Between Sanctity and Depravity: Human Dignity in Early Protestant Perspective

13 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2005 Last revised: 7 Mar 2020

Date Written: 2003


This Article argues that Martin Luther's classic tract, Freedom of a Christian (1520) had a shaping influence on modern theories of human dignity, liberty, and equality. For Luther, the essence of human dignity lies in the juxtaposition of human depravity and human sanctity. Human dignity is something of a divine fulcrum that keeps our depravity and sanctity in balance. The essence of human freedom is our right and duty to serve God, neighbor, and self, and to do so with the ominous assurance of divine judgment. Human freedom is the divine calling that keeps our individuality and community in balance. While Luther did not draw out the radical implications of his theory for law, politics, and society, later Protestants did, eventually rendering Protestantism a formidable force for the construction of modern Western theories of law, liberty, and democracy.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian, Dignity, Freedom, Equality, International Human Rights, Dignitatis Humanae, Cain and Abel, Image of God, Rights and Duties

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Between Sanctity and Depravity: Human Dignity in Early Protestant Perspective (2003). Robert P. Kraynak and Glenn Tinder, eds., In Defense of Human Dignity: Essays for our Times (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 119-138, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)

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