Key to the protestant reformation was the opposing views of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, concerning free will. Simply stated, can we get behind what we in fact choose, can we choose what to choose? Luther and Erasmus responded to this question in different ways. Luther insisted something or someone other binds the human will to do either good or evil. In opposition Erasmus maintained the human will independently contains the power to apply itself towards something other. With a Western definition of freedom in the back of one’s head, at face value, Luther seems to be a supporter of downright slavery while Erasmus appears to be a defender of freedom. However, this condensed assessment fails to account for Luther’s view of liberty. In this essay I show that for Luther, the nature of freedom is not autonomous but always dependant on relationship to someone else. Luther grounds his views in a relational ontology inspired by the Triune God.
I invite into this discussion two scholars whom each have done work on Luther in area that relate to the argument of this paper. First, I engage in Robert Jenson article “An Ontology of Freedom in the De Servo Arbitrio of Luther.” I highlight that Luther, especially in The Bondage of the Will, combated a perceived free will. In this spirit Jenson argues that for Luther God is by definition free in that He is truly free within himself – “rapt by another without dependence on an other than God.” Through participation in this free Triune God, humans move from perceived freedom towards true freedom, as they are rapt into actual free choice that subsequently causes action.
I then turn to the Finnish school of Luther and specifically Tuomo Mannermaa’s article “Why is Luther so fascinating? Modern Finnish Luther Research”. Here Mannermaa highlights that in the context of human freedom, Luther’s emphasis is primarily union with Christ, who is present in faith. For, “the indwelling of Christ as grasped in the Lutheran tradition implies a real participation in God.” This becomes especially clear in The Freedom of a Christian. Here we find that Luther emphasized ontologically relational categories of justification over forensic ones. Participation in God through union with Christ, then, signifies not a “change of substance” but a “communion of being.”
Finally, as I conclude I briefly follow the lead of Paul Metzger’s “Mystical Union with Christ: An Alternative to Blood Transfusions and Legal Fictions.” In this article Metzger draws attention to Luther’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which Mannermaa seemingly fails to incorporate in his interpretation of Luther. Persons cannot have Christ without the Spirit’s presence. For, “the good law and that in which one lives is the love of God spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Freedom, then, is a dynamic inclusion and personal participation in the life of the Trinity through the personal mediation of the Spirit who unites our hearts to Christ through faith. As the Father and the Son are freed in the Spirit, so too, we too are freed in the Spirit.