a Bad Infinity: A Fichtean Response to Hegel’s Differenzschrift. To see his essay in the Internet:

A response by Peter D.S. Krey

Again, I would argue that Hegel is a Lutheran philosopher and he gets a good deal of his philosophical inspiration from Luther’s theology. For example, one could interpret Luther’s justification by faith experience in terms of the bad and true infinities: locked into one’s own finite effort and strength one cannot fulfill what the infinite God demands. Thus to bring Aristotle’s critique of Zeno to bear: finite moments cannot traverse the infinite moments of infinity. But those that are infinite can traverse the moments of infinity. So the infinite effort and strength of God can fulfill God’s commands in Luther’s justification by faith experience. The passive finite understood in a Pauline sense becomes filled with infinite grace in Luther’s divine linguistic event. His experience needs to be understood in the contours of a language event, because he was struggling to understand the Pauline Passage, Romans 1:17:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Hegel thought that an infinite limited by the finite was a bad infinite. (I will go along with Wayne Martin and not call it a spurious infinite which would mean that a bad infinite was no infinite at all.) When the Holy and Absolute Infinite enters the finite and fills it, we have the fulfillment of the infinite demands, by the infinite traversing the infinite.

In Luther’s eighth point of his “Freedom of a Christian” he writes:

The commands teach and prescribe for us many good works. Merely prescribing them, however, does not make them happen. Laws point the way, but they do not help; they teach us what we ought to do, but they do not give us the strength to do it. They are set up only so that persons become aware of their incapacity for good and learn to despair in themselves. That is why they are called “old” testament and why they belong in the Old Testament.[1]

Luther then shows in point 9 how faith in Christ, how the Infinite accomplishes what the finite or even a bad infinite could not do:

Believe and you have it; don’t believe and you won’t have it.[2] For what is impossible for you through all the works of the commandments, which are so many and are of no use anyway, is quickly and easily done by faith. For I have placed all things in a compact form inside faith, so that whoever has faith has all things and whoever does not have faith has nothing. In such a way the promises of God provide what the commandments require and accomplish what the commandments demand, so that everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment. God alone commands and God alone fulfills. Therefore, the promises of God are the word of the “new” testament and belong in the New Testament.[3]

Faith is the way the infinite (God) enters and fulfills the finite such that the promises of God through their true infinity can fulfill the infinite requirements and demands of the law, because “everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment,” meaning that the infinite is at work though the finite.

Another way to say it: the finite through faith receives the power to grasp and contain the infinite. This is the way William Blake describes it in his famous poem, “To See the World”:

See a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.[4]

Thus justification by faith is the way infinite grace transforms the person, who no longer limits the infinite. In the Incarnation, God became a human being, as the Word became flesh. Mary can be beheld as the Mother of God, the Theotokos. The infinite body and blood of Christ is in the Eucharistic bread and wine. And while the finite “I” of Fichte cannot live the infinite Christ, the infinite Christ comes and enters and lives the life of the believer. Thus Paul can write, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” I first could not see how Wayne Martin could resolve the Pauline infinite demands with the teaching of kenosis or the emptying out of a person. But perhaps he means that the finite ego must become nothing so that the Infinite can completely enter the finite person.

Taking the side of Fichte and the bad infinite’s ideals, Wayne Martin keeps looking at our human condition from a human and finite point of view. Reinhold Niebuhr also spoke of our being responsible for ever increasing approximations of justice. Just because a person cannot do everything is not an excuse to do nothing. A person remains responsibility for the little something that the person can do. The bad infinity is like the perfect becoming the enemy of the thing that is possible.

I wonder what made the early Greek Philosophers, Aristotle as well as the atomists look askance at the infinite regression and progression. It does not lead to nothingness, but perhaps it defines the edges of the finite, beyond which the Creator God, the Absolute Infinite, as consciousness and word, is out there coming to us in continuous creation, incarnation, and the use of the sacraments.

Thus what I am arguing for is Hegel’s true infinity, in terms of being filled by the Holy Spirit or concretely, by the Word of God, Christ, so the dynamic of the Infinite accomplishes untold wonders amongst us finite being. From the view point of the ideals of the bad infinite, we are locked into the incremental approximations, but they also will not be possible without the power of the True Infinity giving us those breakthroughs.


[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 73.

[2] Glaubstu so hastu; glaubstu nit, so hastu nit. (In Luther’s German)

[3] Ibid., page 74.

[4] William Blake, Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence.”

Blogging my thoughts: Lighting up the Thoughts of the Mind

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Blogging my thoughts: Lighting up the Thoughts of the Mind by Peter Krey

Reading about optogenetics in the New York Science Times for today (April 22, 2014) I read an article entitled, “Brain Control in a Flash of Light” by James Gorman. Reading it I had to think of the lightning flash of that preceded Luther’s entry into the monastery. (The incident took place before the Reformation on July 2, 1505 near the village of Stotternheim in Germany.)

Dr. Karl Dreisseroth and his team devised a practical way to turn neurons in the brain on and off with light. Is it far-fetched to think that the lightning strike that came so close to Luther that it knocked him down, also affected Luther, in this case, turning his mind on to ultimate questions? I’ve read how Karl Marx thought that that lightning flash began a change of mind not only in Luther but in all of Europe and I have somehow felt myself, that Luther’s whole Reformation came out of one flash of insight, that was not only intellectual but went way down to the enlightenment of his affects as well.

Dreisseroth talks of people with psychoses having a different reality from our own (New York Science Times, page D4). He describes bipolar disorder as “’exuberance, charisma, love of life, and yet how destructive’; of depression, [so] ‘crushing – it can’t be reasoned with.’” (D4) But what about on the positive side, that is, a brain that reaches a new level of integration and insight through an encounter with God? A Psalm speaks of God in terms of “the Light in which we see light.” (Psalm 36:9) Often we are locked with our thinking in the pathological, while we remain oblivious to the wholesome, the wonderful level of a new maturity in life. St. Paul on the road to Damascus and perhaps Luther, on his way back from home to Erfurt, experienced something along these lines.

Now to delve more deeply into the article: various laboratories experimented with using light to control brain cells. Needed in that process are proteins they call “opsins.” “When light shines on an opsin, it absorbs a photon and changes.” (D4) Smuggling opsin genes into nerve cells caused no harm. (D5) They found that one particular opsin called channelrhodopsin-2 “could be used to turn on mammalian neurons with blue light.” (D5) Dreisseroth used microbial opsins to get those neurons to respond strongly to light. With that Dreisseroth’s team could switch the neurons on and off.

Then working in his laboratory they took a step beyond optogenetics making the whole brain transparent in a method they have called “Clarity.” It cannot be used for living brains because a chemical called hydrogel has to be infused into the brain tissue, “which leaves the brain not only transparent, but also still available for bio-chemical tests.” (D5)

Dreisseroth’s aim continues to be helping people with severe mental illness or brain diseases “and he recently proposed ways that optogenetics, Clarity, and other techniques may be turned to this aim.” D5) It turns out that optogenetics is a crucial tool in understanding brain functions. “Clarity, on the other hand, is an aid to anatomical studies, basic mapping of structure, which, he says, is as important to understand as activity.” (D5) When as a psychiatrist he administered electro convulsive therapy (electric shock therapy) a general seizure results, in which the whole brain is disrupted. “’Within a few minutes the whole person comes back. Where does it come back from? From the structure,’ he said.” (D5)

It is interesting the way Dreisseroth speaks of the whole person coming back but then uses the pronoun “it” for merely the structure of the brain. Perhaps the mind envelopes the whole person, while the brain is just the seat of that source.

When Dreisseroth speaks of encountering a whole different reality in a person experiencing a psychosis then he needs to be completely cognizant that we all agree on a conventional, everyday level of reality which we call normal. This kind of scientific work, however, shows how there are deeper realities that go far beyond the everyday level of reality we accept as normalcy.

When a St. Paul or Luther experience the source of light, then perhaps they were treated to a shock therapy for a more wholesome reality through and after which the reality of the presence of the Divine has to be proclaimed. This ultimate reality, filled with healing love and compassion can also fill a psychotic person with healing light.

“Clarity” now for a live brain may provide a physical analogy to enlightenment, say of the Buddha, or the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. The transfiguration of the person or mind, if “mind” is understood as enveloping the whole person and the whole person’s intellect and affects as well are taken to be in the mind. When that mind becomes transparent, then perhaps the source of light can shine through a person.

Recently I wrote about the light of the eyes, as it was understood in Biblical times.[1] The light of the eyes, but really the light of the mind and all its wonderful functioning cannot hold a candle to “the Light in which we see light.” The whole verse from Psalm 36 also includes affects and more: “For with you is the fountain of life and in your light we see light.” That living light is the source of our being (structure) and consciousness (functioning and activity).

In blogging my thoughts here, I go all the way into opsins, photons, optogenetics, and “Clarity,” because Luther said that we cannot go into the flesh deeply enough. I first interpreted his sense of the word “flesh” to mean that we cannot go into everything concerning what it means to be human being deeply enough. In the words of Cicero, “I am a human being and I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” But here I interpret “flesh” as delving into this completely physical and natural study of the brain as a foray into theology.

Now Dreisseroth maintains that one cannot reason with depression. (D5) Of course not. But we should not discount the talking cure,[2] because insights enlighten the brain with optogenetic potential. And the encounter with the omniscient, compassionate, and wholly loving God, can bring a healthy person back from a “divine structure” into the wholeness of a new maturity, a fully functioning and fulfilling life. But God also has to encounter those like Dr. Dreisseroth, who go into a mind completely transparent or enlightened by the living Light of God to heal not only people with psychoses, but also as many of us who are walking around in an everyday reality unenlightened by the real presence of the One who “created the sun, moon, and the shining stars; for God commanded and these lights were created.” (Psalm 148:3 and 5)


[1] See “Your Eye is a Lamp for your Body.” Also see “Seeing the Light of God.

[2] Check out Ira Steinman’s book Treating the Untreatable. I relate a story from it in my Sermon of Feb. 8, 2009 called, “Not just the Healthy, the sick are saved too.”  Here of course, I take the neuroscientific approach of this article.

Blogging my thoughts: the Social Justification by Faith

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Blogging my thoughts:

In packing boxes while getting ready to move, I found some notes jotted down during the writing of my dissertation that I did not throw away:

In my dissertation, I worked with four of Luther’s most popular pamphlets: Sermon on the Ban, Sermon on Good Works, The New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass, and the Freedom of a Christian. In analyzing these pamphlets I found that they follow the same regular pattern in critiquing the church of that day for the wealth and power of the hierarchy, the exclusion of the Christian laity from the spiritual estate, the fact that cardinals, bishops and priests did not consider it their duty to preach, unless called to do so with a different call above sacramental ordination. These factors, among others, brought opposition to the hierarchy of the spiritual estate.

In the Great Peasants’ War of 1525, the peasants were looking to improve their lot. They could work as peasants on the level of being feudal serfs but they could also work as peasants, like farmers as the equals of burghers and the common man.

Patrick Collinson, in The Religion of the Protestants[1] works with the concept of elective affinity comparing laws. He wrote that the many laws of that day were not like the ones the Puritans would have attempted – for a severe and legally enforced religious and moral discipline. The laws in Luther’s days amounted to an unjust legally enforced exploitation of the peasants. A complicity of the laity and clergy existed in undermining the severity of the Christian moral mandate. Karl Holl would also have argued that the legal practice of the church ban was not used for moral discipline. It was used for debt collection for the spiritual estate and control of the laity.

I think that Holl is convincing in arguing that Luther emphasized the conscience and the intensification of the Christian moral mandate. But Luther’s mandate is more than that of a religion of conscience. With conscientia – according to Steven Ozment, heart, soul, and spirit have to be included as well, to grasp Luther’s anthropological concepts referring to the whole person,[2] (and I add) in terms of maturity and creativity as well. Luther’s concept of spontaneity refers to being moved personally, but who cannot see that it is involved with initiating and sparking social movement for justice as well – rather than merely the justification of the person? Thus Luther’s theology should also include shalom or the Russian concept of sobornost. This idea is not one of a collective emotionalism or an enhancement of religious pleasure, but the experience of a new social and personal harmony and creativity in the further approximations of the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community – or what Luther describes as “the internal Kingdom of Christian Freedom in terms of the circulation of grace for the common good in the joyful economy of abundance” – (to patch in some of my later work)[3] – while realizing that the Christian state is a historical problem not yet at all solved. Basing it as Luther does on reason and law, rather than a particular faith and Gospel, should not preclude greater and greater approximations of justice.

How can justification merely apply to an individual person? That ignores the historical reality of the social dynamism unleashed by Luther: the Wittenberg Disturbances came first, then the Knights’ Rebellion, and then the Peasants’ War or the Revolution of the Common Man as Peter Blickle would have it.

I like to relate Henri Bergson’s first order feelings and reactive ones.[4] A charismatic social movement as well as a charismatic personal response can issue from a first order “feeling,” that is, not a reactive feeling – but a feeling that initiates new thoughts, feelings, and actions.

So Luther experienced justification by faith as an individual; the peasants wanted justification by faith in terms of social justice. I was thinking in those terms when I wrote against systematic racism and justification not by race, but by grace.[5] What would constitute justification on a social level? The way a whole and mature person can be described as self-aware, autonomous, with quality relationships, etc., the basic ingredients of social justification should also be worked out, as Luther attempts to do in the third part of his pamphlet on Christian Freedom.


[1] Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: the Church and English Society 1559-1625, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 241.

[2] Luther’s thinking is holistic. When he refers to the anima, soul, cor, heart, spiritus, spirit, and conscientia, conscience, he always refers to the whole human being from a certain aspect. Steven Ozment notes that for Luther this totus homo is operationally united. Ozment, Steven, Homo Spiritualis: a Comparative Study of the Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson, and Martin Luther (1509-1516) in the Context of their Theological Thought, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969), pages 89, 95, and 100.

[3] See the Third Mini-Lecture On Christian Freedom for Our Redeemer in South San Francisco. The existential rapture also applies to individuals and in face of personal realities can seem far-fetched. It is some flight of the imagination to take it to a collective level.

[4] Bergson, Henri, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1935, 1954).

[5] See my writing: Luther’s Justification is not by Race and my Social Ethics developed from Luther’s Theology.

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

Existential Rapture (continued) August 18, 2013

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Existential Rapture (continued) August 18, 2013

My lecture of March 6th reviews Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” but here I want to think about what I call the existential rapture once more. The reason that I associate it with Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” and with the ascending and descending angels, is because Luther finishes his most popular pamphlet associating them:

Christians do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor — in Christ through faith one ascends above oneself into God. From God one descends through love again below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love. As Christ says, in John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[1]

As you see Luther somehow associates the ascending and descending angels from the opened heavens with the ascent of believers in faith and their descent in love. Somehow I associate increasing angel power in a person through a higher ascent with the angels for their lower descent increasing our love and service.[2]

Why do I use the word “rapture”? It is a uncomfortable word for Lutherans, but it is firstly, because I think we should think more in terms of the Holy Spirit; but secondly, the Latin word Luther uses for the ascent is raptus, from which we get the word “rapture.”

Figure 1: The Existential Rapture diagrammed in a Chart;


And if you read his “Freedom of a Christian” you will see how the contents of the chart are all there, and even more, because I left out the bottom circle, “becoming the first born,” and note, as a daughter no less as high a status as a firstborn son).

The growth, development, maturing, or promotions from one stage to the next come from the tension of opposites: completely sovereign by faith versus completely enslaved by love and other tensions, like simultaneously being sinners and saints, the rapture and the groaning, those sighs too deep for words in the Spirit, and many more tensions.

If you look at the chart, the bottom line is significant, we are not just talking about a concepts, although thinking can follow the same development,[3] but the growth and maturity of a person. While in Jacob’s ladder Luther relates the ascending and descending angels to the person of Christ and the tension of the opposite natures, human and divine, in the one person of Christ. The two poles are not allowed to separate, nor can a unity without these tensions work.[4]

So often I have been speaking about growing and maturing into the full stature of Christ. I thought I would go back to the scriptural source for this aspiration. Surprisingly, ascension and descent and another hierarchy are right in that passage!

Look at Ephesians 4:7-13:

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift, therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself captive; he gave gifts to his people.” When it says “He ascended” what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

What an interesting passage. (I wonder if the whole of Ephesians would throw more light on our subject.) The same person is ascending and descending and each holy office, apostle, prophet, etc., is higher or lower. In “Christian Freedom” Luther did not use apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but first born, nobility of the spirit, priests, Christs and up into God. I believe he did so, because his focus was to declare the priesthood of all believers, so that laypeople have holy vocations very much like apostles, prophets, etc.

Listen to the sociologist, Talcott Parsons, who writes in The Evolution of Societies:

…the form of stratification within the medieval church, the differentiation between the laity and members of the religious orders, lost it legitimation in Protestantism. On the level of a way of life, all callings had the same religious status, the highest religious merit could be attained in secular callings. [He is citing Max Weber.] This attitude included marriage – Luther himself left the monastery[5] and married a former nun, symbolizing the change. This change in relations between the church and secular society has often been interpreted as a loss of religious rigor in favor of worldly indulgence. I consider this view a misinterpretation, for the Reformation was a movement to upgrade secular society to the highest religious level. Every man was obliged to behave like a monk [I add every woman as a nun] in religious devotion, although not in his [or her] daily life, that is, he/she was to be guided by religious considerations. A turn in the process which dated from early phases of Christianity, was to permeate all things of this world with religious values and to create a [human] city in the image of God.[6]

The stages in Ephesians are holy ones that are not yet completely “churchified.” The ecclesiastical ones of the Catholic Church go through a real change, for Luther does not only say that all believers are priests, but he maintained that coming out of baptism, every believer became more than a priest, bishop, and even a pope and that in your secular calling when you permeated it with Christian values of grace, faith, hope, and love.

Interestingly enough secularism is a child of the Christian religion and in Talcott Parson’s description, it can be more: the social expression of Christianity in our time. In Medieval and Early Modern history, the church distinguished between secular and regular clergy. A regular clergy person like a monk never had to do with the laity, while those who dealt with the laity in congregations were called secular priests. So our congregation and the expression of its ministry as it shaped the community would be considered the secular. Perhaps the term “secularism” could be used for those in society, who do not want Christian values nor that their society express and become shaped by them. And because only spiritual persuasion as opposed to coercion was the ideal that Luther’s Reformation strove for, a secular neutral area for Christianity was necessary to accept or reject the faith. We need the freedom to make a choice, but also the freedom of the context in which to make it in. That context is provided by the Christian secular.

The following is an example of the secular expressed at a very high level of religious values. I know a pastor’s son who will not go to church, who is a musician, and who has opened up two vegan restaurants with a partner and only hires musicians, giving them a livelihood and allowing them to use the restaurants as the base from which to go on tours and do their gigs. They make sure their music is non-commercial, they still make phonograph records instead of using computer CD’s and all his help call him Dad. In many ways I could show how he illustrates taking these restaurants to the highest religious level. Let me just include one: the tip jar is not only for the waiters to the neglect of those in the kitchen in back and those who buss the tables. The jar is equally shared by all. And they all have to work at converting carnivorous Southerners not only into vegetarians, but even vegans!

From the Ephesians passage, seeing that our becoming Christs continues the incarnation, in which the angels, according to Luther are descending and ascending from God in heaven to the humble birth of a baby here below, we too grow into the measure of the full stature of Christ that God gives us the grace to attain. It says,

“He ascended” what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth? [Christ] who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things.

So in the growth of ourselves as persons, in continuing the incarnation by the grace of God, we have a deep self and an extended social self. In terms of the deep self, how low can you go? Or in the words of the BeeGees song, “How deep is your love?” In thinking of our deep self just let me remind you of the iceberg metaphor. Like a grapefruit, there is so much more to us, than meets the eye. We have to delve far below the surface of life and become the deep selves that help our whole community rise, like those two vegan restaurants.

In the extended social self, we really can have a boat-load of people in us when Christ’s descending and ascending becomes all in all. The church is not a house, but all the members who live in your hearts inside you, when you say, come into my heart Lord Jesus there’s room in my heart for you. And that goes for your community and your neighbors on your street as well.

We become far more aware of ourselves under the surface when we become deep listeners, active listeners. We have to listen the Gospel and not only preach it. When we listen and hear what people are saying, really hearing who they are, with all their cries for help, and all jubilation in having this gift of life, then we can also descend and ascend with the angels in the existential rapture that Luther describes, becoming promoted from only taking care of ourselves, to supporting a family, to becoming a pillar of our community or even the mayor, or like our wonderful Governor Jerry Brown, or like President Obama, or our wonderful First Lady, Michelle, and even John Kerry, who is trying to make peace  between the nations. We need to pray for them and we need to ask God for the gifts of grace to follow after becoming Christs for our neighbors.

[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, page 90.

[2] Also see the metaphor of the magnitude of stars and the brightness of the shining saints in the previous lecture.

[3] Hegel’s dialectics, for example place the thesis into tension with its antithesis bringing about a synthesis. This is the logic of life and thought of growth and development. Paul Recoeur makes the Hegelian dialectic more comprehensive by using the terms “orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.” Sometimes he uses “displacement” for “disorientation.” I first learned of Recoeur’s terms from Walter Brueggemann’s classification of the Psalms: in “Psalms and the Life of Faith,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 17(1980), 3-32.

Another interesting association in the development of thought can be found in Gerard Caspary, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) pp. 109-24. Caspary worked with non-lineal, internal, symbolic, monastic thought that preceded Scholasticism. The tension between polar symbols brought out deep meanings. For a Biblical example: “Your eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, then your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, then your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mat 6:22-23.) See an interesting diagram illustrating the symbols of light and darkness, good and evil that Prof. Caspary presented in class:

Figure 2


[4] Heinz Cohut in his Self-Psychology places two poles in the mystery of the self, one for mirroring and one for merging with the “tension arc” for action emerging from them. See Ernest Wolf, Treating the Self: Elements of Clinical Self Psychology, (New York: The Guilford Prss, 1988), p. 50.

[5] Parsons is not well informed here, because he never left the Black Cloister, but just stopped getting the tonsure of a monk and being a monk. All the other monks left the cloister, while he and Katie married in it and boarded students and religious and other refugees. The table talks came from the students taking notes for every word he said.

[6] Talcott Parsons, The Evolution of Societies, Jackson Toby, ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977),pp. 132-33.

Written by peterkrey

August 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s best-Selling Pamphlet and the Existential Rapture March 6 and August 18, 2013

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  “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s best-Selling Pamphlet

and the Existential Rapture March 6 and August 18, 2013

Luther wrote one pamphlet after another in the movement that became the Reformation. He was the first author whose writing publications numbered in the millions especially when his New Testament came out in 1522 and when his translation of the whole Bible came out in 1534. Illiterate peasants learned how to read by reading it, while discovering that the old believing priests had never read it and did not know what was in it.

Luther never received any income from his many writings, while he kept printing presses humming in many cities and it seemed that the printers did not let his ink dry before they already took his work to their presses. They were making real money with Luther’s work. (My lecture, “Notes on a Rereading of the Freedom of a Christian” online in my website has gotten over 10,000 hits, but I have also not made any money with it.)

Other than the New Testament and the whole Bible, “The Freedom of a Christian” was Luther’s best-selling pamphlet. It came out in 38 editions in his life time. He noted that it contained the “whole sum of a Christian life.” Of the 38 editions, ten were in Latin and 22 were in German. It turns out that we only know the Latin version in the English translation, while the popular German one is shorter, more simple, spiritual, and direct, much like his Small Catechism. For example, you will find such gems such as

One who hears the word becomes like the word, pure, good, and just,[1]


What is the word that gives such abundant grace and how shall I use it? The answer: it is nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the Gospel, spoken in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you![2]

Right now this version is only available in Philip and my book, Luther’s Spirituality.

Luther organizes his pamphlet into three parts:

Part One: Points 1-19: the inner person or the soul

Part Two: Points 19-24: the outer person or the body

Part Three: Points 25-30: the relation of outward persons.

Part Three undertakes describing the vision

and shape that Christianity would give to a society.

Luther begins right at the beginning with the tension of opposites. And these opposites bring about growth, development, and even movements in society. What was the Reformation itself but a religious, historical movement? Some opposites we can think about are men and women, church and state, – which are supposed to be opposites, but sometimes the church doesn’t challenge the state and the society the way it is supposed to.

Luther’s tension of opposites begins right at the start in his two contradictory statements presenting the tension between freedom and responsibility:

A Christian person is a free sovereign, above all things, subject to no one – [let me add by faith].

A Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things and subject to everyone – [let me add by love].

It is important to understand this tension of opposites and the growth, development, and movement it brings about, to later understand what I call the existential rapture.

Let me just highlight three themes that stand out in this Luther pamphlet: the one called the marvelous exchange; the second, more than just being Christians, Luther challenges us to become Christs to one another; and the third, the joyful economy.

In the marvelous exchange, Luther says that the gracious and righteous, bridegroom, Christ, and the bride, our dreadfully sinful soul, get married and become one body. In the exchange, we receive the sinless, virgin birth of Christ from his Mother Mary and he receives our sinful, human birth. We receive his immortality, while he takes on our mortality. So in exchange for our birth, we get the new birth of Christ, in exchange for our poverty, we get his riches, for our sin, we get his righteousness, in exchange for our hatred, we get his love, for our death, we get his eternal life. (Think of the way nuns wear a ring saying they are married to Christ. Luther has every believer’s soul as the bride married to Christ, the bridegroom.)

The tension of opposites again stands out, because Luther calls our soul a whore, whom the sinless and pure Christ takes as his wife, so that she becomes a wonderful woman, happy house-mother, and wife. Now not to be sexist, we could also say the whore-monger of our soul, through this exchange, becomes a wonderful man, happy house-father, and husband. You can see how Luther places extreme opposites into tension. Prof. Timothy Wengert from our Philadelphia seminary had a funny way of presenting the marvelous exchange. When as a student he married his wife, she had a beautiful new BMW and he was driving an old wreck. After their marriage, he drove the BMW and she drove the old wreck: a truly marvelous exchange.

Secondly, Luther does not only promote us into the priesthood of all believers, but into a Christhood of all believers. (I just read in this month’s Lutheran how Stephen P. Bouman up in ELCA Chicago offices now speaks of all believers being missionaries and our churches becoming centers of mission: He writes, “Every ELCA baptized missionary (each of us is one).”[3] So more than just being Christians and wondering haphazardly what that could mean for today, we are challenged to grow and mature into the full stature of Christ.

As Christs we lay down our lives for our friends. We love our enemies. We don’t project our sins on others, but take their sins upon ourselves and act as if they were really our own. That is the genuine love, which is full of forgiveness, because in our divine vicarious suffering, evil and sin are overcome by the divine power of Christ. Like in the marvelous exchange, Luther is providing another description of how our sins become forgiven.

Thirdly, Luther declares the Freedom of a Christian from the Babylonian Captivity of our Church. The third part of his pamphlet is his sociological section and in it Luther describes the internal Kingdom of Christian Freedom in terms of the circulation of grace for the common good in the joyful economy of abundance. (That’s a mouthful! It comes from my dissertation.) We have an economy of scarcity, while the giving and sharing taught us by Christ lead to a joyful economy of abundance. That is why we gather around the Table of the Lord for Holy Communion. The circulation of grace means that whatever Christ has done for us, we do for our neighbor. Christ of course suffered and died for us. Even the new selves that we become in Christ are not for ourselves but for those in need. Our righteousness is not our own but belongs to our sinful neighbor, whose sins we try to cover in order to forgive. Having died to ourselves in our baptisms, all we have, all our possessions, even our own lives now belong to God and we are now free in the Holy Spirit to share them where needed, because we have so much more and all our needs are provided for by God. So Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” actually declares the Good News that Christ leads us out of our Babylonians Captivity into the heavenly Kingdom of freedom; except, don’t forget the tension of our earthly state with all its duties and responsibilities.

Finally, the existential rapture is about our inner persons or souls, which Luther places in tension with our bodies, our external selves. This rapture is what we mean when we say in the Great Thanksgiving: “Lift up your hearts!” So what I am describing from Luther’s pamphlet is not at all like the rapture where you are lifted up and out of here, like in Hal Lindsey’s Late and Great Planet Earth. But one where we are promoted right here in our responsibilities and the contributions we make in our lives. We are being lifted up in our internal selves, spiritually, for a strengthening to undergo suffering for the sake of the love, ministry, and service that we provide for others. The saints are like the stars, who grow from being invisible to the naked eye, to sixth, fifth, fourth,  and ever greater magnitudes of brightness, from glory to glory, as St. Paul would word “the magnitude of stars” in the Bible (2 Cor 12:18).

So in the tension of opposites we grow and mature from one level of maturity to another. Carl Gustav Jung, the great psychologist, talks about the tension of opposites bringing a transcendent function that overcomes our psychological problems and brings about our health. Now the ascent comes about through faith and the descent comes about through love and that’s why we speak of falling in love. Faith makes us into a king, while love makes us into a slave to the one we love. Remember the song? “If they made me a king, I’d still be a slave to you!”

According to Luther in our ascent we first receive the first-born status. That is good for me since I’m the eleventh child and you will receive it too, even if you are the baby in your family. Next in our ascent, we receive the nobility of the spirit. In our spiritual royalty we become kings and queens; today we would say mayors, governors, and presidents. At one point we could not even take care of ourselves, but we grow and provide for a family, then a congregation, perhaps, then watch over and shepherd a whole city, guide a nation, become a leader of countries in the world, just like John Kerry now that he has become the Secretary of State. Next we ascend into the priesthood. Luther saw priests as higher than nobility, because they interceded for others in prayer and God listened to them. From priesthood one ascends up into being a Christ for others and then one goes up into God. Talk about having self-esteem. If you ever feel low and down and out, just remember that! Luther maintained that coming out of baptism, every believer became more than a priest, bishop, and even a pope.

But then we descend falling in love through all these levels until we arrive below the least of these, finding ourselves emptying the bed pan of an elderly person in a hospital, bending down to tie the shoe laces of a child. The ascent takes place to give us the strength to love and suffer and serve. Paul and Silas are in prison, beaten and bruised, chained with their feet in stocks. Ascending above themselves in faith, they started praying and singing hymns while the prisoners listened to them. Then, when the earthquake shook open all the doors, the jailer, the prison warden was about to commit suicide, Paul shouted to him not to harm himself because they were all still there and no one had tried to escape. The warden knelt trembling before them and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” and became a believer in God. He then washed their wounds, gave them food, and ate together with them.[4] This is the strength that we receive from on high.

Luther begins his pamphlet by saying that we are completely sovereign and full of freedom and completely enslaved and subject to everyone at one and the same time. He ends his pamphlet with the famous words:

Christians do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor—in Christ through faith one ascends above oneself into God. From God one descends through love again below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love. As Christ says, in John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[5]

Now that paragraph concludes the popular version of “The Freedom of a Christian” while it is buried two thirds of the way into the more intellectual Latin version of this Luther writing. A long discussion about ceremonies follows this paragraph in the more scholarly Latin versions that we know.

[1] This edition of “The Freedom of a Christian” is available in Philip and Peter Krey, editors,  Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 268n.

[2]Ibid., p. 72.

[3] Stephen P. Bouman, “Blinded by the Light: We Must Be like Paul,” The Lutheran, March 2013, Vol. 26 No. 3, p. 17.

[4] Acts 16:16-34.

[5] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, page 90.

Written by peterkrey

August 19, 2013 at 10:50 am