Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More on Edwards and Luther

Following up from my last post . . . 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. But why?

Luther arrives at his conclusion in light of Catholic scholasticism, which is arguably semi-Pelagian. Consequently, he is very concerned to demolish the sense of self-sufficiency that came to life under this soteriological paradigm. Since freewill was understood in strictly libertarian terms (by both the populace and theologians) Luther feels he has little choice but to deny it. He acknowledges that some might redefine the notion of freewill in such a way at to harmonize it with his position (which is essentially compatibilistic) but he dislikes the term so much that he doesn't think it worth salvaging. For Luther, the term has for so long been understood to speak of man's autonomous, innate ability to turn toward God unassisted that he thinks it deceptive to use it with any other definition (even a compatibilistic one). Yet this is exactly what Edwards does.

Unlike Luther, Edwards is writing in light of an Old Calvinism that has become so entrenched that many congregational preachers are afraid to offer the Gospel indiscriminately. How can we say that God will save you if you repent when we don't know if you're elect? Rather than fighting against an over zealous optimism regarding the potential of the will, Edwards was fighting against Calvinism run wild. The eighteenth-century New England context had so abandoned the notion of freewill, that Edwards felt a need to resurrect it. Yet rather than resurrecting the libertarian freewill of Luther's day, Edwards argues for a compatibilistic notion of freewill that is substantively the same as Luther's (and Augustine's). The main difference between Luther and Edwards then, is that Edwards uses the term "free" where Luther won't, even though they are saying the same thing.

So in both cases, the theological/social context played a role in shaping Luther's and Edwards' notion of the will. Luther's greatest fear was Pelagianism, and so he denied freewill altogether. Edwards' greatest challenge was fatalism, and so he resurrected and redefined the notion of freewill. Yet both are in agreement on the essential mechanics of conversion.

The question remains then, which theological/social context do we find ourselves in? Who's articulation should we follow. Certainly contemporary protestant Christianity (both conservative and liberal) leans closer to Pelagianism than to fatalism. Yet in spite of this, I still am inclined to follow Edwards--for two reasons. More in the next post.


Jason Loh said...

Dear Gerald,

Greetings in Our Lord's Name!

I'm glad to have found your blog! Keep up the good work.

Your fellow Augustinian,
Jason Loh

Gerald said...

Thanks Jason. It can be lonely business being an evangelical Augustinian, so thanks for the encouragement!

Perry Robinson said...

Catholic Scholasticism denotes a wide variety of views. Certainly many followers of Ockham were semi-pelagian, but certainly many Scholastics were not semi-pelagian, that is they did not think that man apart from the influence grace could move himself to faith. Such individuals would be Aquinas, Scotus, Henry of Ghent, Albertus Magnus, et al. These men certainly were not semi-pelagian by any means.

Moreover, the only theological position within Catholicism other than Ockham, that could arguably be said to endorse a Libertarian conception of freedom is Molinism, which is post Reformation. None of the major Scholastics endorsed a libertarian conception of freedom and for a very simple reason. In the beatific vision, it is not possible to will otherwise on their account and so alternative possibilities cannot be of the essence or definition of freedom for them. This is true for Aquinas, Scotus, Albert, et al.

Some other corrections. An act can be voluntary and yet not be free. It is an inadequate basis therefore to conclude that because someone does some act voluntarily that they perform it freely. Libertarians don’t think that the will is uncaused. They think that any antecedent causes are contributing but not sufficient causes. Just like God’s activity, the agent is the sufficient cause of the act because they are the source of the act. There is nothing “behind” God that determines his actions, which is why God is free. This doesn’t render God’s actions unintelligible, it only implies that God is the explanatory end for his actions and the same is true for the libertarian concerning human freedom. Likewise, God’s nature does not determine him, for he creates and redeems freely and not by nature. And desires being states have no causal role to play and consequently cannot determine an agent. Desires aren’t causes, decisions are. Desires don’t determine God’s will so there is no reason to think that they determine the will of any other person.
Perry Robinson

Gerald said...

I agree fully with your first paragraph. I should have been more careful in my original post to distinguish thinkers such as the ones you listed from Luther's opponents. The term "scholastic" is too broad to be meaningful as a "brand" of theology, when discussing conceptions of freedom, I suppose.

Second, perhaps it is necessary to define terms. My studies are not in philosophy, let alone medieval philosophy--I think you have a leg up on me there. What I mean by compatibilistic freedom is "any conception of human freedom that is compatible with unconditional election and infallible grace." Libertarian freedom conversely, is "any conception of human freedom that denies unconditional election and infallible grace." Not all compatiblists use the same means to arrive at a compatibilistic conclusion (same with libertarians). Perhaps this isn't how philosophers use the terms, but from where I sit, at the end of the day what defines both views is their relationship to divine providence. Compatibilists are concerned with providing a definition of human freedom that is consistent with a true Augustinian conception of unconditional election and grace (without upending it), and libertarians are concerned with providing a definition of human freedom that is not. (Though most libertarians who are favorable toward Augustine don’t intend to run counter to him, but argue instead that he has been merely misunderstood to teach something akin to Calvin and Luther; which—in the main concerning freewill—is what he actually teaches).

From this understanding of libertarian and compatibilistic freedom, I find it difficult to agree with your second paragraph. Certainly Luther’s scholastic (and humanistic) opponents denied unconditional election as understood by him and Calvin (and inadvertently Augustine). Doesn’t Trent also deny Luther and Calvin’s articulation of predestination? I’ve been told this, but I haven’t read all of the Council. I do find in general however, that most Catholics forget just how "Calvinistic" Augustine is, and most Protestants forget just how Roman Catholic he is. He is the father of both traditions. Having said all of this, I do wish that Roman Catholic theology was compatibilistic, as you suggest. But such has not been my observation.

Are you suggesting that Luther misunderstood his opponents on this issues, and that the Catholic and Reformation views of freewill and grace were substantively the same?

I will address your third paragraph in a separate post.


Mike L said...

I pretty much agree with Perry's account of which Catholic thinkers were and which were not semi-Pelagian. Also, a few Catholic theologians and doctors have been "compatibilist" in Gerald's sense, but more have not been. As for Augustine, his corpus is so vast that he can be plausibly interpreted as either a "libertarian" or a "compatibilist." That is precisely why he is the "father of two traditions." But I don't think it can be plausibly maintained that he held to double predestinarianism. He did believe that some, the "elect," are irresistibly predestined to salvation, but he did not clearly and consistently maintain that any others are irresistibly predestined to damnation. And if he maintained it anyhow, I'm sure he'd be willing to "retract" it in light of the development of doctrine if he were around to speak to us today.

Some much for exegesis. The key to making progress in a discussion such as this—to the extent progress is even possible—is to arrive at common definitions of the competing conceptions of freedom in play.

As a Catholic, I have been accused by some "libertarians" of compatibilism, and thus of denying free will in any spiritually significant sense. Just as often, I have been accused by some compatibilists, among both Thomists and Calvinists, of being so "libertarian" as to land in semi-Pelagianism. Neither charge is true. I profess as de fide only what I understand Trent and the Catholic Magisterium generally to teach. That is neither compatibilist in a sense that would rule out choice among alternatives for the definitively saved, nor libertarian in a sense that would render prevenient grace unnecessary for justification.

Even if, as Augustine and Aquinas maintained, grace is irresistible for the elect few and the blessed many, all that means is that they cannot but choose to obey the will of God. It does not follow that such obedience precludes choice among an array of morally acceptable and spiritually significant alternatives that would promote growth in this or that direction, either in this life or the next. That would only follow if the will of God determined not merely that his goodness would be the object of their voluntary adherence but that such adherence could only be concretized in particular forms for particular individuals. But I see no reason to accept that premise, which is incompatible with the experience of both Eastern and Western Christian mystics. So I'm a libertarian in a sense that some, such as Perry, could endorse. It's just that I don't believe libertarian freedom always and necessarily entails liberty of indifference, i.e. a live choice between good and evil. It does so to a great extent for most of us as we fit into the economy of salvation. But strictly speaking it only entails, always and necessarily, liberty of spontaneity: a choice among particular goods even if not a choice of the Supreme Good.

In the view of some, that makes me a "compatibilist." But by the same token, I don't believe that the form of compatibilism I admit to rules out genuine human freedom. For instance, I believe with Augustine AND Trent that God's prevenient grace is necessary for the human will to respond favorably to the proferred grace of justification and sanctification. But prevenient grace does not override freedom; rather and precisely, it empowers us to choose freely when the weight of sin would otherwise prevent us from doing so. And even if an elect few are granted what the latter called "efficacious" grace, so that they cannot but choose for God, the ways in which that choice is embodied still preserve a measure of freedom to choose among alternatives.

Robert said...

Hi. I apologize for posting off-topic, but I had stumbled across last year's postings from your thesis, Augustine & Justification, and had wondered if, in the course of your thesis work or since, had been influenced by G.E. Ladd's NT Theology.

Gerald said...


I own his NT Theology text, but have not read it. I hear good things, however.

Anonymous said...

Under your definition of "compatibilism", Thomas Aquinas and his post-Tridentine followers (Banez) were definitely "compatibilists." Check out Harm Goris' work and even the work of a brilliant Calvinist scholar like Richard Muller, who calls Banez's position "radically Augustinian."

They believed that God elects human beings for no other reason than that he wills it. They harshly criticized those (Aureol, Ockham, etc.) who believed that God predestined based upon foreknowledge.

Towards the end of the 16th century, Molinism emerged and this position which was much less anti-Pelagian (I really think that is a useful term) than Thomas and his followers. The Jesuits tended to adopt this position which argues that God predestined based upon foreknowledge of human responses to grace. The Thomists rejected this position, and Molinism was nearly condemned by the papacy. In fact, the case is still pending. :-)

So there is no dogmatic Catholic position on unconditional election, though there is certainly a strong modern tradition (in the Middle Ages, that position was probably dominant) which says that God predestines human beings for no other reason than that he wills it.

Luther did misunderstand his opponents. That is a widespread consensus in the literature (c.f. Steinmetz, Oberman, McGrath, Denis Janz, etc.) I'd love to give specific references if you were interested.

Some evidence from the Summa (it's long but clear):

The reason for the predestination of some, and reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God. Thus He is said to have made all things through His goodness, so that the divine goodness might be represented in things. Now it is necessary that God's goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe. That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as was said above (22, 2). Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others. To this the Apostle refers, saying (Romans 9:22-23): "What if God, willing to show His wrath [that is, the vengeance of His justice], and to make His power known, endured [that is, permitted] with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction; that He might show the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He hath prepared unto glory" and (2 Timothy 2:20): "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver; but also of wood and of earth; and some, indeed, unto honor, but some unto dishonor." Yet why He chooses some for glory, and reprobates others, has no reason, except the divine will. Whence Augustine says (Tract. xxvi. in Joan.): "Why He draws one, and another He draws not, seek not to judge, if thou dost not wish to err." Thus too, in the things of nature, a reason can be assigned, since primary matter is altogether uniform, why one part of it was fashioned by God from the beginning under the form of fire, another under the form of earth, that there might be a diversity of species in things of nature. Yet why this particular part of matter is under this particular form, and that under another, depends upon the simple will of God; as from the simple will of the artificer it depends that this stone is in part of the wall, and that in another; although the plan requires that some stones should be in this place, and some in that place. Neither on this account can there be said to be injustice in God, if He prepares unequal lots for not unequal things. This would be altogether contrary to the notion of justice, if the effect of predestination were granted as a debt, and not gratuitously. In things which are given gratuitously, a person can give more or less, just as he pleases (provided he deprives nobody of his due), without any infringement of justice. This is what the master of the house said: "Take what is thine, and go thy way. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will?" (Matthew 20:14-15).