Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Bondage of the Will

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam put out an inquiry in 1524 titled: Diatribe or Discourse Concerning Free Choice (also known as The Freedom of the Will). In it, he attacks Luther’s view of the will’s bound choice. Erasmus believed the Scriptures were obscure regarding the issue of the role of the will in salvation. Consequently, he thought that a theologian should base his teachings on reason and experience. In conclusion, man could make choices for or against God. Men have free will. In this essay I will analyze Luther’s response to Erasmus, De servo arbitrio (On Bound Choice, also known as The Bondage of the Will, 1525), specifically focusing on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Following this, I will discuss Luther’s views after 1525, and the Lutheran agreement expressed in the Formula of Concord (FC) Article XI after his death (1577). I will seek to answer the following questions: Did Lutherans after Luther’s death diverge from Luther’s teachings in The Bondage of the Will, a work he believed to be one his best? Do confessional Lutherans today subscribe to a confession of faith that Martin Luther would not subscribe to? Is Martin Luther a heretic in the Lutheran Church, as the 20th century Reformed historian, Phillip Schaff has claimed?

First, I will examine The Bondage of the Will. In it, Luther asserts that God foreknows all things by divine necessity. The term by necessity was a scholastic term used by Luther. At the time, he thought it would be an effective way to confess God’s total lordship. After 1525, he abandoned the conception because its meaning was too harsh and suggested compulsion. However, The Bondage of the Will asserts that God is in total control. It is not by chance that events occur the way they do. For Luther there was no distinction between God’s foreknowledge and God’s foreordination of events. What God foreknows, God foreordains because He is in control. With the phrase, by necessity, Luther means that God predetermines all events that happen in time. Luther writes:

"It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will."

What Luther does not mean is that God forces man’s will to choose one thing or another in the earthly realm. God is in total control of daily events that occur in time, and because He is omnipotent in relation to them, he predetermines them. He uses the example of Judas Iscariot to illustrate this point. Although Judas became a traitor willingly and not by force, he did betray Jesus Christ at a time predetermined by God. Luther writes,

"Let him who hears me understand that I am speaking of the latter [necessity of infallibility], not the former [necessity of force] discussing whether Judas became a traitor willingly or unwillingly, but whether it was infallibly bound to come to pass that Judas should willingly betray Christ at a time predetermined by God" (brackets added by me).

God predetermines all events, but man is not forced when making choices on a day to day basis. Luther does not want Erasmus or any other reader to think this. Man can make choices on a day to day basis concerning earthly matters, but because God is omnipotent, He is in control and wills these choices.

Concerning spiritual matters, man’s will is totally bound. One could say this is Luther’s main argument of the book. Man cannot choose or reject God. Man cannot choose or reject Satan. Man is like a beast standing between two riders. Luther writes, “If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have hold of it.”

So if God is in total control and can ride the will towards salvation or allow Satan to ride the will towards damnation, then why does He choose to ride some and not others? Luther states that the answer is hidden to us and we should have nothing to do with it. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther makes a distinction between the hidden and revealed God. And while Luther does tell the reader to have nothing to do with the hidden God, he does not follow his own advice. Instead, Luther makes statements concerning the actions of the hidden God. For example, he states that God wills and works the death of sinners according to His inscrutable will. Luther writes,

“God hidden in Majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, and death, and all in all; nor has He set bounds to Himself by His Word, but has kept Himself free over all things.”

The ones in whom God works death according to His hidden will, Luther calls the reprobate. The reprobates are the ones God purposely leaves and allows to go to hell by His omnipotent will. Luther writes, “It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish.”

According to The Bondage of the Will, the reprobates are damned undeservedly by the power of the omnipotent God who wills their death. By undeserved, Luther means the reprobate did not have the ability to do anything about their sinful condition. Since Luther affirms that it is because of no previous merit or worthiness that God elects sinners, He also affirms that it is because of no previous merit that God damns them as well. That is, there is an unconditional work towards salvation, and an unconditional work towards damnation. God is free and works according to His omnipotent will. Luther realizes that Erasmus is going to be concerned with this teaching and says:

"You may be worried that it is hard to defend the mercy and equity of God in damning the undeserving, that is, ungodly persons, who, being born in ungodliness, can by no means avoid being ungodly, and staying so, and being dammed, but are compelled by natural necessity to sin and perish; as Paul says: ‘We were all the children of wrath, even as others’ (Eph. 2.3), created such by God Himself form a seed that had been corrupted by the sin of the one man, Adam."

The reprobate cannot resist God’s will to work death in them. And the work He does in them is not because they are sinners who deserve it, but because God predetermined their destiny before they were born. Luther bases this doctrine on Romans 9:13ff where Paul quotes Malachi 1:2ff: “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.” Since Paul says that God determined their destiny prior to their birth, Luther concludes that Esau’s predestination to damnation was unconditioned. Erasmus denied this passage was speaking of salvation but only temporal servitude on the basis of Romans 9:12 where Paul quotes Genesis 25:23. Luther responds:

"The question here is not, whether that servitude bears on salvation, but, by what desert was it imposed on him who has not deserved it….Furthermore, proof is derived from the text itself that Moses is not dealing with temporal servitude only, and that Paul is perfectly right in understanding it of eternal salvation."

Erasmus claims that it is absurd to say that God condemns people who cannot avoid deserving damnation. Luther responds by ridiculing Erasmus for imposing man-made reason upon God. Luther affirms that this is Paul’s point and it is the very reason the Romans were grumbling in 9:19. It was by no previous merits that God works faith or unbelief in man. Luther writes, “Paul teaches that faith and unbelief come to us by no work of our own, but through the love and hatred of God.” All things take place by necessity and not by man’s free will. Luther writes,

"And it is just this that compels that conclusion that there is no such thing as ‘free will’: namely, the fact that the love and hate of God towards men is immutable and eternal, existing, not merely before there was nay merit or work of ‘free-will’, but before the world was made; and that all things take place in us of necessity, according as He has from eternity loved or not loved."

Luther is aware that it may look like he is assigning to God responsibility for evil. However, when discussing Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17) he states that God hardened his heart, but it was not as if he was not already sinful. It was not as if God caused someone good to be evil. He caused someone to be evil that was already evil. When God hardens a man’s heart He is the one who keeps all things in motion. But the evil that takes place is the fault of the instruments, not God, for He cannot do evil. By stating this, Luther frees himself from the accusation that he is ascribing evil to God regarding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

Luther ends the work by telling the reader to keep in the mind three lights: the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory. According to the light of nature it does not make sense that the good should suffer in this life and the bad should prosper. According to the light of grace it does not make sense that God damns sinners who cannot do anything to save themselves. But the light of glory says that God will reveal these answers at His advent, and now we should only trust in his justice.

By teaching that man is damned undeservedly, Luther was not being careful with his words. By using the scholastic category, by divine necessity, Luther attributed to God all things, including damnation. Luther did this not only because of his use of divine necessity but also because he was eager to prove Erasmus wrong. This work was very important to Luther because it dealt with the role of the human will in salvation. For many years as a monk, Luther thought it was up to him to earn his salvation. When he discovered the gospel it gave him certainty that salvation was by grace alone. By asserting the omnipotence and immutability of God’s will, Luther was asserting the certainty of salvation in the promises of the gospel. But in Luther’s zeal to affirm the omnipotence of God who works all things not on the basis of any merit, he consequently affirmed that God damns the undeserved.

In Luther’s defense, The Bondage of the Will is not the place to go to experience a full treatment of Luther’s theology of predestination. God’s predestination was discussed as I have emphasized above, but it was not the focus of his work. Since Erasmus was asserting the freedom of man’s will, Luther primarily approached this work from the standpoint of man. Luther predominantly focuses on anthropology, the doctrine man. So much so, that he does not even mention Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-11, texts which are the seats of doctrine (sedas doctrinae) for God’s eternal predestination. Therefore, Luther’s primary objective was to persuade Erasmus that man has no free will (anthropology). His goal was not to exhaust the Scriptures concerning God’s predestination (the doctrine of God).

Every theological work must be understood within its historical context. And every theologian undergoes theological development. So what was Luther’s attitude towards this work later in his life? In 1537, Luther maintained that The Bondage of the Will was one of his best works. This was possibly due to the fact that it was written in excellent Latin, and that Luther refuted a pretty famous humanist scholar using very good argumentation. Three years later, Luther does give a pre-caution to his readers, however. During a lecture on Genesis 26 in 1540, Luther admits that he overemphasized God’s divine will pre-ordaining all things in The Bondage of the Will. In the lecture, Luther desired to maintain the tension between human responsibility and God’s omnipotence while focusing on God’s promises in the gospel. Already, in The Bondage of the Will, he maintained the universality of God’s promises. Afterwards, he continued maintaining the atonement was unlimited. Luther was a man of the gospel, not a man of speculating over the hidden God. Concerning Luther’s theological development concerning predestination, Luther made it clear in a 1539 lecture that that the blame for damnation fell upon human beings. Further, he stated:

"So remember that God the Almighty did not create, predestine, and choose us to perish but to be saved, as Paul gave witness to the Ephesians, and had to begin his discussion not with the law or with reason but with the grace of God and the gospel that is proclaimed to all people."

One can observe Luther’s growth in his understanding of law and gospel. Predestination was gospel not law, promise not threat. It had nothing to do with unbelievers who do not receive the promise. Unbelievers were damned due to their transgression of the law. Reformation Scholar, Dr. Robert Kolb writes, “In a similar letter written in August 18, 1545, Luther affirmed that God’s predestination is found in Jesus Christ alone.”

Taking into account Luther’s corrections and the development of his theology at the University of Wittenberg, the Formula of Concord written after his death made the distinction between the foreknowledge and foreordination of God. God’s foreknowledge simply means that God foresees future events. God’s foreordination describes his actions in human history. His foreordination to election extends only over the elect. Man’s damnation is deserved because of his transgressions of God’s law. God is sovereign over man’s damnation, but He does not cause it. The Formula followed Luther’s advice by not focusing on the hidden God, which perhaps, Luther did a little too much of in The Bondage of the Will.

If Luther were still alive in 1577, would he have subscribed to FC XI? Obviously, as a 21st century American it is impossible to know for sure. But given the data, it is quite likely Luther would have subscribed since it reflects corrections he had already made during his lifetime. So is Luther a heretic in the Lutheran Church as Schaff maintained? Of course not. Schaff and all of us for that matter, must take into account the context of The Bondage of the Will, and Luther’s theological development on this, and every issue.

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