Tom Minor Luther’s ‘Middle Path’ for the ‘inner Christian’ of the Middle Ages Luther, as debtor to his brethren, feels “…bound to take thought for them, that fewer of them may be ruined, or that their ruin may be less complete, by the plagues of Rome.” Addressing Pope Leo X, Luther’s letter ‘Concerning Christian Liberty’, can be read as a treatise on the pitfalls and privileges of Christian life. Luther puts forward several compelling arguments to distinguish between the outwardly deceptive Christian comportment of the unbelievers and the inwardly authentic Christian pursuit of faith, and freedom through strong, unmovable belief in the nuptials between God and man. From the outset, it is clear that the target of Luther’s wrath is no less than the entire Roman State and the formerly holy Church of Rome, that he likens to a “…lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell…”—not excluding, of course, the Pope himself. Such is Luther’s disdain for his chapter of religious authority that he believes the antichrist himself could not “… devise any addition to its wickedness.” For Luther, the Pope epitomizes the disgraceful decent of man, into the profanities of worshipping idols and living in vain glorification, quoting Isaiah who says ‘…they that call thee blessed are themselves deceiving thee.’ Luther believes that no man can be raised above councils or the ‘universal Church’, who alone may interpret the Holy Scriptures. Such desirous ascent would only be sought through the impiety of those seeking gain from the Church for the order of Satan, as Luther states: “Let not those men deceive you who pretend that you are lord of the world; who will not allow any one to be a Christian without your authority; who babble of your having power over heaven, hell, and purgatory. These men are your enemies and are seeking your soul to destroy…” With this one can gage Luther’s utter ambivalence to the established hegemony, something which is further supported when he writes in his letter, addressed to the head of the Roman Church: “Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful, than the Court of Rome?” These examples can be seen to represent one extreme path, indeed, a common one, in the ruling ranks of Luther’s Roman Court, that he believes is definitely not the path to freedom that ‘true’ Christians should walk. Despite Luther’s obvious despair with the status quo of his epoch—with regards to the Church and indeed, the Kingdom of God—he vehemently advocates faith, especially for the ‘ignorant’. It would appear that Luther’s main incentive for his polemic attack on the Pope and everything he represents, is the common man; too many of whom have been “…drawn down to hell by these snares”. These ‘snares’ are a reference to the traps and tricks of the deceived ones. The common man, ignorant in his faith, represents the extreme polar opposite path, again, not to be trodden, but this time Luther feels it is his duty to save these waylaid common folk, to protect them from the vices of the men following the alternate extreme path of blasphemous idol worship. He sets out two propositions relating to ‘spiritual liberty’ and ‘servitude’ and even before examining these two ideas, we can see that a central element in Luther’s conception of freedom involves a symbiosis of these two concepts. Why else would he opt to present such a pair as the driving force of his
letter? To explain these apparently contradictory statements, Luther quotes Paul: ‘Though I be free from all men, yet I have made myself servant unto all (1 Cor. ix. 19)’, and: ‘Owe no man anything, but to love one another (Rom. xiii. 8.)’. Thus, the strongly Christian values of boundless giving and neighbourliness are established as virtues that Luther prescribes to the man who is lost and has fallen from the grace of God and so that he may obtain true Christian liberty. In order to support this faithful symbiosis of pure Christian liberty and service, Luther espouses a twofold theory of man (which could be seen later to evolve into Cartesian dualism): his soul is his inwardly spiritual nature, whereas his body is merely the external flesh. Paul again comes to Luther’s aid: ‘Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day (2. Cor. iv. 16)’. Thus, we are presented with a conflict, one that remains central throughout Luther’s arguments and indeed, the scriptures themselves. We have opposing forces of flesh and spirit lusting against one another and it is not amiss that for Luther, the inward man—the new man of spirit “…becomes justified, free, and a true Christian…” whereas “…none among outward things has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or liberty, nor, on the other hand, unrighteousness or slavery.” Christian righteousness becomes tantamount to freedom in these terms and the emphasis on the inward journey as opposed to any outward manifestation of faith, leaves a tonic in the mouths of only those who seek to find divine justification and liberty of the soul through purely internal, authentic belief in the Christian God. A crucial difference is to be recognized between “…works…done through the body and in the body…since [these]…can be done by any impious person, and only hypocrites are produced by devotion to these things…”, and the act of casting “…everything aside, even speculation, meditations, and whatever things can be performed by the exertions of the soul itself…” which are of no profit anyway. The resolution of this dichotomy comes, according to Luther, from accepting that the only necessary justification for life and Christian liberty is “…the most holy word of God.” Luther’s criterion for freedom is thus conceptualised as the obedience and inculcation of the word of God; something he believes the soul cannot do without. It is through having this ‘word’, within man, that ensures “…all…wants are provided for…since that is the word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of justification, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, or wisdom, of virtue, of grace, of glory, and of every good thing.” Herein, we find the ‘middle path’ along which Luther proposes the true Christian must take inwardly, with little concern for the outward appearance of things. This is to reiterate Luther’s sentiments that souls are not justified by any works, but by faith, and faith alone: “For if it [the soul] could be justified by any other means it would have no need of the word, nor consequently of faith.” Faith is no simple matter for Luther however, in fact, one could read Luther as a proponent of the inward struggle involved in a truly impervious belief in God, for: “…when you begin to believe, you learn at the same time that all that is in you is utterly guilty, sinful, and damnable.” Hence the necessity of the Lutherian belief in Christ and his sacrificial suffrage for mankind, through which man may “…become another man…sins…remitted…justified by the merits of…Christ alone…” A belief— we may say—that can only reign inwardly. It is this distinction between inward and outward man; inward and outward work which seems to give a pass to all those, who
may appear to the extreme sycophants of idolatry to be “…clothed in profane raiment…[and] dwell in profane places…”, but who—by virtue of their inner faith in God and obedience to Lutherian Christian morality—are allowed into the ranks of the believers, who alone will be saved in holy matrimony; eternally to reside in the grace of God. It also disallows the papalists of Leo X’s unholy regime from entering into such a true Kingdom of God, by virtue of their erroneous and unfaithful interest in the outward manifestation of their faith. Luther attempts to identify the correct faith in Christ as independent of the false version, plaguing Rome. The correct care of true Christians involves relinquishing reliance on ‘works’ and adhering to the strength of faith alone. In Luther’s words: “…a right faith in Christ is an incomparable treasure, carrying with it universal salvation and preserving from all evil.” Such an apotropæic treasure, according to Isaiah (Isa. X. 22, 23): “…will fill those who believe with such righteousness that they will need nothing else for justification.” So concerning the liberty of Luther’s Christian, correct faith—and not works—at once justify, liberate and save the soul of man. Man must read the scriptures of the Old Testament and recognize his impotence for good through the precepts that show man what he ought to do. If man despairs at such a realisation, he is to seek elsewhere—through God Almighty—the strength to fulfill His commanding precepts. Should man achieve this, through vital belief in Christ—all grace, justification, peace and liberty will befall him, so say the promises of God belonging to the New Testament. Faith holds decisive power in Luther’s conception of freedom: “…since no work can cleave to the word of God or be in the soul. Faith alone and the word reign in it… such is the soul made by it, just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire, on account of its union with the fire.” Faith, for Luther “…suffices for everything…But if he has no need of works, neither has he need of law; and if he has no need of law, he is certainly free from law.” Luther’s Christian liberty becomes freedom qua faith, the prescription of which is not that men should be “…careless or lead a bad life, but that no on should need the law of works for justification and salvation.” Luther’s Christianity credits ultimate truth and righteousness and absolute goodness to God, through which men’s souls should prepared to fulfill His will and cleave to His promises, never doubting His truth, His justice or His wisdom to “…do, dispose, and provide for all things in the best way.” Through this obedience, man fulfills his universal contract with God, so that he may be free: “Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with eternal righteousness, life and salvation…” Through the holy matrimony of Christ the redeemer and any of the impious laity, all sin is swallowed up by righteousness but this marriage may only be performed internally, as the culmination of a growing faith in God and belief in the “…power and empire of its liberty.” This, Luther says “…is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians…”— achieved only through the middle path, so valued by Luther. He warns against the folly of the foolish pretenders on the other path with a metaphor of a dog running into water with a real price of meat which he loses as he sees it in the reflection of the water. This curious critique is directed, of course at “…those who are now boastfully called popes, bishops, lords…ministers…servants, and stewards…” Egoists, whom to Luther represent a bad system of pompous claims to power within “…a terrible tyranny that no earthly government can be compared to…”
Luther justifies this condemnation with the fact that this perversion of authority had rendered perishable, the whole of Christian faith, liberty and grace, in favour of “…an intolerable bondage to human works and laws…” through which—he laments—men have become enslaved to “…the vilest men on earth, who abuse our misery to all the disgraceful and ignominious purposes of their own will.” It is the pretense that one is justified by laws or good works that is hurtful to the inner man’s liberty and righteousness of faith—this path of pretence is not advisable from a Lutherian perspective. The task of the liberated Christian, walking Luther’s middle path, is, as Luther says: “…to serve God with joy and for nought in free love.” And here our attention is drawn to the conflict mentioned earlier: that in serving God, man collides with a “…contrary will in his own flesh, which is striving to serve the world and to seek its own gratification.” As Paul says: ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin (Rom. vii. 22, 23)’. The message here being that the body and bodily ‘concupiscence’ should be brought under the subjection of the spiritual soul of man. In Luther’s words: “…it comes that, from the requirements of his own body, a man cannot take his ease, but is compelled on its account to do many good works, that he may bring it into subjection. Yet these works are not the means of his justification before God…” It is via the principle of subjection and along the middle path that men must instruct themselves to “…fast, watch, and labour…as much as he sees to suffice for keeping down the wantonness…of the body.” Here again, Luther warns of those of the hypocrite class, who seek justification through the works themselves and not through faith per se: “Thus a Christian…does good works; but he is not by these works made a more sacred person, or more a Christian. That is the effect of faith alone.” Luther makes it clear that these ‘good works’ can only come from a person who’s substance is good, using yet another interesting metaphor: ‘A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit (Matt. Vii. 18).’ Though we are reminded also, that no work is necessary in the justification of the faithful Christian since he, by virtue of his faith, is free from all law and seeks neither profit nor salvation and that “…by the grace of God he is already saved and rich in all things through his faith.” The faith of the middle path, Luther says, is not won easily: “…whence it comes that a man, when humbled and brought to the knowledge of himself by the threatenings and terrors of the law, is consoled and raised up by faith in the Divine promise. Thus ‘…weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (Psalm xxx. 5).’ Nor does this middle path of liberty mean that man is an island unto himself, for according to Luther “…man does not live for himself alone…but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself.” And it is to this end that man brings his body into subjection: “…that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely.” It is clear that it is the duty of the Christian to look after himself, that he may be always equipped to aid others in greater need than himself: his faith is his life, his justification and his saving grace. Luther’s true Christian gives himself to his neighbour, as Christ has given Himself to man: “Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbour voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss…” This is the key to the liberty of the Christian.
Thus the free man, with Christian liberty, must walk the middle path, doing the opposite of the “…hardened and obstinate ceremonialists, who…refuse to listen to the truth of liberty...and urge on us their ceremonies, as if they could justify us without faith….” And sparing the “…simple-minded and ignorant persons, weak in faith… who are as yet unable to apprehend that liberty of faith…”; bearing their infirmity until they can be cleansed of the “…hardened malice…” of the obstinate ceremonialists. To quote Luther: “…though we ought boldly to resist those teachers of tradition….we must spare the timid crowd, who are held captive by the laws of those impious tyrants, till they are set free.” Luther demands that Christian Liberty involves the faithful man, fighting: “…vigorously against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep.” Keeping his liberty a secret before the sheep-like common man, in light of what Paul says: ‘Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God (Rom, xiv, 22)’; and using it in spite of the impious, tyrannical wolves: “…that they too may understand that they are tyrants, and their laws useless for justification…” The essential paradox in Luther’s conception of man is that poverty imperils wealth, business discourages honesty, honours threaten humility, as feasting contradicts abstinence; pleasures deny purity and ceremonies negate faith, yet man must live among all these contradictions. Luther believes that it should be so and that man achieves his Christian liberty through surrendering to his imprisonment amongst such temptations to vice: “…not with the purpose of…being justified or gaining merit…but in order that they might avoid wrong-doing, and be more easily instructed in that righteousness which is by faith, a thing which the headlong character of youth would not bear unless it were under restraint.” So in summary, Luther’s Christian liberty requires a number of things: one’s faith must be inwardly robust and can in no way be justified through works of any kind, but through faith alone; Christian liberty involves ‘spiritual liberty’ and ‘servitude’—through which, men may bring the desires of the body under the subjection of the soul; obedience and internalization of the word of God is a necessity; faith in the precepts and promises of God, as they are written in the bible; marriage with Christ himself and a continuous willingness to fight vigorously against those who blaspheme against the Lord, through their impious ceremonies. A tall order, one should say, for anyone seeking liberty in a Christian sense. Whether one may truly achieve such a freedom through such a prescriptive method, is a matter of subjectivity, but one can see the value of Luther’s doctrine when it is considered within the context of the hegemony he was compelled to react against; surely, Luther would not have endeavoured, so laboriously to lay out his middle path to freedom did he not truly think it necessary or wise to do so. That his doctrine survives in various guises, even today, a staggering five centuries post facto, is testimony to his claim on the spiritual morality of the Christian. Was he correct in thinking these matters through to their full conclusion and concocting a rather dogmatic and insular conception of freedom qua faith in God, again, is left to subjectivity. What is compelling about his words, is at once the polemic nature of his attack of an authority far greater than himself and his own devout quest to re-sanctify, as it were, the remains of the Christian faith, which he saw, at that time as being laid to waste by the papal order of the Roman Church. One could argue, that his middle path still holds value over and above the current hegemony of the Pope, though that has not been the intention of this exegesis.