Monday, June 8, 2009

Predestination Part III or VI: “Luther’s View”

Where Augustine's understanding of predestination was shaped by his refutation of the teachings of Pelagius, Martin Luther's theology of predestination was sharpened in response to the writings of Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus. In the fear that Luther's teachings on freewill would abandon, "the Gospel to the passions of men," Erasmus penned "Discussions, or Collation, Concerning Free Will" (Packer & Johnston 37).

In short, what Erasmus feared was that in teaching about the un-free will Luther was in essence completely abolishing ethics, church law, and the entire organization of life. As Steven Paulson humorously states, Erasmus believed that without freewill and law, "average people would just disregard God's moral precepts and go wild like college kids on spring break" (112). Because of this fear, Erasmus' work presented his understanding of freewill. Simply put, he believed that humans on their own free volition can achieve salvation. Erasmus writes, "We should strive with all our might, resort to the healing balm of penitence, and try by all means to compass the mercy of God" (Luther 75). Notice in this quote that all the effort to secure God's mercy (which really isn't mercy at all in this case) comes from our end through striving and penitence. It's no wonder that in response to this statement Luther wrote, "These Christ-less, Spirit-less words of yours are chillier than very ice" (75)...
It was in response Erasmus' work that Luther published "The Bondage of the Will." Known by many as the Luther greatest writing, in it we meet "Dr. Luther, the systematic theologian, and one of a high order" (Packer 45). In this work Luther systematically lambastes every thesis in Erasmus' book from the preface to conclusion. It is here that Luther reveals the crucial issue between him and Erasmus'. He writes:
The hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability 'freewill' has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God. If we know nothing of these things, we shall know nothing whatsoever of Christianity, and shall be in worse case than any people on earth! (78)
Following his refutation of Erasmus, Luther sets out to positively state the Biblical Doctrine of the Bondage of the Will. It is this part of his work that I want to focus on in this post.
In the end of "The Bondage of the Will" Luther summarizes his argument as to why he does not believe in freewill when it comes to the things of God. First off:
If we believe it to be true that God foreknows and foreordains all things; that he cannot be deceived or obstructed in his foreknowledge and predestination; and that nothing happens but at his will; then, on reason's own testimony, there can be no 'free-will' in man, or angel, or in any creature. (317)
For Luther, we cannot know what freewill is until we know what ability man's will has (which we shall look at in a bit) compared to God's. Luther believed it was really the comparison of the immutable (not changing or not able to be changed) will of God vs. the impotence of our corrupt will (Luther 81). Luther writes:
He (God) foresees, purposes, and does all things according to his own immutable, eternal, and infallible will. This bombshell knocks 'free-will' flat, and utterly shatters it. (80)
Simply put the will of God is effective and cannot be impeded or thwarted. For Luther, to lack this knowledge is to be ignorant of the God revealed in the Bible. He writes:
If you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things… how can you believe and rely on his promises… you will be accounting him neither true nor faithful, which is unbelief and the height of irreverence, and a denial of the most high God! (83, 84)
He goes on:
For the Christian's chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all thing to pass immutably, and that his will cannot be resisted, altered, or impeded. (84)
Luther believed that these facts alone were enough to deflate Erasmus' arguments on freewill, but for the sake of laying out Scripture's full testimony on the subject he goes further.
The second reason why Luther does not believe in freewill when it comes to matters of salvation is that if Christians believe:
that Satan is the prince of this world ever ensnarling and opposing the kingdom of Christ with all his strength, and that he does not let his prisoners go unless he is driven out by the power of the Divine Spirit, it is again apparent that there can be no 'free-will.' (317)
Concerning Satan, contemporary Luther influenced theologian Paul Zahl writes, "In the anthropology of everyday life… things are dire and very bad; but the truth is, things are worse than they appear" (102). I think Luther would agree with this statement. He believed that humanity was impotent in their strivings for God, but the truth is there is something behind the scenes orchestrating this symphony of human malfunction. As the apostle Paul writes:
Ephesians 6:12
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
For Luther this simple fact, the existence of Satan which can only be conquered by the Grace of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, was sufficient to show that in the end freewill has no power.
The third reason why Luther believed that freewill was a myth is due to Scriptures understanding of the human condition. He writes:
If we believe that original sin has ruined us to such an extent that even in the godly, who are led by the Spirit, it causes abundance of trouble by striving against good, it is clear that in a man who lacks the Spirit nothing is left that can turn itself into good, but only to evil. (317)
As G.K. Chesterton said some 500 years after Luther, original sin, "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." For Luther, the corrupt nature of the human will is one of the most obvious facts from Scripture and everyday life. This is where his understanding of the un-free will is most clear. Luther shows that Scripture reveals the fact that even in the most noblest of men freewill, "does not possess and cannot effect anything, but does not even know what is righteous in God's sight" (275). This idea comes from the fact that in the Bible the gospel is described as a righteousness from God apart from humanity and which humanity does not know (Romans 1:17
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."). Therefore, "Even in the most excellent men, however endowed with law, righteousness, wisdom and all virtues, 'free-will', their most excellent part, is nonetheless ungodly, and unrighteous, and merits God's wrath" (275). Luther goes on to say:

The facts of experience support this conclusion. Show me out of the whole race of mortal men one, albeit the most holy and righteous of them all, to whose mind it ever occurred that the way to righteousness and salvation was simply to believe on Him who is both God and man, who died for men's sins, and was raised, and is set at the right hand of the Father! (276)
Therefore Luther concludes that, "'free-will' is nothing but the greatest enemy of righteousness and man's salvation" (276). This is because by exalting free will humanity wages, "war against grace" (276).
Ultimately, this is all true because of the "universal dominion of sin" in humankind. Going off of Romans 3 ("No one is righteous…"), Luther expounds his thoughts and then wraps it up in a tidy conclusion. Simply put:
God looks down from heaven, and does not see even one who attempts to seek after him. Whence it follows that power to attempt or purpose to seek after him is nowhere to be found; but all men instead go out of the way… Paul's whole aim is to make grace necessary to all men, and if they could initiate something by themselves, they would not need grace. As it is, however, they need grace, just because they cannot do this. (281)
The final and most important reason why Luther believed that the human will is un-free is simply due to the work of Christ. He writes:
If we believe that Christ redeemed men by his blood, we are forced to confess that all man was lost; otherwise, we make Christ either wholly superfluous, or else the redeemer of the least valuable part of man only; which is blasphemy, and sacrilege. (318)
In this strong statement Luther is merely echoing the Apostle Paul who says, "Galatians 2:21
21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose." For Luther to say that humanity's freewill plays a part in salvation we are denying Christ his role as physician and redeemer for, "what need is there of light and life, where light and life exist already" (308). Simply put, if I am able to save myself then what need is there for a Savior.

My Own Thoughts on Luther's View
As I said in Part I of this series, I find myself agreeing with Luther the most when it comes to the topic of predestination. For sake of brevity (because I've already written too much) I just want to list three short reasons. First, in his explication of this matter Luther stays with Scripture and goes no further. Unlike Augustine and Calvin who veer off into come uncharted territory, Luther sticks with the testimony of Scripture only even when logic can easily take the next step. If God hasn't revealed in Scripture, Luther does not try and figure it out, but rather leaves it to the mysterious "hiddeness" of God.
Second, for Luther the work of Christ is always central. Enough said…
Third, Luther calls a "spade a spade" and yet still believes in a good God. What I mean by this is that Luther acknowledges the dark character of this subject and yet is still able to affirm God's justice and goodness. He writes:
Inasmuch as he is the one true God, wholly incomprehensible and inaccessible to man's understanding, it is reasonable, indeed inevitable, that his justice also should be incomprehensible. (315)
Behold! God governs the external affairs of the world in such a way that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either there is no God, or that God is unjust… (315)
Yet all this, which looks so much like injustice of God… is most easily cleared up by the light of the gospel and the knowledge of grace, which teaches us that though the wicked flourish in their bodies, yet they perish in their souls. And a summary explanation of this whole inexplicable problem is found in a single little word: There is a life after this life; and all that is not punish and repaid here will be punished and repaid there; for this life is nothing more than a precursor, or rather, a beginning, of the life that is to come.
If, now, this problem, which was debated in every age but never solved, is swept away and settled so easily by the light of the gospel, which now shines only in the Word and to faith, how do you think it will be when the light of the Word and faith shall cease, and the real facts, and the Majesty of God, shall be revealed as they are?
In short, the doctrine of the un-free will and predestination may seem unjust now, but in the light of eternity when we see God face to face the problem shall just simply fade away. In the mean time we must rest in and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the story of God's one-way love toward humanity) and not flinch at these difficulties. Simply put, we must at all times cling to the love of God as revealed through Christ on the cross.
Luther, Martin. "The Bondage of the Will"
Paulson, Steven. "Luther for Armchair Theologians"
Zahl, Paul. "Grace in Practice: a Theology of Everyday Life"

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