Predestination and Freewill: On the Bondage of the Will, Part I

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

On the Bondage of the WillWe now turn to Martin Luther’s response to Erasmus in his De Servo Arbitrio (Or On the Bondage of the Will).[1] In addition to responding, Luther also outlined his own fully developed soteriological theology concerning the roles of human will and God in salvation.[2] It should be noted that some ten years prior to writing Bondage of the Will, Luther had delivered lectures on Romans at the University of Wittenberg.[3] In these lectures, Luther summarized the materials of Romans 7 as, “The apostle [Paul] established the cessation of the old law, which is the law of death; and he is dealing here with the law of the tinder.”[4] Concerning Romans 9:16,[5] he wrote that “This is not to be understood in the sense that this is a matter only of God’s showing mercy, as if it were not necessary for a person to will or exert himself, but rather that the fact that a man does will or exert himself is not of his own power but of the mercy of God, who has given this power of willing and doing, without which man of himself can neither will nor make exertion…. For it does not follow from this text that the willing or the running of a man achieves nothing, but that it is not a matter of his own power. For the work of God is not nothing. But the willing and running of a man is the work of God.”[6] This view, while sounding much like the Erasmian perspective that we have already seen, represents Luther’s perspective on the human will in process, and as we will see in looking at the Bondage of the Will below, does not necessarily constitute Luther’s fully developed position on the will. Lohse summarizes the developed view in Bondage by writing that for Luther, “the finite human will cannot be free in relationship to the infinite will of God. Sometimes Luther came very close to the view that people have no freedom to choose even in matters that are subject to them and seemed to say that human actions even at this lowest level are directed by God. “[7]

Bernhard Lohse argues that Luther eventually used his interpretation of Romans to form the basis for his interpretation of the whole Biblical corpus, something that most modern scholars would be wary of doing even with the Pauline letters.[8] Luther argues for Romans to be understood as a justification-centered letter, as he writes that, “The chief purpose of this letter is to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all the works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works. No matter whether these works are done with a sincere heart and mind, this letter is to affirm the state and magnify sin, no matter how much someone insists that it does not exist, or that it was believed not to exist.”[9] Of further importance for Luther, the hermeneutic that he derives from Paul leads to a strong interpretive dichotomy between law and gospel: “Almost all Scripture and the understanding of all theology hangs on the proper understanding of law and gospel.”[10] Building upon Augustine’s framework of Law and Gospel, Luther concludes that “Law” refers to the word of judgment, that which is opposed to grace and entails commands intending to teach people to despair of their works and to trust in God’s mercy alone.[11]

Based on passages such as “Whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18), and “God, willing to show his nature” (Rom. 9:22), Luther concludes concerning the foreknowledge of God that “Christian faith is entirely extinguished, the promises destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of the things that are to come to pass. For this is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutably, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered.”[12] Concerning necessity, Luther argues that “Christians, however, are not led by free choice but by the Spirit of God, according to Rom. 8:14; and to be led is not to take initiative but to be impelled, as a saw or ax is wielded by a carpenter.”[13] When questioned concerning why God does not use this necessity to turn all heart toward Himself, Luther rejects Erasmus’ use of the church fathers[14] and responds with Paul’s argument in Romans 9:20, “Who are you, to answer back to God?”[15] Later, Luther uses Romans 9:19[16] to demonstrate that “it is not permissible for men to pry into the will of the Divine Majesty.”[17] For Luther, the importance and pervasiveness of mystery in how God’s his salvation does not need to be understood by the Christian, only lived out.[18]


 

[1] Hereafter references as Bondage of the Will or Bondage. [2] This position represents the fullest extent of Luther’s soteriological constructions in major writing. [3] Bernhard Lohse. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated and Edited by Roy A. Harrisville. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999. 149. [4] Martin Luther. “Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia.” Luther’s Works, Volume 25. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis, 1972. 57; 57-66. [5] “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” English Standard Version. [6] Ibid., 388-9. [7] Bernhard Lohse. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Translated by Robert C. Shultz. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1986. 66. [8] Bernhard Lohse. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated and Edited by Roy A. Harrisville. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999. 68. [9] Ibid., 148. [10] Ibid., 267. Lohse here quotes Luther from WA 7, 502, 34-5. [11] Ibid., 157. [12] Martin Luther. De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will). Translated and Edited by Philip S. Watson. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XVII. General Editors John Baillie, John T. NcNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. 122; 134-5. [13] Ibid., 219. [14] Ibid., 224. [15] Ibid., 202. [16] Cited as Romans 11. [17] Ibid., 207; 241. [18] If we hold to any form of understanding concerning an omnipotent, infinite God, there will undoubtedly be a point at which finite human reason will cease to comprehend. A number of questions have been raised as to why Luther draws the line at this point, that perhaps his pastoral or personal concern for certainty impacted this point.

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One thought on “Predestination and Freewill: On the Bondage of the Will, Part I

  1. Pingback: The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation | Pursuing Veritas

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