Sunday, August 20, 2006

Luther's Bondage of the Will--2

I just finished Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Here are a few of my impressions, some positive, some negative.

First, though I am in basic agreement with Luther’s conclusion (even if not his semantics) I did not find his argument compelling. Though he does a fine job of dismantling Erasmus’s outright Pelagian/semi-Pelagian tendencies, Luther’s arguments do not address a more congruist/Arminian understanding of freedom. In as much as no one advocates a Pelagian/semi-Pelagian understanding of human freedom anymore, I found his arguments dated. Further, I did not always find his exegesis compelling and was surprised at the passages of Scripture he landed on in defense of his position (as well as those he overlooked).

Second, Luther is highly polemical and theatrical—at least by contemporary standards. He frequently belittles Erasmus and his work, and is not hesitant to boldly proclaim his own rightness. One of my favorite lines:
Now let us consider the later part [of Erasmus’ work] where it attempts to refute my arguments . . . Here you shall see what the smoke of man can do against the thunder and lighting of God!
Along these same line, Luther is not afraid to assert the moral superiority of his position. He often chides Erasmus for being too evasive, too non-committal. Luther’s critique in this matter hits home for much of the contemporary theological establishment. Trapped between the dying breaths of a modern age that idealizes the disinterested observer, and a now entrenched (though also soon to pass) post modern age that denies the existence of meta-narratives and thus moral absolutes, contemporary theologians often are afraid to assert anything. All descriptive and not enough prescriptive. I feel the fear myself. Not Luther. He closes out his work with this final comment to Erasmus,
That you have failed is clear enough from your saying that you assert nothing, but have ‘made comparisons.’ He who sees to the heart of the matter and properly understands it does not write like that. Now I, in this book of mine, HAVE NOT ‘MADE COMPARISONS’, BUT HAVE ASSERTED, AND DO ASSERT; and I do not want judgment to rest with anyone, but I urge al all men to submit!
You don’t find many (any?) theologians who write like that anymore!

Third—and I’ve already discussed this hereand here—though Luther and Augustine have substantively the same understanding of grace and freewill, they differ in the way they express their views. The difference seems to lie in their mutual understandings of “freewill.” For Luther, the term “freewill” implies a situation in which the will is free of the necessity of immutability. And since the human will is either under the lordship of God or the sway of Satan—and therefore must act in accordance with its lord—it is not accurate to say that the will is autonomously free. More pointedly, the will that is under Satan cannot do good—thus it is not proper to speak of it as “free.”

Augustine would agree with Luther that the will cannot please God apart from grace. But whereas Luther defines freewill along the lines of “the freedom to do that which pleases God,” Augustine (and Edwards) defines free will as “the freedom to do that which pleases me.” For Augustine, the will is properly called free in as much as it is not “forced” to choose against its own desires (or more properly, the desires of the person to whom the will is attached). And since the will can always do that which pleases itself, it is proper to speak of it as free.

Which position better captures the biblical dialect between grace and freewill? That’s the subject of another post.

Fourth—Luther’s insistence that Old Testament saints (as well as New Testament figures such as Cornelius) were indwelt by the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost presents some interesting theological problems. Erasmus highlights the conversion of Cornelius as an example of how the will can move toward God apart from interior grace (reaching farther than perhaps he had intended, in as much as this is a semi-Pelagian argument). Luther counters Erasmus here by contending that Cornelius, being a righteous proselyte, was already indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He has little patience for Erasmus' logic, stating that "based on [this] principle you will be saying that John the Baptist and his parents, and the mother of Christ and Simeon, were without the Holy Spirit! Let us bid such thick darkness farewell!" Feeling his position sufficiently defended, he moves on. Yet in my mind, Erasmus scores a point here, and I think that Luther’s response fails to take Pentecost seriously enough. What was the point of Pentecost if the OT saints were already indwelt by the Spirit? This too is the subject of another post.

1 comment:

Matthew Westerholm said...

Check out Stephen Westerholm's wonderful essay on the topic: http://www.ctsfw.edu/events/symposia/papers/sym2006westerholm.pdf

I'm guessing you'll have some thoughts about it on your blog soon.

;-)