Liberty and Rights in Light of the Reformation and Enlightenment Traditions


Liberty and Rights in Light of the Reformation and Enlightenment Traditions

Rev. Scott A. Ashmon, Ph.D., Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, Concordia University Irvine;
Daniel van Voorhis, Ph.D., Assistant Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Associate Professor of History and Political Thought, Concordia University Irvine;

How does an individual, specifically a Christian individual, navigate the increasingly complex landscape of rights and liberties in modern America? Often, it seems, we are presented with vague notions of a two-kingdom theory, which is neither a concrete doctrine nor particularly clear in application. In trying to find a middle ground, we have to navigate a tension where it is hard to grasp adequately either side. Take for instance the modern implications over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Originally signed during the Clinton administration in 1993 it was seen as a step towards eliminating discrimination against minority religions (e.g., the use of Peyote by Indian tribes or the right to various religious hairstyles and dress in the workplace). However, with the passing of the Affordable Health Care Act it has become a tool to protect institutions from offering certain benefits to employees, their services, or employing certain people. In response to certain civil liberty issues, organizations such as the ACLU have recently rescinded their support for the RFRA.

With issues pertaining to the rights of the church, faith-based institutions, and freedom of conscience, Christians will likely find themselves in a bind over whether to support civic freedoms or to oppose them for the good of society as a whole. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “religious right” have conflated Christian and American values and notions of freedom and rights to the detriment of both. While this article does not offer concrete political platforms, it will suggest a Lutheran Christian view of liberty and rights in the modern American, post-Enlightenment tradition that provides a way forward as we consider our Christian responsibilities to love our neighbor, to obey the government, and to thoughtfully situate ourselves in the tension caused by our Christian and American identities. First, we need some background.

The Lutheran Christian Tradition

Christians navigating tensions between American liberty and rights do well to reflect on Christian liberty and rights in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1520 Martin Luther wrote a letter to Pope Leo X, The Freedom of a Christian, “contain[ing] the whole of Christian life in brief form.” Here Luther summarizes the Christian life with this seeming paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”1

Luther’s letter addresses good works and their place in Christian life. Moving from the “inner man” to the “outer man” Luther explains that the soul must be renewed by God before a person can produce good works. As sinners, people are incapable of fulfilling God’s commandments to trust Him and to love their neighbors (Romans 3:10–12, 23). This means that attempts at civic virtue or obedience to God do not make us righteous and cannot save us because we fail to fulfill God’s commands. Instead, salvation—or, freedom from sin and its consequence, death—comes to us by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (John 1:12; Romans 1:17 and 10:4, 9–10). In being united with Christ by “the wedding ring of faith” (Ephesians 5:26–27, 31–32), Christ takes our “sins, death, and damnation” upon himself and gives us his “grace, life, and salvation.”2

In this great exchange, Christians also receive Christ’s status as kings and priests (1 Peter 2:9). Christians are lords of all in spiritual matters because God makes everything subject to them to serve their salvation (Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 3:21–23). This makes Christians the “freest of kings.”3 At the same time, Christians are priests who pray for their neighbors and teach people God’s Word.

Good works are part of the Christian life, but only as the fruit of faith (Matthew 7:18). Truly virtuous actions arise from the New Adam or New Eve in Christ. These righteous deeds are done joyfully and naturally for the benefit of others in response to the Gospel, not as flawed deeds done for one’s own advantage. This “being a perfectly free lord of all” makes the Christian’s actions the “freest of works.”4

Contrary to the prevailing teaching of Luther’s time, our efforts of love do not perfect faith to attain salvation for the self. Instead, “faith is truly active through love” (Galatians 5:6) for the benefit of the neighbor. The Christian, then, does nothing from selfishness, but humbly serves others as Christ did (Philippians 2:1–8). In this way, Christians have the “freest service” since they are liberated from sin and selfishness for true love.5 Indeed, because God in Christ has freely and mercifully provided people with “all the riches of righteousness and salvation” they need, believers should eagerly respond by giving themselves “as a Christ” to their neighbors, submitting their will to the well-being of others “in the freedom of love,” and only doing what is “necessary, profitable, and salutary” for others.6

How does this inform liberty and rights in civic life? Luther addresses this in his 1523 treatise, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed. While Christians, being New Adams or New Eves in Christ, do not need the government to secure peace and curb injustice among themselves, their non-Christian neighbors do. The Christian, who is called through the Gospel to love all, is “under obligation to serve and assist” the government for the benefit of others.7 “Love constrains” Christians to use their liberty to engage in civic life, not for their advantage, but to serve their neighbors’ needs.8

This radical liberty for love unfolds further when Luther tells Christian citizens to endure injustice. For instance, if the government commands Christians to get rid of the Bible and stop believing in Christ, Christian citizens should disobey since God must be obeyed above men (Acts 5:29). Still, because God has established governmental authority (Romans 13), Christians should willingly “suffer” and “endure” any unjust punishments the government gives in return while resisting by confessing the truth. This is done in obedience to God’s command to be subject to the governing authorities, and in faith that God, the true judge, will work through other instruments or agents to deliver them.9 One also detects here the posture of Christ, who humbly suffered our injustice while waiting in faith for God’s deliverance in the resurrection.

This radical liberty for love is also seen in Luther’s advice to Christian princes and lords when adjudicating cases of restitution. Here Luther unfurls the Golden Rule of Rights.

For nature teaches—as does love—that I should do as I would be done by [Luke 6:31]. Therefore, I cannot strip another of his possessions, no matter how clear a right I have, so long as I am unwilling myself to be stripped of my goods. Rather, just as I would that another, in such circumstances, relinquish his right in my favor, even so should I relinquish my rights. 10

For Christians, the “law of love”11 in response to the Gospel of Christ should move them to consider the valid rights of others as more important than their own. They should willingly waive their just rights for the benefit of others, just as they wish others would do and as Christ did for them.12

Luther is the church’s pivotal thinker between the medieval world and the modern age.13 To translate Luther’s thought into a modern context we must realize the chasm between modern views and Luther’s assumptions about government, which are largely based on royalist/imperialist presumptions without democratic tendencies and the view that individuals are fundamentally sinful. These two assumptions were later challenged by an Enlightenment program of creating the modern state with general contract theories and laws that did not always presume to be in line with natural law.

The Enlightenment Traditions14

The Enlightenment, since its canonization as a distinct era by Immanuel Kant’s late-eighteenth century essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” has served as both a cultural and theological totem, representing either the destruction of traditional conservative thought or as the beginning of a golden age of progressive thought.15 However, it appears that one’s interpretation of the Enlightenment can be found as much in one’s marshalling of facts as it can in one’s intellectual and political tradition.16 It is impossible here to lay out the battles, philosophical and historiographical, that took place between the Reformation and the age of Napoleon, but we can consider two poles in relatively modern literature that help tease out the basic arguments.

Peter Gay, in his National Book Award winning The Enlightenment, An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism, famously equated the Enlightenment with the French philosophes of the eighteenth century.17 By equating the movement with D’Alembert, Diderot, Voltaire, and others, Gay drew the ire of those who found the Enlightenment as beginning in Britain with Bacon and cresting with Hume or culminating in Germany with Lessing and Kant.18 Furthermore, by giving his work the provocative subtitle of “The Rise of Modern Paganism” he further alienated those who saw the Enlightenment as a movement destructive of tradition. Some, following the Reformation historiographical tradition, sought to cobble together a “Counter Enlightenment” following the thought of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.19 These later objections and the proposal of an equally vigorous “Counter Enlightenment” may have inadvertently cemented the predominant and oversimplified view of the Enlightenment as essentially a pro-liberal skepticism that is both anti-authoritarian and opposed to religious tradition.

This prevailing simplification was taken to task by J.G.A. Pollock, who suggested that the impasse over the breadth and motives of the Enlightenment be taken care of by simply removing the definite article.20 Thus, there is not “the” Enlightenment, but rather Enlightenments. With this swift edit Burke, Hume, De Maistre, Spinoza, Bayle, and Pascal might all be afforded room to breathe without being crowded by overarching banners, theories, or a transnational camaraderie.

Nevertheless, there are certain non-negotiable historical realities. For example, between the Renaissance and the French Revolution, the predominant theory of government shifted from royalist to republican. First, radical ideas about republicanism in Europe became the basis for various contract theories from Hobbes to Pascal. Second, the authors who came to tower over their contemporaries and retained broad significance in posterity were Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, and those who wrote the definitive papers of both the American and French Revolutions.

It is more difficult, however, to deal with the definition of our topic, “liberty,” between the Reformation and the modern age. Without taking sides on the overly complex and tedious issue of “the” Enlightenment, it is clear that the idea of liberty (and of most political or social movements) between the Reformation and the modern age changed. Liberty changed from being understood in light of a royalist presupposition to an assumption of general contractual bonds—either a priori and strongly magisterial as in Hobbes or radically open to the desires of the people coupled with restraints of only a general will as in Rousseau.

Eighteenth century geographic and political contexts are also important for understanding Enlightenment thought. The eighteenth century French philosophes were dealing with the house of Bourbon and a tradition of resistance that went back to Beza and the French Wars of Religion. The English were placated with their own revolution in 1688, and the works of Locke and others reinforced a general sense of keeping in line with either an ancient tradition or natural law. Additionally, the effects of the diaspora of British religious and political dissenters (many from the Protestant and Scottish philosophical tradition) were felt in the American colonies as new universities became havens of neo-classical and republican thought through the Scottish Common Sense tradition championed by Frances Hutcheson and Thomas Reid.

These three contexts and their traditions can be used as a framework for understanding Enlightenment notions of liberty that persist today. First, the Philosophe tradition is the radically anti-royalist position that found its expression in Rousseau and a concept of a “General Will.” The General Will locates its most broadly applicable ideas in the Social Contract and its most radical expression in revolution, regicide, and the guillotine. The second, or English, tradition (not to be conflated and confused with the wider British context that included the Scots and Irish) was formulated on the heels of a seventeenth century civil war and regicide. It corresponded with the less malleable and pro-traditional tendencies of the British constitution.21 This tradition is most famously explicated in Locke’s Two Treatises, but had antecedents in Bacon as a tradition that balanced reason, revelation, common law, and experience. The third tradition is, properly speaking, Scottish but found its culmination in what has been called “the great seminary of dissent”: the American Founding tradition. This tradition is grounded in the unique historical moment of a novus ordo seclorum (“new order of the ages”) and a redefining of republicanism. In the words of the Federalist Papers:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.22

This American Founding tradition saw an inheritance of classical Greek and Roman constitutionalism together with a wholly new rational devotion (tinged with Puritan ethos) to build a republic of “reflection and choice” that is also bound to Jefferson’s purposefully vague recognition of “God and nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence.

If there is anything overarching in these three traditions, it is by co-incidence of history. Having moved beyond the previous notions about the divine right of kings in a loose Western empire, they all broke with the tradition of royalism that both the Renaissance and Reformation assumed to some extent.

A Fourth Way

In the modern American context, citizens have a tough task navigating liberty and rights. There is not one Enlightenment tradition to engage with in this republic, but at least three that citizens appeal to in wrestling with civic issues. A question that Christians need to ask is this: Which Enlightenment tradition of liberty should I support?

The answer(s) to this question should be informed by Christian liberty. The individual Christian is called by the Gospel to love her/his neighbors. Freedom in Christ obligates or binds the Christian to the law of love. Christians are also obligated to submit to the government, especially since their involvement helps their non-Christians neighbors who need the government to secure peace and curb injustice among them (Romans 13). But, as Luther points out, this submission is not to be equated with quietism, but an active engagement in civic life. In our American context, our Christian liberty to serve our neighbor informs our civil liberty to serve others—both Christians and non-Christians. This means that we have the right to debate, lobby, and vote for what we see as the best form of civil liberty and rights for our neighbors’ benefit. Again, the question is, Which Enlightenment tradition best serves my neighbors’ needs?

In wrestling with this, Christians need to remember that no political system will usher in utopia. Only God’s re-creation of the heavens and the earth will make everything “very good” again (Revelation 21) as it was in the beginning (Genesis 1). We also need to remember that our common human freedom in creation gives us the freedom to form culture, which includes government. Robert Kolb helpfully applies our Christian liberty to forming culture and government:

Christians are always ready to exercise imagination and freedom … in order to construct a new process for progress, and to discard it when it does not serve its purpose. For the goal of Christian political action is service to the neighbor, not the securing of the future through some human program or party. Indeed, this freedom is exercised … within God’s plan for human living. It is bound to service and love as God has structured, defined, and envisioned them. But Christians recognize how many options God has given them for achieving His horizontal, temporal will within the structures of humanity as He designed it.23

Given this freedom to choose, build, and act politically upon what is best for our neighbors, Christians should look beyond those three Enlightenment traditions to a fourth way of living when considering their individual interactions in society. The Christian tradition of liberty and rights expounded by Luther presents a Christ-like way for them to live by within the Enlightenment and American contexts. How can we use our Christian liberty and rights for the welfare of our neighbors? Where should we give up our constitutional liberty and rights to serve our neighbors’ genuine needs? This radical form of liberty and rights could provide a powerful witness to the Gospel of Christ in the public square and invigorate the American discussion of “liberty and justice for all.”


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Luther’s Works (hereafter LW), ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 31:343–44. This and other standard Luther readings are widely available online and in selected anthologies of his works. See for example Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, edited by John Dillenberger (Anchor, 1958).
[2] LW 31:351–52.
[3] LW 31:355.
[4] LW 31:360.
[5] LW 31:365.
[6] LW 31:367, 369.
[7] LW 45:95.
[8] LW 45:98. Luther’s language of being obligated and constrained to love others continues to orient Lutheran Christian ethics today. Two quotes illustrate the abiding impact. First, “Christians are called to responsibility as they live out their central vocation as baptized persons. Furthermore, Christians are called to responsibility in the shaping of institutions (political, economic, legal, military, education, religious, etc.) that are just and equitable” (Craig L. Nessan, “Reappropriating Luther’s Two Kingdoms,” Lutheran Quarterly 19 [2005]: 307–308). Second, “Believers are always God’s forgiven children, and they are always bound and called to serve the neighbor” (Robert Kolb, “Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ Revisited: The Christian Life, Simultaneous in Both Dimensions,” in Christ and Culture in Dialogue: Constructive Themes and Practical Applications, ed. Angus J. L. Menuge [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999], 115).
[9] LW 45:107, 112, 124–25. Althaus, summarizing Luther’s position, says, “The government has been directly established by God and is directly responsible to God. Therefore, God is its only judge. Revolution and rebellion against the political authority thus constitute an encroachment on God’s juridical function. God will punish those officials who use their authority to tyrannize their people … . God uses one scoundrel to punish another.” Also, “It is the Christian’s vocation to suffer injustice and to hope in God, just as the patient psalmists did—and God will then certainly give victory to their cause.” Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 131, 145. See further Robert Kolb on Luther’s arguments for the right of lower magistrates to offer armed resistance against the emperor in “Luther on Peasants and Princes,” Lutheran Quarterly, Vo. XXIII (2009)
[10] LW 45:127–28.
[11] The New Testament expression, “law of love,” is an important theme we cannot address in this article. Two texts to begin with are Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8. For further discussion, see Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, Chapter 2, “The Knowledge of God’s Commands.”
[12] As Luther says, “Where wrong cannot be punished without greater wrong, there let him waive his rights, however just they may be” (LW 45:124).
[13] See for example Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther’s World of Thought (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005) and Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Image, 1992).
[14] In this section on the Enlightenment, we mention several of the “usual suspects” in this section from Theodore Beza to Baruch Spinoza, though without detail. Consult the footnotes below or use an internet search for quick reference.
[15] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment,” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press 2003), 154.
[16] James Schmidt, “Enlightenment as Concept and Context” Journal of the History of Ideas 75, no. 4 (2014): 685.
[17] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 3.
[18] Jonathan Israel “Forward” in Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[19] A useful, but sometimes uneven and provincial approach to a “Counter Enlightenment” is Christopher Olaf Blum, ed. and trans., Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003). See also James Schmidt, “The Counter-Enlightenment: Historical Notes on A Concept Historians Should Avoid,” Eighteenth Century Studies 49, no. 1 (2015): 83-86.
[20] J.G.A. Pocock, “Historiography and Enlightenment: A View of Their History,” Modern Intellectual History 5, no. 1 (2008): 83.
[21] Unlike the Constitution of the United States of America, the British constitution is unwritten in one single document and, as such, is referred to as an uncodified constitution in the sense that there is no single document that is identified as Britain’s constitution.
[22] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Richard Beeman (New York: Penguin, 2012), 1. This citation is attributed to Alexander Hamilton.
[23] Kolb, “Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ Revisited,” 117.

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