Wednesday, May 06, 2009

some reflections on Luther's On the Bondage of the Will

I just finished reading Martin Luther's treatise On the Bondage of the Will, written against Erasmus of Rotterdam and an earlier treatise of his.
This has been a really interesting experience for two reasons: 1) I now see what kind of a ... prick ... Luther was. My goodness. 2) I feel like my understanding of this debate has advanced quite a bit.

It seems as if all of the conversations I've had in the past about this issue have arisen from questions about the omnipotence of God. 'If God is really all-powerful, then how can we say that humans can ___.' Or maybe it will be omniscience one day. 'If God is omniscient, then can people really do ___, since he knew before that they'd...'
Surprisingly--to me, at least--these issues are not at heart of Luther's argument at all.
Therefore [in Romans 9-10], nothing is lacking in the Jews that is attributed to free choice, and yet nothing comes of it, or rather, the opposite comes of it. In the Gentiles there is nothing to be found of what is attributed to free choice, and the righteousness of God results. What is this but a confirmation by the... clearest possible testimony of Paul that grace is given freely to those without merits and the most undeserving, and all is not obtained by any efforts, endeavors, or works, whether small or great, even of the best and most virtuous of men, though they seek and pursue righteousness with burning zeal?

A passage like this one helps you realize that the issue for Luther isn't about the freedom of the will at, it's about the efficacy of the will. More than once late in the treatise Luther admits that those 'in the flesh' have the freedom to 'strive' and 'endeavor'. Ultimately that is just a peripheral issue for him, though. Sola gratia is the real topic.
Don't get me wrong: the term 'freedom of choice' is important throughout the work. I think the language of 'freedom' here is primarily supposed to be a part of the contrast Luther wants to draw between claims that men are free (i.e. able) to seek after God and the claims that men are under a perfect 'bondage to sin.'  Because of this bondage man can do nothing but sin, unless the grace of God intervenes. 

There are of course deeper questions about freedom here as well. Luther definitely has a conception of men's only ever acting in accordance with God's will--but this has little to do with the image of a puppet master pulling strings, and much to do with God's having created all things and given all men individually the sorts of natures they have. Maybe the best description that he offers of how he understands God's 'compelling' people to act is at the end of his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.
As things are... because [Pharaoh] is driven and carried along in his willing, though without any violence being done to his will, since it is not unwillingly compelled but is carried along by the natural operation of God to will naturally, in accordance with its character (which, however, is evil)--therefore it cannot help but fall foul of the word [of Moses] and be hardened.

This kind of 'willing' Luther will later describe as 'free', though he never does try to reconcile that description to the brief discussions of omnipotence and omniscience that he does have in the treatise. I'm okay with that... mainly because On the Bondage of the Will is already close to four-times the length of Erasmus's earlier work.

As I've been pondering all of this, the real disjuncts between the two main camps in the predestination-conversation and the integrations of these issues in their respective systems seem be becoming clearer and clearer.
The real disagreement between the Armenians and the Calvinists, I think, is over the way grace is offered to man. No orthodox Christian disagrees that "it's by grace you have been saved through faith", the question is over who is offered this grace and how
The doctrine of limited atonement captures the spirit of the Calvinist response: only certain people are offered this grace and at particular times--these are the people for whom Jesus died. 
The Armenian response in contrast revolves around that idea of prevenient grace, a grace that God ever pours on the world to check the passions of men and to prepare any and all men for the grace offered in Christ. Thus anyone, despite the bondage to sin, is able to seek God, though I believe even this seeking is only a response to the urgings of the Holy Spirit. 

I agree with the Eastern Orthodox that limited atonement is a heresy and "completely contradicts scripture" (as David Bentley Hart put it in his brilliant little book on theodicy, The Doors of the Sea). Prevenient grace is still a difficult idea for me to get behind, as there seems to be no clear scriptural foundation for it--much like limited atonement in this sense--but instead it's just easily inferred from the whole tenor of scripture.

But there's still one other issue that Luther touches on and that must be addressed. This is issue of Creation: how God makes us, and, especially in light of evolutionary theory, what role does man play in his own creation? 
Luther's suggestion that God puts in each man a nature that is capable of only one response to God, either receiving Him or scorning Him, while allowing for free will, still presents the same difficulties for those advocates of free choice that a more clearly-deterministic system would. In approaching this issue the realities behind Creation (again) must be addressed, as well as Romans 9, and this notion of prevenient grace. 
I've only just begun to really consider all of this from this angle, so I'm not going to try and offer any answers here. Even if I had been pondering this for a long time, I have to wonder what good my 'answers' would be anyways. 
What I can say is that Romans 9 is the most difficult chapter for me to understand in the whole of Scripture. It's not difficult to draw a meaning from it. It's difficult to place the apparent meaning in any kind of meaningful relation to the rest of the Bible. What Paul seems to be saying here simply does not seem to fit with everything else. How are we to reconcile this to the prophets, to the other NT authors, to the teachings of Christ in the synoptics?

I'm looking forward to spending much of my summer reflecting on all of this, as I spend some time really diving into Paul--especially Romans. On the one hand I feel as if I ought to expect answers to to these questions... but that may be asking too much. Luther's answer, I can say, is utterly unsatisfying. But beyond that sort of negative approach, I'm more and more inclined as the conversation goes on to say stop and just say with the Apostle: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?' 'Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?' For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen." 

3 comments:

Nick said...

Interesting thoughts. Have you looked into the Catholic position on some of these issues?

I think you'll be surprised to see how Catholicism handles a lot of these issues which don't require the conundrum which Protestant positions put themself in.

Often in Protestantism there are issues where one is forced to exchange logical consistency for Biblical truth and vice versa. So as an example, take the doctrine of Limited Atonement. That is a logical doctrine if you accept Penal Substitution, so Calvinists are correct on that. However, they must explain away passages saying Jesus died for all, and especially passages which teach salvation can be lost (directly contradicting Limited Atonement. Arminians believe in Penal Substitution, but they are not logically consistent by embracing Limited Atonement, however they are Biblical in believing salvation can be lost.

Catholicism denies Penal Substitution in favor of how Scripture describes the Atonement, and in denying Psub the "Limited Atonement" dispute outright vanishes, it's a non issue.

Nance said...

I've actually heard once or twice that, when it comes to these issues, I'm a pretty much a Council of Trent Roman Catholic.

Nick said...

Really? That's funny.

How close do you consider yourself to Trindentine definitions on this subject?