Predestination and Freewill: Modern Scholars on Romans 7-9, Part I

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

Bible CommentaryHaving now viewed Luther and Erasmus’ perspectives on soteriological material in Romans, we turn to a survey of modern Biblical studies concerning the proper interpretation and meaning of Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome. Here we must note the plethora of recent contextual studies, commentaries, and dissertations written concerning all manner of Pauline, theological, or interpretive concerns. The perspectives on Paul and his letter to Rome, along with the potential implications for soteriology and the human will that can be derived from the magnitude of the works in existence, are plenteous to say the least. It must be noted that the general governing assumptions of recent scholarship are vastly different from those of Erasmus and Luther in their context, and some may argue that to compare the perspective of modern scholars to those of the Age of Reformation would not be a fair presentation. However, questions of great importance must be examined in every time and under a variety of presuppositions, and thus to do so here remains wholly appropriate. While an entirely direct comparison of Luther and Erasmus to modern scholarship would indeed miss their unique contexts, we have been dealing in general principles and concerns that will enable us to offer critiques of the positions of both Luther and Erasmus on the soteriological materials of Romans. To best engage modern understandings of Paul and Romans, here will we examine both contextual studies of Paul and his letter to Rome as well as a number of commentaries on the passages of Romans in question. Continue reading

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

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

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther also argues that if the potter and clay in Romans 9 do not refer to God and man in salvation, “Paul’s whole argument in defense of grace is meaningless. For the whole purpose of his epistle is to show that we can do nothing, even when we seem to be doing well, just as he says in the same chapter that Israel in pursuing righteousness did not attain to righteousness, while the Gentiles attained to it without pursuing it.”[1] In Luther’s interpretation, Paul “uses [the image of potter and clay] in his own spirit against free choice. But as for the idea that freedom of choice is not lost if we are as clay in God’s hands when he afflicts us, I do not see the point of it or why [Erasmus] contends for it, since there is no doubt that afflictions come upon us from God against our will, and put us under the necessity of bearing them willy-nilly, not is it in our power to avert them, although we are exhorted to bear them willingly.”[2] Luther equates free choice with the flesh, which he believes that “Paul in Romans 8 (:7) says cannot submit to God (as we shall see in that passage), and in which [Erasmus] says can will nothing good.”[3] Thus, whereas Erasmus understands Paul as a champion of free choice, Luther understands Paul’s doctrine of universal sinfulness to nullify free choice.[4] Continue reading

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] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: On the Freedom of the Will, Part II

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

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus of Rotterdam

In addressing the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human will, Erasmus concludes that while Paul does not adequately address the question,[1] “the will of God, since it is the principle cause of all that takes place, seems to impose necessarily on our will…. God willed Pharaoh to perish miserably, and he willed it rightly, and it was tight for him to perish. Yet he was not forced by the will of God to be obstinately wicked.”[2] Erasmus says concerning Romans 9-11, that “All this shows clearly that Paul’s sole object here is to repress the arrogance at once of the Gentiles and of the Jews.”[3] Erasmus does not interpret the use of the Potter and the Clay to be entirely indicative of the roles of salvation, as he writes that “In these things we are to submit to God as a vessel to the hands of a potter. Yet in truth this is not to take away free choice wholly, not does it exclude our will from cooperating with the divine will in order to attain eternal salvation…. Here the word of Paul is not whether free choice is entirely excluded, but to repress the wicked murmuring of the Jews against God, who on account of their obstinate unbelief were rejected from the grace of the gospel, while the Gentiles were received on the ground of their faith…”[4] Erasmus argues that humanity cooperates with God in the process of salvation, that “What the architect is to his pupil, grace is to our will. Thus Paul in Rom. 8 (26): ‘Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’ Nobody calls him weak who can do nothing at all, but rather him whose powers are insufficient to perform what is attempted; nor is he said to be a helper who does everything by himself.”[5] Ultimately, Erasmus seeks a balanced understanding of God’s grace and man’s grace endowed free choice that allows for human responsibility in choosing or rejecting salvation under the grace and power of God,[6] as he concludes by writing that, “Pelagius has no doubt attributed too much to free choice, and Scotus quite enough, but Luther first mutilated it by cutting off its right arm; then not content with this he thoroughly cut the throat of free choice and dispatched it. I prefer the view of those who do attribute much to free choice, but most to grace.”[7] Continue reading

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

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

Erasmus

Erasmus

Erasmus wrote Freedom of the Will, at least in part, as a response to Luther’s response to the Papal Bull of Leo X in his Assertio.[1] In Freedom of the Will, Erasmus took issue with Luther writing that “I was wrong in saying that free choice before grace is a reality only in name. I should have said simply: ‘free choice is in reality a fiction, or a name without reality.’ For no one has it in his own power to think a good or bad though, but everything (as Wyclif’s article condemned at Constance rightly teaches) happens by absolute necessity.”[2] It was especially the “absolute necessity” portion of the text that Erasmus sought to address and demonstrate the proper understanding of the human will and salvation.[3] Before directly considering the will in Freedom, Erasmus outlined a number of considerations that assisted in his understanding of the place of human will in salvation. As with many of his other works, Erasmus outlines pastoral considerations, especially for lay people.[4] Additionally, Erasmus expresses concerns about the obscurity and interpretation of scripture, which he believes must be taken into account when formulating any theology.[5] Ultimately, the major concern for Erasmus in Freedom of the Will involved the role of “human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them.”[6] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Context and Early Erasmus

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

Erasmus

Erasmus

Before moving to fully Luther and Erasmus, we must note a similarity between the early and late-medieval interpreters of scripture. Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, and Erasmus each writes in manner that takes a ‘proof-text’ approach to concepts and ideas that can be found within the scriptures and extrapolate their theology from those interpretations, an approach that finds little academic sympathy today.[1] That said, the debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam concerning the role of humanity in their eternal salvation was one of the most important intellectual battles of the 16th Century Evangelical Reformation, and one that, as Luther said, displayed that “real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute”[2] of the Reformation. Erasmus of Rotterdam was the premier humanist scholar of his day, publisher of the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, and a Catholic reformer who sought to take Christian religion ad fontes, back to its sources. Martin Luther was a doctor of New Testament at Wittenberg University who sought to bring the Church back to its scriptural roots of doctrine, including the doctrine of salvation. It must be noted that Erasmus and Luther both had concerns in writing their respective works that surpass the concerns of this present writing.[3] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Augustine and Pelagius

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

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine

The use of Romans in the construction of soteriological concerns has a long and varied history. Perhaps the most important discourse concerning the will involved St. Augustine of Hippo and the English monk Pelagius, both of whom relied upon Pauline thought in their arguments. In his “Letter to Demetrius,” Pelagius outlines his theology of the human will, using or inferring from various texts and concepts found in Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome. Pelagius argued that the human will had the inherent capacity to perform both good and evil, that the will was not forced to do evil necessarily, and that the human will became habituated into evil.[1] For his understanding, “doing good has become difficult for us only because of the long custom of sinning, which begins to infect us even in our childhood. Over the years it gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself…. If even before the law and long before the coming of our Lord and Savior, some people lived upright and holy lives, as we have said, we should believe all the more that we can do the same after his coming. Christ’s grace has taught us and regenerated us as better persons. His blood has purged and cleansed us, his exampled spurred us to righteousness.”[2] Using Romans 9:20, Pelagius argues that the Pauline Christian perspective indicates that people are wicked because they work not to improve their loves, but complain about their nature. “If, then, even apart from God, these people demonstrate how God made them, we should recognize what can be accomplished by Christians whose nature has been restored to a better condition by Christ and who are assisted by divine grace.”[3] Thus for Pelagius, the human will remains endowed with the freedom of choice between good and evil even now, and while the humans tend to sin, they act and choose not because of predetermined necessity but of their own willing. Continue reading

Romans, Predestination, and Freewill

For the next three weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be running a series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill through the lens of Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s famous Reformation era debate and contemporary Biblical scholarship.

Luther and ErasmusSince the beginnings of the Jesus movement countless people, in response to the Good News of God, have asked the same question as the Philippian jailer in Acts 16, namely, “What must I do to be saved?”[1] The Christian tradition claims to have knowledge of the true way for humanity to possess eternal salvation through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As Christian theology developed its earliest centuries, a number of theologians began to construct understandings of how God and humanity interacted within the process of salvation based on Christian scripture and the community of faith. Christianity has grown, spread across that world, and become incredibly diverse in the nearly two thousand years since the life of Christ, and theological understandings concerning the salvation of humanity have by no means remained uniform within the Christian tradition. Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series comparing Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority during the Age of Theological Reformations.

Luther and ErasmusHaving examined Luther and Erasmus’ perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority, especially within the context of their debate concerning the relationship of the divine and human wills, we now turn to consideration of these views in relation to each other. First it should be clear from this study that Erasmus and Luther, by nature of their respective locations within the Christian tradition, both afforded a great deal of authority to the words of scripture, especially those found in the New Testament. This should surprise no one, as the Christian tradition was highly invested in the authority of written texts long before the Protestant Reformation. Second, both Erasmus and Luther were concerned with determining what the biblical texts said, especially as it related to the contents and practice of Christian faith. This similarity becomes evident by the manner in which both Luther and Erasmus understood the scriptures, as the divinely inspired Word of God, and employed scriptural references, namely, generally as uncontextualized proof texts demonstrating a theological point in a manner divorced from the larger socio-historical context of the writing being used. Luther and Erasmus may also have agreed on the parameters of the materials that could be used as scripture, though Luther’s eventual rejection of the Apocrypha and subjugation of certain New Testament writings makes the relationship between Luther and Erasmus’ conceptions of canon somewhat unclear, as does the lack of substantial scholarship on the issue. From Luther and Erasmus’ similarities in the authority they understood scripture to have, as well as their use of that material, it seems safe to conclude that for both Erasmus and Luther, Christian scripture functioned in a highly similar manner, namely as an authoritative source for understanding Christian life and faith. Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Luther on Scripture, Canon, and Authority

This post is part of our ongoing series comparing Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority during the Age of Theological Reformations.
Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Written as a response to Erasmus’ De Libero Abitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio, in which Erasmus critiqued Luther’s position on “absolute necessity” of the human will, Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio offers both a rebuttal of Erasmus’ position on the freedom of the human will as well as demonstrating Luther’s fullest explanation of his theological anthropology concerning the bound human will.[1] As much has been written on this topic, our purpose here does not include considerations of Luther’s arguments concerning the will, instead focusing on his use of scripture, authority, and canon in the construction of his argument. Luther spends a good portion of this voluminous work responding to Erasmus from a general position of reason and Christian history, though without directly appealing to any sources apart from the occasional scripture (Luther, 101-109). Continue reading