Monday, July 03, 2006

Luther and Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

I have been told that Luther and Edwards—though both finding continuity with the Augustinian tradition—differed slightly on the subject of freewill and grace. On the surface this seems true. Edwards maintains the existence of freewill in his treatise The Freedom of the Will (unsurpassed in my mind). Luther on the other hand, denies the existence of freewill altogether in his of the Will. After reading Luther, I’m fairly certain that the discontinuity between Luther and Edwards is largely semantic.

Both Luther and Edwards (as well as Augustine) describe the mechanics of the will in near identical terms. Luther writes, “A man without the Sprit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were dragged into it by the scruff of the next . . . he does it spontaneously and voluntarily” (102). I haven’t the desire to drag out my copy of Edwards, but his language is nearly identical (as is Augustine’s). For both Luther and Edwards, every choice that is made by an individual is made voluntarily and without compulsion. No one is forced to do anything against that which he or she desires. And for both Luther and Edwards, God's grace is infallible and unconditional in the slavation of the elect. After reading Luther, it seems to me that the difference between these two theologians arises only when we fail to consider their differing definitions of freewill. Utilizing the contemporary distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom helps to harmonize these two theologians.

Libertarians (read “Arminians") insist that for the will to be truly free, nothing, not even a person’s own nature/mind, can have an infallibly determining impact on that person’s will. We simply choose or don't choose, and nothing within us can constrains us either way. But for compatibilists (read “Cavlinists”) such as Augustine and Edwards, though the will is free to choose whatever it ultimately desires, it is not free to choose that which it does not ultimately desire. We are constrained by our innate desires and our perceptions of reality (i.e., what we percieve to be in our best interest). Thus, though sinful man is free to choose God, he will never do so in as much as submission to God is not perceived to be in his best interest. So for compatibilists such as Augustine and Edwards, though we have freewill, it actually stands in the way of our conversion, for the trajectory of the fallen will is always away from God, not toward him. Only when God confronts the will of fallen man with infallible grace is man turned from his sin and toward God. Libertarians reject this logic, though in my estimation, struggle to provide an adequate alternative regarding the mechanics of the will’s choosing.

Herein lies the difference between Luther and Edwards: Luther does not recognize the distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom. I am not enough of a medieval scholar to know, but I suspect that such a distinction was not part of the scholastic conversation. Luther defines freewill in libertarian terms, and therefore, denies its existence. Edwards on the other hand, recognizes (develops?) the distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom; he rejects the former and affirms the latter. So when Luther denies the existence of freewill, he means to deny the existence of libertarian freewill—something that Edwards also denies. And when Edwards affirms the existence of freewill, he means to affirm only the existence of compatibilistic freedom—again, something that Luther also affirms (though not quite in those terms).

So in summary, both Edwards and Luther reject libertarian freedom, and both Edwards and Luther affirm compatibilistic freedom. They just use different terms to say the same thing.

1 comment:

L P Cruz said...

Likewise I also apologize, this post is a plug on my take on Edward's famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God...should care to comment

Peace be with you,

L P Cruz