Predestination and Freewill: Erasmus and Luther Revisited

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

Luther and ErasmusWhat then can be used in the soteriological constructions of Luther and Erasmus in light of such a critique? It seems that most scholars would especially prefer Luther, were he able, to rework his understanding of Romans in light of more recent scholarship, as a great deal of his interpretative framework has become the general Protestant manner of reading and interpreting the letter. Certainly many would argue against this justification theme as central to the letter, though it seems some scholars would be willing for certain understandings of Luther’s to remain, such as the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. On Luther’s understanding of foreknowledge and necessity, with concern for textual considerations only, it would seem that a good number of scholars, including those of the New Perspective on Paul, would argue against such a strong reading of God’s necessitating all of men’s willing and actions.[1] Very few scholars however, seem willing to remove the interpretation concerning the importance and immanence of God’s grace in the process of salvation. Would a revised Lutheran theology continue in its original uniqueness and strength concerning the total sovereignty of God in all situations without any real role for man’s will to play in the process of salvation? Luther uses a great deal of strong language in On the Bondage of the Will, language that would seem impossible to continue employing were Luther’s theology critiqued in light of modern scholarship on Romans. Without such strong language, Luther’s understanding may revert back to his earlier understanding as presented in his lectures on Romans, where God remains totally in control of all circumstances while seemingly leaving something for humanity to do. How such a view would differ from Erasmus’ presentation remains a topic to be considered elsewhere.

Concerning Erasmus, while scholars undoubtedly would prefer he rework his construction were it possible, his overall interpretation of the purposes and themes of Romans better accommodates the modern understanding. Erasmus presents several arguments against opponents who interpret passages in Romans as positing predestination without any free choice and, as noted above, Erasmus occasionally argued against such passages from a contextual perspective. While not a perfect match with today’s scholarship, such an understanding would seem to indicate Erasmus’ closer relationship to the modern understanding of Romans 7-9. It should be noted that Erasmus’ understanding of the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human will, as extrapolated from Romans 9, especially his understanding of the potter and clay, fit well into a modern understanding of Romans.[2] Additionally, Erasmus’ balanced view would seemingly fit far better into the modern academic context as another voice contributing to the conversation than would Luther’s flamboyant uniqueness. Such a plethora of perspectives on Paul, as well as presuppositions concerning man’s choice and the extent of God’s grace in the process of salvation, exist that it would be difficult to render a consensus verdict on Luther and Erasmus’ use of soteriological material in Romans 7-9. Given the perspectives presented here, it appears that while scholars would have critique of both Luther and Erasmus’ use of Romans 7-9 and their application of the material to soteriological concerns, Erasmus’ general use may find wider acceptance in the scholarly community. This writer in particular finds the position of Erasmus, even in light of the modern critique of interpretation, a more acceptable and coherent position than that of Luther.[3]

Here we have presented a great deal of material concerning Luther and Erasmus’ use of soteriological material from Romans 7-9 in light of recent perspectives on Romans and Paul. While we have written at some length on these topics, the materials presented here are by no means a holistic view of the plethora of interpretations of Romans 7-9 or the interpretation of soteriological concerns from those chapters. We have sought to understand the historical argument concerning the relevant materials in Romans by looking at Augustine and Pelagius’ exchange before we examined Erasmus and Luther’s perspectives on man’s free choice and their interpretation of soteriological materials in Romans 7-9. Next, we examined a number of recent scholars and commentaries on the proper interpretation of Romans 7-9 and applied their critiques to the constructions of Luther and Erasmus. While such critiques ultimately undermined Luther and Erasmus’ interpretive methodology and offered a number of critiques of their soteriological constructions, it seems at the end of the day that many scholars would be inclined to accept more tenets of Erasmus’ more balanced and nuanced interpretation of Romans 7-9 over Luther’s interpretation based primarily upon his reading of Romans as justification-centered.


 

[1] Of additional concern would be Luther’s failure to consider the transcendent nature of God as one outside of time. If God remains outside of time, the form of his omniscience would seem to take on a rather different form than the necessitating force that Luther seems to ascribe to God’s knowledge. [2] See material for Footnotes 33ff. [3] Of great concern is Luther’s understanding of foreknowledge as necessitating the actions and willing of man and theodicy that results from such an understanding. Additionally, Luther’s failure to consider the chronological transcendence of God and failure to expound on the philosophical ramifications of God’s ‘total’ freedom in a coherent way (Pearce and Pruss, 9) raise concerns that his view does not address. Finally, Luther’s apparent need for certainty to appease his conscience seems academically dubious at best, and in light of the New (continued…) Perspective on Paul, seems to be more of a grid that he forced upon the text to derive a theological system that he found satisfying than a genuine application of proper Biblical interpretation.

Bibliography

Augustine of Hippo. “On Rebuke and Grace.” Translated and Edited by J. Patout Burns. Sources of Early Christian Thought: Theological Anthropology. Series Editor William G. Rusch. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1981.

–. “On the Grace of Christ.” Translated and Edited by J. Patout Burns. Sources of Early Christian Thought: Theological Anthropology. Series Editor William G. Rusch. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1981.

Bywater, Kevin James. “Paul.” 5 April 2011. Summit Oxford Study Centre. Eynsham, England. Lecture.

–. “The Continuity of the Old and New Testaments.” 29 March 2011. Summit Oxford Study Centre. Eynsham, England. Lecture.

Dunn, James D.G. “Romans 1-8.” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38A. Editors David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Baker. Word Press: Dallas, 1988.

–. “Romans 9-16.” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38B. Editors David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Baker. Word Press: Dallas, 1988.

Elwell, W.A. “Election and Predestination.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Editors Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1993. 228

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio (On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse). Translated and Edited by E. Gordon Rupp. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969.

–. The Handbook of the Militant Christian. Edited by John P. Dolan. The Essential Erasmus. Meridian: New York, 1964.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. Romans: A New Translation with Commentary. The Anchor Bible, Vol.33. Doubleday: New York, 1993.

Jewett, Robert. “Romans.” The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Edited by James D.G. Dunn. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2003.

–. Romans: A Commentary. Assisted by Roy D. Kotansky. Edited by Eldon Jay Epp. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2007.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Translated by Robert C. Shultz. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1986

–. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated and Edited by Roy A. Harrisville. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999.

Longenecker, Richard N. Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2011.

Luther, Martin. Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X novissimam damnatorum Article 36, Dec. 1520. Weimarer Ausgabe, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 90 vols. Weimar, 1883ff.

–. 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. –. “Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia.” Luther’s Works, Volume 25. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis, 1972.

Malina , Bruce J. and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2006.

Middendorf, Michael Paul. The “I” in the Storm: A Study of Romans 7. Concordia Academic Press: St. Louis, 1997.

Morris, L. “Salvation.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Editors Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1993. 859

Pelagius. “Letter to Demetrius.” Translated and Edited by J. Patout Burns. Sources of Early Christian Thought: Theological Anthropology. Series Editor William G. Rusch. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1981.

Pearce , Kenneth L. and Alexander R. Pruss. “Understanding Omnipotence.” Cambridge Journal of Religious Studies. Cambridge University Press, 2012. Online.

Segal, Alan F. “Paul’s Jewish Presuppositions.” The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Edited by James Dunn, D.G. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2003.

The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. “Romans.” Craig C. Hill. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2001.

Thielicke, Helmut. Theological Ethics Volume I: Foundations. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1966.

Watson, Philip. “Introduction: Lutheran Riposte.” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969.

Wright, N.T. “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. X. Senior Editor Leander E. Keck. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002.

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