Scott’s Column: Lofty Dignity
Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
November 7 2017
For our Reformed series this autumn, I’ve enjoyed reading a few works by Martin Luther. My favourite has been The Freedom of a Christian. During his discussion of the priesthood of the believer, I was surprised by an idea in these thrilling lines:
Who then can comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian? By virtue of his royal power he rules over all things, death, life, and sin, and through his priestly glory is omnipotent with God because he does the things which God asks and desires, as it is written, “He will fulfill the desire of those who fear him; he also will hear their cry and save them.” To this glory a man attains, certainly not by any works of his, but by faith alone.
That Christians share in the divine glory is an ancient idea, but I had never read someone claiming that we shared in God’s omnipotence or ruled over life and death!
Aside from this intriguing theological idea, one thrills to a celebration of the “lofty dignity of the Christian.” And for me that idea resonates with later philosophical developments.
This semester I’m teaching the sophomore Ethics course again at Creighton, so around the same time I was reading Luther I was also preparing to teach the ethics of Immanuel Kant. And for the first time I grasped Luther as an influence upon Kant.
In the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant gives a secular argument for human freedom and bases our freedom in our being autonomous, rational beings who can legislate the moral law for ourselves. Kant’s defense of human dignity is the underpinning for international human rights law.
Kant asks, “But suppose there were something whose existence in itself had absolute value, something which as an end in itself could support determinate laws.” What might that be? “There is such a thing! It is a human being!”
Kant argued that humans should only obey a moral law they have freely chosen for themselves, though he also believed that all rational beings, following the rules of reason, would arrive freely at the same moral laws. In the process he talks about the sovereignty of human beings and calls us the “supreme lawgiver.” I explain to my classes that Kant believed so in the dignity and autonomy of human beings that he used language to describe us that was traditionally reserved for God.
And so I enjoyed seeing how Luther, 265 years before Kant, had connected the notions of freedom and human dignity. From the 16th century, we can trace Luther’s world altering theological idea about the priesthood of the believer, through Kant’s 18th century philosophy, to the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.