Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 1)

Greetings!  I’m so glad you’re here today, checking out another of the CHEF’s reading guides.  This time around we’ll be considering Martin Luther’s famous text The Bondage of the Will, in two posts.  I’ve already dealt with his 1520 treatise Freedom of a Christian in two other posts; the first one introduced us to Luther and that text, and the second one went into more depth and provided some supplemental resources.  Now it’s time to consider his 1525 work on free will and determinism.  Let’s dive in!

luther celebrating mass

Introduction to the Text

In terms of its content, this text is really fantastic in a lot of ways.  There’s TONS of meditation on Scripture, a lot of discussion about the nature of God and humanity, and some good thinking about the church.  You might have guessed those topics already if you know something about Luther’s common points of emphasis.  That said, I think there is also a primary theme here that is not obvious from the title of the text or from common perceptions of Luther.  Incidentally, this was also the case with Freedom of a Christian, which is certainly about freedom; however, a theme that is just as important there is the faith in Christ that gives rise to that freedom.  Here, the text capably considers our will’s bondage to sin, but I would argue that another primary theme is the sovereignty of God (cue applause from our Calvinist brothers and sisters). This theme is why I chose the image above from the excellent Luther movie, starring Joseph Fiennes (pictured) in the title role: we always want to keep in mind that, in this text, Luther wants us to have our eyes pointed “up to heaven,” so that we can find the God of our salvation.

The reason we need to keep this theme in mind is that other aspects of the text can be pretty depressing, because in it Luther engages in a lot of polemic, especially ad hominem attacks against his conversation partner, Desiderius Erasmus.  (In fact, if we took out all the polemical materials, the work would be a lot shorter.)  You see, the year before Luther wrote his text, Erasmus (incidentally, one of the smartest dudes of the whole Reformation period) had written a text called the Freedom of the Will.  There Erasmus had responded to some of Luther’s views, saying that the problem of free will is a seriously knotty one, and that there have been a whole range of views.  However, he says, based on Scripture, it seems that humans do enjoy at least some element of free choice, especially in turning away from sin and sinful things.  You’ll notice what many commentators have noted — that Erasmus accepted Luther’s standard desire to discuss the matter on biblical terms alone.  However, Luther was apparently shocked by Erasmus’s conclusions, as we’ll see.

The translation I am reading is a brand-new one by Volker Leppin, based on the one by Philip S. Watson in Luther’s Works, vol. 33.  This new translation appears in Fortress’s Annotated Luther series, as a single fascicle and as part of the second volume of that series.  I must here say that, unfortunately, this publication is only of an abridged version of the text.  Besides the shame of not having the entire text at our disposal in that one book, it is also unfortunate because Fortress does not indicate anywhere in their marketing materials that the volume is lacking a significant portion of the text.  The only place one learns of it is in a brief note at the end of the book’s introduction, where no rationale whatsoever is given for the editorial choice.

EDIT: Since the original writing of this post, I have had good conversations about this problem both online and at a conference with Will Bergkamp, Fortress’s publisher.  He graciously accepted the criticism while also sharing that he trusted the judgment of the series and volume editors — that the abridged version adequately represents the whole while remaining brief enough to match the other volumes in the series.  Hopefully, they will update their marketing materials to reflect that fact.  Regardless, if you want the entire text, perhaps this translation by Packer and Johnston would be better.  Alternatively, you can get this book by Rupp and Watson that has both Erasmus’s and Luther’s texts published together.  Or, in the meantime, you can do like I’m doing — fill out what you can get ahold of with this much older, online translation.  (Incidentally, I’ll be using the section numbers that are found there to indicate places in the text.)

Notes, Especially on the First Part of the Text

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not a Reformation specialist.  As a result, the things I notice in this text may seem a bit more random.  So, I’ll present them in the form of bulleted mini-paragraphs.  Feel free to add to them in the comments!

  • First, I notice that, as long as this text is, it seems rather well-organized.  That’s partly related to the conventions of the time, but it’s also because Luther is responding to a prior text by Erasmus.  In other words, a good part of Luther’s organizing schema is provided by Erasmus — answering (usually attempting to refute) him point by point, considering the same biblical texts, etc.  You can find a brief outline of the text at the bottom of this link, or a much more extensive one at this link.
  • Second, as I mentioned above, there is a lot of polemic in this text.  Some of it is directed at Erasmus himself — or maybe rather his text — which Luther calls by the term “Diatribe.”  Other critiques are directed at the “Sophists,” by which Luther seems to mean traditional Catholic theologians following the model of Scholastic theology.  If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, that feature of the text may put you off.  But I will say that Luther seems to really relish the argument, in that it forces him to put forward his best thinking.  Erasmus’s brilliance pushes Luther to really think through his views.
  • Another interesting feature of the text — not present nearly so much in Freedom of a Christian — is Luther’s repeated use of classical images and analogies.  The Fortress edition’s annotations point out a number of these, which is great for us non-classicists out there.  But just to give you one example, and a sense of the scope of things: in the introduction to the text, we already have references to Greek athletics prizes, Scylla and Charybdis, and Proteus. The translator says in his introduction that here we are seeing Luther trying to show off his humanist education by pointing to classical sources.  In other words, we might say that Luther wants to show that he can “hang” with Erasmus intellectually.  I don’t know if people thought he succeeded.
  • Not surprisingly, given what we know of Luther’s theology (and theological method), the text is completely suffused with Scripture.  While we see a Pauline focus (especially Romans and Galatians, which he knows so well) that is typical for Luther, we also see him interact with texts all across the canon — many of which were passages that Erasmus had discussed, which forced Luther to interpret them.  Many evangelicals today would consider this text a good model of trying to let the Bible serve as the predominant source for our theological discussions.
  • On a related topic: when I read the text, I get the sense that we are dealing with a couple of different theological “personalities,” if I might say it that way.  First, you have Luther, who clearly wants to base everything on Scripture.  Then you have Erasmus, who in sections 2-3 seems like he’s much more unwilling to simply give up church tradition; he’s wrestling with his rationality, Scripture, and the church Fathers (see this video primer on the “Wesley Quadrilateral” for the model of decision-making I’m referring to).  Further, Luther seems to want clear answers to a pretty deep question, while Erasmus is more willing to be “agnostic” about the topic in question — to not know for sure.  Luther reports Erasmus as believing that not all things in Scripture are clear.  While Luther rejects this premise, it seems that Erasmus embraces it.  In my opinion, these two differences made it really difficult for these guys to come to agreement.
    • Something I was surprised to find in the text is a whole series of what we sometimes call “false binaries.”  I was surprised to find them, because Luther is famous for rejecting the false binary of a human being as either a sinner or as someone justified — he said that we can both at the same time.  But, in the Bondage of the Will, we repeatedly encounter black-and-white views of a whole variety of things!  For example, in sec. 36, we hear that the question under discussion is either clear and Christian, or it is obscure and non-Christian.  WHAT?!?  In sec. 62, he diametrically opposes those who support free will and those who “insist on grace and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, as the text nears its rhetorical climax, the false binaries pile up on one another: secs. 120 (what is virtuous before humans is utterly worthless before God), 133 (supporting free will and supporting God’s mercy and justice), 147 (everything we do is either righteousness or sin — “righteousness if faith is present, sin if faith is absent”), and 163 (following the Johannine literature, there are two kingdoms in this world — one of God, one of Satan).  I gotta say: I don’t buy any of these false binaries, but Luther sure uses them a LOT!  There’s a lot that I admire in this text (as I’ll discuss next post), but this aspect is not one of them.

I think I’ll stop here.  The second post will be devoted primarily to the arguments of the text, so if you’re just getting started reading, I hope that this one gets you going.  In the meantime, something to consider: What is a Christian belief you hold that is mainly based on Scripture?  What’s one you hold that’s primary based on your experiences in life?

Image credits: badcatholicmovies.blogspot.com (the image — edited by the blogger — from the Joseph Fiennes Luther movie), fortresspress.com (for the book cover), and teachingthem.com (for the excellent icon representing conflict)

Suggested next click: Bondage of the Will, Part 2

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