Welcome back to the CHEF! We are finishing up Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will in today’s post. In the first post I introduced the text, described the person to whom the text was addressed, discussed a couple of issues related to the various translations of the text, and made some introductory comments on a variety of topics. Today’s post will be more focused: in addition to making some miscellaneous comments, I’ll be looking at the overall message of the treatise, especially considering its theological ideas and the implications of Luther’s own position and the one that he is attacking. Let’s dig in!
What Luther is Trying to Say
So, as I discussed in the first post, this text is quite long. The length of the treatise, along with the amount of polemic embedded in it, can make it hard to really get to the meat of what Luther’s trying to say. But, in a nutshell, it seems to be this: humanity’s “Fall” has so damaged us, that we basically have no such thing as free will at all anymore — unless you mean freedom to do evil. Luther had begun to articulate this position in prior years, especially in his conflicts with the Popes, and it seems to grow from his sense of the importance of justification by grace alone. For the believer, though, Luther says, “if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion,” and we are thus able to do good.
Now, Erasmus had offered a moderate view in his initial response to Luther’s preaching. He certainly acknowledged the problem of the “Fall,” but he said that it merely weakened our wills. In other words, the problem of sin is that it makes it more difficult to do the things that God has commanded of us — not impossible, just more difficult. But Luther rejects that position as essentially “wimpy” — as though Erasmus wasn’t willing to go “all the way” to a full rejection of free choice in any matter related to salvation. Luther does occasionally allow for some amount of free will — but only insofar as it enables us to do the evil that is implanted in us by the “Fall” (see, for example, section 25). If you want a MUCH more thorough explanation of both men’s arguments, you can check out this resource; it’s got a lot of great detail on both Luther’s and Erasmus’s texts.
Why Luther is Making This Argument
There are several reasons that Luther is making this set of claims. Some are theological presuppositions that he holds, which I’ll get to in a moment. But there’s a more pressing, historical reason: the medieval church had held a cooperative view of salvation for centuries. Through a variety of means, the church had taught that God and humans work together for our salvation — God does God’s part (e.g., sending Jesus, giving us the church, etc.), and we do our part (being baptized, living good lives, etc.). The most famous example is in the situation regarding indulgences that Luther had rejected so strongly. And he was right about the danger therein: while millions of Christians today still hold a view like this, we can sometimes believe that we can “earn” their salvation in some way. Luther was strongly aware of this danger, and he wanted to do away with it completely by making us depend entirely on God’s work in Christ for our salvation.
But beyond Luther’s own life experience, he also held some theological ideas really strongly — ideas that (in his mind) meant that humans couldn’t possess any amount of free choice toward their own salvation. These included the following:
- Scripture is abundantly clear in its pronouncements, and it doesn’t need any fancy interpretive strategies to understand it (see especially sections 3, 35-36, 38). (Since Luther thinks that Scripture agrees with him, then Erasmus is [in Luther’s mind] kind of foolish for not being on board, too.)
- God is unbelievably powerful and has an immutable will (see, for example, secs. 8-9 on God’s will, and sec. 93 on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge). Obviously, Luther is reading Scripture here, but he is also thinking of that “merit industry” that characterized medieval Christianity in the West. If we can earn merit, then that might take away from God’s power to save. If we want to emphasize God’s power, then it behooves us to reject any claims of power for ourselves.
- As a result, God’s actions are efficacious — they get something done. If we believe that God is working in the world, then that accounts for the good that the saved do, and it accounts for the evil that the unbelievers do. (This is an interesting argument, found in section 84: when God acts, something happens, and if unbelievers are only predisposed toward evil, then God’s motive action will result in evil-doing… but it’s because of the unbeliever’s prior disposition, not because God is at fault.)
- God chooses the church — we don’t choose ourselves. One of God’s sovereign actions is to choose the saved. Obviously (Luther would say), we don’t choose to be part of God’s family — that’s a gracious gift of God — and so it also must be true that we can’t resist God’s choice, weak as we are. The result of this belief that is the members of the “true church” — the “elect” — are only known to God (sec. 34), and so we can’t try to earn our way in.
- As the corollary of God’s magnificence and might, human beings are pretty weak and foolish. We see this in sec. 38, where he argues that the reason so many intelligent people have misunderstood the Scriptures is that, because of sin, our hearts are darkened. Also, in sec. 52, Luther follows Paul in rejecting the arguments of “human reason.” We need to depend on what he sees as the clear pronouncements of Scripture, rather than leaning on our own weak wisdom.
What Luther is Rejecting
Deep stuff, huh? Let’s come at this from one more angle, and hopefully we’ll have a good sense of the overall picture. One last way to think of this problem is to ask what Luther is rejecting in Erasmus’s ideas, and why. As I see it, there are a couple of reasons that Luther himself keeps coming back to — Luther thinks Erasmus’s ideas aren’t found in Scripture, and he is working from a very “black-and-white” sense of the world, which leaves no room for ambiguity. But what we find in the work much more often are what Luther sees as the problematic implications of Erasmus’s argument. Here are just a few of them:
- If we have free choice toward our own salvation, then that means we should do works that direction… which suggests that God’s grace isn’t enough for that salvation (section 7).
- If we aren’t aware or certain of what God is doing for us and our salvation, then we miss opportunities to give God the glory and praise that God deserves (secs. 7, 12, 28), and we could suffer the anxiety of a guilty conscience, uncertain of our salvation (sec. 164).
- If we have such a high opinion of ourselves, then we can think that God doesn’t care about our actions, thus encouraging us toward greater sin (sec. 23) — maybe even thinking that God is basically asleep while we sin (sec. 81)!
- If we think our works help save us, then we are usurping the proper role of grace and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (sec. 44, where he invokes the Pelagian heresy as a parallel).
- If we aren’t deeply aware of our own sin, then Scripture loses its power as a beautiful source of comforting words (sec. 62).
- And perhaps most troublingly: if we think that we are “good,” then we might be tempted to think that we don’t need Jesus as savior — or that maybe only a part of us needs Jesus as savior — then we essentially render Jesus weak, superfluous, or even unnecessary.
This post is already pretty long, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few evaluative comments. First, when I read this text, I find myself attracted by the deep devotion to Scripture that Luther clearly possesses; that’s a feature of the movement of which I’m a part, too, and so I applaud that emphasis. Second, I fully agree with his desire for us to lean fully on Jesus as our Savior; it’s way too easy for us to look to other things to save us, when Jesus is really the only one with power to save. And finally, I need to hear his call to humility; if I depend on my own works (even just subconsciously), I can become proud and end up depending on myself.
That said, I have some quibbles with Brother Luther — a number of which have to do with his comments and ideas about Scripture. First, while he does hold a very high view of Scripture (woo!), and while he does think it’s clearly understandable (errr…), he also has a very “flat” view of it — that is, he seems to think that all Scripture is essentially the same, and he doesn’t account for genre very well. For example, he treat texts from the Psalms, Genesis, and Paul in essentially the same way: looking at what the writers said, without asking why they said those things. Second, I think Luther is simply wrong that — at least on this topic — Scripture speaks with one voice. Erasmus tried to make that point, and Luther brushed it aside, but I think that was because the latter had already decided his conclusion and was forcing the Scriptures to back it up. For example, in section 46 and following, Luther considers a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15. In my mind, this text is an excellent example of a passage that absolutely does tell us we have free will, and it must be considered alongside texts in Romans 9-11 that suggest otherwise. But Luther brushes it aside, twisting the passage to make it say what it doesn’t say. What’s frustrating is that that’s exactly what he accuses Erasmus of doing — in his whole section about “tropes” (secs. 77 and following). Pot? Meet the kettle.
If you haven’t guessed from the previous comments, I’m not convinced by Luther’s arguments. Now, I grew up an Arminian, and I remain one today — but for more reasons than just preserving my heritage. I believe we have free choice because of what I see in Scripture — the calls to repentance, the narratives of conversion, the commands to act in certain ways (even from Paul!), etc. But I also believe because of my life experience. Sure, some parts of our lives seem pre-determined (by “fate,” chance, our circumstances, social conditioning, etc.), but in so many other areas, we actually have choices. I don’t think that’s a part of the “Fall” — I think it’s how God wants the world to be… because that’s how God’s world and salvation are arranged. And unlike Luther, I think that’s good news, because it lets us choose to be in a relationship with God, rather than God forcing Godself on us. Maybe that’s my American love of freedom talking, but I’d like to think it’s a theological position, informed by Scripture, theology, and experience
So (if you’re still reading by this point), feel free to do a couple of things. First, if you want to go deeper on this text, check out this article, which contains reflection on the Bondage of the Will and also meditations on contemporary Christianity. Second, weigh in! What arguments have been most important for you in thinking about the difficult problem of free will and determinism? I’ll look forward to your comments!
Image credits: www.cph.org (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), yovisto.blogspot.com (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and insideadog.com.au (for the Frozen meme)
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