Letting Law Go? A Lutheran Perspective on Law in “Frozen”
Perhaps the most iconic moment in Disney’s movie Frozen occurs when Queen Elsa, clad in the teal dress and royal purple cape from her coronation, flees from Arendelle into the imposing mountains outside the city gates. Singing the song “Let it Go,” she casts off her cape and utilizes her icy powers to fashion a majestic ice castle amid the swirling storm she perceives to exist both inside and around her. In this scene, Elsa does her utmost to let much of her former life go, declaring during the climax of the song, “I’m never going back, the past is in the past!”
Of course, Elsa never makes it clear precisely what she intends to let go, leaving open the possibility of a multiplicity of interpretations. She seems to be letting go of everything in Arendelle that she believes restricts her freedom to “be herself” and live as she wants to. This could be interpreted as a rejection of the forced repression—of her “sorcerous” powers, of her emotional self, or perhaps of her sexuality—that characterized her life in Arendelle. Alternatively, she could be seen as rebelling against gender norms, the responsibilities that come with being a queen, or society itself.
However, another component of Elsa’s attempts to “let it go” is her rejection of the repressive moral law, which, we argue, she hopes to cast off as she proclaims, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!” By analyzing Elsa’s changing understanding of law, as it relates to her moral duties to her kingdom and to her sister, we hope to show how Frozen can be interpreted through the paradigm of Luther’s conception of law. While this certainly was not the intent of the creators of Frozen, we believe that Elsa’s transformation—from existing in a state of condemnation under law to living in a state of grace following her sister’s sacrifice—demonstrates Luther’s understanding of the three uses of law.
Moreover, examining Frozen through this lens enriches our understanding of law by providing an important alternative perspective to the lethargy of moralism that often plagues modern Christianity. On one end of the spectrum, in a position often criticized as “Puritanical” and repressive, strict adherence to law is viewed as necessary for individual and societal spiritual purification. On the other end, law is abstracted from these spiritual qualities and is understood primarily as a tool for individual or societal improvement. However, the Lutheran conception of law, as demonstrated in Frozen, offers another view that does not rely on the dichotomy between the models of law as repressive or enlightening. Instead, law serves both functions, as a comprehensive, inescapable force with which we can live in harmony only through a gift of sacrificial grace and love.
Luther’s View of Law
Though the Protestant Reformation produced new understandings of a number of aspects of traditional Christian theology, few proved to be so influential or controversial as Luther’s dialectic between Law and Gospel. With this idea, Luther argued that all of scripture may be divided into what he calls God’s precepts and God’s promises, which later thinkers termed Law and Gospel, respectively. Luther defines these precepts as that which “certainly teach[es] us what is good.” Thus, Luther proposes that God’s precepts, hereafter to be called Law, consist of everything that God commands. These commands were expressed in a more concrete form in the Law of Moses, but also include Paul’s summations of that set of commands: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” In Luther’s mind, law is therefore defined as a universal moral law that is the summation both of the Old and New Commandments.
With this definition of law in mind, Luther proposes that Law has several functions. The first has to do with what has become known as “civil righteousness.” He writes on the subject, “Since, however, no one is by nature Christian or pious, but every one sinful and evil, God places the restraints of the law upon them all, so that they may not dare give rein to their desires and commit outward, wicked deeds.” In this iteration, law is designed simply to restrain outward acts of sin to maintain a peaceful society, an important inclusion in the politically unstable climate of Luther’s Germany.
However, the next use of law is more important to his theology as a whole. Luther writes on the second use of law, “Now when a man has through the precepts been taught his own impotence, and become anxious by what means he may satisfy the law…then, being truly humbled and brought to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself no resource for justification and salvation.” Put more simply by Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon, “law always accuses.” From this perspective, law is not designed to be followed in a traditional sense. Rather, it prepares the way for the Gospel and for grace that is granted freely, so that the recipient of grace might be aware of its utter unconditional nature.
A final, third use of the law has been the subject of a protracted and heated debate within modern Lutheranism. The Lutheran Confessions, found in the Book of Concord, explain the third use in these terms: “When [Christians] have been born anew by the Spirit of God, converted to the Lord, and thus the veil of Moses has been lifted from them, they live and walk in the law.” Essentially, when a person has been made new by the Holy Spirit, the law remains as a guide toward living in righteousness. It does not save or justify the individual, but it plays an important role in sanctification. In modern circles, this approach has been challenged by non-confessional Lutheran theologians who argue that the third use was an innovation of Melanchthon and the other second-generation reformers, and that Luther’s essentially eschatological conception of grace should prevent us from seeing law as something that can be applied as a guide while we remain in our temporal existence.
Luther therefore holds a view of Law that appears to be in tension with itself. On the one hand, the law’s prescriptions of our moral obligations to God are fundamentally good. Its precepts can be summed up as Christ himself summarized them: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” In looking simply at what the law asks of humankind, it expresses moral obligations markedly similar to those found in a whole host of other religions, as well as a sentiment that many in non-religious communities hold to as well.
However, in Luther’s assessment of what law actually does, the reformer envisions something much more bleak. “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done… the law works wrath and keeps all men under the curse.” Thus, we see the great tragedy of law: the things it demands are indeed good, but it does not grant the power to actually do those things. Then, in humanity’s inability to fulfill the precepts, the law condemns us. Though good in its commands, the law does not fulfill a good purpose in bringing humanity in line with righteous life; rather, because of our nature as resistant to God’s commands, it oppresses and puts humanity under God’s condemnation.
Law in Frozen
Using this paradigm based on the Lutheran conception of law just outlined, we can now turn to examining the development of Elsa’s relationship to her moral duties to consider the nature of law in Frozen. In the early stages of the sisters’ childhood, the demands of law are foreign to Anna and Elsa. They feel free to play with each other, joyfully laughing as they build snowmen in the middle of the night. Unconcerned with any danger, Elsa uses her magical ability to control snow and ice for the entertainment of her sister. It seems that they are in their own Eden, lacking the knowledge of good and evil and fearing nothing.
However, their innocent freedom from law’s impositions vanishes after Elsa strikes Anna with her magic to save her from falling to her death while they are playing in the castle. Concerned about Anna’s survival, their parents take them to Grand Pabbie, the sage magician of the rock trolls. Following Grand Pabbie’s recommendation, the king commands that Elsa be isolated from her sister and the kingdom to avoid harming anyone until she learns to control her powers. Previously, Elsa’s relationship to her sister had been mediated only by their sisterly love and affection. However, after their metaphorical fall, symbolized by Anna’s physical fall from the ice pillars, the rules instituted by their father must mediate their relationship. His commandment of isolation functions as an expression of law, which must now regulate Anna and Elsa’s interactions.
The initial intentions behind this mandate parallel Luther’s understanding of the first use of the Law. In her fallen state, Elsa must suppress her dangerous impulses in order to protect her sister and the rest of the kingdom and maintain a peaceful society. She strives for, in Lutheran terminology, civil righteousness. Elsa’s father also seems to believe that this law will aid Elsa in a sort of self-improvement. His hope is that adherence to this negative duty of isolation to avoid harm will permit Elsa to ultimately control her powers for her own good as well. However, it is not long before we see that the imposition of this law is ultimately ineffective in fulfilling the latter aim, and not entirely successful in fulfilling the former either.
Upon their return to the castle, the restrictive burden of the isolating law is made clear as Anna laments the loss of relationship with her sister in “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” In this song, the shut door can be seen as a metaphor for the separation between people that law engenders. Knocking on the locked door to Elsa’s room, Anna continually pleads with her sister to open the door and build a snowman. However, Elsa continually ignores Anna’s request to rebuild their relationship, knowing that opening the door could cause her to again injure her sister. While Elsa is successful in avoiding inflicting physical injury on her sister, her legalistic attempt to uphold the letter of the law prevents her from engaging in genuine relationship with Anna. Elsa seems to be well aware of the fact that she cannot properly love Anna, and this knowledge is certainly one cause of her misery. Thus, Elsa’s adherence to this law can prevent outwardly harmful acts, but it is of no use in helping Elsa to fulfill the greater obligation of truly loving her sister. In stark contrast with Anna’s later proclamation that love is an open door, it appears clear that the closed door of law is of no avail in fostering love. Instead, law only condemns Elsa’s conscience.
Moreover, Elsa has a deep fear of revealing her true, “sinful” nature, i.e. the destructive force of her powers when unrestricted by law. Not only does she fear hurting others, but she fears how others would judge her if they were to see who she really is. This may be a legitimate concern, as the people do not respond well to seeing an exhibition of her sorcerous powers. Still, her effort to obey law to maintain the illusion of goodness are comparable to a pharisaical attempt to put forth an outward display of righteousness while inwardly failing to fulfill the law.
Her attempt to hide her nature is most clearly exemplified on the day of her coronation, when the introduction of another higher-level moral obligation–the beginning of her positive social duty to rule her subjects as queen–creates the likelihood of conflict with her negative duty of avoiding harming others. Her blue gloves, which permit her to suppress her powers, become another symbol of Elsa’s attempts to repress her nature through adherence to law. Elsa is extremely hesitant to take off her gloves as she picks up the orb and scepter, doing her utmost to avoid letting loose her destructive powers. However, she is ultimately unable to avoid revealing her nature. When Anna forcibly removes Elsa’s gloves, Elsa cannot control her fear and anger, sending out a blast of ice that nearly injures several people nearby. Elsa’s inability to permanently keep her dangerous nature under control through outward adherence to law is made clear to everyone present, and most significantly, to herself.
It is in this scene that Anna begins to function as a Christ-figure, in the broad, Lutheran understanding of the term. In Luther’s formulation of the second use of the law, one purpose of Christ’s incarnation is to reveal to humanity our inability to fulfill the law. This is similar to the role the Anna plays when she reproaches Elsa for shutting her out and takes off Elsa’s gloves. Anna reveals to Elsa the truth of her condition: that Elsa cannot isolate herself forever in an attempt to uphold her father’s law of avoiding harming others, and that trying to do so has actually resulted in causing great emotional harm to Anna. This could be considered the first time that Anna, resembling Jesus, alters Elsa’s relationship with law. Elsa realizes that her attempts to fulfill the totality of law have failed. Not only has she failed to fulfill the summative commandment of truly loving her neighbor, but she has even failed to fulfill the particular commandment of avoiding harm. Now, in a more immediate sense made known through the person of Anna, the law has truly begun to condemn her.
However, after Anna reveals her inability to live up to the law, Elsa does not respond to the condemnation of which she is now aware by by seeking forgive ness. Instead, she seeks to free herself from the power of law by rejecting it altogether. She believes that she is doing what is best for herself and for her people by leaving. However, since she has now been crowned queen of Arendelle, Elsa has quite real duties to her subjects, duties on which she turns her back. She hopes–incorrectly, as it turns out–that she can do away with these obligations simply by declaring herself free and fleeing from her responsibilities.
The disastrous consequences of Elsa’s rejection of moral law, for herself and for her kingdom, soon become clear. The outward manifestations of her failure to respect her obligations to others are first apparent in her setting off “an eternal winter” (as Anna informs her) and the abandonment of her kingdom to her impulsive, young sister who soon hands off leadership to an ambitious foreign prince. Elsa’s rejection of the first use of the law–the aim of maintaining a healthy, stable society–clearly results in chaos, fear, and pain.
Elsa’s attempt to cast off law also has tremendous internal consequences. “For the First Time in Forever” is quite possibly the most significant song in the movie, as it is here that Elsa begins to grasp the failure of her attempt to free herself from moral law. After Anna informs her of the consequences of her actions, Elsa understands that her actions are not isolated and that she has truly harmed others by trying in vain to reject her duties. Upon hearing this news, she declares, “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free!” Unable to free herself from law, Elsa begins to understand its condemnatory power and despairs. Her reawakening to the reality of law does nothing to improve the situation as she strikes out at her sister in pain and confusion, causing even more destruction and further putting herself under the condemnation of law.
The refrain of “For the First Time in Forever” marks a turning point in Elsa’s conception of her relation to law, and again, it is Anna serving as a Christ-figure who permits the reconfiguration of Elsa’s relation to law. Similar to the coronation scene, in which Anna employs the second use of the law to reveal to Elsa her failure to uphold it, Anna here points out the consequences of Elsa’s actions to remind her that she is still bound to the law. While Elsa had previously accepted the first use of the law in her attempts to avoid harming others by locking herself in her room, she rejected it when she fled Arendelle and her responsibilities. So, Anna is not introducing a novel concept, but she effectively reminds Elsa that her attempts to isolate herself from the social obligations of law cannot be successful. Like Jesus, Anna does not herself condemn Elsa, but Anna opens her eyes to the fact that she is already condemned by law and implores Elsa to repent. As a consequences of Elsa’s recognition of her duties and her realization that she has failed to fulfill them, the second use of the law returns in full force.
Having realized her failure, Elsa tries desperately to remedy the situation. She paces around the throne room of her castle trying to undo the damage she’s done to her kingdom by bringing herself back into a mindset where she can restrain her powers, repeating, “Don’t feel! Don’t feel!” However, these attempts to calm herself into compliance with law provide a sharp contrast with the frantic cracking of the shards of ice that begin to grow and mar her palace. Despite willing with all her strength to come back into alignment with the law’s demands to protect her kingdom and her sister, it has become abundantly clear that fear holds a stronger grip on Elsa than the queen herself does. Furthermore, though she both knows and assents to the requirements of the law, she has not found the strength to do what it demands. Having now tried both to discard and to fulfill law, Elsa begins to understand that both strategies are untenable, making her situation incredibly dire.
From this point, the law’s reckoning comes quickly as Hans and his group of soldiers attempt to apprehend Elsa. In the accompanying fight, Elsa’s wholehearted efforts from the previous scene to remain in compliance with law disappear. Her attempts to evade capture prove to be incredibly destructive to her own castle and to the people pursuing her, among whom were several Arendellian soldiers. Her snow monster transforms from the almost comical guard that removed Anna and Kristoff from the castle into a violent, aggressive creature that nearly throws Elsa’s own soldiers off a cliff.
Elsa’s disregard for duty over the course of the fight nearly pays off. She comes very close to repelling the intruders by nearly killing Weselton’s henchmen, when suddenly Hans shouts, “Don’t be the monster they think you are!” Hans cunningly plays on Elsa’s fear of condemnation to force her to confront her relation to law. Elsa cannot disregard law; each of her attempts to do so have only led to further condemnation when Anna reawakens her conscience. At the same time, to attempt to live in accordance with law would lead, in her immediate situation, to her arrest and imprisonment. Hence, either choice would become an expression of that same condemnation.
Hans’s ploy is successful, and Elsa regains her awareness of the threat of law. Looking in horror on the absurdity of the situation, she realizes she is trapped. She must choose between being captured or killing Weselton’s men. Inwardly, this conflict reflects the conflict between her ongoing desire to fulfill the law and her awareness, now very present, that even if she can comply with the law, doing so will not save her from its condemnation. Paralyzed by this realization, she hesitates. Consequently, she is captured as the chandelier, the object that was the crowning jewel of her achievements while she was supposedly free from law, collapses on her.
When Elsa wakes up, she finds herself chained in a dungeon. Finally, the true nature of law becomes explicit. Just as she was locked inside the palace as a child for the sake of upholding the law, her failure to uphold that law has led to her literal imprisonment. Both in her early life when she apparently was able to hold to the law’s precepts and now as she has failed to perform that duty, Elsa is in bondage to the force of law. It restricts her and acts as a prison, first in a metaphorical sense in the restraints it places on her conduct with her sister as a child, and now in a literal sense as she is physically chained. With her hands tied, she is unable to make use of her powers, another presentation of law’s first use as a tool of restraint against causing greater harm. More importantly, her imprisonment reflects her condemnation by the law in keeping with the second use. This period of literal imprisonment will end when Hans finally tries to complete his coup d’état by attempting to execute Elsa. Thus, her bondage to the force of law has condemned her to death.
Elsa initiates one more desperate attempt to free herself from this condemnation, breaking out of her chains and prison and fleeing out onto the frozen sea. Here, Hans finds her and, acting also as the instrument of the condemnatory law, seeks to enact the final judgment on Elsa by bringing his sword down upon her. Once again, law has condemned Elsa to die. However, unlike in Hans’ first condemnation–in which Elsa attempted to escape from that judgment–here she makes no attempt to defend herself. Having been tricked into thinking she has killed her sister, Elsa’s constant battle between her desire to follow law and her competing desire to overthrow it have both vanished; she comes to believe that the law’s condemnation may actually be warranted. However, just as Hans is about to strike her, Anna, whose heart and body are nearly frozen, steps in front of her and intercepts the blow. At just this moment, Anna’s entire body freezes as she sacrifices herself in order to save her sister from death. But, as was earlier prophesied, “an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.” Anna’s great love for Elsa thaws her frozen heart, and she is resuscitated.
It is here, dying in place of her sister, that Anna most clearly assumes the role of a Christ-figure. Just as law is about to condemn Elsa to death, Anna intervenes and takes the burden of law’s condemnation upon herself. Not only does Anna free Elsa from the condemnation of law, but she allow Elsa to engage in a renewed relationship with law. In the confessional Lutheran understanding of the third use of the law, Jesus’s death and resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost instituted a new function of law, one which does not condemn but guides liberated Christians to obey God’s will. Guided by the love of the Holy Spirit, Christians can finally truly act according to the precepts of the law.
The Lutheran third use of the law closely resembles Elsa’s new relationship with her duties as sister and queen. Elsa had previously been unable to fulfill these duties in any meaningful capacity, and she instead viewed them as a burden. However, now that her sister’s sacrificial love has penetrated Elsa’s own heart, she is able to adopt a fundamentally different attitude toward these moral obligations presented by law. Permanently opening the gates of the city, Elsa creates an ice skating rink and makes it snow, bringing joy to the people of Arendelle. Elsa enthusiastically embraces her responsibilities as queen and sister, giving Kristoff an official post as “ice master and deliverer” and skating with Anna. No longer are her duties an onerous chore or her magical powers merely a dangerous threat that must be repressed, but her heart, as well as her entire nature, seems to have undergone an essential change. As the screenwriters put it, her heart has been thawed by the power of love, just as Anna herself was literally thawed after her act of sacrifice. In Christian terms, this process is analogous to the idea of death and resurrection with Christ that Paul describes in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. The second-generation reformers imagined that the third use of the law can be applied only when a person has been remade after their justification, mirroring the necessity of resurrection, both physically in Anna’s case, and internally in Elsa’s. As the movie concludes, Elsa’s internal resurrection and thawed heart finally permit the reconciliation of her relationship with moral law.
Frozen and Contemporary Christian Discussions of Law
With this interpretation in mind, Frozen offers an alternative perspective to commonly held Christian views of law. As it stands, American Christianity is deeply entangled with notions of normative law and moralism. This “traditional moralism” is often critiqued because it inadvertently does serious psychological (and sometimes physical) damage to those who don’t fit within a narrow interpretation of what the law prescribes.
The more subtle aspect of legalism that has embedded itself in modern Christianity is moralism that presents itself as something that is fundamentally in line with Western, liberal democratic ideals. These forms of legalism function as a sort of “edifying moralism.” On an individual level, this manifests itself in individuals’ attempts to use Christianity as a framework that leads to self-improvement and fulfillment. In this tradition, the rules prescribed by a particular reading of scripture can truly cause a person to reform one’s life and become upright. This improvement is perhaps the form of moralism Elsa’s father ascribes to her as he prescribes ways that Elsa might go about concealing her powers; he hopes that in concealing her powers, her impulsive use of them will disappear. Looking toward a more societal view, other circles find it tempting to use Christianity’s emphasis on love for neighbor as simply a means to the true end of social responsibility that exists outside the framework of religion. The abolition of difference between various groups that Paul describes in Galatians 3:28 becomes the expression of humanity’s telos of temporal equality.
While both traditional and edifying moralism within Christianity can have noble goals, the presentation of Luther’s conception of law found in Frozen aptly demonstrates the problem of viewing Christianity as an expression of a higher law to which humanity must adhere in order to fulfill its responsibilities. In truth, we cannot view law as a force that is either repressive or enlightening, good or bad. As Elsa discovers, duty can be an expression of great good; it is encapsulated in our responsibility to serve and love those around us. Yet at the very same time, our duty proves to be our condemnation when we cannot live up to that perfect love. Law is both the summation of all that which we must do and that which we cannot do. Over the course of the film, Elsa comes to understand this paradox, and her desire for a solution that will prevent her condemnation drives her attempts to throw off law. In the process, she discovers that law’s reach extends far beyond her own capacity to nullify it.
Ultimately, a heart frozen by the paralyzing inability to fulfill law can only be thawed by the unconditional love of another that comes without first being asked. As is the case with everything, there is a place for moralism; the law is still fundamentally good, even in our inability to fulfill it. However, preaching law without gospel is disastrous. Without Anna standing in the way of Hans’ sword, Frozen would have been a very different movie. This lesson is critical for the future of American Christianity. As Paul writes to the Romans, we uphold the law. However, law cannot distract from gospel, lest the whole message be lost in the “swirling storm inside” that law creates in humankind. At the center of all Christian teaching should be the radical, unconditional grace that frees us from bondage to the forces of sin, death, and law.
1 Martin Luther, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” Fordham University, 1998, http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp.
2 Galatians 5:14, NRSV.
3 Martin Luther, “Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” in Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961), 369.
4 Luther, Freedom.
5 Philipp Melanchthon, “Defense of the Augsburg Confession,” The Book of Concord, 2008, http://bookofconcord.org/index.php.
6 “Article VI, Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord,” The Book of Concord, 2008, http://bookofconcord.org/index.php.
7 Gerhard Forde, A More Radical Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 134.
8 Luke 10:27, NRSV.
9 “The Heidelberg Disputation,” The Book of Concord, 2008, http://bookofconcord.org/ index.php.
10 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
11Romans 3:31, NRSV.
Lucas Schurson ‘17 is from Yucaipa, CA.
Alexander Quanbeck ‘17 is from New Brighton, MN.
Tags: Disney, film, Frozen, grace, law, love, Lutheran, Martin Luther, moralism, movie, music, paradox, Philip Melanchthon