Tuesday, February 24, 2009


A day late... and a dollar short, too, I suppose (though I don't know what that would mean in this context). I have an open question for today's post, something that I have not thought about extensively myself but which is currently bothering me. First, a little background.

My Reformations class is currently looking at Luther and those who followed (or ceased to follow) him. Today, we talked a little bit about the conflicts between Luther and Karlstadt. Both were professors at the University of Wittenburg. They began as rivals, then Karlstadt was convinced by Luther's arguments and became his follower. However, their ideas quickly began to diverge, and eventually they parted ways entirely, on none-too-friendly terms. One of the conflicts between Luther and Karlstadt, as among any reformers, was the question of how to implement reform.

This is a sketch in very rough strokes (and I'm no expert), but it seems that Luther was much more interested in gradual change, taking into account the effect that his radical changes would have on many of those around him. As one of my professors put it last semester, Luther was theologically radical, but liturgically conservative; even though his theology led to profound changes in practice, he was cautious in instituting those changes because of his pastoral concern for those who would be affected. Karlstadt, on the other hand, was passionate that these changes (in liturgy, society, academia, etc.) must take place immediately, at any cost. Those who disagreed had to be forced to see the truth.

The issue (okay, one of the issues) at stake was that of Christian freedom. Both Luther and Karlstadt were profoundly affected by this idea, which in a nutshell states that, because God has already saved through grace, the Christian is utterly free, no longer bound by sin or death or anything else. (It is important to note that this concept was closely tied by Luther to an idea of service, leading him to say that the Christian is "servant to none" and simultaneously "servant to all".) Since Christians are free, they should not be constrained by law or any authority, papal or secular. For Karlstadt, this meant that he could throw all caution to the wind in implementing the reforms he saw necessary. As a result, there were numerous riots and other violent conflicts that took place. It was as though these reformers were saying, "We know the truth now, so we will force it on everybody else, like it or no."

Luther did not approve of this violent approach, although I'm not certain exactly what he would have done differently. However, the principle of Christian freedom, if taken to its extreme (as the reformers did), faces a contradiction in the model of Karlstadt: for Karlstadt, his freedom was absolute, but the freedom of those who disagreed with him was limited. True Christian freedom means that the reformers must be free to make reforms, but equally, the conservatives must be free to deny those reforms. Or to put it more bluntly: You are free to reform the church, but you must also admit the freedom of others to pigheadedly ignore your arguments for reform.

It seems that there is a similar problem in some Christian theology today, though it is not generally as violent as it was in the 16th century. We may feel that freedom should be a universal right for all; but that means we must also allow that freedom for those who would deny our view of freedom. We must be willing to admit that even those who resist reform have just as much Christian freedom as we do. How, then, is any reforming to get done? Perhaps certain groups or certain geographic areas can agree on a reform sooner than others; but the lines are not always drawn so clearly. In the ELCA, there has been a lot of what might be considered "pussyfooting" with regard to difficult issues present in the church today (such as gay marriage, ordination of gays, abortion, and so on)—the church is trying to make room for the freedom of both sides. However, this seems like it can only be a temporary measure, so I wonder how we can preserve our idea of Christian freedom without forcing some to feel marginalized or compelled.

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