The Relation of Forensic and Nuptial Metaphors

in Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian


by John Drury


Luther uses a wealth of metaphors to capture the relationship between Christ and Christians.  Not only are these metaphors spread about his corpus, but also appear side-by-side within the same treatise.  Two such metaphors – the forensic and the nuptial – are used together in Luther’s treatise The Freedom of a Christian.  The marriage metaphor expresses the unity of Christ and the Christian: “The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom” (60).  In the same context, the marriage metaphor is understood in forensic terms: “it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil” (60).  What is the relationship of these two metaphors?  Which one is primary?  Which one interprets the other? 

I would like to suggest four possible relationships between the two metaphors.  The first two are disjunctive, while options three and four are inclusive.  The first possibility is that the forensic metaphor excludes any independent significance of nuptial imagery (F Ú M). One could point to passages where the marriage seems to simply stand in for the legal exchange of property: “Now just as Christ by his birthright obtained these two prerogatives, so he imparts them to and shares them with everyone who believes in him according to the law of the abovementioned marriage, according to which the wife owns whatever belongs to the husband” (63, italics mine).  Although the legal aspect of marriage should not be overlooked, the language of union, impartation, and sharing found in the same context limit its grasp of the whole.  The forensic, therefore, does not exclude the nuptial.

The second possibility is that the nuptial metaphor excludes any independent significance of forensic imagery (M Ú F).  One could note Luther’s strong language of mystical union: “Christ and the soul become on flesh” (60) and “[b]y the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s” (61).  Although the nuptial metaphor clearly dominates the language of The Freedom of a Christian, one is forced to suppress the obvious legal aspect of the marriage.[i]  Clearly the two disjunctive options do not make sense of the apparent coexistence of forensic and nuptial metaphors in Luther.

The third possibility is that the forensic metaphor includes the nuptial metaphor (F Ì M).  Legal language explains the nuptial, but without explaining it away.  The difference between this and the first option lies in its ability to allow the nuptial metaphor to do its work.  This is an attractive possibility, for legal language plays such a significant role in Luther’s corpus and especially in his discussions of the unquestionably forensic term “justification.”  However, the forensic metaphor breaks down at the precise point where the nuptial metaphor keeps working.  Before either metaphor is introduced, Luther speaks in vivid terms of union: “how much more will this most tender spiritual touch, this absorbing of the Word, communicate to the soul all things that belong to the Word” (58).  Luther uses similar language when speaking later in nuptial terms.  The imagery of the courtroom simply cannot carry the concept of union as well as the vision of marriage can.  Forensic imagery has its place, but it is not a master-metaphor capable of containing and explaining nuptial imagery.

The final option is that the nuptial metaphor includes the forensic (M Ì F).  It has already been shown that legal and nuptial imagery are found within the same context.  Furthermore, the explanatory power of the marriage metaphor has been shown to exceed that of the courtroom metaphor.  In light of the primacy of the concept of union in this and other works of Luther, I suggest that forensic metaphors are best understood against the backdrop of the metaphor of marriage.  This is not to say, as option two suggested, that forensic language has no independent significance.  Rather, that the legal relationship between Christ and the Christian is akin to the legal aspect of marriage itself.  Hence Luther’s marriage metaphor may include his forensic metaphor without loosing the significance of either of these two great images.





[i] This is the risk run by much of recent Finnish interpretation of Luther.  See Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) as well as Scott Hendrix, “Martin Luther’s Reformation of Spirituality,” Lutheran Quarterly 13:3 (1999) 249-270, esp. 258.