Davd B Hunsicker
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Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500 Part 3: The Bondage of the Will

 Fortress, 2016.

Fortress, 2016.

In 1525, Luther penned his famous response to Erasmus of Rotterdam on The Bondage of the Will. Erasmus, in his The Freedom of the Will, argued that humans must have free will if God is truly just and loving. Otherwise, how can you account for the existence of pain, suffering, and evil? God is surely not the author of such things; therefore, humans must be able to do things to bring them about.

Luther's response, a very lengthy text, is abridged seamlessly in the Annotated Luther series into about 100 lucid pages. Rhetorically, Luther follows the structure of Erasmus' work, registering his objections at every point before then offering a more substantial rebuttal. Theologically, Luther elaborates on a number of themes that will become virtually synonymous with the Reformation, including sola scriptura and the plain sense of scripture, and the visible/invisible church distinction. Of course, the central theme of the work regards the relationship between divine and human action, with Luther, unsurprisingly, staking his theology on God's sovereignty in a treatment of free will that at times reflects the Augustine/Pelagius debate, at times anticipates the calvinist/arminian debates, and is always fresh and entertaining. In this brief introduction to the text, I will briefly highlight each of these theological themes.

 

Scripture

One of the central points of debate between Erasmus and Luther revolves around scripture. Erasmus claims that scripture is unclear on the matter of human free will, leading him to appeal instead to the church's tradition as largely favoring the notion of human free will. He argues that Luther's divergence from tradition places him in the company of only Wycliffe and Valla, the former a declared heretic and the latter a presumed one.  Against this charge, Luther argues (1) that there is a plain sense to scripture, and (2) that tradition must bend to scripture.

First, regarding the plain sense of scripture, Luther argues that scripture is a creature, not the creator. Scripture does not hide itself from humans in the same way that God is hidden; there is no divine mystery that needs protecting with regards to the meaning of scripture. To the contrary, scripture is clear in two ways. It is internally clear when it the Spirit of God is at work in us, allowing us to receive its clarity, and it is externally clear when the church proclaims the scriptures to have a definite meaning. Wherever scripture appears obscure, it is not because there is something about the text in and of itself that is obscure; instead, it is obscure because humans are sinners. This is an especially important point for Luther with regards to the question of scripture's teaching on Free Will. Scripture cannot be obscure with regards to anything that pertains to salvation. The question of Free Will–i.e., the question of how much humans can and must contribute towards their own salvation–must be answered clearly by scripture; it is essential to salvation!

Second, Erasmus's argument from tradition is inadequate and must submit to the plain sense of scripture on the matter. Where Erasmus appeals to figures from the tradition like Origen and Jerome to interpret scripture, he abandons his best humanist instincts. Authorities from the church's tradition might be poor interpreters of scripture, or at least some parts of scripture. To the extent that they propose tropological interpretations of scripture, they open the door to ambiguity and heresy regarding things that are plain. To say that the tradition might be wrong about an interpretation of scripture regarding free will is not to say that the church's saints in previous generations were in complete error. Indeed, Luther argues, the saints and martyrs may have held an errant view regarding free will, but they weren't willing to be martyred for their position on free will; they were martyred for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ. In that regard, they are still trustworthy and authoritative. Their arguments, however, must be tested by the plain sense of scripture and not visa-versa. This brings us to the second theological theme that is worth noting.

 

The Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

In rebuffing Erasmus's appeal to the tradition, Luther rebuffs the authority of the church over scripture. Even so, a weighty question is still implied by Erasmus's appeal: how is it that everyone in the history of Christianity before Luther seemed to find the scriptures obscure on this point? Is Luther suggesting that the church, and the whole of Christianity with it, erred?

Of course not, Luther responds. The church cannot err, provided that we understand one important point. What we perceive as the church (the visible church) is not the true church. Among the visible church there is a remnant of the true church (the invisible church). The truth has always been preserved and proclaimed by this remnant. So, when we claim doctrinally that the church cannot err, we do not mean that all parts of visible church are always correct; we simply mean that God always preserves a true church in the midst of human sinfulness.

 

Free Will

The first two points–the authority of scripture and the visible/invisible church distinction–become clear points of contention between Protestants and Roman Catholics and continue to be doctrinal disagreements. The final theme, however, is one that really presses the question of orthodoxy itself. As Luther sees it, he is not alone in the tradition with regards to his rejection of free will. He has at least one important theological ally: Augustine. Throughout the course of his response to Erasmus he will argue that he is Augustinian while implying that Erasmus is Pelagian, or at least semi-pelagian (only because he doesn't have the scruples to be as consistent as Pelagius!).

Scripture is plain on the question of Free Will: with regards to anything pertaining to salvation humans have none. To the contrary, the human will is in bondage: either to the devil on account of sin, or to the Holy Spirit on account of grace. To deny this point would be to deny divine sovereignty itself (omnipotence). To speak of free will is to speak of something that properly belongs to God alone. To say that humans have free will regarding things pertaining to salvation (and this is clearly how Erasmus defines the term) is to say that humans have the capacity to act in a manner that determines God's will and his work regarding human salvation. If this were the case, then clearly God would not be sovereign because he would be subject to the human will.

You can say the same thing regarding God's foreknowledge (omniscience). God's will and his foreknowledge are correlated for Luther: he knows as he wills. If his will is subject to the human will, then his foreknowledge is equally subject. For Luther, then, the matter of human free will is a matter related to human salvation, yes, but even more so, a matter related to God's very nature and his ability to be God for us in our salvation.

Luther does not completely deny the human any agency. For one thing, he allows that there are two different types of free will: one pertaining to the things of this world and the other pertaining to salvation. Regarding the day-to-day actions of humans in the world, there is free will regarding human thought and action; however, with regard to the ability to will or act towards one's own salvation, humans have no free will at all. Humans can even exercise free will in performing acts of obedience to they law. They simply cannot fulfill the law through human will. Only Christ can fulfill the law–that is the Gospel!

For another thing, Luther notes that humans do experience some form of "cooperation" with God. This is not cooperation regarding salvation. Luther argues that humans do not cooperate in their creation; likewise, they do not cooperate in their re-creation. Instead, this is cooperation in God's mission. He uses us to preach the gospel and to serve the poor, etc. Here, we clearly here echos of Luther's argument in The Freedom of a Christian; namely, that Christians are free to be servants to their neighbors.