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. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Scholarly Consensus

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

Apostle Paul WritingAs one can easily see from our previous posts, there exists no common consensus interpretation of Romans 7-9 among scholars and commentators today. However we can note several important factors as well as some of the more widely accepted interpretations of Romans 7-9 and their application to soteriological concerns. As noted in our general review of several Pauline, context, and Romans scholars, the general tendency of modern scholars is to consider Romans 7-9 with regard for its original written context. This includes considerations of the general ancient Mediterranean context as Malina and Pilch noted, Paul’s Jewish context of Remnant theology as Longenecker writes, Paul’s practical missional context as Jewett reminds us, and the over-arching theme of the Letter to the Romans as emphasizing God’s righteousness.[1] The greatest critique of Luther and Erasmus both on this point consists of the fact the neither paid much attention to the context of Paul’s writings or purposes in a broad sense. Verse-bites and proof-texts from various passages of scripture (not just Romans 7-9) are used by both Erasmus and Luther for their theological constructions, usage that would be frowned upon by scholars today. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: N. T. Wright

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

N. T. WrightIn The New Interpreter’s Bible, N.T. Wright begins by writing that, “Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece.”[1] Wright describes the main theme of the letter as “God’s gospel unveiling God’s righteousness,” which describes “Paul’s own summary in 1:16-17, and the letter does, indeed, unpack this dense statement…. The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ summed up sharply and conveniently, for a first century Jew such as Paul, the expectations that the God of Israel… would be faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs.”[2] With this understanding of Romans, Wright argues that, “The flow of thought through the letter as a whole makes far more sense if we understand the statement of the theme in 1:17 as being about God and God’s covenant faithfulness and justice, rather than simply about ‘justification.’ It brings into focus chapters 9-11, not as an appendix to a more general treatment of sin and salvation, but as the intended major climax of the whole letter….”[3] For Wright, much like Dunn, there remains room within the larger theme of covenant faithfulness for other readings of major subjects, especially the salvation of humans.[4] However, “Paul’s [overarching] aim, it seems, is to explain to the Roman church what God has been up to and where they might belong on the map of these purposes.”[5] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: James Dunn

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

James D. G. Dunn

James D. G. Dunn

In the Word Biblical Commentary, James D.G. Dunn employs the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul to interpret his letters. This perspective argues that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans. The emphasis is important, that God is the one who justifies the ungodly, and understandably this insight has become an integrating focus in Lutheran theology with tremendous power. The problem, however, lay in what that emphasis was set in opposition to. The antithesis to ‘justification by faith’ –what Paul speaks of as ‘justification by works’—was understood in terms of a system whereby salvation is earned through the merit of good works. This was based partly on the comparison suggested in the same passage (4:4-5), and partly on the Reformation rejection of a system where indulgences could be bought and merits accumulated. The latter protest was certainly necessary and justified, and of lasting importance, but the hermeneutical mistake was made of reading this antithesis back into the New Testament period, of assuming that Paul was protesting against in Pharisaic Judaism what Luther protested against in the pre-Reformation church– the mistake, in other words, of assuming that the Judaism of Paul’s day was coldly legalistic, teaching a system of earning salvation by the merit of good works, with little or no room for the free forgiveness and grace of God.”[1] Dunn understands such a view as a caricature of Judaism, and affirms E. P. Sander’s conclusion that “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace—that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel, to be their God and they his people. This covenant relationship was regulated by the law, not as a way of entering the covenant, or of gaining merit, but as the way of living within the covenant…”[2] Here one can see that while the soteriological concerns that Luther and Erasmus derive from Romans are not disregarded by the New Perspective on Paul, but are recast within a contextual light. Understanding Romans as a construction of Paul’s theology that rejected the ‘works righteousness’ of pre-Reformation theology simply does not do justice to Paul’s contextual concerns. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Joseph Fitzmyer

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

Joseph FitzmyerHaving looked briefly at some of the overarching views of scholars on the purpose of Romans and the insights that can be gained from a contextual understanding of Paul’s message and the implications for scriptural interpretation, let us now consider some of the more popular modern commentaries on Romans. The Anchor Bible commentary emphasizes the context of the division of the strong and weak Christians in Rome, a disunity that seems to stem at least in part from a dichotomous relationship between Jewish and Greek Christians.[1] Here Fitzmyer writes that “[Romans] overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father.”[2] All Christians, indeed all people, are for Paul sinners who will one day face judgment for their sins. Fitzmyer argues that Paul insists on the impartiality of God’s judgment for sin, though he does not address Paul’s construction of any theological anthropology at this point.[3] Given the sinfulness of humanity, the major theme of Romans involves a call to Christian ethical action: “Christians are Jewish and Gentile persons who are justified by grace through faith and who live in Christ Jesus; they are no longer ‘under law but under grace.’ Yet, though already justified and reconciled through the Christ-event, they are still in this world and have to prepare themselves for the day, when ‘God’s just judgment will be revealed.’ Hence, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians” to live an ethical and Godly life in the spirit.[4] Key to understanding Romans 7:1-6 is Paul’s emphasis that “the law’s obligation ceases when death occurs.”[5] Concerning the law in Romans 7:7-13, “Paul implies that the effect of the law is to give human beings knowledge of sin, not only of the abstract notion of sin, but of sin as a dynamic overlord that induces a spirit of rebellion against God and disobedience to his commandments.”[6] Then, in Romans 7:14-25, “[Paul] finds that the problem is not with the law, but with human beings themselves. The trouble is that they are carnal, made of flesh that is weak, and prone to succumb to attacks of sin, which dwells within them. Because of such indwelling sin, human begins fail to achieve what God desires of them. Yet not all in human beings is sin; there is also the mind (nous), which does recognize God’s law and does acknowledge what it desires of humans. But the ‘mind’ itself is not empowered to resist the seductions of sin. Eventually, Paul recognizes the wretched state of human beings and acknowledges that only ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ can this situation be remedies, through divine grace and the power of the Spirit.”[7] Continue reading

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

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

BookshelvesMany context scholars emphasize the importance of remembering Paul’s Jewish-worldview[1] in reading and interpreting Romans.[2] Bruce Malina and John Pilch argue in their Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, that each of his letters would have been, to some degree, “pre-read” by collectivist recipients of the Ancient Mediterranean context.[3] Malina and Pilch believe that Paul was primarily apostle to the Jews living among the Gentiles, and thus place a strong emphasis on the elect status of the people of Israel within Romans.[4] Within his social setting, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul’s message was one of social and religious innovation and not conversion, which he only worked within the elect of Israel, though among the Gentile people outside of Israel.[5] Thus in commenting on Romans 7, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul writes concerning the relationship of the elect before Jesus’ death and resurrection and the current condition of those who have now becomes slaves to death. “Paul describes the before/after situation in terms of persons under the control of others (husband, slave owner, possessing spirit) who lose their control by death. A dead husband, a former slave owner, and an exorcised possessing spirit lose their entitlements to control others.”[6] Malina and Pilch read Romans eight in a similar manner, understanding Paul’s primary concern in light of “us” versus “them,” the elect controlled by the spirit and those controlled by the flesh.[7] In chapter nine, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul focuses solely on the elect of Israel as a people group marked off by the common features of “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and according to the flesh, the Messiah, Jesus.”[8] Regarding Romans 9:19-24, Paul’s construction of God indicates that He chooses whom to call and not call, and the comparison of the potter clearly indicated to the ancient Mediterranean audience that people have nothing to say about how God forms them. Thus, Paul can conclude that based upon his calling that God’s call goes to all of us Israelites, not only from those resident in Judea, but also from those resident among non-Israelites.[9] Thus Malina and Pilch’s social science commentary emphasizes Paul’s Jewish qualities in such a way that heightens the distinctive characteristics of Israel as the chosen people of God, though in a modified manner through Christ. Continue reading

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