Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

The following comes from a paper presented for Dr. Scott Manetsch at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for the course Classic Texts in the History of Christianity CH 8100.

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In The Bondage of the Will Martin Luther sets out to investigate what ability human freedom possesses and how it relates to God’s grace (II.iii.). For Luther, this theological dispute over human freedom is of utmost importance. He claims it is the fundamental disagreement between himself and the Catholic tradition (II.iii.; VIII.). Because this topic strikes at the heart of soteriology, truths of “eternal consequence” are at stake (II.vi.). To know nothing of these matters is to know nothing of Christianity (II.iii.); the entirety of the Christian faith and the gospel would be ruined by such ignorance (II.v.).

Responding to Desiderius Erasmus’ Discourse on Free Will, Luther asserts that man has no “free-will.” Contrary to Erasmus (IV.i.), men are not autonomous in regards to meriting or even willing salvation (II.x.), but are enslaved, “ever turned in the direction of their own desires, so that they cannot but seek their own” (V.iv.). God’s will is carried out necessarily; no room is left for man’s so called “free-will” (V.vii.).

Repeatedly Luther seeks to establish and affirm the authority of scripture (III.iii.). Against Erasmus, he argues that the final authority in this debate is not the visible church (II.i.; cf. III.ii.), biblical scholars and theologians of antiquity, nor human reason (IV.v.), all of which can err and lead astray. Neither may the truth of scripture be limited and measured according to what will keep peace and avoid conflict among men (II.vii.). Rather, by establishing the perspicuity of scripture (II.ii.), Luther seeks to establish scripture as the final and ultimate authority on this matter (III.i.).

Although acknowledging Erasmus’ great rhetorical skill, Luther repeatedly shows frustration with his content; Erasmus and others are unable to clearly define “free-will” or explicitly demonstrate the concept from scripture (III.i.). In fact, Luther accuses Erasmus’ position of being self-contradicting (IV.iii.). Therefore, Luther places the burden of proof on “free-will” advocates: until they can definitively state what they seek to affirm and prove this assertion from scripture, he will confidently hold to his denial of “free-will” (III.i.).

Nonetheless, in order to defend his own thesis, Luther employs several arguments. For instance, Luther combats “free-will” by asserting the immutable foreknowledge of God. If God foreknows infallibly and immutably, then all that is foreknown must necessary come to pass; consequently, “free-will” is excluded. Whereas Erasmus argued that commands assume human “free-will,” Luther argues that responsibility does not imply ability. The law merely states what man must do, not what man can do. In fact, if these imperatives communicate an indicative, i.e., ability to obey, than, Luther argues, man would be able to keep the law entirely—a blasphemous claim! Luther argues that justification by grace through faith alone refutes “free-will,” for if man contributes whatsoever to his salvation, e.g., via “free-will,” he is at least partially meritorious; and then grace is no longer grace, justification apart from human merit is nullified. In order to resolve some theological tension, Luther distinguishes between God’s secret will—God’s sovereign decreed will—and God’s revealed will—his moral desires revealed in scripture. The latter men are to learn and obey; the former men must trust even when divine necessity seems to eliminate moral responsibility or when God’s just decrees seem unjust by human standards of justice.

As a final note, it should be said that for Luther “necessity” does not equal “compulsion.” Although Luther argues that all things occur by necessity, seeing they are dependent on God’s sovereign will, every man wills exactly what he wants and is under no compulsion “as if totally free” (II.iv.). The sinner’s fallen will is bent in on itself and only desires sin even if in the form of seemingly good deeds. On the other hand, the regenerate’s will is changed by the Spirit to desire and obey the precepts of God.

In conclusion, I offer the following reflections. First, I find Luther’s honest, straight-forward, and bold handling of theological disagreement refreshing. As products of our own postmodern culture where tolerance comes at the expense of truth, I’m afraid that an unhealthy degree of this form of tolerance has crept into our evangelical theological discussions. At times, the only heresy is saying that something is heresy; or to distinguish truth from error is to divide the body of Christ. On the contrary, Luther understands that truth has no unity with error. Moreover, potential debates that we might dismiss as “secondary issues,” Luther perceives as linked to the Gospel and crucial to Gospel clarity. I find his unapologetic firmness on the truth inspiring and challenging.

Second, repeatedly throughout this work, Luther exemplifies scripture as his final authority and demonstrates caution towards philosophy’s role in theological interpretation. Some have said, “theology is the queen of the sciences,” and others, “philosophy is theology’s handmaiden.” But it would seem that for some theologies, with regards to the philosophical concept of so-called “free will” at least, philosophy has become the slave driver of theology. And for many, even to question the existence of free will is simply un-Christian. On the other hand, Luther calls us to go back to scripture and ask, is “free will” possibly a non-Biblical philosophical concept dictating much of our theological assumptions and conclusions? I appreciate Luther’s sober and Biblically grounded assessment and challenge.

Rating

Overal – 4.5
Theology – 4.5
Exegesis – 4
Worth reading – 5
Enjoyability – 5
Politeness towards Erasmus – 0 🙂

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