The Legacy of 500 years of “On Christian Freedom”

Henrike Lähnemann

On 24 May 2020, I gave a short reflection on the legacy of 500 years of “On Christian Freedom” at Evensong in St Edmund Hall. It had been planned to coincide with the launch of a new edition and translation of the treatise “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen”. The work-in-progress edition can be seen on the Taylor Editions website but inevitably, this celebration turned out quite differently from how it had been planned back in winter when the College decided to take on the topic of “Freedom” as theme for the term – the chapel closed, the service on zoom, choir members scattered across England and beyond.

Desk with four screens and multiple props

All set for the service: 4 screens, the tin soldier with the ‘Fryheit’ banner, #littleLuther, two hymnbooks, a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the 95 Theses printed on the Bodleian bibliographic press as material zoom backdrop

But in a way this turned into an opportunity to reflect on the real meaning of freedom and get to the core of the contradiction at the heart of Luther’s treatise: free and bound at the same time, freedom as a concept not of the body but of mind and soul.

You can listen to / watch the full reflection (14 minutes) on YouTube:

The Evensong was built round Reformation tunes and texts:

The Psalm chosen was Psalm 46, the basis for Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg” – and the tune he wrote for it was used as the chant.

The Canticles were sung in German in the version that the Evangelische Gesangbuch uses which is based on Luther’s translation of the biblical passages of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and sung to the Tones he recommended – he wanted the Magnificat to be sung to the “tonus peregrinus”.

The Readings were taken from parts of the Bible which influenced Luther’s thinking and argument when writing “Von der Freiheit”: Romans 1 (read both in the translation of the King James’ Bible and Luther’s 1545 edition, taken from biblija.net)and the story of Nicodemus from John 3 including the key verse John 3:16 “God so loved the world” which the choir had just performed in the setting by John Stainer (listen to the recording and read about Stainer’s association with St Edmund Hall).

Luther structures his text in 30 paragraphs. He starts of: “In order that we may thoroughly recognize the nature of a Christian and what is implied by their freedom, which Christ has purchased and given them, as St Paul writes at length, I will set down these two propositions:”

  • Eyn Christen mensch ist eyn freyer herr / uͤber alle ding / und niemandt
  • Eyn Christen mensch ist eyn dienstpar knecht aller ding und yderman unterthan.

He then goes on in the following 29 paragraphs to unpick like in a good academic essay how these seemingly contradictory statements of total freedom and total servitude can be reconciled or rather be simultaneously true, by looking at the example of Jesus – whose name is written as title above the whole text.

The basis for these stark claims of being free lord and servant at the same time can be found in the Bible read through Luther’s eyes – you see in the screenshot I have put up that he is quoting from the first letter to the Corinthians and to the Romans (though rather sloppy – if he did it in a tutorial essay he would have marks deducted for giving the wrong chapter and also quoting tendentiously).

I was keen to make this not just a historical commemoration service but show the relevance for political thinking and debates of what constitutes freedom. So I included Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s text “Stationen auf dem Wege zur Freiheit” which picks up the language of freedom and servitude and sees discipline, action, suffering and death as stations on a journey towards freedom (here a version with English translation by Kile Smith). Local legend has it that Bonhoeffer took the decision to return to Germany in 1935 in the small enclosed space of the Founders Chapel which sits on top of what is now St Stephen’s House, then the home of the Cowley Fathers.

Photograph of the Founders Chapel

The Founders Chapel on top of 16 Marston Road, photograph: Henrike Lähnemann, 20 May 2020

I ended by comparing icons for different concepts of freedom: for freedom of the body the figure of a tin soldier modelled on a woodcut from the peasants war with a mercenary swinging the banner “Fryheit” – for the freedom of the mind and soul the Protestant hymnbook from which the final anthem was chosen: Martin Luther’s versified statement of faith, “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein”, which was already part of the first printed hymnbook, Erfurt 1524. Ultimately, what constitutes Christian Freedom is to be able to sing as a redeemed Christian – “mit Lust und Liebe”.

Reading 1: Romans 1,16-17

King James’ Bible: 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 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.’

In Luther’s translation from 1545: Denn ich scheme mich des Euangelij von Christo nicht / Denn es ist eine Krafft Gottes / die da selig machet / alle / die daran gleuben / die Jüden furnemlich vnd auch die Griechen. 17  Sintemal darinnen offenbaret wird die Gerechtigkeit / die fur Gott gilt / welche kompt aus glauben in glauben / Wie denn geschrieben stehet / Der Gerechte wird seines Glaubens leben.

Reading 2: John 3:1-4,10-18 God so loved the world

King James’ Version: 1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. 3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? […]

10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? 11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. 12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? 13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

***

Stationen der Freiheit von Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Zucht

Ziehst du aus, die Freiheit zu suchen, so lerne vor allem
Zucht der Sinne und deiner Seele, dass die Begierden
und deine Glieder dich nicht bald hierhin, bald dorthin führen.
Keusch sei dein Geist und dein Leib, gänzlich dir selbst unterworfen
und gehorsam, das Ziel zu suchen, das ihm gesetzt ist.
Niemand erfährt das Geheimnis der Freiheit, es sei denn durch Zucht.

Tat

Nicht das Beliebige, sondern das Rechte tun und wagen,
nicht im Möglichen schweben, das Wirkliche tapfer ergreifen,
nicht in der Flucht der Gedanken, allein in der Tat ist die Freiheit.
Tritt aus ängstlichem Zögern heraus in den Sturm des Geschehens,
nur von Gottes Gebot und deinem Glauben getragen,
und die Freiheit wird deinen Geist jauchzend empfangen.

Leiden

Wunderbare Verwandlung. Die starken, tätigen Hände
sind dir gebunden. Ohnmächtig, einsam siehst du das Ende
deiner Tat. Doch atmest du auf und legst das Rechte
still und getrost in stärkere Hand und gibst dich zufrieden.
Nur einen Augenblick berührtest du selig die Freiheit,
dann übergabst du sie Gott, damit er sie herrlich vollende.

Tod

Komm nun, höchstes Fest auf dem Wege zur ewigen Freiheit,
Tod, leg nieder beschwerliche Ketten und Mauern
unsres vergänglichen Leibes und unsrer verblendeten Seele,
dass wir endlich erblicken, was hier uns zu sehen missgönnt ist.
Freiheit, dich suchten wir lange in Zucht und in Tat und in Leiden.
Sterbend erkennen wir nun im Angesicht Gottes dich selbst.

Stations on the road to freedom

Discipline

If you would search for freedom, first learn
to discipline your mind and your soul, that your desires
and your flesh are not ever leading you here and there.
Chasten your spirit and your body: keep them completely subject
and obedient to you, that you may seek the goal set before you.
No one experiences freedom’s mystery except through discipline.

Action

To do and to dare what is right, not what merely presents itself;
not to waver between options, but bravely to seize what is true.
Not in the flight of thoughts, but only in the deed is freedom.
Stamp out fearful hesitation in the tumult of events;
be carried only by God’s command and your faith,
and freedom will receive your spirit with exultation.

Suffering

A marvellous transformation: those strong, active hands
are now bound. Powerless and alone, now you see the result of
All your activity. Yet with a sigh you lay your claims
silently and confidently in a stronger hand, and are content.
But for a moment did you touch the blessing of freedom,
then you gave it back to God, that he might perfect it in glory.

Death

Now, come, highest feast on the road to everlasting freedom.
Death, throw down the heavy chains and prison walls
of our mortal body and blinded soul,
that we at last may see what here is only confusion in our eyes.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, action, and suffering.
Now dying, we recognize you in the face of God.
translated Kile Smith

Anthem: Tune “Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein”

A medieval dance tune which Martin Luther adapted to his versified version of the core message of his Reformation gospel: salvation by faith and the freedom of all Christians from the power of evil. English translation of verse 1 and 5:

Facsimile image from the first printed humnbook

From the ‘Enchirdion’, the first printed hymnbook, Erfurt: Georg Rhau 1524; the only surviving copy is kept in the Ratsbibliothek Goslar; more on this in this presentation

 

Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein,
und lasst uns fröhlich springen,
dass wir getrost und all in ein
mit Lust und Liebe singen,
was Gott an uns gewendet hat
und seine süße Wundertat;
gar teu’r hat er’s erworben.

Er sprach zu seinem lieben Sohn:
„Die Zeit ist hier zu erbarmen;
fahr hin, meins Herzens werte Kron,
und sei das Heil dem Armen
und hilf ihm aus der Sünden Not,
erwürg für ihn den bittern Tod
und lass ihn mit dir leben.“

1 Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice,
With exultation springing,
And with united heart and voice
And holy rapture singing,
Proclaim the wonders God has done,
How His right arm the vict’ry won,
What price our ransom cost Him!

5 God said to His beloved Son:
“It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of My crown,
And bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free;
Slay bitter death for them that they
May live with You forever.”