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Exploring Freedom. A Conversation between FLOSS-Culture and Theological Practices of Freedom

The Freedom of a Christian entails concrete practices of freedom. In order to unveil this connection, this paper compares practices of the "Free Software Movement" with key insights of the Reformation and how Protestantism develops its theology.

Published onNov 11, 2019
Exploring Freedom. A Conversation between FLOSS-Culture and Theological Practices of Freedom


“If contemporary theology has a central theme at all, it is Christian freedom.”1 With this statement, the German theologian Eberhard Jüngel highlights the foundational role of the concept of ‘freedom’ in theological discourse. And while, forty years later, there are still numerous scholars who would agree with Jüngel’s sentence, it is crucial to investigate which role freedom plays in dogmatic and ethical inquiry beyond claims of subjective independency and personal sovereignty.

In this paper, I want to examine how every conceptualization of freedom intertwines with the social practices and structures it entails. In order to do so I will describe the phenomenon of Free Software and the ‘Free-Libre-Open-Source-Software’ (FLOSS) cultures it has shaped.2 Irrespective of theology, the Free Software Movement has successfully developed ways to implement its distinct notion of freedom as a mode of cooperative engagement in the creative processes of software development.

After explaining the specific aspects of these practices and how freedom is performed within this field, I will examine resembling structures in the field of Protestant theology, where there exists an analogous intertwining between the notion of the ‘Freedom of a Christian’ and concrete theological practices of freedom that derive from this statement. I will examine the pneumatological implications on each level of these localisations, which will result in a freedom-based understanding of how theological knowledge is produced.

The free software license

What is today known as Free Software began with Richard Stallman’s founding of the GNU-project and with his vision to create of a fully functional operating system without copyright restrictions. His main concerns were a participatory and innovative mode of software development as well as the granting of non-restrictive access to the very core of all computer programs: the source code.

By developing his idea of Free Software (“think of free speech, not free beer”3), Stallman introduced a concept of freedom that applied directly to the very practices of software developers. Of course, ultimately Stallman was not only concerned about the freedom of developers, but of everyone living in an information based society. In fact, the ideology that drives the Free Software Movement even today largely consist of a quasi-eschatological vision of commonly shared knowledge and of a just society free of restricted access to intellectual goods.

The Free Software Movement understood that, in order to address the freedom of humans, it was necessary to center the discussion around the involved medium, the source code. It is thus mainly concerned with the freedom of software, in which users participate through various modes of interaction.

But Free Software doesn’t just approach freedom as a distinct practice of writing code; it also engages the question of how these practices can be sustained and structurally secured. By inventing and using ‘free licenses’ (such as the General Public License, GPU, in its several versions), the movement introduced a powerful instrument that promised to provide a legal framework both for the moral visions and the pragmatic dimensions of free software development. It is an ironic incident, then, that law-like licenses have become the very epitome of freedom of FLOSS.4

At the core of most free software licenses are four paragraphs that state the basic principles of free software:

  1. Users can freely use the software for any purpose. This is the most essential statement of the license.

  2. Users are free to examine and adapt the software to their own needs. This implies that free software is shipped as open source, in contrast to proprietary software distribution of binary code, which won’t allow the user to study its inner mechanisms and the way it was conceptualized.

  3. Users are not only allowed to customize but also to redistribute the software, with or without additional modifications.

  4. While users can improve the software, extend its functions, and make it easier to use, they are obliged to share those modifications with the public. This of course also means that the source code of this redistributed new ‘version’ needs to be publicly available.

Although licences like this challenge many juridical systems with respect to intellectual property, they have achieved a major transition in the way authorship of software and other intellectual inventions is assigned: It is no longer a question of property but a question of engaging in a solution-seeking community.

The GPL has now been a reference license for free and open software for over thirty years, but it has also been at the core of great disputes among the community and sometimes is even seen as the dividing line between distinct ideological groups within FLOSS.

Extremely fast-growing developer communities arose, driven by the goal of defeating proprietary software, which had become the industrial standard for at least two decades. Several operating systems (best known are GNU/Linux and BSD) were developed and licensed as free software. And despite the unquestionable success of Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX in desktop computing, a huge amount of Free Software projects have emerged, developing software for nearly every purpose. The fact that most of the internet’s infrastructure, the implementations of several standards within communications technology, and the core (kernel) of every Android and iOS-device is nowadays based on Free Software shows that it has become much more than a small counter-movement within hacker communities. Indeed, by establishing complex practices of cooperative and decentralized work driven by this distinct vision of freedom, Free Software has made a deep impact on how our digital world is structured today.

It is crucial to understand that the transformative power of Free Software isn’t only measured by the extent to which its projects have spread. Beyond the undeniable success of the movement in that regard, it is also insightful to investigate the structural consequences and the practical implementation of its very vision of freedom. From a freedom-theoretical perspective, it is remarkable that Free Software has found ways to derive habitually and structurally formative practices from these ideological and legal foundations of freedom.

Recursive Publics and Their Platforms

Free Software licenses understand freedom as a mode of interacting through a certain medium: the medium of code. Freedom in FLOSS is therefore not a goal in itself but a mode of collaborative interaction that takes the structural and habitual necessities into account.5 This can be illustrated by looking at several paradigmatic operational procedures. Free software not only gives anyone who chooses to engage in software development the chance to contribute their own ideas to a specific project, it also provides appropriate platforms and environments that allow developers to work on the same code cooperatively and even simultaneously. Developer communities have invented numerous tools for collective code manipulation for this purpose. The initiative for the creation of these tools came from the core of the Free Software Movement and was driven by the vision of sharing the different capabilities and the highly specific knowledge of a great number of people, required for new and original solutions. They understood that milestones in large scale projects can only be reached with a critical mass of participants.

The most important part of the decentralized development process are ‘version control systems.’6 They are tools that structure the way people collaborate in software development by displaying the process of a project’s growth and thus making the history of co-authored development transparent.

Everyone who has the technical abilities of reading and writing code can engage in the improvement of different parts of a program by implementing new features, fixing bugs and security issues, adapting it to personal needs, or making it easier to use. They can either adjust a program to their own needs or engage in the development community if they consider their ideas beneficial for others.

Depending on the organizational structure of a given project, people can either directly submit their ideas of improvement (into the so called ‘master branch’) or they can submit their suggestions by creating their own new branch. This is the very point that decides whether the freedom of FLOSS leads to a fragmentation of different branches (where everyone starts their own branch) or to a culture of co-dependent joint development. The technical term for this process is ‘pull-request’: handing in a code snipped to the main version of given project. Pull-requests aim at solving existing security-issues and at finding solutions to both known and overlooked problems of a program. They eventually reveal new possibilities for improving the software. Pull-requests can also—in a non-deficient-oriented way—add one’s own sense of creativity to the project, through contributing ideas of further development that entail new functions and directions that would meet the needs of other users.

Generally speaking, pull-requests are initiatives of individuals who want to provide solutions that might be useful for the project by contributing their particular knowledge of how certain issues can be resolved. Contributers need to demonstrate the value of their pull-requests before they are implemented. They can therefore be accompanied by large discussions via mailing-lists or other communication tools and sometimes trigger conflicts within the community.

If others determine the submitted modifications to be valuable to the project, the changes can be merged into the ‘main-branch,’ which is authoritative for big releases. Merging two branches requires a thorough understanding of the specific features of every branch and eventually leads to an expansion of the initial project. However, if the maintainers of the master-branch reject the suggested modifications, it doesn’t imply the end of this particular development branch. If the initial contributor (maybe together with a minority of other users) sticks to the assessment that their contribution is nevertheless valuable, they are free to continue to work on their own branch. In the long run, their modifications might even turn out to be more useful than at first assumed and will eventually be merged into the master-branch after all.7

Merging and branching are counterparts of cooperative development, incorporating high-frequent just-do-it- as well as trial-and-error-habits. They epitomize the differentiation and synthesizing of creative work that remains revocable and open for change.

All of this can be accomplished with decentralized version control systems. The technical functions I have outlined show how the idea of free software has led to the development of platforms that help facilitating the joint efforts of collaborative software development by making the contributions organizable with respect to quality control while they remain highly transparent to the public. Version control systems are thus an essential part of how the legal framework of the GPL is implemented as a practice of collaborative freedom. Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist who has published a book on the habitual practices of FLOSS, sees in developments like these the specific sustainability of the Free Software Movement, which goes beyond its mere ideological foundation: “The ideas of sharing and of common property and its relation to freedom must always be produced through specific practices of sharing, before being defended.”8 Kelty calls these complex interactions, arranged by a specific infrastructural framework, a ‘recursive public’: “Two things make recursive publics distinct: the ability to include the practice of creating this infrastructure as part of the activity of being public or contesting control; and the ability to ‘recurse’ through the layers of that infrastructure, maintaining its publicness at each level without making it into an unchanging, static, unmodifiable thing.”9

For a concept of freedom that is based on the idea of sharing and on cooperative networks such as developer communities, the transparent and revisable development of such platforms establishes the structural base of its practices. Without it, its idea of freedom would be limited to pure potentiality or completely miss an awareness for the requirements of concrete actions of freedom.

Requirements for Participation and Knowledge Communities

So far, I have outlined the emerging structures of collaborative development. These structures manifest the freedom to study and manipulate software code in a communal way. I have shown that the ‘freedom’ of free software isn’t only rooted in the ideological and legal foundations of free licences but also in structurally maintained practices that depend on a critical mass of interaction.

But this interaction does not only happen between a few skilled programmers. The success of FLOSS is based on the fact that it has managed to implement ways for less technically skilled people to participate, for example by translating, sending in bug reports, and responding to user surveys. Even the mere usage of free software has driven the standardization of the internet’s foundational communication protocols (TCP/IP) and data types.10 In other words, both the usage of a given program as well as different forms of its co-development foster the dimensions of freedom that Free Software envisions.

In the following, I want to concentrate on the requirements of active and (co)creative engagement in FLOSS-projects because its strategies of lowering the thresholds of engagement are insightful for a theological adaptation. In FLOSS, these thresholds are mainly localized on the level of abilities: Co-creative participation in the freedom of FLOSS is a question of knowledge, experience, and skills; that is, one needs to know how computer programs are developed, how code is written and how complex projects are designed.11 The learning and teaching of these abilities requires the mutual sharing of knowledge, not only about a given project but also about how to connect and interact with its development community. The simple idea of freedom as a desire for transparency and openness is worthless if people are unable to benefit from it.12

FLOSS-culture realized this from its earliest days and understood that, in addition to its transparency that makes it a recursive public, it must face the challenge of enabling and empowering others. In other words, the mere sharing of code is not enough to produce a liberating effect from the idea of free software.

This is why the ‘Free Software Movement’ has incorporated ways of mutual education since its appearance, evidenced in (sometimes excessive) documentations, highly frequented online forums, and various mailing-lists, all of which often provide a welcoming and supportive environment while fostering the quality of its contributions.13 Freedom of software correlates with sharing knowledge. It is thus not coincidental that the idea of Free Software has influenced other knowledge-based sectors. The invention of a collaborative content management system for documentations, for instance, has set the foundation of today’s most used encyclopedia: The technical infrastructure of Wikipedia is a derivative of what participants of Free Software already used decades ago for documentation purposes and it remains Free Software even today.

The implementation of data-mediated freedom through openness, transparency, and participation has not only transformed the way software is produced but also lead to the creation, evaluation, and spread of knowledge. The rise of Open-Data, Open-Science, and Citizen Science are prosperous examples of the entanglement of qualitative collaborative work with movements focused on education and knowledge.14

However, despite all efforts, it is evident that most implementations of freedom in FLOSS—especially the freedom to manipulate software and become creative in its development—are only performed by a few. Apart from a few enthusiasts, engaging in free software development remains an activity of professionals who are either paid directly to write code or need it for other professional tasks.

But the long-term effect of what FLOSS envisions is enormous, changing the ways people communicate and co-author the narratives of the digital. By inventing its own infrastructural basis of joint efforts, the concept of freedom within free software has affected the life of everyone who uses an online device. This shows how practices of freedom and their effects can be masked anonymously. But it also demonstrates that actively and explicitly offering freedom in and of itself might not be convincing to everyone in the same way—it all depends on how one can make use of it. The prevalence of free software shows that practices of freedom are required to reveal their immediate practical use, to provide reasons why someone should spend the time, energy, and creativity to leave the seemingly safe haven of proprietary software,15 which actually restricts not only developers but also the users in a way that they are often not even aware of.16

The Risk of Competing Visions

The idea of free software developed as a reaction to limited resources, working hours, and technological knowledge, and through the creativity of individuals eager to chase after big visions of technological development. By releasing software under free licenses, people like Linus Torvalds, the inventor of the Linux kernel, opened up development processes to the public. They trusted the positive effects of crowd-based co-creation driven by the commitment of individuals who share their experience and knowledge.

But licensing software under a public domain must not be misunderstood as the simple distribution of programming tasks to an arbitrary public. Although this might be one of the initiator’s interests (especially when FLOSS-practices are adopted by commercial software companies), the consequences of public licences are much more unpredictable. To dispense with copyright is to dispense with one’s exclusive decision-making authority. It implies a switch from a model of ownership to an open process of co-authorship with unforeseen outcomes.

On an individual level, releasing software as Free Software means to take the risk that the very work one values as useful and powerful enough to be published will be criticized, adapted, or even misused by others. Although the main currency of FLOSS-practices is public recognition and reputation, the publication of code snippets requires the admission that the results are open. As described before, this openness to competing imaginations and visions can ultimately lead to division within communities (forking) and is a frequent cause of personal frustration. This can occur due to a lack of response to pull requests into which people have put energy, due to a lack of understanding concerning the demands of a project, or simply because of political issues.17

But FLOSS-practices don’t only reveal individual vulnerabilities. FLOSS-practices have been widely adopted by a lot of software companies, which expect positive effects from encouraging the public to participate in the development of their products.18

Of course, this poses a potential risk to the driving ideological ideas behind Free Software. Its notion of freedom is mediated by software and therefore mainly independent from its engaging subjects. But this makes it highly vulnerable to shifts of power, for instance when whole companies enter the field with a decisive business plan that becomes authoritative.19 Although a free share-alike-license (which demands that further developments have to stay licenced as free) legally guarantees that a FLOSS-project cannot be turned into proprietary software, the funding and organizational leadership of big players still has a strong influence on the dynamics of the project.20 On a small scale, this can influence practices of writing and implementing code; in the long run, specific ideas of a certain company or patron influence the whole project. This certainly corrupts the idea of equally competing visions and the openness of the development process, the most persuasive element of FLOSS.21

That is exactly why the conflict between Open Source and Free Software plays a significant role for the question of how freedom can be sustained. While the Open Source Initiative attaches more significance to the actual practices of collaborative development, the Free Software Movement is additionally concerned with the explicit conception of these practices as practices of freedom. In theological terms, we could call the Free Software Foundation’s implementing and sustaining of practices of freedom its doxology of freedom. Because of it, the Free Software Movement places such great emphasis on the label ‘free,’ which communciates its ideological background and its visionary narrative.22 Sustainability is not a mere wish; the proclaimed vision of a just society is actively carried out through free and collaborative knowledge production. In contrast, Open Source is generally more interested in the direct effects of dealing with the openness of the source code, without missionarily supporting the ideological basis of redeeming societies from proprietarily distributed information. In other words, while Open Source is mainly interested in spreading the concrete practices of FLOSS in order to foster high quality software through the experience and skills of the crowd, Free Software shows a tendency to spread its idea of freedom by directly and deliberately countering proprietary modes of development. It highlights the intertwining of practices of freedom with its praise. It thus doesn’t simply trust in the system-immanent powers of self-spreading freedom, but it openly and directly faces the challenges of commercial occupation and the assimilation of its practices through other ideologies. It incorporates constant and open competitions of different visions through its doxology of freedom.

Theological Resemblances

Free Software is neither a nominalistic claim nor a mere collection of habits of interaction. Rather, as I have shown, Free Software/FLOSS has been able to derive concrete practices and sustain concrete structures from a distinct concept of freedom. This observation marks the initial point of my examination of analogies between Free Software and Protestant theology.

Ever since the Reformation, Protestant theology has referred to certain notions of freedom in order to describe the Christian faith as well as its dogmatic, ethical, and existential implications. In the following sections I want to examine resemblances between the above described structures of intertwining freedom claims and the shaping of practices of theological freedom within Protestantism. For that purpose, the analysis of FLOSS-culture serves as a spotlight for the texture of Protestantism and its embedded practices of freedom. It makes visible certain freedom practices in Protestant theology that resonate with FLOSS and illuminates their respective differences. What follows is an endeavor to search for analogies and contrasts between FLOSS and Protestant theology.

My considerations are based on the observation that practices of freedom in FLOSS are concrete communal (inter)actions. This resembles the Pauline understanding of faith in Christ, which is fostered in communities of faith in the presence of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:5–11, 1. Cor 12:12–30). This faith can only be understood in concrete communal (inter)action. On several occasions, Paul highlights the significance of freedom in Christ, a freedom that inevitably leads to the formation of communities where people come together to serve another with their gifts and virtues. In Galatians, for instance, he refers to the freedom from the obligations of the law and from the desires of the flesh, leading to the fruits of the spirit, which characterize the spirit of the community (Gal 5:13–25). Thus, I am not following the subjectivist idea of negative freedom (as mere independence) in favour of an approach that values openness and co-creativity as characteristic for practises of freedom through faith. Consequently, freedom is understood in its pneumatological and ecclesiological contexts: A biblically oriented theology of freedom is about the implementation of practices of freedom that tend to shape communal existences. This existence is characterized both by an openness to its further development by and for its participants and by the building of structures that foster this very freedom in a communal way.

The Struggle of the Reformation against Proprietary Distributions of Orthodoxy

In a first step I want to analyze specific adjustments of the Reformation as the implementation of practises of freedom, practices that free the promise of salvation by faith from its proprietary distribution. On this first level we can observe similar structures in both contexts: FLOSS and Protestantism will appear to be analogues.

It was the Reformers’ struggle to challenge the copyright of Christian orthodoxy in order to rectify the heretical practice of indulgence trade. The foundational modification performed by the theologians of the Reformation was only possible by implementing a practice of theological freedom that denied the exclusive authority of religious and theological authorship of the Roman Catholic Church.23 This directly resembles Free Software’s paradigm of decentralization in decision-making by denying any sort of copyright and releasing software code into public domains.

In his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther deals with the same issue by questioning the centralized restrictions of the Roman Church of his time from an anthropological and christological perspective. His dialectical argument opposes a soteriology in which salvation is externally restricted and regulated—historically by the religious demands of the Roman Church. In a first step, Luther’s writings on freedom therefore establish the negative freedom of a Christian whose faith frees them from a soteriological point of view. This approach is then constructively developed in two theologoumena, which lead to a positive understanding of freedom and render Protestantism’s vision for theological authorship. It is the combination of the mandatory scriptural principle and the non-restrictive priesthood of all believers that transform the Reformers’s theology of freedom into a mode of doing theology.

The scriptural principle as an epistemological proposition initially leads to what Matthias Gockel has called “a theology of open sources.”24 It constitutes the referential standard for all theological search for truth and dogmatic authorship. Luther’s emphasis on the importance of the linguistic methods of his time shows that theological authorship on the basis of Scripture must be implemented in a controlled, comprehensible, and therefore transparent way.25

The scriptural principle was accompanied by a christologically grounded understanding of priesthood, the second foundational implementation of theological practices of freedom. With reference to 1 Peter 2:9, Martin Luther identified Jesus Christ as the one and only priest. This means that human beings can be called priests only through their participation in Christ.26 This is the root of the theologoumenon of the priesthood of all believers, a concept that creates a general field of tension between the exclusive singularity of priesthood in Christ and its universalisation in all who are baptized. It marks the area in which concrete practices of freedom may be localized in an ecclesiological and pneumatological manner.

While Luther and Calvin advocate for a functionally structured church through the provision of ministry, Ulrich Zwingli, the Zurich Reformer, explicitly offers a distinct pneumatological approach. He takes up Luther’s concept of the freedom of a Christian and emphasizes the significance of the work of the Spirit, which enables human beings to read the Bible as the Word of God without the guidance of the Church—or even against it, if it misses to perform its duties. He therefore identifies the involvement of the non-ordained as a liberation from the moral and clerical restrictions of the Roman Church:

This will help all those who adhere to the Holy Scripture, who stand up to the enemies of the Scripture. So read and understand, open the eyes and ears of the heart! Listen and see what God’s Spirit is saying.27

For Zwingli, the freedom of a Christian therefore establishes human practices of engaging with the Bible, practices that he interprets pneumatologically. Moreover, Zwingli identifies the work of the Spirit within these very processes of religious and theological learning through reading Scripture. This notion later became known as the testimonium spiritus sancti internum (the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit).

He supports this with the confidence that an appropriation of biblical texts is not an arbitrary but a Spirit-led update from which the individual’s understanding of the Word of God derives.

Such a pneumatological interpretation of the theologumena of the scriptural principle and the priesthood of all believers shows parallels to the first two freedom claims of the free-software license, which establlish the freedom to use and to study a given program. Analogous to Zwingli, the liberating work of the Spirit empowers individuals to acquire, study, and interpret the biblical texts. However, in order to turn this empowerment into a freedom practice of the masses, enormous challenges in terms of accessibility have to be faced. Thus, it was only consistent that the Reformation went hand in hand with translations of the Bible, the development of the letterpress, and the encouragement of ordinary people to learn and to read.

However, a mere individual interpretation and application of the biblical texts can only be understood as a first phase of a theology of freedom. After all, Protestantism is characterized not only by the individualization and particularization of religious and theological continuation. The next step, therefore, is to ask about ecclesiological practices of freedom in light of the analysis of FLOSS-culture.

Software/Ecclesia Semper Reformanda

While the history of FLOSS shows how freedom enables individuals to study program code and perform adaptations for their personal needs, it is also engaged in the formation of institutionalized platforms that shape the understanding of the freedom of software. Public version control systems, for instance, are concrete implementations of freedom practices that enable people to engage with each other’s impulses for improvement and development. They are the consistent embodiment of the fact that free software is software semper reformanda. It can only draw on the full potential of its free(ing) license by fostering the creative and competent engagement of a multiplicity of contributors. It relies on adequate environments and an infrastructure that brings those contributions together. To meet this need, FLOSS has created recursive publics, the basis of collaborative evolution, which are able to handle the concrete adjustments in the code by executing pull-requests. We might look for analogous processes within Protestant theology by asking what structural implementations of the freedom of a Christian it has developed to perform the idea of ecclesia semper reformanda.

Protestant traditions offer multiple models for how this theologoumenon can be implemented theologically in the social structure of the church. One of them is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology, which highlights the importance of the mutual sharing of religious experience within the community of the church. Schleiermacher argues that only the rich plurality of individual impressions can approximate the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.28 He also claims that the shared (and therefore supra-individual) religious consciousness of the community is the Holy Spirit itself.

Despite the potential of a fundamentally egalitarian approach to biblical hermeneutics through pneumatological interpretation, most Protestant thinkers have seen the need to organize the complexity of the church, establishing structures that secure its visible persistence. A challange that returns whenever the church has to conquer heretical and harmful influences that would corrupt its nature as a community that derives its communal spirit from its freedom in Christ.29

Within this tension between securing structures and a non-restrictive approach to hermeneutics, it is insightful to look at those ecclesiological approaches that have sought to implement practices of freedom precisley through the institutionalized structures of the church.

One prominent example is the German Lutheran theologian Wolfgang Huber, whose institution-theoretical approach claims that freedom within Christian theology should be understood within a communal paradigm: “It is realized in community and in mutual understanding, in communio and communicatio; thus, it may be called ‘communicative freedom.’”30 That is to say, Huber locates freedom within the concrete shapes and actions of communities that individuals engage in. For Huber, this applies to all sorts of communication within the church, may it be religious, moral, or theological.

The problem with this concept is that there is a lack of concrete implementations of structures that actually promote this communicative freedom and its further development. Huber’s ecclesiology (“church of freedom”) focuses on installing structures of freedom, but it does not develop an adequate concept for ensuring their continuing developmental openness. Although Huber does mentions the tool of language, he doesn’t pay enough attention to the dynamics of power within the empirical church.31

In this context, FLOSS-culture can serve as a contrasting template that shows why Huber’s ecclesiology lacks a proper implementation of practices of freedom. We have seen that practiced freedom is always linked to enabling structures through appropriate platforms (recursive publics). Their important task is to implement circular movements of irritation and external impulses by providing interfaces for individuals to contriute their visions and suggestions for improvement. The most successful of such platforms have emerged from concrete needs and a knowledge of the communicative specifics. The success of FLOSS is based on a bottom-up development principle that relies on the particular, non-restrictive involvement of additional contributors.

An ecclesiology of freedom that seeks to learn from the successful cooperative practices of FLOSS may therefore point to a systematic appreciation of co-creative dynamics and to emerging structures maintained by the participants themselves. In computing as well as in Christian communities, this implies the necessity of educational processes that cultivate and perpetuate an expressiveness that leads to the emergence of recursive publics, which in turn enable individuals to hand in high quality religious and theological pull requests.

Churches of freedom need grassroot structures that allow for broad religious and theological literacy at an eye level without undermining the different parameters of the various contributions. For it is the variety and speciality of contributions that drive the quality of both technical and theological knowledge production.

On a parochial level, this could be exemplified by an appreciation for communicative, decentralized forms of community. Movements like Fresh Expressions and Emerging Church have developed reasonable alternatives to the model of the ‘people’s church’ (Volkskirche), which is driven by the vision for an all-compatible program. These movements try to establish platforms of theological co-authorship through flat teaching hierarchies, the sharing of life experiences from various contexts, and the sensible evolution of religious practices.32

On the specific level of academic theology, approaches such as Citizen Theology pursue the vision of implementing pull-requests that integrate the diversity of Christian forms of life and religious knowledge in a multidirectional way.33 Context-based learning from theological adaptations to specific requirements puts one in an epistemologically favorable position and thus function as a starting point for theological pull-requests. This vision of a systematic implementation of pull-requests is driven by the pneumatological assumption that the teaching of the Spirit does not only act within singularities but through engagement—by sharing religious and theological knowledge beyond certified expertise. Rightly understood, theological authorship is always theological co-authorship, as reflective assessments about the Christian faith derive from shared experiences and contextual insights into the meaning of the biblical traditions.

But such an epistemic adjustment is not without risk. The open source movement exemplifies that the structural integration of cooperative practices does not necessarily have to support its ideological foundations. The ongoing dispute between Free Software and Open Source shows this quite well. This correlates with the question about the significance of both the orthodoxy and the doxology behind these freedom practices. This concern, however, is not a sufficient reason to completely abandon such models. It is a question that every model of ‘church for the world’ has to deal with.34

The development of a theology of freedom in the context of ecclesiology builds on the idea of religious and theological co-authorship. This idea, in turn, needs to be properly implemented in social structures of the church and in the methodology of its theologies. It understands these structures and methods as practices of freedom and—fully aware of the risks—relies on the promise of the Spirit’s presence through the various charisms of the members of the Body of Christ. Protestantism needs this breadth of authors in order for its theologies to be enhanced, constructively challenged, and further developed.

Ecumenism of Branches and Merges

On a third level, I want to use FLOSS-culture as a contrast medium to elucidate Protestantism’s specific inability to secure its own epistemic standpoint. This makes embracing the Spirit’s freedom a necessary consequence.

In order to do so and to visualize the scope of this section, I want to concentrate on the structure of how cooperative development takes place in FLOSS. As described above, decentralized development in FLOSS often involves the simultaneous execution of different developmental steps by a variety of people. Small-scale changes are being outsourced to branches and eventually will be merged back into the master branch.

By comparing the practice of this decentralized process of branching different directions of development with the generation and growth of theological traditions, we can unveil a specific blind spot of theology, namely its non-foundationalism. To understand the contrast to FLOSS, we first need to identify the tertium comparationis, which lies in the analogous freedom practice of the separate, yet parallel development of different branches. What version control systems make possible for collaborative code manipulation can also be seen in the history of ecumenism: Theology, not only understood as an analytic but a constructive enterprise, is a vital continuation of differentiated yet interdependent co-authorship. Different theological approaches or even denominations can be envisioned as branches that continue theology not only as a linear development but as independent, parallel, and alternative developments of theology.

Examples for externally driven developments are theologies that point to contextual issues: The emergence of liberal traditions in the nineteenth century were a response to the Enlightenment philosophy in Western Europe. Likewise, the innovations of various liberation theologies have emerged from certain life contexts and experiences of poverty and oppression. Internal reasons, by contrast, are the systematic detection of theological blind spots within one’s own dogmatics or also new exegetical insights that attempt to rectify certain theologumena. Of course, in most cases external and internal reasons concur. The history of the diversity of theological and religious traditions of Christianity can be read as a complex network of different branches that are sometimes loose- and sometimes close-knit.

This last point shows that the theological tradition isn’t only one of mere differentiation (branches) but also one of mutual interdependence and stimulation through theological difference (merges). Theological encounters of different branches promise the possibility of mutual correction. The conversation between different approaches and traditions in the search for theological knowledge may turn out to be quite conflicted or even disruptive, and merge attempts usually pose some big challenges for the involved branches. What, in software development, signifies a time-consuming process of merging-conflicts, is, for the fides quaerens intellectum, the place of a constant and not always consensual search for truth.35 Not only the church but also its reflective enterprise theology is an endeavor semper reformanda.36

However, particular merge processes are not only found in the context of explicit theologies. Occasional merges also occur in implicit theologies, in the practical formation of ecumenical or inter-religious encounters. And, realistically speaking, this often doesn’t result in a success story of common consensus. Another closer look at the experiences of FLOSS can illustrate this. Large projects like the Linux kernel, for example, have a massive number of branches with dead-ends. Due to their technical, stylistic, or political inadequacy they are never merged into those critical branches that attract the interest of the public. Of course, this raises the question of power—for both software production and ecumenism alike. The maintenance of merges, just like the encounter between different theological developments, doesn’t happen in an egalitarian way. Like it is possible that the decision-making in the ‘master branch’ of a software project is undertaken by a company or a patron, we can observe similar tendencies in the writing of theology.

But this is also where the analogy ends and where Protestant theology shows its decisive contrast in its practices of freedom: By renouncing a synthesizing and boundary marking organizational unity (after all, Protestantism knows of no central teaching position), it also lacks any empirical organizing reference.

Theology, rightly understood, simply does not have a tool that would allow it to locate its own branch relative to a master-branch. Christian faith does not operate within in the category of ownership, but only by means of authorship and co-authorship. Without any institutionalized and theologically legitimized teaching position, there is neither a distinct maintainer of the master-branch, nor is there anyone who could even identify any branch as the universal master-branch without manifesting a paradox of freedom practices. In contrast to the clearly localizable structure of the branches of a development tree in a software version control system, the Protestant epistemological principles lack the possibility of an independent verification of their own branches. I have demonstrated this inability to verify above by describing the inevitable tension of the scriptural principle and a christological reasoning of the priesthood of all believers. Post-theistic theologies, as well as theologies based on the openness, changeability, and liveliness of God, will renounce a verifiable reference to a master branch. And they will do so not only for epistemological but also for theological reasons.

The pneumatological assumption on this third level is that the self-unfolding presence of the Holy Spirit is not only to be located within the boundaries of what we call church (which, in particular, can mean one’s own religious, denominational and contextual bounds), but that the presence of God acts within the transgressions of these epistemic borders. However, without assuming a blurred and indistinct presence of the Spirit, the work of the Spirit can be seen as a force transcending the boundaries of social and therefore epistemic self-affirmation. In addition to Schleiermacher’s notion of the Holy Spirit within the communal spirit of the church, it is therefore adequate to also hope for the presence of God’s Spirit in the differentiated intersections of mutual ecumenical learning. Practicing theological freedom requires taking the freedom of the Holy Spirit into account as well as the fact that this freedom might unfold within unknown contexts that themselves testify to the Spirit of faith, love, and hope. These testimonies of others might eventually turn out to be a more adequate description of, and even an impulse for solutions to, one’s own theological and religious quests. This re-localization would lead from a pneumatology of the spirit in nos (as observed on the first and partially on the second level of the constructive part of this paper) to an understanding of the spirit extra nos. That is to say, toward an inter nos in the encounter of separate branches. While software production mostly follows the logic of technical compatibility and efficiency, theological development should not only be functionalized for its practical feasibility but also for the question of truth. This is why the question of the discernment of the spirits in light of faith, love, and hope becomes the crucial question, and it is deeply entangled with what I have described so far. The assumption of the spirit extra nos and the mere presence of the other is no guarantee for the enlightening and self-revealing work of the Spirit—and neither is a mere communal spirit of one’s own branch. It is therefore necessary to understand theological freedom not only in the sense of independence but as a co-dependent engagement with the source code of the Christian faith rooted in the engagement with the pluriform and many voiced biblical canon.

A small remark about the eschatological implications of this: The idea of possible and particular merges must not be understood teleologically. The eschaton is not to be envisioned as a super-merge that re-includes every single branch. It is rather the justification of the diverse and multiple endeavors to conceive the reality of God within this world through the contextual exploration of the biblical promises.


In order to show how FLOSS-culture can be compared with the fundamental theologoumena of Protestant theology, I have outlined the entanglement of a proper concept of freedom with the practices of freedom it entails. I have then described the concrete phenomena in FLOSS that have proven to be successful and influential for the ways software is nowadays developed.

Understanding theology as a creative enterprise, the category of authorship has turned out to be a better category than ownership in terms of its development. After comparing how software development and theological development, according to the fundamental convictions of the Reformation, implement structures of free and co-creative engagement, I described three levels of theological practices of freedom that resemble the fundamental insight of FLOSS, which is the conceptual connection between a general statement of freedom(s) and its implementation in concrete practices.

The first level is located in the combination of the scriptural principle and the priesthood of all believers. It is the practice of a fundamentally non-restrictive openness of the Bible that enables individuals to engage with the foundational texts of the Christian faith.

On a second level, I have shown how the social structures of the church and the development of its theology can resemble the idea of the ‘Freedom of a Christian’. In order to foster the freedom of software, FLOSS has developed recursive publics. In this, it can serve as an example for Protestant ecclesiology, calling it foster structures that embody the communal aspects of theological co-authorship.

In the last section, I have compared the practices of version control systems (branching/merging) with the mutual influence and interference of different theological developments within ecumenism. In consequence, the epistemological uncertainty of one’s own branch in relation to others has turned out to be one of the major differences between FLOSS and Protestant theology. Gaining theological knowledge therefore depends on the constructive transgressions of denominational and cultural boundaries.

These different levels on which we can identify theological practices of freedom are interdependent and may be understood in a pneumatological way: By professing the Freedom of a Christian and developing its corresponding practices of freedom, Protestant theology expresses its faith in the plural and differentiated presence of the revealing Spirit. Theological enterprise is not driven by the aim of mere innovation, after all, but is quest for knowledge. A quest that can only be carried out by a free development of theology cultivated in cooperative practices of freedom aimed at grasping the plurality of the self-revealing presence of the Spirit.


Friedrich, Benedikt, and Reichel, Hanna, and Thomas Renkert. 2019. “Citizen Theology. Eine Exploration zwischen Digitalisierung undtheologischer Epistemologie.” In Digitaler Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf politische Partizipation im Wandel, edited by Jonas Bedford-Strohm, Florian Höhne, and Julian Zeyher-Quattlender, 175-192. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Gockel, Matthias. 2018. “Ad fontes. Zu einer Theologie der offenen Quellen.” Cursor_ Zeitschrift Für Explorative Theologie 1.

Huber, Wolfgang. 1983. “Freiheit und Institution. Sozialethik als Ethik kommunikativer Freiheit.” In Folgen christlicher Freiheit, edited by Wolfgang Huber, 113-127. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener

Jüngel, Eberhard. 1978. Zur Freiheit eines Christenmenschen. Eine Erinnerung an Luthers Schrift. München: Chr. Kaiser.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits. The Cultural Significance of Software, Durham: Duke University Press.

Kirchenamt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). 2007. Kirche der Freiheit. Perspektiven für die evangelische Kirche im 21. Jahrhundert. Ein Impulspapier des Rates der EKD. Hannover.

Luther, Martin 2012. Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (1520). in Martin Luther Deutsch-deutsche Studienausgabe. Band 1. Glauben und Leben edited by Dietrich Korsch. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt.

Ott, Kate M. 2014. “Creating ‘Open Source’ Community: Just Hospitality or Cyberspace Ivory Tower?” In 21st Century Feminism: Technology and Community edited by Gina Messina Dysert, London: Routledge Press.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst. 2008. Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt. Zweiter Band (1831). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst. 1910. Kurze Darstellung des Theologischen Studiums zum Behuf einleitender Vorlesungen (1830), edited by Carl Stange. Leipzig: Deichert.

Stallmann, Richard. Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software. ttps:// (last accessed Jan 23rd 2022).

Velkova, Julia. 2016. “Free Software Beyond Radical Politics: Negotiations of Creative and Craft Autonomy in Digital Visual Media Production”. Media and Communication, 4(4): 43-52,

Welker, Michael. 1992. Gottes Geist. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener.

Zwingly, Hyldrich. 1995. “Die freie Wahl der Speisen” (1522). In Schriften I edited by Thomas Brunnschweiler and Samuel Lutz, Zürich: TVZ.

Clifford Anderson:

Love this phrasing! If we give up the economic incentives to create by not granting authors ownership of their creations, how do we continue to provide authors with the financial means to create new works?

Thomas Renkert:

I get the feeling we’re jumping here from epistemological to metaphysical categories. What I’d be even more interested in are - once again - our practices: Why are there so very few real-world ‘merges’ of communities/churches from different denominational or theological branches?

(I am aware that merges or real forks in FLOSS are pretty rare, too.)

Thomas Renkert:

I think that we need to focus on the issue of marginalisation, too, as it comes into play in theology as well as in FLOSS development. Mere numbers of authors won’t be enough in the end, we need to look beyond quantity to practices of freedom that counteract disadvantages and foster inclusive participation.

Thomas Renkert:

I love this description. My question would be: is it really already pull requests or rather bug reports, feature requests and so on? To put it differently: how can we enable ‘users’ to work theologically on their own or within their smaller community and then make a pull request to a/the master branch? (does the metaphor still work here?)

Kate Ott:

How might we related this to hacking across digital communities, software, and platforms that doesn’t have the same positive ethical bent?

Thomas Renkert:

Very nice, indeed. I feel we need models of epistemic equity and testimonial sustainability if we want to speak of ‘liberating communities"‘. The top-down approach that ignores concrete, actual practices is counterproductive to its own goal.

Thomas Renkert:

nicely put.

Thomas Renkert:

In my view, these structures are nothing but “coagulated practices” in the model of Wittgenstein’s river bed analogy. Which means, among other things, that they are constantly on a quest for their own normativity and the continued actualization of freedom within their practices.

Thomas Renkert:

Statistically over a large number of projects, vulnerability and exploitability could perhaps be seen as an important ‘selling point’ for people who are otherwise ‘ideological free riders’.

Thomas Renkert:

As with all practices, secondary and tertiary effects play a big role apart from the intended benefit. Things like recognition and respect are valuable currency within meritocratic communities.

Hanna Reichel:

This is very interesting and has some parallels with my epistemological deliberations about worldmaking by world-reading/-rendering. The idea that the label might be in some ways be more “real” than the thing itself, or here: the practice itself is not enough, how and as what it is “read” is what matters

Hanna Reichel:

I am very intrigued by this comparison and would love to hear a little more about it

Thomas Renkert:

I feel this is very important: it’s the continued ‘doing’ of practices that is the infrastructure which allows for mass interaction in the first place. This collaborative culture is - as many others, too - essentially bootstrapped.

Hanna Reichel:

I am not sure I would see this as ironic. A standard that someone is free to use to signal certain properties of a work are not a law, much less legalistic, much less oppressive. Freedom as complete absence of rules or norms is a very shallow understanding of freedom. Maybe you can do more to actually analyze the complex relationship of freedom and order/regulation here: What are the conditions of possibility of what kind of freedom, and how do they generate what we understand to be free?

Hanna Reichel:

I think this is a good example how a theoretic universalism and participatory openness doesn’t always translate into practical accessability. It seems that here we encounter specific educational as well as social and class barriers, and despite the theoretical openness software developers are almost exclusively white males…

Extending your parallel with the Reformation - maybe the practices of freedom have to be accompnaied by practices of formation! The bible will be accessible to everyone, but we need to introduce universal alphabetization…

Hanna Reichel:

As a side quip against Dabrock: Maybe our freedom and “self-determination” in the digital age wouldn’t depend so much on “classical education” (in an earlier version of his paper, he invoked the bible, Faust, mathematics and languages) but learning to code?

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Hanna Reichel:

I know that FLOSS might have good reason to uphold digital binaries and see them even as the condition of the possibility of the kind of freedom they envision, but do we need to extend that to gender binaries? ;)

Kate Ott:

agreed ;).

Hanna Reichel:

I am very intrigued by the move from freedom as a good to freedom as a quality of certain practices here…

(Thanks for filling in for the “practices of freedom which I announced in the working title of my contribution to this conference, but didn’t actually end up addressing [that would presumably have become a 3rd contribution, and I already took too much liberty…])

Hanna Reichel:

is this a covert Welker-reference, my friend? ;)

Thomas Renkert:

I am very interested in hearing about the difference between

  • solution-seeking


  • salvation-seeking


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Hanna Reichel:

love it!

Hanna Reichel:

can you provide a reference?

Hanna Reichel:

I hear this mostly in protestant circles, though. Even as a prided identity marker. To me it has always soudned like one of Laclau’s “empty signifiers” - it organizes the discourse, but doesn’t have a substance. People fill in different things (from interreligious marriage to military interventionism) and claim that that is “freedom”…

Hanna Reichel:

this gestures towards some kind of disillusionment, care to detail?

Florian Höhne:


Benedikt Friedrich:

oh yes! hopefully not lost!

Florian Höhne:

I am interested in discussing how non-restrictive such bottom-up developments acutally are.

Kate Ott:

In what ways are the participants already marked by certain hierarchies that get reinforced even in bottom-up development practices?

Florian Höhne:

I very much see this point of your criticism of Huber. What about the dynamics of power in FLOSS-culture? Why are there - for example - so few women writin in wikipedia?

Thomas Renkert:

My guess would be that every set of practices needs conscious entry points for irritations and interventions. Communal practices have a tendency to become hermetic and fall into group-think if they don’t pay attention to testimonial justice.

Florian Höhne:

Ok. That answer my commenty/questions from above…

Florian Höhne:

I see the theoretical point. But how far did this go practically? I am thinking of the case of Felix Manz for instance, whose bible-interpretation against the church/city/Zwinglian theology ended in the river Limmat.

Thomas Renkert:

Right. To stay in Benedikt’s framework: Perhaps this particular theological insight was still constrained by the mode of doing theology imposed by century-old practices?

Florian Höhne:

It is a great idea to narrate this story in terms of copyrights!

Thomas Renkert:

It truly is.

Florian Höhne:

Yes! I agree. To me it sounds a lot like “communicative freedom”. Is it okay that i am reminded of this Tödt-Huber-concept? ;-)

Benedikt Friedrich:

read: ‘master-branch’… will be corrected after the conference as a modification will erase the allocation of the previous comments.

Thomas Renkert:

not anymore, apparently

Thomas Renkert:

My association is: This is the overlap of pneumatology and ecclesiology.

Thomas Renkert:

Actually, it can be shipped as binaries, as long as the source code is also available somewhere (reasonably easy to access).

Florian Höhne:

…and i’d be interested to hear more about what that means!

Thomas Renkert:

I, for one, absolutely love and fully support the statement!

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Frederike van Oorschot:

so true - and so often neglected in dogmatics…

Frederike van Oorschot:

I like that description very much and look forward to hear more about it and the consequences you think of in theological research, teaching and writing.

Frederike van Oorschot:

Maybe we can link this to your thoughts on power and power structures mentioned above - priesthood is about power.

Kate Ott:

And to the considerations of power related to knowledge that Hanna discusses.

Frederike van Oorschot:

I would love to deepen this interesting thought in our discussion! It pretty much reminded me of my understanding of the communal process of interpreting Scripture and I am looking forward on your remarks, Benedikt.

Kate Ott:

And to the theological anthropology of Gebara that I lean on.

Frederike van Oorschot:

Very compelling!

Florian Höhne:

Yes, very compelling! What about the about the power-structures and power asymmetries when only individuals are on the field?

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Frederike van Oorschot:

I see a kind of “practical turn” in most of the papers - part of a transition in theological thinking or due to our topic? Just an observation along the way…

Thomas Renkert:

The practical turn is long overdue within theology, in my opinion. But with self-organising collaborative systems that emerge from very few shared norms or ideologies, and in infrastructure-agnostic ways, looking at practices might be the natural way to go.

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Frederike van Oorschot:

I would love to deepen this point regarding to our understanding of knowledge in general. And maybe even think about a theological understanding of knowledge, as you suggest later.

Florian Höhne:

Me too. And i would also be interested in inquiring further into the difference between property and solutions-seeking, between owning an entity and responding to it (in my paper, i was trying to distinguish between owning one’s own action and responding to a challenge, which might be similar to this…).

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Frederike van Oorschot:

This eschatological dimension is a very interesting point, Benedikt.

Hanna Reichel:

do you mean “utopian” or what qualifies it specifically as “eschatological”?

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